Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Barrel Racing

Don't forget to note the undeveloped topline and overdeveloped underline of this horse's neck (see previous muscling blog for further details)...

I have already previously written about barrel racing, but I just had to vent after reading Shame in the Horse Show Ring's blog on barrel racing.

See, people (outside the barrel racing world) often seem to think it's about 'training the horse properly', that barrel racers are not training their horses properly, which results in this:

(what bugs me about this video is that the wrecks - essentially horses being abused - are somehow glorified, the riders made out to be so "amazing")

or what about this:

oooor this:

Newsflash: if your horse is bucking, he's sending a clear message - get off my back!

The music in these videos really bugs me - I'd be ashamed to even video clips such as these of my horses, nevermind post them with music to portray the clips as "so fantastic". There's just nothing "fantastic" about my horses hating me and loathing their work. There's nothing fantastic about a scared horse, and there's nothing fantastic about a horse in pain.

It's not about whether or not the horse has adequate training, or if it was over-schooled, it's a matter of the horse in question's emotional status. These horses are absolute emotional wrecks. They are being encouraged (often indirectly and inadvertently) to react rather than to think. The sad part is that the horse is usually blamed, or the sport itself is. The horse is henceforth forever labelled "useless" for anything else after his barrel career and its behaviour is blamed on the sport itself "oh, barrel racing does that", like that's just how it has to be and we all have to accept it. The same often happens in the jumper world. Well it's not, and we don't. When the horse is developed into an emotionally balanced partner with a solid foundation, barrel racing can be done successfully for both horse and rider!

Here's one example:

(granted, I doubt it was much of a good time, but it shows that it can be done, and hey, even in a simple rope hackamore!)

When are people going to learn that it is not the horse's fault! Furthermore, when are they going to learn that it does not have to be this way! It's not due to a lack of training either, it's due to people mistreating their horses. Yanking on the huge bits in their horses' mouths (snaffle or gentle hackamore, anyone?). Kicking with spurs (anyone ever heard of squeezing?). Whipping. Tie-downs (gotta keep that head down now that the horse is tossing its head due to the pain!). The list is endless. People seem to think that it is okay for a horse to "spazz out" prior to a run - it's not. Look at it from the horse's perspective. A horse rearing or bucking is desperately trying to tell its rider something and it shouldn't have to resort to those extremes! Forcing them to do so (due to circumstances) is what turns these horses into wrecks. Oh, and it's not because "they're competitive" - that the excuse one of the barrel racers at our barn uses. No, your horse's brain is fried, that's why he acts the way he does. Horses can be excited prior to a run, but the key is to teach them to think and to learn how to turn them on and off. The key is in teaching the horse to wait patiently to its riders cues and to channel that energy.

What's with the flapping legs? Ever seen a horse send a shiver through his skin when a fly lands on him? Yup, doesn't need the kicking, much less with spurs. Someone please answer me this: why would you pull back on your horse's mouth while asking him to run? I see it constantly at the gymkhanas. Rider kicks with spurs, beats their horse's hindquarters, and simultaneously yanks on that big bit in the horse's mouth (time for a tie-down!). Then the horse goes up (I mean, really, where else was he supposed to go??), which gets him more beatings, because now Rider's angry at her horse for "acting up". *sigh* Let's not forget either that horses are not stupid. After the hours of practise I recognize it takes to sufficiently prepare a horse to run barrels, he should be able to ride those barrels bridleless - a.k.a. without that severe bit in his mouth. As intelligent animals, horses should easily be able to do a barrel pattern - a pattern they've done a million and a half times, with very little guidance. Unless of course we need those twisted-wire-long-shanked curb bits to keep him in the arena in the first place! And don't tell me "some horses can't run in a snaffle". We'll do a blog on bits later. Suffice it to say however that bits are for refinement. Thus you use the gentlest, thickest snaffle you can find and work your way up through the higher-level bits as (get this!) - your horse moves up through the levels! If you cannot control your horse, if he's "running through your aids", it's time to go back to the drawing board. Simple as that. You move up into a shanked bit when the horse has sufficient flexion and bend, when it is time for more intimate communication, and more advanced collection. Not because your horse is ignoring your cues. At that time (refinement), your hands are soft as silk and quiet as a still lake. Not yanking on the poor horse's mouth.

In my humble opinion, if you foster that cool-as-a-cucumber mindset in a horse (as demonstrated above), you are at an advantage and you are maintaining your horse's best interests. It's tough to do when you are training that horse to be competitive and to have that 'edge', especially given that horses suited to upper levels of competition are often very high-energy athletes, but it is absolutely crucial. Doing so is the foundation of the training scale, which enables you to thus teach the horse to use its body efficiently. When the horse is balanced and using their body efficiently, they can put 110 percent of their available power, into the task at hand - none goes to waste. Furthermore, the horse with the emotionally collected mind is able to better focus on the task put forth to them as well as listen better to the cues its rider gives. That ability to intensely focus allows the horse to channel all their energy and effort into a successful run.

As a side note, this type of damage to a horse is reversible, but it takes a lot of work and expertise. As another note, I am not writing this blog to criticize all barrel riders. I am criticizing the ones riding such as those in the videos above. Please, for your horse's sake, take a look at your horse and consider his perspective. The barrel world can be a cruel cruel place, but it does not have to be that way. People need to realize they will get a lot more from their horse when their horse loves their job and loves their rider, when they're working in partnership with that rider.

Sorry this post is a little snarky, I just wish people would take a step back and consider things from their horses' perspectives. If "it looks ugly", consider this: it probably is, from your horse's point of view. GAH!!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Arabians are crazy

Yes, Arabians in particular must be absolutely stupid. I swear, the next time someone makes that comment to me again, about Arabians or even about Thoroughbreds, I will personally slap them. Hard.

Arabians are probably one of the smartest breeds I know, and Thoroughbreds aren't slouches either! They are both very sensitive and high energy breeds, so I can understand how they may not be suited to every person - but don't blame it on the breed or horse just because YOU lack the savvy to deal with said particular horse/breed!

I think when people make the statements "oh I hate (insert breed name here)" it is due to lack of understanding and knowledge. Plain and simple. I just wish people would understand that perhaps they feel the way they do about a particular breed for that reason and so would accept that rather than blaming it on the breed! *sigh* What's that song again? Oh right, "God is great, beer is good...and people are crazy!"

Anyway, I just wanted to use the above video as an example of how "crazy" and "wild" Arabians and Thoroughbreds are. Watch out!

Thursday, July 23, 2009


In my perusing of the internet, I came across this lovely article: Horse Training - Longeing Do's and Dont's. Ah, finally someone spelling "longe" correctly. Despite the correct spelling, I still unfortunately have a bone to pick. But first, my own personal opinion of longeing a horse, so you can understand from where I am coming from in all this.

It's no secret I use Natural Horsemanship with all my horses, to which I often get the question - well, isn't the Circle Game (Parelli) the same as longeing? Short answer: not necessarily. Long answer: snuggle up in a blanket and grab a bag of popcorn. Warning: this may be long.

The Circle Game has many uses, but it is always kept to a min 2, max 4 laps. >4 laps and it becomes just mindless circling, unless the circling has a specific purpose to it (ie, spiraling in and out, as one example). <2 laps and you are ineffective. The Circle Game is actually an extension of the three "foundation" games in the 7 Games: the Friendly Game, the Porcupine Game, and the Driving Game. The Friendly Game is designed to earn a horse's trust, teach said horse to follow your leadership, and desensitize them to various situations and objects. The Porcupine Game is designed to teach the horse to move away from pressure and to become lighter, more responsive. Finally, the Driving Game is meant to enable a person to earn a horse's respect. Horses "drive" one another out in pasture all the time - he who moves his feet the least commands the highest level of respect. So the Circle Game incorporates a bit of Driving Game (horse is "driven" around a circle) as well as Friendly Game (do as I say please, but trust I will not hurt you). It teaches a horse "responsibility" (do whatever task I've assigned to you until I say otherwise - in this case, circle until I ask otherwise), respect (move out when I ask), and of course the obvious: it teaches a horse balance and to move more efficiently, to think rather than react, and it helps a horse warm and loosen up prior to a ride. Eventually, as you progress a horse through the levels, the Circle Game is extended upon in various forms, including having him circle at liberty. In such a way though, the Circle Game becomes just that - a game. A game that allows you to connect with a horse, to get a horse thinking, and to create a well-rounded partner overall (when used in conjunction with all the other work you do, as a piece of the giant puzzle).

