Diane Brooks made the comment that she has one horse that she feels is always a little tense when she rides him. She described him as being polite and obedient and she seems to have a good relationship with him. But Diane feels there is something about him that won’t allow him to relax completely when she rides.
There are many possible reasons why Diane’s horse is like that. It could be medical or emotional. It could Diane’s approach or skill. It could be historical. I have no idea what I might do to help Diane’s horse because I don’t know her or her horse. But this post is not about Diane and her horse. It is just that Diane’s comment prompted me to write this piece.
It has become a well-accepted principle, that people don’t have horse problems, horses have people problems. It is drummed into us that we are the source of the problems we have with horses. I believe this is almost always true. But I wonder if there are some horses where helping them beyond our understanding and reach.
The question comes to my mind, are there some horses that are just not born to be comfortable with their life as a riding horse?
I hate heights. Heights are probably my biggest phobia. I’d rather wrestle a crocodile than climb a ladder. But I have climbed plenty of ladders in my time. At least once every few weeks I climb the ladder to look into our water tank. I’ve even braved getting on the roof of our house occasionally. So I can and will climb a height if I need to. But despite the hundreds of time I’ve had to climb something I have never felt comfortable. I have never been hurt or even had a genuine scare, yet I am still very nervous of heights. I don’t believe I am a person that is naturally suited to working at heights. I can climb heights, but I will never be happy doing it. If had to earn a living as a window cleaner in a high-rise building or roof repairer, I would be miserable every time I went to work. I wonder if some horses feel like that?
Every trainer I know has had horses comes through their hands that were more difficult than most or that they weren’t able to help as much as they helped others. It’s fair to say that we all have our limitations and we are all only doing the best we know with those limitations. But we are not horses and our ability to understand them is limited and our training is largely educated guesswork. So it is easy to argue that when we come across a horse that is not making the grade that we are the hindrance to the horse being a better companion.
Nevertheless, we still don’t know if certain horses are just not meant to be ridden and feel okay about it. We can’t answer that question.
This is an important consideration for some horses.
Like most trainers that have been around for a while, I’ve had my share of horses that were sent to me because other trainers had failed or the owners were dissatisfied with the previous trainer. For some of these horses I was the 3rd or 4th trainer the owner tried.
There is no doubt that some of those horses represented the types of horses that were always going to struggle to be comfortable as riding horses. The real challenge with horses like that is to make them safe riding horses without killing the horse inside and turning them into submissive slaves – shells of the horse they were.
I think (but don’t know with certainty) that some of those horses were not suitable to be riding horses. Their neural wiring was not designed to give them the temperament needed to be happy and at the same time be good riding horses. There was the choice of them being happy and unridden OR ridden and unhappy – but not both.
Therefore, it can’t be too far-fetched to believe that some horses are less suited to our needs than others.
It is incumbent on all of us to ensure our horse’s physical and emotional needs are cared for to the best of our abilities. When we have a horse that struggles to be emotionally comfortable with the work, we need to rethink the training path we are on. But when all avenues are exhausted, perhaps we need to consider that for that particular horse we should leave it alone to be the horse is it and not the horse we want it to be.
When competition creates an epidemic of disregard for the welfare of horses across the entire spectrum, a person has to consider that it is competition itself that is evil. When good people do bad things to horses, it needs to be postulated that the fault lies with competition.
I don’t know of any competition discipline where the majority of serious participants have not been infected. In dressage we have rolkur, tight nosebands and drugs. In jumping we have horses trained over jumps with rails wrapped in barbwire. In walking horses we have soring. We have extreme endurance races. We have polo horses dripping blood from their sides. We have eventers being killed on course. In racing, horses compete when they are babies. In horsemanship, horrible things happen in the name of colt starting competitions. Western pleasure is rife with cruel training devices and drugs. We breed horses with extreme deformities for halter classes. It is a very long list.
I think we all start out with horses because we love them. We don’t want bad things to happen to them. But competition is insidious. It creeps into a person’s psyche while they sleep and over time turns them into something else. You don’t have to compete at a high level; even beginners can catch the disease.
Some time ago I worked with a young girl. She wanted to learn how to get along with her horse better. She had given up competing because she saw how it damaged the relationship she had with her horses. I spent a lot of time helping her. She also went to another trainer who was more specialized in the discipline she wanted to follow. Over time the girl developed a nice way with her horses and the results showed in their relationship as well as the performances.
But then she met a love interest who was a serious competitor. It was only a matter of a few months before she also caught the infection from him. Within a year she sold her horses to buy new ones that had more potential in competition. She started using gadgets to force submission. When her horses didn’t meet her expectations, her anger would erupt. I remember a few times when she was so angry after an event that her horses were stabled overnight and given no food or water as punishment. I could believe it was the same girl. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t sadly seen it myself.
But she is not the only person that has been corrupted by competition. It was not until I stopped competing in my younger years that I actually learned to be a better horse person. My ambition to win ribbons stifled my evolution as a horse person. I think this because my focus was more on winning than on my understanding or relationship with my horse.
There is something in the nature of people when mixed with the nature of competition that kills (or at least at dampens) our empathy for the horse. It‘s a drug that people just can’t handle. I only know a very small number of people who use competition as a training exercise for their horses. The only purpose of competing for them is to give their horses more experience and exposure to help them become a more rounded companion. I can think of at least one person who doesn’t mind breaking a rule and being disqualified if she feels it necessary to help her horse. But that seems to be extremely rare.
I’m not writing this with the purpose of making people who compete feel guilty. But after an experience in recent days I feel compelled to say something about a subject that doesn’t seem go away.
