PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Equine Tips
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10 Early Warning Signs of Laminitis
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre
Your horse's best chance of overcoming this hoof disease might lie in your ability to catch it early
Making choices is a great gift. As you read this please check to see if you have done everything you could possibly do to prevent illness and create a healthy horse. As a steward for your horse, you are responsible for the environment that he lives in. It will either support his health and well-being or a lack of health and well-being.
PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
Horses developing laminitis might shift the weight off their feet twice as much as they do normally.
It’s a painful condition that veterinarians, farriers, and horse owners have been racking their brains about for decades. Laminitis—the separation or failure of laminae, which connect the hoof wall to the coffin bone within—can cause permanent structural changes in a horse’s foot, leading to repeated bouts of disease and lasting lameness. In severe cases the pedal (coffin) bone in the hoof rotates downward, potentially even puncturing the sole and prompting the decision to euthanize. But get this: Watchful handlers can actually detect signs of laminitis in its early stages and intervene before the condition becomes debilitating.
“Everyone talks about laminitis being a lameness issue, but we know that horses start to get damage at a microscopic level before they show any lameness,” says Andrew van Eps, BVSc, PhD, MACVSc, Dipl. ACVIM, senior lecturer and specialist in equine medicine at The University of Queensland Equine Hospital, in Gatton, Australia.
Therefore, keeping an eye out for minute changes in your horse’s health is key to maximizing his likelihood of recovery, says Tom Ryan, FWCF, a researcher and farrier based in Bedfordshire, U.K. “You have to be proactively thinking ahead,” he says.
To help you catch this devastating hoof disease while your horse still has a chance to avoid suffering its consequences, our sources have helped us come up with a list of 10 early warning signs. Regardless of the type of case (-supporting-limb, systemic inflammatory response syndrome, or endocrine disease-related), these red flags could indicate laminitis is setting in—even before you see any signs of lameness. So alert your veterinarian as soon as possible if you detect one or more of the following:
1. A strong/bounding digital pulse
Slide your hand down the side of your horse’s lower limb where the digital artery runs through the groove between the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament. Where the artery continues down the back of the fetlock you should be able to feel his pulse. Normally, the pulse should be faint or even seem absent, says Ryan. But in laminitic horses it will be stronger and is often referred to as “bounding.” How do you know what’s strong or bounding? “You kind of have to feel to know,” he says. Ideally, you should get to know what’s normal for your horse’s digital pulse. A strong digital pulse can indicate other foot pain, as well, but a bounding digital pulse in both feet is a major clue that laminitis is to blame.
2. A hoof that’s hot for hours
Healthy horses can have hot hooves, says van Eps, but not for long periods of time. It’s normal for horses to experience large influxes of blood into their feet periodically, which causes hoof temperature to rise. But the body regulates this heat, and it should only last a couple of hours at most—unless it’s hot outside. In other words, there’s no need to panic if your horse has been standing in a sunny field on a 90-degree day and his hooves are hot. The time to worry is when hooves reach 91.4°F (33°C) for several hours in a row and the outdoor temperature is lower than 77°F (25°C). “That’s a sign they could be getting laminitis, and that’s what we’ve seen experimentally,” van Eps says.
That increased temperature, says Ryan, is the hoof’s response to the trauma within the laminar tissues.
Sometimes lameness follows quickly. “We see lameness begin eight to 12 hours after that temperature increase,” van Eps says. If you don’t think you can estimate surface temperatures well with your fingers, van Eps recommends using an infrared surface temperature gauge from a hardware store.
3. A distorted hoof shape and/or unusual rings
Healthy hooves grow faster in the dorsal (front) part of the hoof and slower in the quarters, says Ryan, creating smooth, wide, evenly spaced growth rings across the front of the hoof wall that curve downward at the quarters toward the heels. With laminitis, that growth pattern no longer applies; the horse develops wider growth rings at the heel than at the toe (because growth has been compromised at the toe—where most of the damage has occurred—more severely than at the heels). If toe growth goes unchecked, it might curve upward much like a cow’s horns do.
This altered pattern causes the hoof’s rings to curve upward and abnormal rings to develop on the hoof wall surface, which can precede lameness sometimes by months or years, says Donald Walsh, DVM. Walsh leads the Animal Health Foundation, in Pacific, Missouri, which funds research and education projects related to laminitis.
Ryan believes abnormal hoof growth starts before all evidence of pain, due to the laminae being traumatized by the hoof changing shape around it. He’s been investigating the pain-relieving effects of farriers or veterinarians cutting vertical grooves into laminitic horses’ coronary bands to relieve pressure. “Early grooving appears to protect the laminae from more severe effects,” he says, adding that research is pending on this theory. “Our experience indicates that if you can do it very early on, you can see pain relief within hours.”
A strong or bounding digital pulse in both limbs is a clue that laminitis is to blame.
