Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The bad staller

The stall-walker, weaver, or the horse with just general bad stall manners - horses were never meant to be cooped up into small 12 x 12 boxes and no amount of exercise you can give your horse while still keeping him stalled is going to help that. As herd animals, horses were meant to travel dozens of kilometres each day. So, what can you do?

The best thing you can do for your horse is to turn him out. Yes, even if he is valued at $50,000. Or $500,000. We often think we are doing our horses a favour by keeping them stalled - they are out of the weather, they're well-fed, they're pampered - but in reality we usually aren't, save for maybe the odd day you are outside and find your horse shivering in the cold. Keeping horses in a way nature never intended can actually be difficult on a horse emotionally and mentally. They are unable to socialise as much as they would out in a field, they are unable to play and expend extra energy, and they have virtually no mental stimulation throughout the day. From a physical standpoint, horses who are stalled for long periods of time during the day are more prone to ulcers and colic due to stress and the fact they cannot forage all day as they would in pasture.

Often too horses are stalled because we think they will be safer. They can't play and possibly injure themselves. Yet they actually have a higher risk of injury when they are stalled as opposed to when they are permitted free rein in pasture. Out in pasture, they will run and play, exercising and thus naturally strengthening their muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Locking a horse up in a small box restricts this ability - not only do you run the risk of your horse trying to expend energy and play (or stall-walk, kick at the walls, or weave!) in his stall and thus harming himself, but by sitting in his stall not using his body, he is also thus unable to strengthen his body like he would out in pasture. This can place him at a greater risk of him then injuring himself when you ask something of him later under-saddle, particularly if it is a strenuous activity such as reining or jumping.

In all honesty, in 20+ years of keeping horses, I have seen far less injuries in horses pastured than I ever have in stalled horses. Also, keeping horses in a herd environment out in pasture I have never seen the mental and emotional damage you find in those same horses when they are stalled. I think this is where the horse's needs must come above our own.

What are some things you can do if your only option is stalling your horse?

- Keep it temporary as possible - get your horse into as large a pasture as possible as soon as possible
- Mirrors - not the regular kind that can break
- Open-fronted stalls - such as what is used at the racetrack - webbed or chain fronts so the horse can look out and visit
- Open stalls in general - where the horse can see the horses next to him/her
- Well-lit, spacious, well-ventilated stalls
- As much turnout time as possible, or an attached run - this is NOT the same as pasture though!
- As much exercise as possible - this will NOT replace a horse's natural need to migrate and run/play throughout the day however it can at least help
- Toys in the stall - Likits, Jolly Balls, etc
- Company - goats, donkeys, etc in the stall with the horse
- Low-starch feeds - most horses do not require the high level of concentrates and starches we often feed, but particularly stalled horses should not get more concentrates than they absolutely require
- Forage available 24/7 - horses are meant to graze throughout the day; doing so can provide both mental stimulation and be healthy for their gut

The more like in nature we keep our horses, the better we simulate how they would be in the wild (with considerations), the better it is physically, emotionally, and mentally, for our horses.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The fearful horse

What do you do with the horse who is perpetually fearful of everything and is highly claustrophobic?

I recently sent home a client horse after 60 days of work - a 6yo Arabian mare. Highly intelligent, very sensitive...and quite spooky. When she first came to me, I could not hard tie her for fear of her pulling back, breaking her rope, and flipping over. If that rope came loose around her hind legs, she was gone. If there was a shadow on the arena floor, I had to sit deep ;) She took a lot of work but finally left with a lot more confidence, both on the ground and under-saddle! Her level of spookiness had declined, she was walking over tarps, I had ropes dangling between her legs, and I was hard-tying her regularly.

Confidence and leadership are the two primary things you want to focus on with a fearful horse. First is to build up the horse's own confidence in herself. This includes building on her curiosity and encouraging her to be bolder - to conquer tasks she previously found too intimidating. For example, touching the barrel she was formerly scared of, walking on tarps, going through water, general desensitization (even in a roundpen!), etc. Trail riding can be a great confidence-builder for a horse! Solving problems builds confidence in a horse as well - for example, encouraging the horse to navigate some obstacles or unwind itself from a rope you've wound around her, or even letting her loose in roundpen with a rope dangling off her side or around her hinds (be creative!) and allowing her to figure out its ok and to slow when she is ready. Allow the horse responsibility for itself and don't micromanage if you want the horse to have confidence in itself.

Curiosity has to exist before confidence can be built however so in the horse who is extremely introverted and afraid to be curious, you have to encourage her to start to investigate her environment, etc. All this can be done through groundwork such as the Parelli 7 games and Patterns. Sending (not pushing or pulling) the horse to touch objects and to accomplish specific tasks using approach and retreat.