The Circle Game (well, the disengaging part of it, with a new horse learning to disengage)

Now, back to mindless circling, *ahem* I mean, *cough* longeing. Longeing certainly can be equated to the Circle Game, when it is used correctly. When it is used to get a horse thinking as well as for its physical benefits. I have watched people (yes, even professionals) longe their horses for an hour straight (also talking on the phone!), their horse digging a rut in the arena, and I have seen people desperately longe their horse for 30 minutes just so they could tire the horse out enough, take that edge off, to be able to ride said horse. Guess what that's doing guys? You're making your horse fitter! So next time, you are going to have to longe longer. And longer. And longer. Until you're longeing for an hour just so you can get on and ride your horse for 30 minutes. As someone with two extremely high energy horses myself (including a OTTB who absolutely loves to run), I have to say: there's another way. Figure out a way to channel all that energy. Establish the type of partnership (whether it be through classical methods, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, Pat Parelli - whatever it may be) where your horse follows your leadership and uses his energy efficiently rather than using it to fight you. Mindless circling really is doing nothing for your horse. Except perhaps predispose him to leg injury and unsoundness.

Now, longeing can be used correctly. If it causes your horse to learn and to think. If it is used as an additional gymnastic exercise for your horse, for him to learn how to carry himself efficiently and for him to warm up his muscles, it's beneficial to your horse. As a side note: longeing your horse with side reins to "force" him into a frame is not beneficial longeing; this is not to say however that side reins may not be used correctly. I feel in the right hands, with the right horse and with the right intention and purpose, they can be - just not as a means of forcing the horse into a frame (which I see a lot). Collection, relaxation, suppleness - all this can and should come naturally, with some help on the rider's part to encourage it then further refine it. To get back on track though, mindless circling is just that - mindless. Your horse doesn't learn, and he doesn't have to think - he's simply running the flight pattern of a prey animal. What are some ways to cause your horse to think while longeing? Transitions - between gaits and within gaits. Changes in direction (this is a huge respect-earning task as well) - at the w/t/c (including flying leads eventually). Having him spiral in and out while holding a particular gait. Having him negotiate obstacles or patterns, including cavelleti and groundpoles. Have him disengage his hindquarters. Using the line as a safety net rather than to hold your horse to you. Keep the circling minimal and as a physical and mind exercise rather than to burn off that excess edge.

One last point: for those of you who do not allow your horse to play on the longe line. First off, if your horse is in a stall or even if he is kept outside but he cannot run or play (ie. too icy, not sufficient space, too muddy, too hot, etc) - where else is he supposed to play? Secondly, your horse is working for you and this is supposed to be a partnership, right? So why is it always about you - why can't your horse play a little? Make it about him and you, and allow him some freedom of expression (liberty work is especially great for this). Better yet, if you can, turn him loose in the arena. During one of our recent-ish sessions, I did this with Link, our Thoroughbred. For whatever reason *roll eyes* (lol) he saved his Horses Gone Wild episode for the arena rather than his pasture of several acres. He just couldn't seem to settle down and concentrate in the arena, so I turned him loose. He tore around for a solid 10 minutes before returning to me, ready for work (and he was!). Sometimes they need an outlet too! If this is a partnership, we have to consider our horses' wants and needs as well. If you sufficiently earn their trust and respect in a session and you act like an appropriate leader, they start tuning in to you anyway, and focus on the task at hand rather than playing (besides, working with a horse should be 'play' anyway!). In my experience, there is no negative impact in turning a horse loose in the arena or allowing them to play on the longe. If you develop a solid partnership with that horse where you have a high level of respect, trust, and willingness, they will work their butts off for you regardless. It is not about nitpicking the little things - it is about the bigger picture (though certainly the little things count, but you have to learn what counts and what does not).

Don't say I didn't warn you it would be long! So, back to the original website that earned its spot in this blog: Longeing Do's and Dont's by Barb Crabbe, DVM. Article info in italics, my comments in green.

Do: Maintain control. Teach your horse to stand quietly on the circle, then walk off quietly when you ask. If you can't control him in a halter, use a stud chain, longeing cavesson, or bridle to help keep his feet on the ground. If he flies crazily around the circle, leaping and bucking as he goes, he's likely to strain tendons and ligaments or injure himself some other way. His uncontrolled behavior can be dangerous for you, too. If he kicks as he charges out to the circle, he puts you at risk for serious injury.

I think we've already indirectly dealt with Do #1, particularly in my preceding paragraph. Besides, how do you "maintain control"? I get the feeling this is more about "forcing" control than about "creating" and developing a controlled situation through a calm horse who wants to work with you. I have to point out too that if you have to resort to a stud chain to "control" your horse, you've got a problem - take note. That stud chain is allowing the illusion of control, but ultimately that's a 1,200lb animal - no chain is going to stop it from getting out of hand. It may work temporarily, but a) you are only breeding resentment (just ask Link!), and b) it's a band-aid solution to an underlying problem. Take note that if you are using a stud chain for a specific situation with a specific horse (to keep yourself safe), that it should be a temporary aid as you develop the horse to the point where it is no longer necessary. If he flies crazily around the circle, you've got more work to do hun! So to that extent, the author has a point. Horses should be allowed to express themselves, but we can teach them to think and thus to be calmer, braver, smarter horses who aren't flying crazily around the circle.

Don't: Longe your horse without leg protection. Traveling on a longeing circle increases your horse's risk of interfering (contact between his front and hind legs), which can cause injury. Outfit him in splint boots or wraps before every longeing session.

Don't #1, well that's your choice (refer to Sunday's blog on leg protection). My opinion is that we tend to over-protect and, specifically, over-boot our horses.

Do: Mind the footing. Longe in an area with soft, even footing where your horse won't be at risk for injury. Avoid heavy, deep, or uneven footing. All it takes is one bad step to cause a serious tendon or ligament injury, and on a longeing circle it's hard to avoid holes or other footing hazards.

I certainly agree that one wants to watch the footing, particularly with young, undeveloped horses - footing that is too deep causes excess strain on tendons and ligaments, as does footing that is concrete and jars your horse's legs. On the other hand, uneven footing? Perhaps not as a daily activity, but uneven footing - including trot poles or hills, can teach a horse to really watch his feet. On a longeing circle, if your horse is still thinking (as opposed to reacting), he should have no problem avoiding holes or obstacles (not that you should be working over holes though!). I'm of the school that while we should take our horses' best interests to heart, we don't need to baby them by always ensuring they are on the perfect footing - you want them on the best footing possible, but this does not necessarily always mean plush, even arena footing. Leave it as your horse's responsibility to figure out his feet and negotiate around obstacles (within reason).

Don't: Longe on too small a circle. A small circle makes it hard for your horse to stay balanced, making him much more likely to stress his lower legs or become injured. And never longe on on a circle that's small enough to put you in kicking range.

Don't longe on too small a circle for your specific horse. If your horse has developed sufficient balance, by all means, work him on a small circle - spiral him in and out, even. Just not excessively (ie, endless circles) - that is too much stress on his legs. If you're worried about getting into kicking range of your horse - you've got other things to worry about! Like, y'know, your horse not liking you.

Do: Suit the circle to your horse's age and training level. For a youngster just learning to balance himself, this might be a circle as large as 60 feet in diameter; an older, well-balanced horse might manage a circle half that size. To gauge the right size circle for your horse, work him under saddle. If he can't balance on a circle of a given size under saddle, the circle is too small. (If you're not yet working your young horse under saddle, longe him on a 60-foot-diameter circle, to be safe.)

The size of circle your horse is capable of balancing on under-saddle is not entirely reflective of what he is capable of working and balancing on without the weight of a rider. He can handle a lot smaller circle when he is not worried about also balancing the weight of a rider! Work your horse on say a 40' circle (heck, 60 feet if you want, but that's a pretty long ways out there for you to try and tell your horse what to do, in the initial stages of training) and work your way inwards as he learns to balance himself. If he's pulling on the lead, he's either lacking in respect for you, he's lacking in 'draw' (desire to be with you), or he's unable to balance himself. In the case of the latter, let him out further and/or do less strenuous and challenging work on the smaller circle. Personally, I actually work all my horses on a 12' line (24' circle) to begin with. They learn to walk and trot in close proximity to me, where I can communicate most easily with them and where there are fewer miscommunications. Next they move up to a 22' line (44' circle), where they can canter (sometimes on the 12', but only if they can balance themselves and I might move my feet some to provide them a larger circle - and only ever for a lap or two at most on a circle of such small diameter, and not very often), then it's a 45' line (90' circle). That's just my own preference. If you are circling on smaller diameters, you need to be especially cautious about excessive circling. Adjust your circle size to your specific horse's ability.