4. An increased heart rate
“We used to think that heart rate was not a very sensitive indicator,” van Eps says. “But we found that in our clinical patients the most sensitive indicator (for pending laminitis) is probably an increase in heart rate.” Most horses maintain pretty consistent resting heart rates of 30-40 beats per minute (BPM). But van Eps has noted that heart rates of -laminitic horses tend to rise a day or so before lameness sets in. “A mild increase in heart rate of even 6 bpm can be a significant early indicator that your horse is getting uncomfortable,” he says.
“A lot of people have dismissed small heart rate changes, but actually they can be very useful warning signs if the horse’s normal heart rate is known,” he adds. You can measure heart rate with a stethoscope or by feeling for the pulse under the jaw or at the pastern, as described before. Exercise, excitement, and ambient temperature can also increase heart rate, however, so keep these influences in mind when interpreting results.
5. Too little—or too much—foot lifting
Horses rely on movement to get blood flow and the nutrients within to hoof tissues, says van Eps. But if a horse is injured in one leg, he might bear weight for too long on the opposite limb, causing a phenomenon called “supporting-limb” laminitis.
“Consider putting these horses in a sling so they can take weight off that foot,” suggests Walsh. With your veterinarian’s direction you can also try to get horses with leg injuries out of the stall to move around. “Even if the horse is hopping, it’s producing enough movement to prevent laminitis from occurring.”
On the flipside, a horse that picks his feet up too often might also be showing early signs of laminitis, van Eps says. “Horses normally shift their (weight between) feet about two or three times per minute,” he says. “We noticed an increase of three to five times that weight-shifting when they were developing laminitis.”
If the feet get painful enough, the horse will begin to change his stance, shifting his weight back to his haunches, along with stretching his legs out in front of him in the classic laminitis pose.
6. Apparent stretched and/or bleeding laminae
As laminae start to stretch, they separate from the hoof wall, explains Walsh. A gap becomes visible along the white line, where the sole and hoof wall meet. This white line widening is known as “seedy toe,” and you can see evidence of this in the trimmings from a laminitic horse’s foot during a farrier visit. He adds that if you notice spots of blood in the white line when you pick up your horse’s foot, it doesn’t mean your horse has been quicked by the farrier; it means the laminae are hemorrhaging, which is a sure sign of laminitis.
Owners can check trimmings each time the farrier comes and begin to recognize what’s normal and not normal for their horses—something farriers might miss, says Walsh.
Laminar stretching also increases the distance between the external hoof wall and the front of the coffin bone, which can be seen on lateral radiographs (X rays), says van Eps. “That space is normally 18 mm, but it will increase as the laminae stretch,” he says. “There won’t be any rotation of the bone yet, just that lengthening that could go to 20, 21, sometimes even 22 mm.”
7. A shortened stride
A laminitic horse starts shortening his stride before he begins limping, says Ryan. Stride changes are more obvious on hard surfaces, especially when turning at the walk.
“Not many other conditions will make a horse lame on a circle on a hard ground at the walk in both directions,” van Eps says. Know your horse’s typical stride length at the walk so you’ll recognize when those steps get shorter. And watch for signs of pain when the horse turns at the walk; these can range from the horse pinning his ears to a reluctance to move. “A horse that looks fine on a straight line on soft ground could look very different on hard ground in a circle,” he adds.
8. Increased insulin levels
Insulin, a normal hormone released in the body to regulate blood sugar, activates a particular growth factor (IGF-1) in the laminae, causing them to grow. “But the laminae aren’t supposed to grow,” Walsh says.
A basic insulin reading by a veterinarian should show 20 units or lower, Walsh says. If it’s over 40, you need to take action to get that insulin down before laminitis hits. In the “gray area” between 20 and 40, Walsh says he recommends performing an oral glucose test, in which the horse receives a weight-calculated dose of corn syrup that causes insulin levels to spike. In healthy horses these levels should return to normal within 60 to 90 minutes. In insulin-resistant horses they’ll stay elevated for much longer.
If your horse is already experiencing a bout of laminitis, however, it’s important to wait until it has subsides to test for IR.
Walsh says he sees “storms” of laminitis cases caused by high insulin in spring, when horses are turned out on sugar-rich pastures. Even so, rich spring pastures won’t affect all horses—just those genetically inclined to insulin resistance. These animals need low-sugar diets and plenty of exercise—even if they’re -laminitic—to lower their insulin levels, Walsh says.
An obese horse is more likely to be an insulin-resistant one, say our sources. Obese horses’ feet also bear more weight, which contributes to the mechanical changes in hoof shape. “Physical weight could cause the hooves to grow abnormally,” says Ryan.
The excess weight can also send conflicting messages to farriers, says Walsh. “A lot of farriers will think the horse is wearing his feet down from being overweight,” he says, when in reality, “the horse is breaking his foot down, not wearing his foot down, due to first the stretching of the laminae. Then the excess weight helps to break the foot down.”
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize if your horse is fat. “Owners are generally blind to how overweight their horses are and don’t appreciate how much they’re overfeeding,” says Ryan. And, secondly, reduce the horse’s calorie intake and increase his exercise, Walsh adds.