Competition does not make a horse a better horse or a rider a better rider. The best dressage riders, showjumpers, team drivers and horse people I know are not competitors. They don’t need to confirmation that they are good at what they do or comments from a judge to resolve a curly training issue. They have their horses for that.
When will organizations enforce the concept of the “happy horse” in their judging? When will competitors insist on it? When will breed societies stop rewarding breeders who present pretty horses over functionally sound horses? When will competitors who inflict physical and emotional pain on horses be banned? When will events that have a significant chance of injury or death be banned? When will people be immune to the competitor’s bug?
Does anyone believe that without competition the horse in the photo would be subjected to whatever methods made is move like that?
For those that have not read the book it is about a little boy who lives on a tiny planet that he shares with 3 volcanoes and a rose. The Little Prince spends his day cleaning the volcanoes, looking after the rose and moving his chair so he can see as many sunsets as he wants in day. The Little Prince finds the rose to be a painfully vain rose and a demanding burden and he gets quite tired of the rose’s constant self-absorption. Eventually the Prince leaves his little planet to explore the galaxy where he meets many interesting characters – each with their own lesson to teach the Little Prince. Finally he makes it to earth where he meets a fox. He befriends the fox who is saddened when the Little Prince decides to go back to his tiny planet. Before leaving earth the fox tells the Little Prince that because he has tamed the fox he has a responsibility to the fox. When you tame something you are responsible for it. This is a revelation to the Little Prince who realizes that even though his rose is conceited, vain, selfish and demanding he is responsible for it. He must go home and look after his rose. Because he has tamed the rose he must love it and take care of it.
Horses are not so different from the Little Prince’s rose. Horses are self-absorbed and their behaviour is totally motivated by self-interest. A horse’s primary concern in life is his own survival and he gives no consideration to the welfare of others. The myth of Black Beauty is just a myth. Horses don’t have an altruistic bone in their body. That doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing and that we should not be in awe of them. I am constantly reminded how wonderful they are. But it doesn’t help us to understand them better or get along with them better to paint them as something they are not. Horses don’t love us. They don’t care about what happens to us. They won’t offer us food when we are hungry. They won’t gallop into a burning building to rescue us. They won’t knock on our door to see if we are ok if they have not seen us for a couple of days. They won’t send flowers when a loved one has died. They won’t call a vet for us when we are sick. Their motive for what they do and how they behave is purely out of how it affects them in the moment. They are like the Little Prince’s rose.
Humans are not so different from the rose either. We have horses for our own selfish reasons. It’s either because we like the look of them or the fun of sitting astride them or gauging our skills in competition or having something we can subjugate or as an escape from more mundane parts of our lives or because we like to have something to pamper and nurture or because we like being penniless. Whatever is our reason(s), it is mostly about us and not about the horse.
A good example of this comes up from time to time during clinics when people tell me that something I am teaching to help their horse is of no help to them in a competition because if they did what I recommended they could lose the event. They generally see how my advice helps their horse, but don’t see how it is compatible to their need to compete. So instead of trying my suggestion until their horse has improved, they prefer to ignore it in favour of living in hope of winning an event. Despite the fact that they are sacrificing their horse’s welfare and their relationship with their horse for a $10 ribbon and despite the fact that there will always more competitions down the road, they make their choices out their own self-interest and not the horse interest.
It could be argued that since horses are self-interested and humans are self-interested, all is fair. But the difference is that we bring horses into our lives and not the other way around. As the fox explained, when you tame something you are responsible for it. It’s not okay that we take horses away from their natural environment of roaming the grasslands in large herds, bring them into our world and then not do everything we can to offer maximum benefits in our world. If we are going to “tame” an animal we are indebted to its welfare. When the day comes, that a horse kidnaps a person out of a Pizza Hut, tosses away his iPhone and tv remote control and makes him live on the prairie grasslands, forces him to jump on the horse’s back and wear helmets and spurs and carry whips then (and only then) do horses begin to owe something to people.
It doesn’t matter if the horse you take home turns out to be the best horse ever or the worst horse ever. It doesn’t matter if he is a dangerous rogue or the sweetest kids pony. It doesn’t matter if he is killing your credit rating or making you wealthy at the races. It doesn’t matter if you paid a fortune for him or he was given free. The horse that won an Olympic gold medal is no more and no less important or deserving of the best you can offer than the horse that kicked you in the leg last week. If you tamed it, you are responsible for the best care you can offer. Because you have tamed the horse you must love it and take care of it.
Let’s be honest. The minimum monetary value of a horse is whatever the meat guys will pay. If they value a horse at 85c/kg, then a 500kg horse is worth $425 minimum.
If you pay anything above the minimum price that the slaughterhouse buyers will pay then you are paying for potential. You are not paying for something that is real, but something that is abstract and your perception of what is real.
Let’s examine the value of a young horse that is yet to show its stuff, but comes from world champion parents. Say a yearling that has impressively royal bloodlines. What is it worth?
Firstly, the inheritability of traits that might make a world champion is not known. Almost no ‘good’ research has been done on the chances of passing along the genetic material that makes a horse excel at jumping or sprinting or dressage or barrel racing etc. We don’t know the probability of producing a champion offspring by mating a champion sire with a champion mare. It’s almost all guesswork and luck and very little science. Anything may come from such a matchup. Yet people pay huge sums of money based almost solely on this guesswork and live in hope that luck is on their side. Unfortunately the failure rate vastly exceeds the success rate even in industries where you think the smart people invest like horse racing. It’s like playing roulette. My parents had 4 kids and only 1 of them turned out to be brilliant! ☺
The failure rate is not surprising when you consider how complex the passage and expression of genes are from one generation to the next. So many variables have to come together to make a champion that it is easy to marvel that it happens at all.