Don't: Longe your youngster too long. Avoid sessions longer than 15 minutes, if your horse is 2 years old or younger. He's still unbalanced and not fully developed, so he's more at risk for damaging joints, tendons, and ligaments than an older, full-grown horse.

Avoid purely longeing more than 15 minutes with any horse! Careful that the time you are spending is a learning experience, as opposed to mindless circles.

Do: Make the most of short longeing sessions. Focus primarily on the process. Spend 10 to 15 minutes teaching your 2-year-old to walk quietly, halt, and perhaps trot a circle or two. This focus on the basics will go a long way toward helping you maintain control as he grows older.

Groundwork will greatly benefit you and your horse (of any age) - it can mean the difference between a successful partnership and an unsuccessful one.

One last bone I have to pick with the longe-ers: why is it that it is so absurd for a horse to turn in to you? My horses all turn in to me on the Circle Game, because that is what I teach them - disengage the hindquarters (which robs them of any power and thus effectively halts them on the circle), which causes them to face me. At that point I can ask them to continue, to change direction, or to come in to me (respectfully). Longe-ers (excuse my invention of new words) seem to have some major problem with this, for whatever reason. Like it's some army camp where the horse must stop! turn! stand still!!...but heaven forbid he thinks for himself or faces toward you to await your next cue! Or comes in, respectfully, because he wants to be with you (something you always want to foster). No offense meant! My horses may turn in toward me when I ask, but I have a solid foundation of communication that allows me to re-direct my horses at any point, easily (and anyone can!), including to remain standing out on the end of the line, on the circle. So I fail to see the issue. The object should be to encourage our horses to want to be with us, to be focused on us and our next request, and to encourage interactiveness in our horses.

That's the last of it! I hope no-one got the impression that I am anti-longeing, because I am not. I am anti-mindless-circling, but certainly not anti-longeing (when done properly) - I am "pro" anything that creates a partnership, allows for effective communication, develops a horse into a braver, smarter, calmer partner, and that considers the horse!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

White Hooves v/s Dark Hooves

Just throwing it out there: there is no current scientific data to back white hooves being weaker than dark hooves.

So why does this myth continue to circulate? Because of books like this, or various equine "experts" proclaiming it to be true. Yet when we think about it, what are those "professionals" (be it or not) basing their opinion on? My theory is that they are basing it on "experience". Psychology proves that when we possess a theory, we then (often inadvertently) look for examples to prove our theory valid. Now if someone has an open mind, they may, through broad research, prove themselves wrong and thus undergo a change of opinion. Yet what sorts of examples do professionals experience, when it comes to feet? A farrier does the feet of countless horses over time, and may theorize white hooves to be weaker because he/she seems to run across more horses with white feet that also happened to be weaker. A trainer or owner may run across a number of white-footed horses whose feet were constantly chipping. Yet what do these anecdotes really prove? When we really think about it, nutrition, environment, weather, use, genetics, etc, all play major factors in a horse's hoof health. All the aforementioned factors could even be commonalities between horses a certain professional sees, hence their drawing certain conclusions. Personally, I think the real accurate testament of the different degrees of strength between white hoof and black hoof is scientific evidence. Personal accounts are not enough and are definitely flawed (whether through restriction of research or through human flaw itself), yet too many people continue to rely on WOM - consider it "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", when that just isn't the case.

"Anecdotal evidence exists on both sides of the argument. However, no scientific evidence has yet to be produced to indicate that a white hoof is weaker than a darker one. A 1976 study by James E. Dinger of the University of Maryland entitled "Recent Findings in Hoof Physiology" found no correlation between hardness of the hoof wall and the pigmentation of the hoof. More recently, scientists have viewed cross-section slides of hooves under electron microscopes and failed to find any structural differences between white and black hoof walls, according to Mitch Taylor, a certified journeyman farrier with 22 years' experience and owner of the Kentucky Horse Shoeing School in Mt. Eden, Kentucky."

"One of the foremost experts in his field, Doug Butler, Ph.D., of LaPorte, Colo., is the author of The Principles of Horseshoeing, one of the most widely used texts on horseshoeing in the world. He also has 30 years of teaching experience and acts as a consultant and lecturer on horseshoeing. In 1976 while doing research at Cornell University, he conducted a study on white versus black hooves by taking squares of hoof material and crushing them in a compressor.
"There was no difference between black and white," he agrees. "The main difference was in moisture content: The softer hooves fell apart easier." He notes that genetics also play a role in hoof strength."

I have always been taught by various "experts" the "Weaker White Hoof Myth" and wanted to check out the scientific evidence for myself, because I was leery as to the accuracy of the WWHM. I am not going to tell anyone that there is absolutely no difference between white and black hooves, as scientific study is far from complete, however it would be wise to look at the data collected thus far. There certainly is not enough evidence (if there is any) collected thus far to suggest that white hooves are "problem hooves" and should be avoided due to their potential for issues. This is a hard tradition to break though and so it will likely circulate for years to come...

In my search I also came across this:

Horses Ban for Overgrown Hooves - it's a few years old now, but wow - look at those feet! Poor horse, and poor owner if her claims of illness are accurate. I hope both are in better health now.

A horse's hooves should be checked on a regular basis - daily or weekly if possible. Typically, horses will require trimming every 6-10 weeks, as a good rule of thumb. Personally, I do not usually go by the 6-10 week timeline, but rather judge our horses' feet on a daily basis and call in the farrier as necessary. Link, our Thoroughbred, has his feet done every 8 weeks at the moment (in the summer) - leave them any longer and they start to chip out. He's been off the track 10 months now and while his hooves continue to improve in leaps and bounds, they are still far from perfect yet. Over the winter however, he was done at about 9 weeks and 13 weeks. Silver, our Quarab, and Koolaid, our Warmblood x, were done at much longer intervals both this winter and spring. I have received horses in for training who have never had their feet done - at 4 or 5 years of age! Those horses still have fantastic feet. One mare the farrier commented had the best feet he's seen in awhile (well, he sort of groaned it out - he was having a tough time clipping through such hard hooves!). One has to consider each individual horse's needs and evaluate a horse's feet on a horse-by-horse basis. Don't make it an automatic 6-10 weeks, because that might not be enough (rarely), or it could be too often even! Learn how to accurately judge your horse's hoof length and what is "too long" (besides the clearly obvious, as above). We pasture all our horses, so they actually seem to wear their feet down quite nicely throughout the year; horses kept in a "natural" environment akin to wild horses often require less trimming because their hooves wear down on their own. Environment, weather, genetics, season, nutrition - all play a huge role in how often a horse's feet need to be trimmed. In winter, of course, a horse's feet grow slower than in the summer (just like our fingernails), so trims are required less often during that season - our horses usually receive a trim late fall and do not require another one until spring sometime. If in doubt, ask your (reputable) farrier and if you are new to horses, certainly keep a schedule of 6-10 weeks. However if you can learn what to look for, you can probably save yourself a fair bit. Evaluate your horses as individuals!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Leg Protection

Leg protection can be used for one of two reasons: protection or support.

Now I am of the personal belief that a horse should not wear leg protection for support on a regular basis. Providing constant support to a horse's legs gives the leg no reason to develop strength of its own. Instead, developing a horse (and thus its legs) slowly and gradually over time allows for the horse itself to build up the strength necessary for its given career.

Protection, however, is another matter. When doing lateral work in dressage, spins in reining, or engaging in activities such as jumping, a horse may be prone to injuring itself, and in those cases protective leg wear may be necessary. A young horse may be particularly at risk of injury since they are still learning to balance themselves and handle their feet as well as the added weight of the rider (nevermind their own weight). On the other hand however, personally I will not put protective leg wear on a horse right away. I want them to learn to pick up their feet over a jump, to learn to negotiate their feet over rough terrain, or to move their feet efficiently while doing dressage. That is only accomplished through experience - a few bumps and bruises included. On that note though, all our horses are barefoot, and so their risk of injury is substantially lower than a horse who is shod. Also, I will add protective wear if/once I feel a horse has learned how to handle his feet sufficiently. As I said though, this is all just my personal opinion based on my own research and experience.