10. Diarrhea, infection, or inflammatory response
Systemic inflammatory responses can trigger laminitis, says Walsh. “If the horse is developing a high fever and diarrhea, then laminitis is next on the plate, and you have to be proactive in thinking about that,” he says. “These horses are engaged in massive destruction of the laminae, which occurs because of enzyme reactions in the feet due to the inflammatory response.”
A good way to keep laminitis at bay in these types of cases is packing the horse’s feet in ice, Walsh says. Work with a veterinarian to keep the horse’s legs at a maximum of 41°F (5°C) all the way up to his hocks and knees, starting immediately. If you wait to do this until clinical signs of laminitis appear, you’re often too late to prevent damage.
Laminitis starts at a microscopic level well before actual lameness sets in. Careful horse owners can learn to recognize the subtle signs caused by microscopic changes, call their veterinarian, and take steps to prevent the laminitis from worsening. Although these microscopic changes might not be reversible, it’s possible to stop the disease before it becomes debilitating. “Laminitis is all about ameliorating or halting the progression,” van Eps says. “If it’s very early and quite mild then you can go on to have a horse with no functional disruption.”
Researchers recommend getting an idea of what’s normal for each horse—how he walks and turns, how he stands, what his posture is like, and his normal hoof temperature and heart rate. “Once you do that,” van Eps says, “you’ll be well-equipped to detect what’s not normal and instigate change.”
By Ashley Phelps, DVM
Summer’s swelter is in full swing and for horse owners, this time of year is especially difficult. Keeping horses cool is a challenge but here are 5 simple tips and tricks to help owners combat the heat.
1. Stall Day, Pasture Night: Move time in the stalls to the day, especially during high heat times (10 am – 3 pm), and pasture time to the overnight hours when the temps are cooler. If possible, open barn doors for added air flow and set up box fans (watch cord placements!) for extra relief during the day.
2. Pasture Shade: If stalls aren’t an option, make sure the outdoor space has ample shade for the entire herd even as the sun moves throughout the day. If there are no trees, there are a variety of temporary and permanent shade structures available. For horses with white patches, pink noses or are an all over light color, applying sunblock can help protect sensitive skin from long hours under the sun.
3. Drinking Water: Make sure buckets and troughs are clean, full and accessible at all times. The heat turns fresh water warm quickly, lessening its ability to cool. Changing water daily or, if possibly, twice a day will really help keep the herd cool. For stubborn horses, adding a salt block or misting hay with salt water can encourage more water consumption.
4. Playing Water: Misting stations or fans are great ways for horses to stay cool. A low-cost alternative is an everyday sprinkler and garden hose. Place the sprinkler on or outside the fence, making sure the hose doesn’t run into the pasture for eager horses to get tangled, and turn on multiple times a day.
5. Less Work: Heat and humidity can make it hard to breathe even for the fittest horse. Lessening work sessions or splitting into a series of short sessions in the early mornings or late evenings is key. Post-workout, take off tack and cool down slowly. Offer small sips of cool water, not long gulps.
Knowing the horse’s normal temperature, heart and respiratory rates can also help identify if it is suffering from a heat stroke and requires a veterinarian. To find a horse’s heart rate, take its pulse for 15 seconds. Take the number of beats; multiply by four, giving the beats per minute. Do the same for breaths per minute.
A cool horse is a happy and healthy horse, even during the dog days of summer.
SideBar: Signs of Heat Stroke
• Elevated heart rate for extended period of time
• No sweating or excessive sweating
• Persistent temperature over 103’F
• Dry nostrils
• Poor capillary refill – when thumb pressed on gums above front tooth, remaining white thumbprint takes more than 2 seconds to disappear
• Poor skin turgor – when skin on the shoulder is pinched, tent remains for more than 2 seconds.
Dr. Ashley Phelps has over 10 years of field experience as an equine veterinarian. She holds her Doctorate of Veterinarian Medicine from Mississippi State University and in her spare time enjoys doting on her horse, Ava.
Understanding pH in the Equine Digestive Tract
From Kentucky Equine Research
In-depth discussions of the equine digestive tract invariably mention pH, especially in reference to the stomach and hindgut. What is pH and how does it factor in the well-being of horses?
In simplest terms, pH is a numeric scale used to measure acidity or basicity of any solution. The scale generally runs from 0 to 14, with 0-6 indicating acidity, 7 representing neutrality, and 8-14 signifying basicity.
The stomach. As part of the digestion process, the horse’s stomach manufactures and secretes hydrochloric acid, creating a naturally acidic environment. The pH of the stomach fluctuates based on contents, both the amount and type of feed and forage. “A range of pH readings has been recorded in the stomach; the lowest of which is less than 2, the highest of which is greater than 6. Even in the best of circumstances, the stomach is an acidic environment,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research (KER).
In nature, the horse employs two main protective strategies to maintain stomach health: (1) near-continual consumption of forages, which keeps the stomach full, thus avoiding acidic sloshes; and (2) production and swallowing of saliva, which buffers, or neutralizes, the acidic environment.