Try to refrain from using direct-line thinking - for example, if the horse spooks from an object, don't simply push her toward the object. Sidepass past the object in question, back her toward it, rest her near the scary object and work her when she is further away from it, and use approach and retreat. Never simply push a horse directly up to an object they are afriad of - allow them to approach the object at their own pace. By excessively pushing a claustrophobic animal, they might feel trapped and thus balk more - they will also start to mistrust and doubt your judgement and leadership if they feel you are the one pushing them into a potentially unsafe situation. Understand that a horse has perfect reason to be afraid - they're a prey animal!

Being a strong leader to the horse means always being calm and assertive in your approach; not panicking when the horse spooks or pulls back, providing boundaries to your horse (ie. earning their respect), and generally being confident in yourself and how you are leading your horse. Your body language will relay to your horse whether or not you are an appropriate leader for them to follow, but in addition, performing exercises that enable your horse to successfully follow your leadership and build confidence in you will also create a calmer, braver partner in your horse. Successfully trail riding, navigating obstacles, etc together shows your horse you can ensure her safety when leading her through various situations she might otherwise be fearful of.
Lastly, doing exercises at liberty (ie. in the roundpen, no ropes attached) can really build both your horse's confidence as well as her confidence in your ability to safely lead her - the horse can choose to be with you. Be creative in everything you do - anything (calm) you teach your horse builds the partnership between you and your horse and helps to create a calmer, braver, smarter horse.

As you build the horse's self-confidence and confidence in your leadership, you'll see issues such as spooking and pulling back disappear. Eventually you can ask more and more of your horse, for example tying for longer periods of time, etc. Rather than focusing on the issue itself (ie. spooking or pulling back), focus on the horse's general emotional well-being and confidence in both you and your leadership and the rest will come together. Develop your horse's mind (calmer, braver, smarter horses are not reactive, scared, and don't act 'stupid'!!) to create a well-balanced horse!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Signs your bit might not be fitting

I felt this was an important blog to write because I recently have been teaching a woman who is by far not new to horses yet had no idea her bit was causing her horse problems. She had tried a number of bits on this horse and nothing worked - he was always upset. As a result, she was having a lot of communications issues with him and was only riding him in a hackamore...which is fine, but I don't like it when a rider has to be restricted to a particular piece of tack. This is not a problem unique to her, in fact I find a great many experienced riders have no idea why they're using the bit they are or that it might be causing their horse problems. So what are some signs your bit might not be fitting or might not be appropriate to your horse?

Chewing - signs of excessive chewing can include the horse constantly clanking the bit in his mouth and foaming at the mouth excessively. A horse who is chewing excessively can be expressing anxiety or worry or can simply be growing accustomed to the bit (ie. young horses). Horses who are already mouthy (extroverts) will tend to chew sooner than a horse who does not use its mouth much to begin with (ie. introverts). Chewing when done in moderation is a POSITIVE sign in the horse who is being developed correctly and in a relaxed manner. Such chewing is the result of suppleness and a soft and responsive mouth and will leave some light foaming at the mouth. However chewing can also be a sign of an ill-fitting bit so it is important to rule out the possibility of an ill-fit in the horse who excessively chews.

Head-tossing - head-tossing can also be the sign of an ill-fitting saddle (particularly in the withers area) or bad hands, but if neither of those criteria are present, then check your bit. Head-tossing can be the sign of a horse who desires tongue relief or who is responding to the nutcracker effect of a single-jointed bit or a bit that digs into the hard palate.

Gaping mouth - again, rough hands can also cause a gaping mouth, but if your hands are otherwise soft and your horse's mouth is consistently open, don't just strap it shut - figure out why and try changing bits to see if it makes a difference. Mouthpiece matters - a lack of tongue relief or a bit pinching or digging into the horse's mouth will cause gaping.

Resistance - heavy hands can cause a horse to grow heavier in your hands, but a horse who is constantly fighting your hands may also be fighting the bit. The bit might not necessarily be hurting your horse, but for whatever reason it might not be the right bit for that horse, hence the resistance to your hand. This is the horse who is rooting, who pulls against your hand to drag his nose in the dirt or who is pulling his nose out whenever you ask something with your hands, pulling the reins from your hands. Of course this behaviour may in fact be more training or rider related than bit related, but the type of bit used and its appropriate-ness to that horse is important to also consider.