I will also add that I feel some over-protect their horses, just as we as a society seem to have the tendency to even over-protect our children or even ourselves. We are well-intentioned, however it is not always in our horses' best interests.

SO, a quick look at the (countless) varieties of leg wear available for purchase for our horses. There are so many it can be confusing to know what is used for what, why, and how. This is just a brief outline of the boots available on the market. Additional info is provided at the bottom. Do your research!

Bell Boots (protective)
Protect the front corronet band and heel should your horse overreach naturally, through collection, or other. Shoes (and studs!) can especially do extensive damage to a horse's heel or coronet band, so bell boots can be particularly useful in this case.

Skid Boots (protective)
These cup the hind fetlocks so as to prevent the fetlocks from burning against the ground in a sliding stop in a reining pattern or such (they can also be used on some racehorses who hyperflex and when they work in the mud, though most trainers prefer to simply wrap).

Knee Boots (protective)
Protect a horse's knees during activities where both front knees could come in contact with one another, such as during a reining spin. Where were these this spring, when our Thoroughbred was banging his knees on the roundbale feeder? ;)

Hock Boots (protective)
These are used for protecting a horse's hocks from things such as bed sores or injury in the case that he kicks in the trailer. (Bonus: the ones in the above photo are magnetic!)

Open-Fronted Boots (protection)
These are, as the name suggests, open-fronted - they protect the back of the cannon bone on the front leg, where the major ligaments and tendons lie. They are particularly used in jumping. The open front allows the horse to feel a rub on a rail, and the closed back allows for protection against a hind hoof hitting the front cannon upon landing.

Shipping Boots/Wraps (protection)
These may consist of polo wraps, exercise wraps over cotton quilts, or the specially manufactured boots that are ready to go with velcro straps - on all four lower legs. They protect your horse in the event he has to shift around (or the horse next to him does), and his legs get banged up. To be quite honest, I don't really know how useful these really are or how much protection they will actually warrant. If you've done your prior and proper preparation, your horse is standing calm in the trailer rather than fussing about. Shifting in the trailer during transport, even stumbling, does not typically involve a horse lifting one leg up and somehow clipping said leg on another leg (or another horse). If you're in enough of an accident that your horses really have to scramble (or worse, are overturned), a little cotton and nylon really is not all that effective. Don't forget these can also insulate the horse's leg and thus keep the leg fairly warm or even hot, which could potentially be hazardous to the health of your horse's legs, especially during long hauls.

Polo Wraps (protection)
Thick, plush, fleecy wraps that are used over a horse's front cannon bone and fetlock joint for protection against bumps and bruises, particularly with lateral work. In addition, they also provide added heat to the leg during work - which can potentially be harmful to your horse's legs. Some people use polos under the false illusion that they provide support - they don't. Care should be taken with any wraps that they are done correctly - else you run the risk of a bowed tendon (I've seen it!).
(Bonus: you even get a glimpse of how to wrap correctly, courtesy of the photo above - booya!)

Ankle Boots (protection)
Ankle boots cup the...well, the ankle (sort of obvious, I would think), which protects the sesamoid bones during interference of the legs, particularly at faster gaits and during jumping.

Sports Medicine Boots (protection/support)
These guys are designed to protect and support the structures of the lower front legs, cannon bone down to, and including, fetlock. These actually absorb impact (26 percent!), provide added comfort to the horse during works, and provide interference protection, thus reducing lower limb injury. I swear by these - we've got two pairs of ancient SMB's that have lasted years of use and abuse - they have always stood up well to anything and everything, and they are scientifically proven to benefit your horse. One downfall is that they do get pretty hot inside during a work, particularly on a hotter day. As excellent as these are, I still (personally) do not believe they should be worn every day, but they certainly should be thrown on if your horse is to work extra-hard some days. They can be used on both fronts (where most injuries occur and where most of the weight is borne) or on all four lower limbs.

Splint/Brush Boots (protection)
These protect the splint bones, as well as other structures, of the horse's front leg during interference.

Training Wraps (protection/support)
We used these on the track on specific horses - they were used as support on the front lower limbs and were wrapped over the cannon bone and fetlock joint. They consisted of a type of nylon-cotton material, though vet wrap was used in races. They may also be used (on both fronts and hinds) during training that is more intensive than usual.

Care should be taken when using any wraps or boots that they are used correctly. In fact, it is better they not be used at all than they be used incorrectly - under any circumstance. It is absolutely vital that a wrap is not done up too loose or too tight (too loose can allow dirt to get in between wrap and leg = bowed tendon), and that the wraps are spaced evenly. I have seen wraps done up incorrectly and thus manage to cut of circulation to the limb. Not pretty either. Boot straps need to be done up snugly, but not too tightly and neither too loosely. Have someone who has extensive experience wrapping correctly (and has had little to no incidence of injuries due to wraps) teach you how to wrap or put on boots.

Personally I keep my "bootage" down to a minimal - the absolute essentials, depending on the type of work I am doing with a particular horse. However, you have to make your own decision based upon your own research on the matter. Hope this helped you out though in figuring what is out there (I know I have certainly been confused in the past) - now it is up to you to do your research into which is best, if any, for your horse. In the mean time, here are a few sites from whom I collected some of the above information and/or whom may offer you further insight:

Hoof Boot Options - Barb Crabbe, DVM

Using Leg Wraps or Boots - Galadriel Billington
A quick synopsis of the why's and what's; her p.o.v. parallels mine as well and you will see she covers more thoroughly what I referred to at the commencement of this blog, as far as leg strength (etc) goes.

Now I have to disagree that your horse should be booted up every time he goes out for a spin - all our horses live out on pasture. Accidents happen, though in the 40+ years or so that my family or I have owned horses, I cannot recall a single incident where a horse of ours injured itself playing in the pasture. Not that it cannot happen, but is this a case of "an ounce of prevention", or is it more of a case of overdoing it?

Good luck and happy riding!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Slaughter Debate

Sorry this blog took so long - I just really have been absolutely swamped and these blogs take more than 5 minutes to type up!

To start, I highly suggest that anyone interested in unbiased articles concerning horse slaughter should check out Horse and Rider issues Oct 07 and Nov 07, where both sides of the story are covered very well.

The key players on both sides? Pushing for the ban on horse slaughter, we have:
The Humane Society of the United States
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (oy!)

A couple of the primary "pro slaughter" advocates are:
Arabian Horse Association
American Quarter Horse Association
American Veterinary Medical Associaion (click here for their slaughter FAQ page)

My personal opinion is that slaughter is a 'necessary evil'. Let me make it clear: our own horses are our partners, and we hope to always be able to provide for them, for life. We raised or purchased them with that intent, and thus far our oldest gelding is 14 and our youngest is 5, though my own family has kept horses until they were at an age where they had to be euthanized. I anticipate we will purchase many more horses in the future - some whom we will keep for life, others whom we likely will not. Any horses that we sell in the future we will certainly do our best to ensure they do not meet their end at slaughter through correct training, responsible breeding, and by doing our best to choose the right home. Our own personal horses will never meet a slaughter facility - they are our partners and we could never bear to see them slaughtered. On the other hand, the reality of the matter is that we have a surplus of horses as well as horses who cannot work and for whom we have no homes, and there is a demand overseas for horsemeat. If we can eat cows, pigs, chickens, or sheep, why not horses? Cannot one form the same type of relationship with a heifer/steer or a ewe/ram that they could a mare? I know I certainly have. Perhaps it is time we accepted that societies in other parts of the world do eat horse meat, and do our best to regulate the industry to ensure the humane treatment of our equines. So here is a quick look at the facts:

I am unsure as to all the North American rules and regulations that pertain to hauling horses, however I am under the understanding (click here) that horses hauled in the US (Canada?) are not permitted to be hauled in double-deckers - provided the hauler commercially hauls over 20 horses per year destined for slaughter. But who's to say the horses are headed for slaughter? Sounds like a loophole to me. With the current US slaughter bans in practice, individuals are now forced to haul their horses destined to slaughter longer distances. This means they need more horses per load so as to make the load worthwhile financially = double-deckers. Personally I have yet to see a double-decker on the Alberta highways filled with horses (not to say there aren't though), however I have seen numerous single-deck trailers chock-full of horses whom I can only assume were likely destined for slaughter. Could the transport of horses be more strictly regulated in North America? Certainly. However that was a fact both prior to and now during the slaughter ban; in fact, laws and regulations pertaining to the slaughter of horses are even more important now, when so many more horses are being transported longer distances than they were prior to the ban.