Many domesticated horses remain at a disadvantage, as they do not have access to unlimited forage, which leaves the stomach empty for long stretches. This is expressly true of stabled horses fed one or two large meals a day. Moreover, unlike humans, horses do not produce saliva when not actively engaged in chewing and swallowing feed. When both layers of protection are disabled, the stomach lining suffers, resulting in erosion and ulceration.
Several management techniques designed to keep ulcers from forming have been identified.
The hindgut. Further along the digestive tract, just past the small intestine, lies the hindgut, composed of the cecum and colon. Within these structures resides a population of microbes that aids in the fermentation of forages. Microbes work best when their environment, including the pH, remains fairly constant.
Though pH can rise and fall due to the quality and quantity of feed in the hindgut, the primary reason for a precipitous drop in pH involves the overfeeding of concentrates. “When too much feed is given in a meal, the sheer bulk overwhelms the foregut (stomach and small intestine) and passes hurriedly and only partially digested to the hindgut,” said Whitehouse. “Problem is, the hindgut is not equipped to efficiently digest the primary energy sources in feed; its specialty is fiber processing. As fermentation of grain occurs, the microbial population changes when certain microorganisms die off and others thrive. These changes cause pH of the hindgut to drop.”
Whereas a normal hindgut pH may be in the 6.5-7 range, an acidic hindgut might be as low as 5, which can bring about acidosis. Hindgut acidosis can be problematic on many levels, as horses with this condition tend to have subclinical symptoms, such as a take-it-or-leave attitude toward feed, weight loss, recurrent mild colic, unusually soft manure, or behavioral changes.
Noticing What Our Horses Have to Say
By Trish Broersma
It’s a fundamental piece of our teaching to explain how to read a horse’s body language. Here is a study that may lead you to in-depth new approaches to this subject with your students, validating the horse’s ability to communicate in ways we often overlook. While this study focuses on the horse’s efforts to communicate about food, I have found that horses communicate about much more when engaged in healing work, like subtle things going on with a client, or their opinions about human conversations and interactions during sessions. For instance, when one breast cancer client greeted the horse Mystic for the first time, the horse within seconds began to gently and persistently nuzzle her solar plexus area for many long seconds. Although the client was somewhat afraid of horses, she reported later that she did not step away from this intimate interaction because she felt a strong, compassionate connection between herself and the horse, and that the point being nuzzled was the location of her tumor. Since then, this horse consistently offers specific, unique interactions with nearly all clients. We have learned to notice and encourage these interactions.
Study Confirms Horses 'Talk' to Human Handlers
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA
“Hey! See that bucket of feed over there? Yeah, that one. Can you grab that for me, please? I’m kind of hungry.”
Wait a minute. Did your horse just speak to you? Actually, he might have—in his own way, of course. New research by European scientists has revealed that horses do, in fact, try to intentionally communicate with us to achieve certain goals.
In their pioneering study, researchers have determined for the first time that horses are capable of heterospecific referential communication—essentially, the ability to communicate about something, specifically to someone else. More precisely, to us.
So does that mean our horses actually “talk” to us?
“They sure do,” said Rachele Malavasi, PhD, of the School of Ethical Equitation, in Moncigoli Di Fivizzano, Italy. Malavasi carried out her research in association with Ludwig Huber, PhD, professor at the Comparative Cognition Unit at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine of Vienna in Austria.
“Horses are social animals which have evolved skills to maintain their social unity: affiliative relationships, protection from outsiders, social facilitation, and even social learning,” Malavasi explained. “We know now that their skill set also includes the ability to communicate intentionally with humans.”
In their study of 14 horses’ behavior, Malavasi and Huber placed two buckets just out of each horse’s reach. Each bucket contained either carrots, apples, or oats—as at least one of these treats would be likely to attract each horse, they said. The horse and handler stood inside a fenced-in area where they could see the buckets on opposite sides of the enclosure, just past a gate.
The handler did nothing but stand there. The horse, therefore, had to figure out a way to communicate to the handler: “Get me that bucket!” And so they did. In fact, for the most part, they did whatever it took to get the message across.
“The horses would alternate their gaze between the human and the reward (bucket), with the aim of conveying the attention of the experimenter to the desired reward,” Malavasi said. “But if that didn’t work, the horses would demonstrate real flexibility in their communicative strategies. They would nod their heads, turn their tails, and move their heads quickly toward the rewarded bucket in a ‘pointing’ kind of behavior.”
What’s more, the horses only made such great efforts when the human was actually looking at them, she said. The scientists instructed the “test” human to turn her body in different directions—as horses do appear to be able to detect a human’s attention toward them. When the humans seemed to not be paying attention, the horses first tried to get their attention before communicating about the food bucket.
“The horses searched for eye contact with the experimenter by turning their heads back to the experimenter,” said Malavasi. “But if they didn't obtain the reward, they would switch to another strategy, where they walked back to the experimenter and touch her.”
Until now, the only domestic animal shown to be capable of heterospecific referential communication is the dog, she said. Now that we know that horses can do it, too, it’s possible to extrapolate the significance of the findings even further—as it suggests that horses are capable of thought-out problem-solving.