As a sidenote, how can you fix the horse who is rooting, whose nose is dragging in the dirt, if is NOT bit-related? Set boundaries. First off, a horse who is rooting has to drag the reins out of your hands, right? So when he slips his head down to drag his nose, let him 'hit' your hands. Close your hands and allow your horse to hit the end of rein you have given him. As he does, give him a little squeeze with your seat and legs, so that his haunches engage and his head comes up. If necessary, you can even bump a little with your hands as your horse hits the end of the rein you have given him - this doesn't mean you pull back or that your hands really move much, it simply means that your hands close sharply and maybe twist slightly to apply a bit of a 'bump'. Open and release your hands the minute your horse's head comes back up and is no longer resistant. Lateral work will really lighten a horse's front end and ultimately developing a horse to where he consistently and thoroughly engages from behind will lift his front - his level and consistency of engagement will reflect in his consistency in lightness upfront. This takes a lot of classical dressage! With horses who are heavy on their front ends and love to drag on their rider's hands, I like to remove ALL contact so they have nothing to pull against. Transitions, lateral work, ground poles, hills - all help the horse to develop carriage independent of its rider. Once independent, the rider may re-establish contact.

Please do not however confuse the horse heavy on the forehand and rooting with the horse gently chewing the reins from your hand, or the tired horse seeking relief via lowering his head. These feel very different from the horse using the rider's hands as a 'fifth leg' to lean on and root on, but if you cannot differentiate the difference or are unsure, seek the advice of a professional.

I find a lot of people really have no idea what they are putting in their horses' mouths or why. So when they change a bit because they think the previous bit is not working for their horse, they often end up switching to a bit that is doing the exact same thing as their last bit.

For further information on bits, read my previous quip on bits here. Some general notes:
- single-jointed mouthpieces exert a nutcracker effect on the horse's tongue and also exert pressure on the horse's palate
- double-jointed mouthpieces exert a little more bar and lip pressure but offer some tongue relief, will not have a nutcracker effect on the tongue, and will not poke the top of the horse's pallet
- curved mouthpieces shaped to the horse's mouth (versus a straight mouthpiece) can be a little more comfortable to the horse
- a port under 2'' will not (usually) interfere with the (average) horse's palate but will offer some tongue relief (slightly more bar action however)

If you are going to try another bit, try a double-jointed versus a single-jointed, or something with a small port versus no tongue relief at all - don't simply switch between single-jointed bits (etc) and necessarily expect a change in your horse. Change the type of mouthpiece if it is not working for your horse. Lastly, do your research (books, online, etc) to figure out what action the bit you've chosen will have on your horse's mouth - don't just ask the tack store dealer or your instructor. Consult bit professionals who have done their (extensive) research. Figure out exactly what that bit is doing to your horse and how, so that you can understand the mechanics of what it is doing any time you apply pressure to the reins and why it might be or might not be working for your horse.

Lastly, if your horse seems to be uptight about the bit you are using, also consider adjusting the headstall - the bit should be high enough in the mouth that it is not hitting any teeth (ie. canines) but so that it is not overly tight either (no more than two wrinkles at most!). Preferably, there should be NO wrinkles and the horse should be allowed to pick up the bit in its mouth on its own. Ensure the bit is not so loose however that it is allowed to clank against the horse's teeth. Also, using a bit that has a roller or sweet iron can give a fidgety horse something more constructive to do. Ultimately, developing relaxation and suppleness in the horse is key, as is really engaging his brain.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Abnormal shedding

I have had a couple of horses over the past couple of years who have had odd shedding patterns, including one of the geldings I currently have in training - so I thought I would do a brief blog on it! The aforementioned gelding has taken forever to shed out and kept all his facial hair for last. His body (barrel and hind) started shedding out first, with his neck coming next, the sides of his face, and now finally the frontal length of his face (top first and working its way down to his nose), and lastly, his ears will come. Obviously abnormal shedding can be the result of conditions such as Cushing's, but what horse owners need to be aware of is that it can also be the result of malnutrition or worms, for example. Shedding winter's overcoats is a good article outlining said reasons. If your horse is shedding abnormally, have your vet run some tests to check for abnormal hormonal functions. Also do fecal tests to check for worms (worm regularly), and evaluate your horse's overall condition, particularly weight-wise. The gelding I mentioned above came in a good 100lbs underweight. As his weight has increased, so has his overall health obviously and thus his shedding rate has increased, though he is shedding in an 'abnormal' pattern due to the malnutrition.