So when you buy a young, unproven horse all you are buying is hope. The potential of a $100,000 yearling turning out to be a champion is only marginally better than that of a $1,000 yearling. Is that margin worth $99,000?
Then we need to consider the value of a horse that has already proven itself to be special. We all know of expensive horses with amazing ability that suffered premature retirement or didn’t fulfill their promise of glory because of injury, ill health or poor training.
Totilas was one of the most talented horses in the dressage world in recent decades. He broke world records in competition. But when Edward Gal sold him and Mathias Rath was substituted as his rider his performances became mediocre and he was retired prematurely to stud. He did not fulfill the promise. It is now hoped that the money paid will be returned through Totilas’ performance as a sire, but so far people are still holding their breath.
Horses like Chichester (great Aussie jumper) and Rogilla (great Aussie racehorse) came from unremarkable bloodlines and bought for pittance, yet achieved greatness. It’s a common story in the horse world.
I don’t want people to think I am against paying top dollar for good horses. But I am concerned at how people are unrealistic about what it is they are buying. It seems to be the dreams of many people to one day have enough money to afford to buy an expensive horse. They have the dream and the misconception that an expensive horse will help them achieve greatness. Most people would be better of buying a nice moderately priced horse and spend the remainder of the money learning to be a great horse person.
At one point the topic of career highlights became discussed. I was pretty sleepy by this stage and just sat and listened to the stories about working with a great horseman or conquering the toughest horse ever born or winning a highly prized belt buckle etc. For a moment there was a lull and for some reason a friend asked me what I thought was one of my career highlights. I was prepared with an answer because I had been thinking about it while the others were talking. So I had no trouble telling my story.
A few years earlier a friend of mine had a 12hh Welsh pony. Her name was Misty (how many white ponies are called Misty?) and was almost pure white. My friend sold Misty to a lady with 2 young daughters aged 4 and 6. I knew the lady a little because I gave her some lessons. She was a nice lady and the kids were cute as a button. So when my friend asked if I would trailer Misty over to her new home I didn’t hesitate to agree.
A week later I pulled my truck and trailer alongside their house and waiting for me were two little girls in pink dresses, white socks and ribbons in their blond curls. Mum had each by the hand, but I could see their excitement as I stopped the car. I got out of the car and saw grins as wide as the road on the little girl’s faces. As I unloaded Misty, the girls were jumping up and down on the spot as their mum tried to quiet them so not to scare the horse. But their excitement could not be contained. They squealed and broke free of their mum’s grip. Luckily Misty was use to the behaviour of young girls and ignored them as they rushed to pat their new horse. The older girl wrapped her arms around Misty’s neck, but the younger girl was too short and instead held onto Misty’s foreleg like it was a tree. There was a flurry of patting, kissing and rubbing and exclamations of great love for Misty and praise for her exquisite beauty.
Suddenly the youngest girl let go of Misty’s leg and hugged mine instead saying “Thank you. Thank you so much. I love Misty with all my heart. Thank you so much.” I didn’t know what to do or what I had done to deserve a hug but I knew I had done something good.
I led Misty to a tie up area and the girls went to get some brushes. They came back and each began to brush Misty’s sides and legs. This horse was going to be brushed to within an inch of its life. The dirt and dust was covering their faces and pretty pink dresses, but nobody cared – they were in love.
The mum and I went inside to have a cup of tea and watched from the window as the girls carefully removed every grain of dirt from Misty’s coat.
As I sipped the tea I mentioned how great it was to see the girls so excited. Then their mum said something that really struck something important inside of me.
“You don’t know what you have done for those girls. No matter what happens to my girls in life. No matter who they marry, what they do for a career or how many horses they have, when they are in their 80s and you and I are long gone, they will remember the man with the grey beard who brought them their first pony. You are burned in their memories forever and they will always be thankful to you.”
I know it might seem strange to think of that episode as a career highlight, but it does make me feel proud to know I can do something that is so important as to give little kids a lifelong memory. And it is nice to think that even decades after I’m dead somebody will have a fond memory of me.
The video below is what reminded me of that experience and prompted me to write my story.
I think most people who work with horses and spend a lot of time with them must do it out of love. It’s probably even truer of people who make a living from horses because for most of us the pay is lousy and the work is too hard and dangerous to be doing it if you don’t love horses. There are plenty of other ways that are more lucrative and easier to earn a living than being a horse person. So either I am really stupid or I love horses?
I love riding them. I love being around them. I love feeding them. I love cleaning the tear stains from my gelding’s face when his tear ducts get blocked. I love knowing that I am doing everything I can to keep his aging joints working. I love when my mare backs up to me in the paddock because she wants her tail scratched. I love watching the herd argue in one of their regular committee meetings about who gets to drink first. I love seeing the Shetland try to bluff everybody that he is the meanest, toughest horse that ever lived. I love taking what was a problem and turning it into a solution. I love that horses have no agenda, don’t lie and don’t play emotional games. When they tell you something you can believe it. I love the purity of their honesty. I especially love the feeling that comes from helping a really troubled horse become a very settled horse.
I didn’t always feel this way about horses. I mean I always enjoyed them and loved riding for how good it made me feel. But I saw the horse as more of a tool for feeling good. I exploited the horse for what they could do for me. This was most obvious in my youth as an ambitious competitor. Once I got the taste of winning, everything else about horses quickly became secondary. Everything I did for horses was directed at making us more competitive. All the other stuff like cleaning paddocks, hanging out with them, feeding, teaching them ground work etc was stuff that needed to be done, but got in the way of what I really wanted to do with the horse. I loved horses for what they could do for me and not for what I could do for them.