“Having this ability means that horses do not just ‘behave’ without considering the consequence of their actions,” she said. “Rather, they are able to create a mental plan (for example, to reach a goal with the help of others around them), to evaluate the attentional state of that audience, and to modify their communicative strategy accordingly. Horses seem therefore able of iterative problem solving strategy.”
While all horses probably have the ability to intentionally communicate with us, many handlers don’t see it, Malavasi said. And some horses might have “given up” on trying to communicate with us, she said, especially if they have experienced learned helplessness through constant isolation and/or abuse.
“I recommend spending some time doing nothing but observing your horse in the field, if not with other horses, then alone,” Malavasi said. “Horse people need to know how horses communicate and especially how their own horses communicate.
“We found some horses were very ‘talkative,’ whereas others would use very subtle signals,” she added. “Learning the communicative strategies of your own horse is like getting to know another person: You’ll never stop learning, but the more you know, the more you love.
“It’s also possible that your horse has given up in communicating with you, because you never listen,” she continued. “That’s an unfortunate situation, but it can be fixed. If you don’t know what your horse wants, be creative, and test solutions. It could be a great game to play together, and you’re sure to see a positive change in your horse's attitude!”
The study, “Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Animal Cognition.
Everyone “feels“ stress, both horses and humans. By understanding and studying positive and negative reinforcement we learn to understand our horses and ourselves better. Please read the following article and ask yourself: How do I reward my horse's behavior in a way that he enjoys? How do I reward behavior by removing something unpleasant, such as pressure? My challenge to you is to make a list of at least 10 ways you, your Instructors, and your students reward with positive reinforcements and 10 ways to reward by removing a negative reinforcement. How do I lower stress both for myself and my horse? Create a dialog about which method worked best on which horse or person. Have this be a practice in being open and curious to learning something new, as we would like our horses to be. What lessons were shown for either the horse or the human? Please share these with your center and the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee.
For the horses and the humans,
PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
Study: Stress Impairs Horses' Learning Abilities
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA Jun 30, 2016
Under stress fearful horses were the worst learners in the negative reinforcement group. In the positive reinforcement group, fearful horses were the worst performers, regardless of their stress level.
Be it in horses or humans, stress can affect learning ability. Some of us actually appear to learn better with a little bit of stress. But in a new study, French researchers have shown that, at least in horses, stress seems to consistently impair learning. And the degree of that impairment depends on training method and the individual horse.
“Our study is the first to demonstrate that stress affects equine learning differentially according to the type of reinforcement in interaction with personality,” said Mathilde Valenchon, PhD, of the University of Strasbourg, of her research conducted at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research Val de Loire. Valenchon presented her work during the 2016 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held June 23-25 in Saumur, France.
Specifically, stress impaired learning more when the horses learned a task through positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement, Valenchon said. In positive reinforcement, handlers reward horses’ behavior by giving them something they enjoy, such as a treat. In negative reinforcement, handlers reward behavior by removing something unpleasant, such as pressure. Furthermore, horses with fearful personality traits tended to be more impaired by stress when learning a task, regardless of the kind of reinforcement, she added. In their study, Valenchon and her fellow researchers assigned 60 horses to four groups: negative reinforcement without stress, negative reinforcement with stress, positive reinforcement without stress, and positive reinforcement with stress. The stress resulted from being separated from other horses for a short period before the learning task.
The researchers taught all the horses to enter one of two compartments of a small enclosure after receiving a visual signal from a handler. In the study, the team rewarded the positive reinforcement groups with handfuls of grain and rewarded the negative reinforcement groups by removing pressure.
There was no noticeable difference in the learning performance between the unstressed negative and positive reinforcement groups, Valenchon said. However, stress caused both groups to have diminished results, taking longer to learn the task. That difference was much more pronounced in the positive reinforcement group, she added. Negative reinforcement horses’ learning performance was only slightly lower when they were stressed compared to not stressed.
“The negative reinforcement could be conceived as a stressor in and of itself, and so that fact might have counteracted the effect of the extrinsic stressor we gave them before the learning task,” Valenchon said. “It might have caused the horses to focus more (than the positive reinforcement horses) on the learning task despite the extrinsic stress. The stress might also have simply reduced their food motivation, making the positive reinforcement less efficient.” The scientists also used the Lansade Test to determine each study horse’s personality traits. The one trait that appeared related to learning performance under stress was fearfulness, said Valenchon.
Without stress, fearful horses were the best learners in the negative reinforcement group, she said. But under stress they were the worst learners. In the positive reinforcement group, fearful horses were the worst performers, regardless of their stress level, she added.
These results suggest that trainers should use more individualized approach based on the horse and the situation, Valenchon said. “There are no good or bad learners,” she relayed. “We need to recognize that and personalize our training to each individual horse.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.
Needles in the Haystack: Considerations for Treating the Whole Horse Through Acupuncture
By Christina Russell Horn, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member
As we consider best practices for the equines who work in EAAT programs, it is crucial to not just care for the physical body of the horse but also acknowledge their mental and emotional state. When truly honoring the whole horse, we consider their mind, body and spirit. The mind and body are not separate entities but part of the same energetic system and directly affect each other.