The method
Under North American law and regulations, horses are to be rendered dead via a captive bolt or a gunshot to the head. The AVMA considers this to be as humane as chemical euthanasia (an OD on barbiturates). If anyone has ever seen a chemically euthanized animal, it is not always pretty; people seem to have this assumption that the animal just fades off into a blissful sleep. Well, that is not always the case. They can scream loudly (I have personally seen it) and a 1,200lb horse is going to fall - hard. Then there's the matter of disposing of the carcass. If all "unwanted" horses were euthanized by chemical means (as per the HSUS), we would be looking at the disposal of approximately 100,000 horses. In the US alone. Canada contributes another approximate 50,000 to that number. The chemicals used for a euthanasia solution are highly dangerous to the environment. Not only can they poison predatory animals, but 150,000 buried carcasses leaking barbiturates into the ground is not the most brilliant proposal either. Burning them only releases the chemicals into the air. Not to mention that we are wasting the carcass of an animal, which especially irks me. If an animal is to be subject to humane euthanasia, why not make use of the animal rather than allow for waste? Just a couple of other parts of the equine carcass that may be used (in addition to its meat for human or zoo animal consumption): the pericardium of a horse's heart and the pancreas (used to obtain insulin). If others in this world eat the meat, why force our personal opinions on them? Some view the consumption of cattle as unholy, yet our society continues to purchase steaks. What makes our viewpoints any more important than theirs? Not to mention that horse meat is highly efficient and healthier than beef.

As far as the captive bolt or a gunshot, reports (such as the one done by Dr. Temple Grandin, the world's leading researcher in the area of humane slaughter techniques - featured in the Oct 07 issue of Horse & Rider) show that effectiveness (that the person operating kills the horse on the first shot) is at 95 percent. This renders the horse brain-dead and unable to feel or think anything immediately. A horse can still be dead and kicking, but this is due to the reciprocal circuit in the spine being effected, not due to the horse remaining alive and kicking. The horse is then bled out once already dead.

Is there room for improvement in the process? Certainly. Here is one investigation done by CBC that showcases an unethical Canadian slaughterhouse attempting to slaughter horses in a facility constructed for cattle. Here is the accompanying video, that was broadcasted on CBC television originally. Horses cannot be slaughtered in facilities designed for cattle - kill boxes need to be smaller, alleyways need to be narrower, floors need to be slip-free, etc etc. However some Canadian slaughterhouses (as evidenced) have taken in horses due to the increased demand for horsemeat, in the name of financial gain. So, can horse slaughter be improved to the point of being completely humane? Yes. Dr. Temple Grandin proves this, as do many other veterinarians. Further regulations need to be implemented and enforced - USDA officials and veterinarians always on site, regular and surprise audits conducted, horse slaughter being restricted to facilities designed specifically for equines, etc. Here are 1997 and 2000 audits of US bovine/swine slaughter facilities. Why cannot equine slaughter facilities be managed similarly?

Thanks to the HSUS and PETA, horses are now sent to Mexico, where regulations are minimal. Most facilities are not designed for horses but horses are rendered dead via stun guns or shotguns. However, some facilities (clandestine facilities in particular) render horses senseless via stabbing them repeatedly (sometimes up to a dozen or more times) in the neck. This does not render the horse dead, only immobilized. The horse is then bled out, alive, as it hangs via chains on the roof. The next horse is then pushed into the kill box, which is smeared with blood from the previous horse(s). *applause* to HSUS and PETA. Rather than focusing on further regulating the process here, you have shipped our horses off to Mexico to an inhumane death that cannot be controlled by our laws. Here is a HSUS video concerning Mexican slaughter. Nice depiction of a humane slaughter in North America, actually (the horse shot cleanly). I particularly like the part about "paints and palominos lined up"...when there is absolutely not a single paint or palomino in the line up (that one at the front is a grey). I guess "chestnuts and bays" didn't sound as fluffy as the "paints and palominos" lie.

Livestock vs pets
In my opinion, horses are not pets. They are 1,200lb animals that are typically used for a variety of purposes rather than companionship. They are livestock. This is not to say that horses cannot be companions (I certainly hope they are!), or that companion animals cannot serve a purpose (ie. search & rescue dogs), however the vast majority of the horse population has a very specific use whether it be ranch work or some type of sport such as dressage, jumping, or reining. As opposed to animals such as rabbits, snakes, dogs, cats, who are typically used for the sole purpose of companionship. Stripping a horse of its livestock status also removes it of other benefits (ie. certain disaster relief for horses, tax advantages, disease tracking, etc).

Mexico and Canada
Since the slaughter ban, Mexico has experienced a 312 percent increase in the number of horses imported for slaughter, while Canada has experienced a 41 percent increase (2006 compared to 2007). In addition, Mexico has had a 50 percent increase in the number of horses imported for breeding and riding purposes. Yet were they really imported for that purpose? Sounds like another uncorrectable loophole to me. Read more about it here. This means longer transport times and distances for horses as well as inhumane processes we have no control over down in Mexico, as well as some horses being slaughtered in Canada at bovine facilities. Currently individuals are pushing for laws against the exportation of horses for the purpose of slaughter, however who's to say a driver hauling a load of horses intended for breeding or riding down to Mexico or up to Canada doesn't suddenly have an epiphany when he crosses the border, and suddenly decides to instead transport the horses to slaughter? What's to stop him from lying about the destination of said load of horses or selling those horses on the other side of the border to someone who intends to slaughter them? Or - really - having an epiphany? Who are we to question his thoughts? If we cannot regulate an individual's intentions or thoughts, then we cannot have total control over the transport of our horses. Horses will continue to be transported across the borders regardless of law, it will just be done black-market style. The European Union could however refuse to purchase horsemeat from Mexico, but they are not going to do that when the demand for horsemeat continues to soar and Mexico and Canada continue to be the primary providers.

Unwanted horses
So where are 150,000 horses supposed to go? Reports are flitting about everywhere of horses being turned loose, of First Nations horses collecting on land and starving, and the HSUS continues to make some of the highest-numbered seizures in history of neglected and abused horses. Depressed horse prices thanks to the slaughter ban in the US, coupled with a downed economy only makes the situation worse for horses as horse owners face losing their jobs and homes are are therefore forced to give up the horses they can no longer provide for. Rescues report that they are full - overflowing, in fact. Where are all these horses supposed to go? Are we supposed to bury 150,000 horses yearly? What a waste!

Let's face it, most horses owners do not keep a horse for the entire span of its life. Some cannot, some will not. Are we supposed to expect competitors to continue to feed a horse for years that can no longer perform, in lieu of finding it a nice home where it can decorate a pasture or teach some young child to ride? Granted, most individuals definitely should take more responsibility for their horses and a lot more breeders should be taking responsibility for the lives they create, but on the other hand, not every person should be expected to keep a horse for its entire lifespan. Sometimes it just isn't justified to keep a horse - sometimes that horse would be better suited to another home (for the horse's own benefit) where they will be used, loved, and well cared for. You do your best to line up the best home possible, but sometimes good homes turn out to be your horse's worst nightmare, despite every effort made. I do not believe that everyone can, or should, keep every horse for life, but I do believe they should do their best to ensure that any horse who passes through their hands ends up in a similar, or better, scenario than they themselves could have provided. PETA (who backs HSUS) believes that if a specific individual can no longer care for a horse, that the horse should be euthanized. I definitely disagree.

The other aspect too is that a lot of horses are bred yearly, both by the racehorse industry and by backyard breeders or simply breeders lacking the proper knowledge. Breed associations also encourage further breeding and while they cannot directly control the number of foals registered, they can certainly put more of an emphasis on responsible breeding and on purchasing existing horses within their breed as opposed to creating more.