It is interesting to me how with age and experience my attitude has changed. I get just as much pleasure from what I can offer a horse as to what a horse can offer me. I see this transition as an extension of my change in attitude about life. It began with the teachings of an old man many years ago that spoke a foreign language and lived in a foreign land. I wasn’t necessarily ready to hear what that old fellow had to say at the time. Nevertheless, the relationship I witnessed that he had with his horses made such a strong impression on me that as I matured so did the seeds of thought he had planted in my mind.
For those that have read my Walt and Amos stories, it might not surprise you to learn that the old fellow was always on my mind when I wrote those stories. He took the time to answer the truckload of questions I had every time we met. He never showed weariness at my persistence or exasperation at my incompetence. He approached the problem of our language barrier in the same way he explained a simple concept to a confused horse. He saw the eagerness in me to understand what he was trying to teach as the same eagerness he saw in horses that were searching for the right answers. I believe it was because he loved horses so much that it didn’t bother him to spend so much time helping me.
Now that I teach horsemanship as a full time job, I think back to what PL did for me. I don’t pretend to be the horseman that he was. But what I do believe is that he felt that by passing along what he understood about horses he could continue to help horses after he was gone. He is long gone now and his sons and grandchildren had no interest in his legacy. Generations of knowledge virtually died when he did. It makes me very sad. So at the end of a long day of teaching when I feel totally exhausted and ready to be buried where I stand, if somebody asks me one last question or wants me to demonstrate one last thing with their horse I try my best to brighten right up and help. It’s what PL would have done for the horse.
Michele was telling me that she watched Teddy and May having an argument while Birch stood less than 5 metres away quietly grazing. The ponies were kicking at each other, hind end to hind end, squealing and not giving an inch. They weren’t making much contact, but neither was giving an inch either. Apparently this went on for 2 or 3 minutes before finally Birch lifted her head and charged at both ponies with ears flat and teeth barred as if to say “QUIT IT!” The ponies dispersed quickly to get out of the queen’s way. Peace was restored to the paddock and all the horses went back to grazing. Well, at least for a few minutes because it wasn’t long before the ponies were at it again. Birch did her best to ignore them, but it clearly was disturbing her eating because eventually she showed she had had enough and charged at them again with an attitude of “IF I HAVE TO TELL YOU ONE MORE TIME SOMEBODY IS GOING TO DIE!” Teddy and May finally went to separate corners grumbling to the other about how lucky it was for the other pony that Birch broke up the argument because they were about to strike the “killer“ blow.
But I know several people who would be very disturbed to witness Teddy and May doing battle for dominance. If they see horses interacting in almost any way they automatically see injury, blood, open wounds, scars and huge veterinarian bills. I’ve met people who truly believe that a horse’s welfare is best served by housing them in stables or yards by themselves. They fear the risk of horses living with each other. It seems the more money a horse is worth the bigger the risk in people’s mind. How many champion horses live in a paddock with other horses? Usually this doesn’t happen until retirement.
Everybody knows that horses evolved to live in herds. They get their sense of safety and self esteem in a herd. It’s in the herd that they are taught to be horses.
A very long time ago I came across a horse that was stabled 23hrs a day. He was considered quite a dangerous horse and not allowed any interaction with other horses. He was turned out in an arena by himself for 1hr a day to exercise, but never even saw another horse at any time. When he heard other horses call he would become unmanageable with excitement. This was a very sad case of abuse in my view. But fortunately it is also a rare case. Most people appreciate the need for horses to socialize – even people who house horses in boxes most of the day and night realize that turnout time with other horses is important for a horse’s mental welfare.
I appreciate that people have to balance the needs of the horse to live in as natural state as possible against the needs of the owners to protect their investment. But I am also aware that some people are oblivious to how important it is for a horse’s emotional well being that he is allowed to socialize with others. Society looks at solitary confinement of humans as a form of punishment, yet seems to ignore the importance of a herd environment on horses; who have just as strong a need to live in groups as humans.
In my work I have come across horses that are not allowed to mix with other horses at home. For all intent and purpose the horse is not allowed to participate in normal and natural behaviours like grooming and play with other horses. These behaviours are part of what makes a horse a horse. But people seem surprised when they take their horse to an event and their horse becomes a handful when they see other horses or when they ride with others and find their gets nervous or overly interested in the other horses or their horse exhibits dominance behaviour to other horses.
If anyone were to ask me I’d tell them I believe it is better for a horse to live in a herd and risk the remote possibility of getting hurt, than to live in isolation. I realize that I don’t have any valuable horses in my paddocks and risk losing a lot of money on an injured one. But I try hard to see things in terms of what is best for the horses and not the humans. With that in mind, I am absolutely confident that horses prefer to live among others with the freedom to run, graze, make friends, argue with foes, groom and learn social manners. If horses had a vote there is no doubt in my mind they would never choose to live in isolation. I believe to a horse, even living in paddocks on their own is not a good option compared to being in a herd.
I’m not talking about this to make people feel guilty who are not able to keep their horses in a herd. We do what we can. But there are many people who choose to keep their horses in isolation and I want them to re-think their choice. If we are all trying to do the best for our horses and we have the opportunity to house horses in a herd, then keeping them on their own is not excusable in my mind. I don’t care how valuable a horse is. It doesn’t matter to me if we are talking about mares or gelding or stallions. To be emotional balanced a horse needs a herd.