Traditional veterinarian care only addresses the physical body of the horse, the body of the animal that stands before the vet upon receiving a call of concern. When traditional medicine is not enough it is often necessary to consider the greater picture and really look at treating the whole horse. When one looks to alternative or holistic healing modalities, there seems to be an endless sea of information and theories which can be overwhelming. Acupuncture has been a hugely beneficial addition of support to the regular care that our program horses already receive. Many centers try to reduce the need for high maintenance and costly treatments to keep their horses comfortable. Acupuncture treatments may be useful in managing a condition before the need for more invasive procedures are utilized.
Acupuncture is one of the main components of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is one of the oldest recorded systems of medicine. Acupuncture should never be viewed as an alternative treatment but instead a complementary option that can be utilized alongside traditional medicine and often chiropractic work. It should always be practiced by a licensed and trained veterinarian.
Although Chinese medicine can be quite complex, the basic theory that it is built upon is actually very simple. As living beings (horse, human, or otherwise) we are all a part of the Universe and therefore connected. Our bodies all contain energy or qi (pronounced “chi”) which makes up our life force. This energy flows through our bodies on pathways called channels or meridians that are made up of a series of specific points, in which our organ systems are connected to. Picture a linear constellation of energy which helps regulate the body’s regular functioning. Any interruption or blockage on this pathway can disrupt normal function and throw the body out of balance. In the same way that all living beings in the Universe are interconnected, all body systems are connected and pathways that link them need to be clear and free flowing in order to keep the body functioning. This is not unlike the concept of the Ying Yang, the ultimate balance.
Acupuncture can be utilized as both a preventative or treatment of disease or illness. Many behavior problems in horses especially those which seemingly arise suddenly can be linked to pain. Acupuncture has shown to be very effective in reducing back pain, and the inflammation associated with arthritis, joint conditions, laminitis and gastrointestinal issues such as chronic colic and ulcers. It can also be used to regulate digestion and respiratory conditions.
Acupuncture works by the insertion of a very fine needles through the skin at pre-determined points along the energy meridians of the body. This stimulates a series of interactions between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems while drawing energy to an area that is lacking proper qi flow. An examination by the veterinarian will determine areas that show signs of reactivity or abnormality and their relationship to the systems of the body. Typically the pulses of the horse are also read to determine the level of blood flow. This will in turn determine the treatment strategy.
Horses may react very differently to acupuncture treatments. The same way some horses are needle shy for injections they may be overly reactive to the treatment. Other horses may appear very content during treatment and show obvious signs of relaxation such as a lowered head, yawning, drooling and closed eyes. Treatments typically last 20-30 minutes and the need for repeat sessions are varied. Some horses may need weekly or bi-weekly sessions initially and then treatments can be spread out as they begin to achieve more balance. Others horses may benefit from a less frequent “tune up” to their system, once or twice a year.
Visit the links below for more information on how acupuncture can assist in pin pointing underlying health concerns while providing the best possible care for our equine partners.
Feeding the Horse's Topline
"What’s your formula for setting weight limits" is a question I hear often. Please consider your horse's top line, which includes his spine, the muscles and nerves along the spine. In my mind each horse needs his own weight limit based on his body condition score and muscling. The percentage of muscle and flesh that covers the horse needs to be assessed regularly. This score can change from month to month as work, weather and riders vary. Factors affecting your horses’ body, both the type of and location of both muscle and fat include age, workload, lack of or incorrect exercise, turn out, poor saddle fit and diet.
As I talk to new participants at our center I need to be both an advocate for our horses and have a plan for teaching horsemanship skills either mounted or unmounted to each participant. Each center must have a plan of how they will educate participants about how horses both teach and heal through their movement and their language. Please consider a few questions as you read the following article. What is my wellness program? Have I maximized my horses’ potential? Have I explored all my resources? Please listen to the horses, they know the answers.
For the Horses,
PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee, Chair
Feeding the Horse's Topline
By Nancy S. Loving, DVM
We score a horse’s physical shape on a 1-9 scale, based on how much flesh is covering their ribs, withers, buttocks, etc. But researchers have begun to evaluate another area of the body—the topline—to complement the body condition score (BCS) and to help with evaluation of muscle condition.
Two things cover the topline: Fat and/or muscle. Most horses must reach a BCS score of 7 before their bodies lay fat along the topline. In contrast, in horses with BCS scores of less than 7, muscle development of the withers, back, loins, croup, and hindquarters makes up the visible topline. Often, a horse shows signs of reduced performance before visible topline changes. Note that a horse can have an ideal BCS, but deficient topline muscles.
Russell Mueller, MS, PAS, and Kelly Graber, BSC, PAS, both from Cargill Animal Nutrition, in Minneapolis, described nutrition as it relates to topline muscle development in a session at the 2015 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 5-9 in Las Vegas. “Nutrition is the science of prevention, and proactive nutritional support and wellness programs can go a long way toward maximizing a horse’s performance,” said Mueller.