While I do believe that the majority of horses who go to slaughter are usable (in some fashion, be it pleasure horse or jumper), some are just old, debilitated, or dangerous. There are not enough knowledgeable individuals out there who can handle a well-balanced horse, let alone a horse with emotional and mental challenges. Some horses really are just downright dangerous for the average horseowner to own, and ultimately, as harsh as it sounds, the safety of humans do need to come first. There needs to be a place for those horses as well.

The solution
The racehorse industry should certainly be made to take responsibility for its horses. Incentives for keeping horses sound (and thus breeding for soundness) could be set up and rehabilitation/re-homing programs could possibly be set up, funded by fees taken out of increased registration fees (this could follow for any registry association) for horses that are to be used for racing purposes. Racehorses can take a lot of work to rehabilitate, and there just are not enough individuals out there who have the essential knowledge and who are up for the challenge (and reward!) 0f working with such horses. On the flip side though, not enough racehorses are making it into the hands of competent rescues or trainers that could offer them a second career. Racehorse owners and breeders need to be forced to take responsibility. Multi-billionaire owners/breeders should not be permitted to auction off a racehorse because they "can no longer afford to feed it", without considering other options and without making any attempt at re-homing the horse (I say this from personal experience). Some tracks in the US will ban trainers who send horses to auction, however sometimes this is just talk to impress the public and this is not enforced. More tracks I feel do need to take such responsibility and need to ensure they enforce it somehow.

As far as backyard breeders or individuals with breeding operations but lacking in the knowledge department, I say: education education education. Via the internet. Clinics. Magazines. It needs to be in their face, because not everyone is going to go looking for the right information. It works for the Brits! They slaughter a mere 0.6 percent of their horse population, thanks to a number of measures. Now I am not saying that we could bring our slaughter percentage down to that number, however I am sure we could certainly decrease it. Take a look at the segment "How the Brits do it" in the Nov 07 issue of Horse & Rider for ideas. I think we need to start looking at how other countries do it - both in methods and in keeping slaughter down to a necessary minimum. On the other hand, breeding is never going to be completely controlled and efficient, and we need to understand that and address it rather than simply ignoring it.

While slaughter in North America did range from mostly humane to exemplary, slaughter processes need to be improved beyond "satisfactory" to ensure that slaughter is a humane alternative to chemical euthanasia. In my opinion, slaughter needs to be re-implemented in the US. Our horses are now being treated in a far less humane manner, both in our own backyards as well as in foreign countries such as Mexico, than the least humane slaughter process possible in the US or Canada; some are even being shipped overseas - live - to Japan. Oh yay. Because we all know how humane the Japanese are with their animals (warning: graphic). Yup, very humane indeed.

Do I even like the idea of slaughter? Not anymore than the next horseowner/lover. My heart always goes out to the horses I know are bound for slaughter when I see them in barns or feedlots, at auctions, or in the trucks - I wish I could help them all! However (in my opinion) it simply is a necessary evil we need to accept and improve rather than outright ban. If you don't like slaughter, fine (really, does anybody??). However I'm not so sure that just because we do not get warm and fuzzy feelings from it, that it should not exist; I think we need to take a more practical approach. Personally, I feel that animals are here for our use, however that does not negate the requirement for humane and compassionate treatment.

In the mean time, here are a few links:

Grisly End for American Horses - HSUS (accompanies the video I mentioned above)

I like how HSUS portrays all Mexican slaughter plants as such though (that is not the case), and I definitely like how they say "Americans don't believe horses should be slaughtered for human consumption". Really? ALL Americans? Have you checked? Because last time I checked, Americans were slaughtering horses for human consumption, until your associations and supporters put a halt to that. On the other hand though, it is estimated that 90 percent of the US population is 3 generations off the farm (Horse & Rider Oct 07) - they tend to have a different view of livestock than ranch-raised populations.

Do your own research - be thorough, have an open mind, and be wary of some of the lies and mistruths propagated by some (especially by the anti-slaughter group, I've found).
Just a quick note, obviously I harbour a deep dislike for the HSUS and the SPCA/Humane Societies (Canada), for personal reasons (that's a whole other story for a rainy day, but they have accumulated a number of black marks in my books, and not because they have ever seized any of our own animals or anything of the like though), but I still wanted to post their videos because they do ultimately usually do good work, and they do have good points in the videos, even if their viewpoint is a bit skewered at times and they do try to twist the truth here and there where it suits them. You have to consider all evidence and have an open mind (just be careful of everything you read and see - yes, even here!), even if it sometimes comes from a source you may not entirely like. PETA, on the other hand - you won't find any of their videos here. I have heard (from friends with experience with PETA) of them killing entire barns full of thousands of pigs because they disagreed with raising pigs for meat (and it was done tortuously slow and brutal), and other such outrageous practices (again, another story for a rainy day) and I refuse to have anything to do with them. Extremist groups have their place in society (sometimes they help keep things in check), however PETA has just gone too far. Anyway, I just wanted to explain why the videos were up if I dislike them so much ;)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Food for thought

"My belief in life is that we can all get along together if we try to understand one another. You'll meet a lot of people and have a lot of acquaintances, but as far as having friends, they are very rare and very precious. But every horse you ride can be your friend because you ask this of them. This is real important to me. You can ask the horse to do your thing, but you ask him; you offer it to him in a good way. You fix it up and let him find it. You do not make anything happen, no more than you can make a friendship begin."
-Ray Hunt

"A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control."
-Proverbs 29:11
Equus: emotional discipline can be difficult at times but as they saying goes - "there are only two emotions that belong in the saddle: patience and a good sense of humour."

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."
-Pat Parelli

"It's unreasonable to ask a horse not to be afraid. That's like my telling you to go into a bad area of town for a walk at two in the morning, and not be frightened."
-John Lyons

"A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care."
-Pat Parelli

"Take the time it takes, so it takes less time!"
-Pat Parelli

"If your horse says no, you either asked the wrong question, or asked the question wrong."
-Pat Parelli

"Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Get your good better and your better best!"
-Pat Parelli
Equus: in my opinion, we should always be striving for better, for self-improvement.

"Savvy is knowing when to be, why to be, what to do when you get there and knowing when to stop! Being passively persistent in the proper position, also using No force, No fear, No intimidation and just taking what the horse gives you naturally."
-Pat Parelli

"Take all the ropes off and you find out the truth, you find out how much your horse likes you."
-Jonathan Field
Equus: take all the ropes off your horse and does he still stick around?

The 10 qualities of a horseman:
1. Heart & Desire
2. Respect
3. Impulsion
4. Flexion
5. Attitude & Focus
6. Feel
7. Timing
8. Balance
9. Savvy
10. Experience

The 7 keys to success:

The 8 principles:
1. Horsemanship is natural
2. Make & teach no assumptions
3. Communication is two or more individuals sharing in & undserstanding an idea
4. Horses & humans have responsibilities
5. The attitude of justice is effective
6. Body language is universal**
7. Horses teach riders & riders teach horses
8. Principles, purpose & time are the tools of teaching
**(yes, all horses know it!! Don't try to say Natural Horsemanship - working with horses using body language and instincts, "doesn't work on all horses"...all horses have instincts and use body language. It works on all horses, just not all people.)