I asked the owner if the horse shook his head when grazing in the paddock. The answer was no. This made me very suspicious that the horse did not suffer genuine head shaking syndrome. If it was truly a reaction to allergies, why did the horse only exhibit the behaviour when people were involved?
Initially the horse was very distracted and disinterested in anything the owner had to offer. He acted like she was not relevant and of no importance in his life. I asked if I could play with the horse for a few minutes and when the owner agreed the first thing I did was remove the netting. I knew this might expose him to more head toss inducing allergens, but I took the risk anyway.
The first thing I did was ask for the horse’s attention and when he made no try to check in with me, I reacted like a somebody had lit a match in a shed full of dynamite. He jumped in the air and looked at me with both eyes in fear and disbelief. He couldn’t believe such mad men walked the earth. This was the start of a new way of thinking for this fellow. He immediately became convinced that when I spoke, he needed to listen. From then on I was able to direct his thought in different ways and turn that directing into movement of his body and feet. Sometimes he need reminding that I was important in his life and other times he just needed a little clarification about what I was asking. But pretty soon his brain was working overtime and both the mental and physical relaxation started to be evident.
After several minutes of this type of work I asked the owner if she could tell me how much head tossing her horse had done in the last 20 or 30 minutes. The answer was none.
The second horse was a very nice gelding that appeared to be striding short on his right foreleg. It was particularly evident when the horse trotted to the right, but still there to some degree when travelling to the left. It wasn’t clear what was the origin of the problem at first, but it appeared to be coming from higher up than the leg in my view.
The horse was a pretty strong-minded gelding that really didn’t like being asked to go forward with life and freedom. Getting him to respond softly to the rider’s leg was like Michele dragging me to go Christmas shopping. Adding to this was a lack of straightness in the horse, which I felt was related to the lack of forward thinking. I figured if the rider could get him moving with more freedom the straightness issue would take care of itself to a large degree.
I really focused on helping the rider improve the quality of upward transitions. He did well, but the trot to canter transition remained sticky. Finally towards the latter part of the session the horse stopped holding back against the rider’s leg and made some much better canter transitions.
Everybody watching seemed focused on the changes the horse made in his ability to move off the rider’s leg and move forward with minimum resistance. Nevertheless what some people picked up at the end of the session was there was very little sign of the horse’s uneven stride. He was moving with so much more freedom that he no longer appeared to be striding short on his right foreleg. I think this was a surprise to some people. The unevenness of the horse’s movement was not so much related to a physical problem but more to do with resistance in the horse. Once the resistance dissipated so did the pseudo lameness.
To round out this article I want to come to the story of Deputy. He was a beautifully put together Warmblood and had a wonderful mind. I had been working with Deputy on and off since he was a yearling. I got the call when he was 4 years old from his owner to book him in for starting under saddle. Paula had done a good job of getting Deputy prepared for being started and as we both expected, he came along in leaps and bounds (not literally) when I started to ride him. He was smart and keen and everything went smoothly. Everything was going so well that I didn’t have my radar tuned as well as I should have.
It was about 3 weeks into riding him when I surprisingly I felt Deputy bow his back under me and I knew there was a buck coming. I shut it down by disengaging his hindquarters. Then as soon as the hindquarters yielded I felt him relax and we rode on. I thought this was odd, but I wasn’t too concerned.
The next day I did a few minutes of groundwork and everything seemed fine. As I stepped into the saddle Deputy blew skyward and cat-leapt in the air. I shut it down and then started looking for what had caused it. I checked the girth and the rest of the gear and could find nothing to explain why he did that. I hopped on the horse and rode for a little bit and after a few minutes Deputy tried to buck again. This was so out of character that I knew something was wrong. I removed the saddle and checked him all over for soreness, but I couldn’t evoke enough of a reaction from Deputy to explain his extreme response.
The following day Deputy wouldn’t even let me near him with the saddle. I decided to call Paula and said I think we need a vet check. The vet couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested a couple of weeks of rest and a course of cartrophin injections and some physical therapy. About 3 weeks after Deputy returned to work I had finally got him to the stage where he would re-accept the saddle with no concern. However he soon fell into a behaviourial heap and showed all the signs of being sore again.
The therapist came out again for a treatment, but his prognosis was that Deputy probably has a chronic problem that will never be cured.
I can't tell you how upset I was when told that Deputy may never be able to be ridden without pain. Paula and I discussed the matter and decided that with such a serious prognosis that a second opinion was required. We took Deputy to the university veterinary school for detailed examination. He was tested extensively for several days and it was concluded that Deputy had a concussive injury to his spine (kissing spine syndrome) and he would never cope with much riding. The vet said it was an old injury that had been there for a lot longer than a few months. When Paula told him about an incident when Deputy ran into a post as a 2 year old, he agreed that such an accident is exactly the sort that would cause the problem. I asked about why Deputy had been working so well for the first month of his training. The vet said that Deputy will recover with rest but that as soon as he begins to be ridden, he will start to develop soreness again. It seems that exercise is not the problem for Deputy, but carrying weight on his back is out of the question.
On the drive home from the vet school with Deputy in the float, there was a lot of silence in the car. Paula and I didn't talk much. The mood of depression was thick. I rang and told a friend about what had happened. He said that at least I could feel better that I hadn't done anything wrong. But he was wrong. I had made too many mistakes. I had ignored the early warning signs that Deputy was not coping with carrying my weight. I had not questioned the behaviourial changes in Deputy when they first started to appear. I had not looked deeply enough to find the reasons for Deputy's behaviour. I got arrogant and smug and assumed that Deputy was having a behaviourial issue and I knew I could fix behaviourial issues. Deputy taught me some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, I don't think I was able to teach Deputy anything good about people. It was not too long after the prognosis that Deputy got obviously worse in the paddock. Paula decided to relieve him of all his pain. It was a day of tears and sadness for us all.