In conclusion - check your horses and take note when they are shedding too slowly or in an odd pattern, because it could be a good indicator of your horse's overall health status. Lastly, on the note of equine coats, keep an eye on your horse's coat colour: excessive red in a dark bay or black horse's coat can indicate specific nutrient deficiencies. Talk to your vet and ensure your horse is receiving the nutrients he requires, particularly given his housing situation and environment (soil, grasses, etc) as well as exercise level - a basic supplement that covers all general areas may be in order.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The importance of a weight shift

The ease with which our horses can feel the shift of our weight - even the turn of our head, I think is often greatly underestimated. They most definitely do feel everything up there from the saddle and can become very responsive if taught to respond to such weight shifts - our training will either desensitize and dull them to such weight shifts, or teach them to be even more sensitive and responsive. The thing is that if you are constantly shifting around up there with absolutely no intent, your horse will learn to ignore your weight shifts. Sit up straight and still in the saddle however (develop your core as a rider!!) and they will start picking up on your weight shift cues when you do go to use them. Another point to keep in mind is to never use your reins to stop your horse. Use your reins if your horse doesn't stop. That goes for your other cues as well - work in phases. That means if you are going to ask your horse to change direction, go through phases of 'ask': look in the direction you wish to turn, turn your shoulders in the appropriate direction, bend your rib cage (do in your own body what you are asking of your horse), then shift your hips, weight your stirrup, and start applying your leg (apply thigh, then knee, then calf, then finally heel). Don't just automatically pull back on the reins or apply leg. At first, ask in long phases and allow your horse time to respond, then as your horse understands, quicken your phases to demand more of him. Count in your head if you need to as you go through your phases, particularly initially.

Where can weight shifts play a role? Halts: release a deep breath, suck in your abdomen, tilt your pelvis rearward, and relax into your seat. Upward and downward transitions: your weight can shift slightly forward or slightly back as you tilt your pelvis appropriately to ask your horse for the transition. Turns: if you want your horse to keep its shoulders up around the corner, lift your own and slightly shift your weight ever-so-slightly to the outside to mimic what you want your horse to do so that your horse can follow.

One way a rider might choose to use a horse's responsiveness to weight shifts to their advantage is to use their weight distribution to 'unbalance' their horse and to encourage her to move back under them when initially teaching certain maneuvers. What do I mean? When you're teaching a leg yield, shift your weight to the side you want your horse to move towards. By weight shift, I don't mean lean in that direction, but weight that stirrup slightly more. It sounds rather contrary; ultimately we want to take weight off the inside as we ask the horse to lift that shoulder and move freely in that direction, so that the horse can balance itself beneath us and push off the outside leg. That is still ultimately correct, but if you weight that inside stirrup a little while keeping your seat straight and correct when initially teaching the leg yield (for example), your horse will naturally move over in that direction to center you back beneath her so that you are balanced again. An extreme example is when you ask a horse to do a one-rein stop from a higher gait (ie. trot or canter). The Arabian mare I was on would continuously circle and circle in that one-rein stop. When I re-assessed my position, I found she was throwing my weight to the outside with her turns (it happens naturally, be aware of it!). Then because my weight was on the outside, she would continue to circle, to try to balance my weight back beneath her because now I was throwing her off. When I re-centered my weight to the inside (which can be difficult, particularly if the horse is turning quickly), she would immediately stop, because my weight was balanced. Another example is the hunter or jumper rider who throws themselves forward over the pommel of their saddle at the base of a jump, who jumps ahead of their horse. Often when a rider excessively weights the forehand, the horse will refuse in response because countering the rider's weight thrown forward is both difficult and confusing. The same can follow and be applied when asking for leg yields or sidepass initially. Weight your inside stirrup slightly, though less so as your horse progresses. With the Arabian mare mentioned above, initially she would resist being asked to leg yield - she wanted to go forward, she did not want to 'try' to respond to my leg by moving sideways, she did not like the leg pressure, etc. When I started incorporating weight shifts into my leg yields with her to put her slightly off balance and encourage her to move back beneath me to re-center my weight, she did the leg yield naturally, without questioning me. It was something she wanted to do because it felt so natural - she wanted to re-distribute my weight. Ultimately, you use the weight shift less to the point where later you actually shift your weight as more appropriate, as you want the horse to reflect. In the leg yield, you ultimately sit centered but lightly weight the outside and lighten your inside thigh - imperceptibly. This frees the horse's inside so he can effectively lift the inside shoulder. None of these cues should be obvious to an observer, these are very minute cues.

Overall, the rider needs to sit straight and correct. Your seat must be independent and must never interfere with the horse's movement - this is CRUCIAL. Keep in mind the distribution of your weight MATTERS to the horse. A rider may use this to their advantage when teaching a horse but even this must be done very judiciously. Ultimately, the rider must always be aware of his or her position and always maintain the correct position that best enables their horse freedom of movement and that is reflective of what they wish the horse to reflect back to them.