The 8 Responsibilities:
1. Act like a partner, not a predator
2. Have an independent seat
3. Think like a horse
4. Use the natural power of focus
1. Act like a partner, not a prey animal**
2. Maintain gait
3. Maintain direction
4. Look where you're going
**(this doesn't mean that you teach a horse to ignore its instincts, you simply teach it to become calmer, braver, smarter, and to follow your leadership - a better balanced horse with greater mental and emotional collection)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Two tidbits of the day

Two quick things that came up on our trail ride today that I wanted to brush over quickly:

Trusting your horse

Grazing while riding

Trust your horse
Trusting our horses is difficult when we're unconfident ourselves or are unconfident in our horse. However, how can we expect our horses to trust us if we cannot trust them? The key, I believe, is prior and proper preparation (getting a little repetitive, I know). With a well-rounded horse that is properly developed - emotionally and mentally balanced, there is no reason not to trust. Adding experience to that horse's resume can further our trust that they can handle whatever situation we throw their way. Experience, used correctly, can greatly strengthen a partnership between horse and rider. On that note, partnership is very important - not only do you want to develop a calmer, braver, smarter horse, but you also want to earn their willingness to work with you - their trust, respect, and ultimately, their partnership. Personally I do tend to underestimate my horses. I prepareprepareprepare and then forget that after all that preparation we've done, that they can handle it! Then when I show distrust in them, they lack trust in me, and the vicious circle continues. Usually the lightbulb moment hits me when I ask a horse to do something new and they handle it flawlessly - and I realise that they had probably been ready for awhile and had just been waiting for me to ask them. Today, the point hit home for me when I refused to trust my 5yo OTTB Link, and he couldn't trust me sufficiently (in that situation) at that point (with more continued prep it will come!). The situation: a very steep hill I was holding him back from going up until the other two horses ahead of us had cleared it. I did not know how he would handle the hill and by holding him back I had hoped to create space between us and the last horse and therefore leave room for error (such as his possibly deciding to bolt up the hill). He got so psyched up and since I was asking him to not move forward, he went the only other direction I hadn't ordained as off-limits - up. His head won an argument against mine and I slid nicely off of his 16.1hh butt to land in the mud. He then proceeded to carefully pick his way up the hill I had been so concerned about entrusting him with, and waited for me at the top. See, if I had simply trusted him in the first place, I would have been a lot cleaner up at the top (lmao). The rest of the trail ride I threw all caution to the wind (just kidding) and threw my trust into him (not kidding). He obviously knew what he was doing, so who was I to doubt him! He never failed me once and tackled the terrain beautifully. We each learned a lot today and invested a lot of additional trust in one another throughout the ride - it was an amazing feeling. There are times we need to trust our horses and there are times when the partnership is perhaps not ready yet for such a challenge, where the trust just is not there yet, but if you are wavering on the edge - not sure if you can trust your horse to handle something (and you've done all your prep work at home), go for it. Trust the horse. They usually know what they're doing!

Now some people - a lot of people, I find - allow absolutely no grazing while a horse has a bit in his mouth. They claim the horse can step on his reins (difficult, I find, when the reins are up in your hand in the saddle), that the bit gets too dirty (hey, isn't that what water was invented for?), or that the horse is too disrespectful. Now the latter, I can understand. There are certainly times I will revoke a horse's grazing privileges - no more grazing throughout the ride. However this is rare. If you've got a decent level of respect from your horse and you ensure you clutch that respect as tight as you can in your grimy little paws, you should have no problem. Here's my theory:

Horses spend their time, packing us around, doing what we want. Most often, the horse doesn't even get the vote on what they do. Now, I have no doubts that a horse can enjoy their time under-saddle (hopefully that indeed is the case), however I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that they still sometimes might have better things they'd rather do. Like, y'know, eating. I don't know about the next person, but all our horses love to eat. So, since this is a part-ner-ship, which includes two beings, my personal opinion is that we should thus include our horses' interests into the activities that we do. Coming in from the pasture, lounge a bit instead of marching directly up to the tackroom. After, or even before, a good session under-saddle or on the ground, do some liberty work! Perhaps most important of all, consider your horse's interest(s) when considering disciplines. For me, this also crosses over into trail riding through lush grass fields. My rule is this: provided you (the horse) keep up your end of the bargain (continue responsibly at the gait I asked), go ahead and eat to your little heart's delight! Works like a charm. For a horse that abuses the privilege though, they hit some boundaries. Rather than pulling on a horse's mouth (which I guarantee you will find yourself doing over and over), just bump the horse gently with the reins - by closing your hands and allowing the horse to 'hit the end' of the rein - and instead squeeze with your legs and go through your "ask" phases quickly (squeeze with all four cheeks, squeeze with your thigh then finally with your leg, then spank yourself with the rein ends and move the spanking down to eventually touch the horse, increasing the spanking until you get the response). For the particularly rude horse though (who is being irresponsible by ignoring your forward request) you can go through your phases even quicker and almost go straight to the spanking phase. Make it their responsibility though - they continue moving forward, you're quiet, they stop suddenly without permission, they run into the spank. This way they have the choice. Courtesy of John Lyons ;)

This thought came about though today when my mom, on her Thoroughbred whom she wasn't allowing to eat at all under-saddle, commented on my allowing my Thoroughbred, Link, to eat as much as he pleased. I explained to her that he wasn't losing any ground by grabbing food along the way and he was being respectful about it - he wasn't reefing any reins out of my hands, I was allowing him to eat. We were doing what I wanted, so why shouldn't I allow him to do a little of what he wanted? It made sense to her. "Well what if you decide you don't want them to eat, though?" she asked. My response was that, ultimately, they are your rules - you're the leader. So if you decide there is no eating under-saddle today, your horse should respect that. I pointed out to her that since she'd implemented rules with her horse and had made it clear he wasn't to eat, he was now walking calmly through the fields alongside me, very respectfully walking forward without continuously requesting to eat grass. It's your rules, since you are the leader - whether you decide to only let your horse eat at stops, to let him eat while you walk, or to not let him eat under any circumstances, is up to you. However, keep in mind that you can allow him to eat - it doesn't have to be disrespectful and it does not have to be a complete no-no. Furthermore, horses are smart, so you can change your rules up - they get it. Just be consistent in a rule once you implement it and they will figure it out and abide by the new rule.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


So, as promised, here it is, my blurb on muscling in horses. While correct muscling in a horse is dependent upon a horse's skeletal structure to a degree, our horsemanship with, and riding of, said horse can have a great effect on a horse's muscle development (or lack thereof).

As prey animals, horses often tend to build strong underline muscles, particularly when influenced into a poll-highest frame by their riders (even simply at the halt, on contact), when the horse is not lifting from the base of their neck and working correctly back to front. The result of a tense neck and back results in over-developed underline muscles. Particularly reactive or flighty horses will especially develop the underside of their neck, because they are contracting and tensing those muscles on a constant basis. As a whole, the reactive horse over-develops all the muscles he typically uses to react: jaw muscles, underside of the neck, etc and he often experiences topline atrophy - a weak upper neck and weak abdomen and dorsal muscles.

This horse actually has a naturally nice topline (note he is not ewe-necked on top), yet his underline is extremely developed. Also note his overall body attitude - his head is up, ears are back, and he is standing square with a wide rear (where all his power is for takeoff) stance for better push-off. His entire body language screams out: I am ready to explode!

Note how this mare - a Dutch Warmblood - is almost the complete opposite of the above horse. She's alert but not reactive, she's not fearful. She has got a very nice natural topline. Her upper neck is rounded and her underneck is flat rather than convex in shape.

For a horse to have a successful, long, sound career, however, we want to work their muscles to their best benefit. That means developing the muscles appropriate to keeping them sound and easing the weight of a rider - topline and abdominal muscles. A horse that is working in a relaxed manner - raised neck at its base, tracking underneath with a bent, shock-absorbing hind leg, raised back, etc, is going to develop different muscles than a horse that is tracking about with a tense jaw, whose tension travels all the way through the neck and down the back. They're going to develop a stronger topline, abdomen muscles (which help raise and support the back), etc.

Where our horsemanship comes in to play then, is in developing a calm, relaxed horse. If every time we work with our horse we encourage it to be reactive and flighty - to have a tense body - we're going to continue building the wrong muscles to best help our horse work under-saddle. If instead every time we work with our horse he is calm and relaxed with a supple jaw and back, we develop a horse with the correct muscling to best suit the work we're asking of him. This is not something that can be done through force - see-sawing on the reins, pushing the horse into contact, etc. Relaxation does not come through force, it comes naturally - with a relaxed horse! So the key is to always have the goal of beginning and ending on a relaxed note with your horse. Pretty soon, what happens last starts to happen first.

What riders typically do, however, when they experience roadblocks with their horse, is they start to throw in mechanical contraptions in an effort to force their horse into a particular frame. Except, by forcing the horse, the "frame" is full of tension and is without relaxation - which really defeats the whole purpose. If instead of focusing solely on the physical aspect, riders also included addressing the emotional side of things, they would have a better chance of achieving that strove-for "frame" they so desperately seek. A horse's mind controls his body. Therefore, by addressing mental and emotional relaxation, we achieve physical relaxation. With that starts to come the appropriate muscle development and the correct movement we seek from the horse.