My point is that sometimes a physical problem is a physical problem and other times it is an emotional/training problem. How does one know? I think all too often people are too quick to blame issues on medical or nutritional or equipment problems. I think they do this because generally this makes them easy to fix and it’s then not the fault of the training. People choose the explanation for problems that they understand. Ninety percent of the time a vet will only look for a medical explanation. Ninety percent of the time a therapist will only look for a physical problem. And ninety percent of the time a trainer will only look for a training problem to explain what is going on. But who looks at the whole picture? How is an owner suppose to know?
The pic shows the spine of a horse with kissing spine syndrome. You can see the vertebral process touching, which is the cause of the pain.
This is a video clip of horrible and abusive treatment of horses in Mexican rodeo sports. I’m only showing this clip so that people become aware that such things exist and are allowed in some cultures. If you are sensitive to the abuse of horses, please don’t watch it because it shows video of tripping horses that are running at high speed. The worst images begin at 1:40s. This sport should be banned and people who practice it should be prosecuted on the grounds of animal cruelty
But in time I was to discover that China was an amazing horse. I’ve told the story before about the time I was riding Luke and China on an 8 month horse trek and I had an accident with a campfire and burned my eyes. For a week or more I was completely blind and stranded in the bush with no help except for Luke and China. Yet twice each day I asked China to lead me to the creek to wash out my eyes. I would call him over and rest my right arm over his back while he led me around rocks, over logs and between trees and lantana bush down to the water. His eyes became my eyes. He would wait patiently for me while I washed my eyes and filled the container and then he would lead me back to the camp.
There was a time when on another trek we came across a group of bush walkers on a 5 day walking holiday. One of them had taken very ill and they were still 2 days from their vehicles. I loaded the fellow who was ill on China and lead the way on Luke through the night to the nearest town about 25-30km away. Both horses had already traveled about 30km that day, so they were already tired. Nevertheless we rode through the bush, up and down the rocks in the pitch black of night. The fellow fell off China several times in the rough terrain. The only way I knew he fell was because China would stop immediately and I could sense in the dark that he was no longer following behind me. This meant dismounting and getting him mounted again while both Luke and China waited patiently. At about 3am we eventually found a farmhouse where I was able to get the fellow help from a farmer who drove him to the nearest hospital. The farmer’s wife made me some hot soup and toast and gave the horses some hay. We left about an hour later back to our camp where we arrived a couple of hours after dawn.
Long after China had passed away, I acquired another horse through a client not paying his account. She was a 14hh pony and only 13 months old and I called her Chops. She was quick and smart and extremely sensitive. I had hoped to use her for working client’s horses from. But I learned early on that she was too small and too sensitive to be standing her ground when a big Warmblood made an aggressive move towards her. She was a lover and not a fighter. I was more than a little disappointed that she was not going to be suitable for working some of the more strong willed horses. But I kept riding her to accompanying clients on their first trail ride and she proved an excellent companion horse for the green horses. She really gave them confidence in their early training. The other thing she excelled at was as a demonstration horse for what is possible. I used her many times to demonstrate correctness in a horse. I remember doing a demo showing how using only one rein I could direct Chops’ in anything I wanted. I then showed how I could do the same thing with just my seat and legs and no rein. I also recall letting people ride her at clinics, so they could feel the difference between their horse and my horse. It was very often an eye opening experience for people.
A few years ago we acquired a Shetland pony with the intention that we would teach her tricks. She was owned by people who knew nothing about horses, but figured their child should have a pony mistreated the pony. We gave them a few dollars for the pony just to get her away from the owners. Michele named the filly Teddy, but we didn’t know what we would do with her. Finally, we figured that it would fun to have a trick pony and it would be a way of marketing our business as trainers. So we began Teddy on a few tricks. But the interest in that waned quickly and Teddy soon became nothing more than a lawn mower. It’s been about 7 or 8 years now and we still don’t know why we have Teddy. But every day that I go outside and see her I feel glad we have her. She may be only 10hh, but she thinks she is 20hh. She will go to battle with horses twice her size and triple her strength and will run at them backwards firing both back legs until they retreat waving a white flag. She is not a bully, but she does not take a backward step for anybody. Teddy is probably the easiest horse we have to handle or do anything with, but she is also the toughest little firecracker I have ever met. I don’t know why we have her, but I’m glad we do.
I guess this post is to remind me that even though almost every horse that has passed through my life didn’t fulfill my initial expectations or intentions, not one of them has ever been a disappointment. We all acquire horses with ambitions or hopes to be able to achieve something with them. We have them in order to fulfill a purpose. It might be competition success or breeding success or as an excuse to socialize with friends or as a companion or to have a safe trail horse or any number of reasons.
I know for some people that horses can be a commodity. If a horse does not meet our hopes or expectations, we sometimes trade them in for another. I’m not criticizing that. We all have horses for different reasons and nobody has the right to criticize another person’s motives. But one of the big lessons I have learned from horses is that they are all amazing. If a horse didn’t fulfill my expectations, I’ve learned that the fault is in me. I’ve learned that when I looked hard enough, there has been something in each of them that made my ambitions seem petty and small. Horses have shown me things that I didn’t even know existed about them and about me. I have never regretted sharing my home with any horse that came my way no matter how smart or dumb, athletic or clumsy, trainable or difficult, sensitive or stoic, small or large, high maintenance or easy keeper. I don’t know why this is true, but it is what it is.