The topline grading system developed by Progressive Nutrition is as follows:
Grade A—The ideal topline; according to the grading system, “The back, loin and croup are full and well rounded. The topline muscles are well developed and blend smoothly into his ribs. The horse should be able to perform work requiring the use of all of these muscles.”
Grade B—The topline is sunken in the back area between the vertebrae, and concave at the top of the ribs.
Grade C—The topline is sunken in both the back and loin areas.
Grade D—The topline is sunken in the back, loins, and croup.
Atrophy (wasting) of topline muscles begins in the withers, then continues to the back and gradually extends through the loins and croup and down into the hip and stifle. Rebuilding muscle occurs in the reverse order. Mueller stressed that exercise activates muscle conditioning processes while nutrition provides its building blocks in the form of amino acids, which make up protein. After all water is removed, muscle is comprised of 73% protein and 22% fat.
To build the strong muscle needed to improve topline, a horse needs all 10 essential amino acids (which the horse’s own body can’t produce; he must acquire them through his feed) in his diet:
- Lysine, for young horse growth (this is the first “limiting” amino acid—more on this in a moment);
Threonine, for older horse repair and maturation;
Methionine, for hoof and hair growth;
Valine, leucine, and isoleucine, which are branch-chain amino acids important for muscle recovery;
Phenylalanine, a building block for proteins as well as being a precursor to neurotransmitters;
Tryptophan, a building block for proteins as well as being a precursor to neurotransmitters; and
Arginine and histidine, which are used in protein biosynthesis.
The rate of muscle protein synthesis is fastest during growth, and synthesis rates decline as the animal ages. If there is an inadequate amount of any of these essential amino acids in a horse’s diet, protein synthesis will only occur to the level of the limiting amino acid. For example, if a diet contains 125% (of what the horse needs in) lysine, 110% methionine, 101% threonine, and 80% tryptophan, then the horse will synthesize all the amino acids into protein at 80% of its potential.
For example, to meet a horse’s daily lysine requirements—the first limiting amino acid—you would need to feed 34 pounds of corn, 15-32 pounds of grass hay, 2.2 pounds of soybean meal, or one pound of whey protein. Percentage of protein on a feed tag does not give the full picture because it doesn’t break down the individual amino acid content on the label. It is also important to look at practical consumption rates as well as exercise level--intense training doubles a horse’s protein needs from “maintenance” requirements. Graber noted that forage is not just filler, but a high-quality food product that provides protein.
“While exercise will condition muscle, it does not make muscle,” said Graber. Rather, muscle production and repair require the essential amino acids as well as the nutrients the horse uses while working. She stressed that a well-balanced diet includes added amino acids for muscle support, and it’s best to provide the horse with amino acids within 45 minutes after exercise—and after the horse is properly cooled down—to ensure fast recovery and optimal effects.
“Research adapted from humans shows that the system is set up to absorb and utilize amino acids at a higher rate within a 45 minutes window following exercise,” Mueller explained. “If we can get a concentrated source of high quality amino acids into the horse during this period we can replicate improved recovery and reduced muscle breakdown like we see in humans consuming a product like Muscle Milk after exercise.”
In one study, researchers demonstrated that a person on a strict carbohydrate-only diet breaks down more muscle compared to a carb-heavy diet, Mueller said. Adding amino acids to the carbohydrates reduces muscle breakdown and results in a high level of muscle synthesis. Adding branch-chain amino acids enhances these positive effects even further.
Electrolytes are another dietary supplement that can help with muscle recovery from exercise, providing benefit within 30-40 minutes. In previous studies researchers (Ecker et al) have demonstrated that electrolytes can delay the onset of fatigue by more than 22% and that they reduce recovery time from 12 hours to 45 minutes.
Muscle development along a horse’s topline is a useful evaluation tool to determine condition and strength. With periodic assessment of muscle mass along the topline as well as attention to nutrient balance in your horse’s diet in conjunction with exercise, you can maximize your horse’s muscle development. Make sure your horse is consuming enough essential amino acid building blocks for muscle so that he can develop a healthy topline and perform to his genetic potential.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, CO, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.
The Horse and Human Connection
By Marcie Ehrman, Member of the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee
As members of the Path Intl. Equine Welfare Committee, we have become increasingly aware of the enormous value of the unique relationships that develop between equines and participants in our programs. Recognizing and honoring the sentient nature of horses and their remarkable gifts for intuiting and relating to people is an essential part of the therapeutic process.
As a long time instructor, instructor mentor and equine specialist in mental health and learning, I have found that some of the greatest teaching moments are those in which the instructor allows the connection between horse and human to unfold and develop without interfering (or with minimal facilitating). We often play the vital role of catalyst, creating the setting for an interaction or a teachable moment and then just letting it happen. That bond and deep mutual engagement between horse and human is beautifully described and explained as “co-being” in the article by Christa Lesté-Lasserre from The Horse, reprinted here below.
Study: Some Horses, Riders Have 'Co-Being' Relationship
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA
If you’ve ever considered your horse to be your “better half,” you’re not alone. Norwegian and American researchers recently found that riders and horses can enter into a unique state of interspecies “co-being” with one other.