You can often judge a rider pretty accurately by simply looking at his horse. How he holds himself (tense versus relaxed), his expression (content versus fearful or frustrated), the type of partnership he has with his rider, the equipment he wears, and his physical form. Sometimes a horse has not been in a rider's hands long enough, is not yet at the appropriate stage in his training to be experiencing beneficial muscle development, or just has not been schooled sufficiently on a regular basis to accurately depict his rider. Of course looking at the horse can also give us a pretty accurate picture of the horse himself - is he typically tense and reactive/spooky? Or is he normally calm and relaxed, thinking? This particular horse (above) is wearing a martingale (likely to "encourage" him to hold his head below a specific level) and you can see the clear lack of muscle definition along his topline.

This horse actually hasn't got a bad topline but you can see the over-developed underline muscles. With a little work he would probably have a brilliant topline and a straighter, less convex underline.

Here the horse is clearly pulling against the tie-down he's wearing...which leads to underline muscle definition with time. He is not lifting from the BASE of his neck, which leads to over-development of the neck muscles that allow him to raise his head.

Most people don't want to hear it, but our horses really are a product of us - our handling, our management, our riding. We have the power to either balance our horses' emotional states (or keep it balanced), or to create an emotional wreck of a horse. Coincidentally, a horse's emotional state plays a huge part on his physical state - his muscling. So, if how we work determines the physical and emotional state of our horses, the key is to work with them in such a way that the horse is relaxed and in tune with us - in partnership.

....horses should be trained in such a way that they not only love their riders, but look forward to the time they are with them. ~ Xenophon, 350 B.C.

Does your horse love you and look forward to your time together? If you take all the ropes off holding him to you, does he remain with you, working in partnership, or does he take off as fast as he can?

Correct neck muscling is particularly crucial to a horse sustaining the weight of a rider because otherwise the horse relies on a tense back to hold the rider, which can be detrimental to their development and long-term soundness. More here. Working a horse back to front, building on the dressage training scale, will build the appropriate muscling so your horse may effectively carry your weight. This is where the mental and emotional state of a horse and your partnership with that horse comes into play, because a horse's mental and emotional state reflects in its body. A relaxed mind is required for a relaxed body, which enables the rider to develop rhythm and suppleness - the foundation of your dressage training scale. If you are interested in the concepts of true versus false collection (which play a large role in muscle development), take a look at Sustainable Dressage - even if you are not a dressage rider you can find it very helpful. Dressage can be of great benefit to any horse and rider, regardless of intended discipline.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Head tossing

Head tossing - usually the horse takes the blame - after all, he's the one doing the action, or "misbehaviour". What people often fail to understand though, is that everything a horse does when around us is a response to our actions - or lack thereof sometimes.

Head-tossing can be the manifestation of a variety of root causes, with the most common and most obvious being a horse feeling claustrophobic. This often involves a fairly high energy horse that is all gogogo, or maybe a horse who has been placed in a situation where it lacks confidence. The ultimate result is that the horse feels the need to move its feet - that flight instinct kicks in whereby he feels the desperate need to get somewhere safe (whether back to his herd or the barn or other). Often, when the rider feels the horse tense and want to move its feet (ie, possibly bolt or otherwise panic), their first reaction is to clamp down. Coincidentally, this is also what a predator would do if it were on that horse's (a prey animal) back. The tension in our seat and legs also further sends the message for 'forward' - it's one of our basic everyday cues. Lastly, when we instinctively clamp our legs, tense our bodies, and grab the poor horse's mouth, we also send the message to our horse, as their leader, that we are nervous. Of course they're going to follow suit - if another horse or prey animal in the vicinity or, in this case, their leader, spooks, their first thought is going to be to react first, think later. As a result, the rider goes into lockdown mode and tries to restrict the horse's ability to flee (flight of course being one of their primary survival mechanisms). Just think about it for a minute. If someone is holding you back at a time when you feel like you need to get away NOW, what's the first thing you're going to try to do? You're going to find some way - any way - to regain control of your feet and evade whatever is holding you back, because your life could depend on it! If you were a horse, you might even plunge around, rear, or buck, to gain that control you feel is absolutely essential to your immediate survival. Head tossing can be just one way a horse evades a rider's hands so as to gain control. So, here's a few ideas:

1. Develop a partnership with your horse. Doing so is the solution to just about every behavioural problem. In developing a solid partnership where you are in complete harmony with your horse, you both develop an effective means of communication where no head-tossing is involved because you're communicating effectively with one another. Prior and proper preparation is key, which also means not only developing a harmonious partnership with your horse, but also developing him to be calmer, confident, and to think rather than to blindly react. It means you don't feel like you have to pull on your horse's mouth in the first place. It means your horse does not feel it needs to evade your hands by tossing its head (etc). Your job is to earn your horse's trust in your ability to lead him and keep him safe and as such, he will more calmly follow your lead.

2. Your horse can't toss his head against something that's not there - ie. the reins. Drop the reins - your horse can't toss his head and pull against the reins if he has rein, and he can't feel claustrophobic if there's nothing restricting him from possibly fleeing should he feel the need to do so. The amount of slack you put in the reins is entirely dependent upon you and your horse's level of training and partnership. The point however is simply to not be holding your horse back via the bit; you can do this either on a draped rein or even keeping very light contact with your horse's mouth but maintaining a following hand and an elastic elbow. To correct your horse when you feel him gathering too much forward, pick up any slack and briefly close your hands. Release immediately. Repeat as necessary. Never directly hold your horse back - instead if you open and close your hands, taking up slack and immediately releasing and correcting only as necessary, your horse will feel less claustrophobic and will have nothing against which to fight. You are not pulling back, you are simply closing your hands after taking up a little contact.

3. If possible work off of one rein - just a little bump on one side (use the outside rein to start) often suffices to remind the horse to re-focus and relax. Then release - don't hold the rein you've corrected with. Relax your seat, take a deep (audible) breath. You can even take up the slack in both reins, correct with both reins, but with more correction from one hand. When a rider pulls back with both reins, they not only restrict forward movement and set themselves up for a possible fight, they also set the horse back onto its haunches, thereby providing the horse more power with which to use to bolt.

4. Dressage. Classical dressage is a solid foundation for everyone in any discipline and not only develops your horse in a physical sense but also in a mental sense. You do not have to compete or even achieve third level, but learning the basics of dressage is of great benefit to you and your horse. The building blocks of the training scale are relaxation, rhythm, suppleness, developed using patterns and exercises that encourage the aforementioned, as guided (only) by the rider. When you achieve these and your horse starts picking up contact with your hand (of their own accord), you have another tool in your toolbox to use when your horse is anxious and tense. This allows you the ability to then ask your horse to relax, supple, and to focus on a specific task. After your horse has learned to initiate contact as a result of progressive schooling, you can start to ask them to initiate that contact - when they are on the bit, you have a great deal of control. Essentially your horse is giving control up to you and you have the ability to direct their forward movement and provide the leadership they require and in doing so, you maintain control of the situation and create a relaxed horse with a calm, focused mind.

If, in the moment, your horse is still too worked up, get off and work on the ground until he's calm enough to work under-saddle. You're not letting your horse "win" by getting off. Ever. If you do not have the skill level or the capacity to deal with something under-saddle, staying on the horse is not going to change that and in fact you might create further damage by remaining in the saddle if you are not handling the situation correctly. Instead, get off and leave it for another day - a day when you have more skill or are in a better frame of mind to deal with what is being presented. On the ground, where you are (in most cases) safer, you can also work at it from another angle, such as using groundwork exercises. This might allow you greater influence over your horse and even might allow you to influence your horse to the point where it is then safe to re-mount.

Another common reason for head-tossing is discomfort or pain:
A poorly fitting saddle or bit (have a professional - not just your instructor - saddle fitter evaluate your saddle and someone with experience studying bits evaluate your bit and its suitability to the oral conformation of your horse)
A rider's hard hands
Skeletal misalignment
Muscle soreness
Consult professionals to figure out the problem. Horses might head-toss if the bit is stabbing the roof of their mouth or pinching their tongue, or if an ill-fitting saddle is pinching their shoulders or resting on their whithers. It might even be something as simple as bugs driving your horse to the point of insanity. Consider all the possible reasons for a head-tosser, rather than pinning it on the horse just being stupid (etc etc). They are behaving the way they are for a specific reason, and I can assure you it's not just to p*ss you off. Your horse is a reflection of you, its rider.