“It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.”…
“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
- Antoine de Saint Exupery “The Little Prince” (1943)
As the photo shows, it’s even possible for Margaret from Minnesota to love a 2-legged Arab horse.
Its funny how things change. I know that I work very differently nowadays than I did when I broke in my first horse at 15 years old. I’ve come a long way and evolved substantially from those early days. But it appears so has everybody else.
When I began starting horses hardly anybody had a round yard. Those that did used them more as lunging yards. But now almost anybody who does a bit of training professional or amateur has a round yard on his or her property.
When Pat Parelli and Ray Hunt first came to Australia people thought natural horsemanship was rubbish and only for beginners. When an Aussies like Neil Davies and Maurice Wright started doing demonstrations and holding clinics, it was hard to gather any interest from the average horse person. But now almost every horse trainer incorporates at least some of the principles of these fellows into their horse work.
When I was a kid rope halters were called Johnson halters and only people from the bush used them. But now not only do trainers and western people use them on their horses, but so do people from European disciplines and showies.
There was a time when groundwork was thought to be lunging and sacking out with bags full of tins and cracking stockwhips all over a horse. However, today groundwork is incorporated into many more peoples training and used by people of all disciplines. It involves everything from the way a horse is leading to teaching lateral movements and standing on pedestals.
There was a time when the theory was if you could get on a horse it was ready to ride. But now many more people concern themselves with how a horse feels before mounting a horse.
When I was a younger health problems like colic and tying up syndrome were virtual death sentences for horses. Few people understood or could treat muscular pain in horses. The average horse owner was completely ignorant about hoof care and laminitis. Most people didn’t understand the importance of correct saddle fit.
The information age and prevalence of clinics has made access to knowledge far easier these days. Now you can sit at home and get help from some of the best trainers through video. Many trainers travel around the country and around the world just to teach.
The brief list I have given of changes I have noticed in my life time are on the whole a good thing. But some changes that I have noticed have not been so positive.
A lot of people appear more disconnected from their horses these days. I guess busy lives mean horses get slotted into a time allocation rather than being an everyday part of a persons life.
Horses have become more expensive and harder to own. Even though we are fortunate in Australia to have much more space available than many countries, it’s not easy to own land big enough to keep horses.
Competition has more and more become the main reason why some people own horses.
But I guess if you were to put the pluses and minuses on a scale, I would have to say horses are better off today overall than they were when I was a kid. It seems that moving horse ownership more and more towards a pursuit of leisure and luxury has meant that people have the time and incentive to discover much more about horses and training than ever before.
I know some people believe that in the past when horses were depended upon for a job that horse people had to know as much as there was to know about horses in order to be able to do the job. But I don’t think this is true. When horses were needed for a job, the focus was almost entirely on being able to do a job. It wasn’t on what was best for a horse or whether the horse could have done the job better if he was on better nutrition or if he had his feet trimmed better or if was less crooked etc. These things only mattered when they interfered with a horse being able to work. I remember as a kid seeing the Clydesdales coming each morning down our street to deliver milk. I also remember the terrible state their feet were in and seeing the sores from the badly fitting harness. These things were not so important to the milk delivery fellow because the horses still continued to work and if they didn’t he always had an extra horse or two being rested to take over at anytime.
I have a friend who owns a large cattle station. They breed horses that are used for mustering on the station. Each year a new mob of horses are started using methods that most people would consider as natural. They also handle them as yearlings and 2 year olds and then start them under saddle as 3 year olds. By the time they are going on their first muster they are quiet enough for his kids to ride. But he has told me that in his dad’s day the horses were started as unhandled 2 year olds and each stockman had 3 days to get their horses ready for mustering. They would buck them out and then put the education on them during the mustering. More than the occasional horse would get into a wreck on a muster. They had enough horses that it didn’t really matter if a few of them didn’t work out. They didn’t care and the horses would either be left to breed the next season or killed and used to feed the station dogs.
So I guess things have improved for horses even on remote outback stations.
It’s a good time to be in the horse industry because knowledge is growing so fast and becoming so accessible. I think both the horses and the horse people are benefitting greatly.
But firstly, let me address the question of trimming a horse’s whisker. I feel this is a bad thing. Horses use whiskers like echo locators for the end of their nose. Whiskers enable a horse to have fine tactile sense where they can’t see properly. They use the whiskers to feel for where the ground is or the fence post or another horse – a million different things where their sight is less than adequate. So whisker serve an important and useful function to a horse and I don’t think they should be trimmed for the sake of beauty.
I am not nearly so concerned by trimming the mane and tail of horses. A horse uses the mane and tail to discourage flies and other beasts from landing and making a nuisance of themselves. As long as the mane and tail are long enough to be able to do that, it’s okay by me. I usually never trim a mane, but will trim a horse’s tail to just above the fetlock to ensure that don’t step on their tail during a rein back. I am also not in favour of a very long mane and tail that you can sometimes see at shows. But that is more of a personal preference to me.
But with regard to the wider concept of grooming, I have some thoughts. I have known people who almost obsessively brush and wash their horses. One lady would brush her horse for 45 mins, ride for 10 mins, then brush again for another 45 mins. Then to protect her grooming work she would put 3 layers of blankets (rugs) on her horse. Another fellow use to write on forums that he believed a horse MUST be brushed at least 1hr each day or you would slowly kill your horse. He thought horse’s breath through their skin and by not removing the dirt and oils in the coat the skin could not breath and the horse would be deprived of oxygen. In both cases these people are certifiably crazy in my view and pity their poor horses.
The first is a practical consideration in that grooming gives you an opportunity to inspect your horse’s physical state carefully. It enables you to pick up any small cuts or slight swellings that can be easily missed from a cursory glance. You can notice small ulcerations on the eye or the early development of a melanoma under the tail or sarcoid on the inside of the nostrils, mites in the ear or lice hiding under the mane, rain scald or mud fever. These are things that tend to be picked up early if you regularly groom your horse and not wait to be noticed until there is a clinical problem.
The second good reason to groom is that it can be time spent checking in with your horse. You can use the grooming time to determine how your horse is feeling that day. What are his concerns? Where are his thoughts?
If your horse is fidgety about being brushed that instantly tells you a lot about how he is feeling at that moment. This is useful information and gives you an opportunity to help him feel better before you swing into the saddle. If your horse is wary of you walking around behind him, it’s more information that you can use to help him feel better. Do you have to tie him up to groom him or does he stand quietly with no halter or lead rope? The answer gives you information that can indicate whether you will have a good or bad ride.
Grooming can be as much a part of your groundwork as circles or hindquarter yields in preparing your horse to be ridden if you think of it in that way. Most people don’t think of grooming as groundwork. For most of us it is about cleaning and making your horse look more presentable. It’s the thing we do before the real job of working our horse begins. But people need to think of it as part of the work and training. It makes no sense to be working hard at having a happy and relaxed horse when we are working them in the arena or on the trail and dismiss those same concepts when we are brushing them. It’s all the same to the horse and it should be to us.
As I said, I don’t put much effort into grooming my horses – but that’s because I am highly evolved (or do I mean lazy?). But if you are going to groom a horse makes sure it is not only about getting him clean and shiny.
Horsemanship and riding are chock full of golden rules. It seems the more institutionalized the activity the more golden rules there are. The Pony Club manual contains pages and pages of must do rules for handling and riding. Dressage pounds into riders one golden mantra after another. Even handling the training of packhorses is full of mandatory do’s and don’ts.
In recent years two subjects have brought out the dogma in people in more ways than most.
The first is barefoot trimming. Since Hildred Strasser gained prominence with her books on barefoot trimming people have taken opposite sides of the argument in an intransigent way. Personally I have no problem with barefoot trimming and my own horses are all shoeless. But equally I have no problem with shoeing and would shoe my horses if I felt it was required.
But the subject of barefoot trimming creates a divide among people who shoe horses and people who believe shoes are evil and cause damage to hooves. I believe the dogma on either side is unwarranted and can’t be justified.
For all the research and argument there is no definitive evidence that GOOD shoeing causes harm to horses. All the studies based on blood flow, thermography, longitudinal development etc have all been flawed and have not yielded unquestionable evidence that good shoeing causes harm to horses. The obvious study of having horses well trimmed for a long term and then shoeing them correctly for a long term to see if shoes make things better or worse has not been done. Likewise, nobody has taken a well-shod horse and removed the shoes for a long term to see if the horse is better or worse being barefoot. Until this study is done there is no rational reason for taking an entrenched view. Yet people do.
The second subject that causes just as much emotional out pouring is the issue of riding horses with or without a bit. There is a movement in the competition world to have bitless headgear accepted in events. At this time many organized bodies (like FEI dressage and Pony Club) do not allow bitless bridles. Some sports like showjumping allow hackamores, but most don’t.
There is a growing group of horse people and trainers that are adamant that bits are cruel and should not be used. On the other side of the coin there is a group of horse people and trainers who are certain that only bits will give sufficient control of a horse and bitless devices should be discouraged.
I believe neither side is correct. I certainly don’t believe you need a bit to control a horse. Michele and I trained very many horses in a sidepull before using a snaffle bit. Many of those were breakers, bolters, buckers, hard-mouthed horses etc. If you don’t have control unless you are riding with a bit, then your training is lacking. I’ve said many times; “control is something a horse gives you, not something you impose on a horse.”
But I also believe every horse should be trained to work well with a snaffle bit. Bits can add refinement and subtlety to your work. There is no reason why a bit must be used in a cruel or harsh way. In my view, all horses should go well in a snaffle and without a bit.
On a horse forum a person asked that people get involved to change the rules to allow bitless riding at pony club events. I have no problem with the idea, but I found it odd that with all the huge problems that pony club instruction causes horses and riders that her focus was on a no bit policy. There are many things I’d change about pony clubs in Australia for the benefit of horses, but riding without a bit would be a relatively low priority compared to other things.
I’m not sure why people become so dogmatic on issues around horses. It is my experience that just when I believe I have discovered a new rule, I meet a horse that turns it on its head. I know people who seem to have the type of nature that get very serious about new things. Every time they see or hear a new idea they grab onto it with both hands and it becomes the newest and greatest. They can’t understand why every body doesn’t feel the same way. But then in a years time you find they have discovered the next newest and greatest thing and forgotten about last year’s version. This is true of trainers, gear, horse feed, trimmers, supplements, therapies, horse floats, vets etc. There is always something.
In my experience there are very few things to become dogmatic about, either in life or with horses. An inquiring and critical mind is a wonderful thing and it seems such a waste to not use it and just go for the newest and shiniest thing that we find that seems a good idea at the time.
The application I used to write the web site went haywire due to a very small error with an image. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and remained elusive to the point that I almost considered giving up and trying a different program. But patience won out and I hope this is the end of the problems - at least for a while.
I’ve made few minor changes to the look of the site and added a new article on the Articles page about what age to start a horse. Also the links on the articles page take you to a separate page that contains the full article, rather than opening a lightbox. This is because the lightbox effect was conflicting with some other parts of the site.
If you notice any errors or have any problems with the site, please let me know.