Co-being refers to a state of relationship in which each partner evolves to “fit” better with each other, both physically and mentally.
“As riders get to know their horses, they attune to them—they learn both mental and somatic (physical) ways of acting versus their partner,” said Anita Maurstad, PhD, professor and researcher in the Department of Cultural Sciences in the Tromsø University Museum at the University of Tromsø in Norway. “Horses, too, attune to their humans; thus, co-being is a good analytical concept for speaking about these aspects of the relationship.”
This is all consistent with what Maurstad calls “nature-culture”—the concept that nature and culture, for some individuals (such as humans and domesticated horses), cannot be viewed individually but as one unique, combined notion. Riders and their mounts exist in a state of co-being within the nature-culture of the equestrian world, Maurstad said.
The co-being theory goes beyond the recently described “mirror” theory that horses are “reflections” of their riders, Maurstad said. In co-being, riders “get to know their horses as personalities through ongoing processes of deep engagement,” she said. “They see horses as different personalities, both in the sense of horses being different personalities individually, and being different personalities from themselves, the humans. Riders do not see their horses as passive reflections of themselves.”
Maurstad worked with American researchers Dona Davis, PhD, and Sarah Cowles both of the University of South Dakota's Department of Anthropology and Sociology. They interviewed 60 male and female riders in North America and Norway of varying disciplines to better understand the effect of riding and their relationship with their horses—why they ride, how this activity influences them as a person, and how it influences their family life. Their responses led the researchers to explore the concept of co-being “as a vital element to understanding the relationship,” she said.
“Their replies focused on actions and intra-actions with real consequences for both parties,” she added.
Specifically, she determined that humans learn to act and communicate in ways that work with their particular horses, and the horses also learn how to act and communicate in ways that work with their riders. Physically, each species learns to adapt to the other in unique ways for the specific riding partnership.
“(Humans) are balancing according to a feel of the other, the horse, attuning their bodies to sensations of the horse bodies,” Maurstad and colleagues stated in their study. “Action and response between the species bring about riding as a collaborative practice, where bodies become in sync. And sync is a product of intra-action in that both are changed through a process of training from the meeting between the two—literally flesh to flesh.”
However, she added, this kind of connection can only develop over time.
While co-being between a human and a horse might seem contrary to the “nature” of a horse, Maurstad said it’s actually very positive for both humans and horses and fits well into their “nature-culture.”
“Riders speak a lot about joy and enjoyment,” she said. “And the horse relationship is explained as good for the body and good for the mind; it has both physical and therapeutic qualities.
“As for the horses, the horses in our study have learned to live with humans,” she continued. “Consistent with their nature-culture, horses lead their lives partly with humans, partly with other horses, learning as individuals how to relate in ways that provide them with good qualities of life. As our study shows, horses are partners in pairs, and their physical and mental well-being is something that riders care for. This, I believe, is good for the horse, good for this particular natural-cultural species, and not in opposition to their nature.”
The study, "Co-being and intra-action in horse–human relationships: A multi-species ethnography of be(com)ing human and be(com)ing horse," was published in August in Social Anthropology.
Group or Individual Horse Housing: Which Is Less Stressful?
By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA
We’re getting the message now: Horses don’t like being separated from other horses. And as the research pours in, we’re finding more and more support for that idea. Case in point: British researchers have confirmed that horses tend to show more physiological signs of stress when they’re housed in individual stalls, whether they act like it or not.
“The physiological changes we saw in our study horses cannot be masked in the same way that a horse can mask behavior (a survival mechanism in a prey species),” said Kelly Yarnell, PhD, researcher at Nottingham Trent University, in Nottingham, U.K. “And unfortunately, in the most isolated housing (individual box stalls), adrenal activity was very high (which can result in high levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” being released). If very high levels of cortisol are present chronically or on a highly repetitive basis, then this can be detrimental for our horses’ health.”
In their study, Yarnell and her colleagues tested fecal cortisol levels, eye temperature, and behavior during handling in 16 university lesson horses housed in four environments:
Individual box stalls with no physical contact;
Individual box stalls with limited physical contact;
Group stalls housing two horses together; and
Group pens housing several horses together.
All horses were on a break from lessons during the summer and were kept in a pasture before the experiment began. They had, however, all been introduced and were accustomed to each kind of housing situation before the study began, so nothing was new. When the researchers brought the horses into the stables for the experiment (each horse got to test each situation for five days), they were careful to bring in all the horses at about the same time so they didn’t experience stress from just getting left out of the larger herd, Yarnell said.
By far, the horses showed the highest levels of fecal cortisol when housed in individual box stalls with no physical contact with other horses, she said. Although they could see each other over their respective barn doors if they were looking over at the same time and could hear each other, they were otherwise completely isolated, as is common in many stables.
By contrast, horses in the group housing situation had the lowest eye temperatures (indicating the lowest stress levels) and were easier to handle than the horses in the other housing situations, Yarnell added.
Individual stabling systems have developed partially out of convenience and partially out of a mistaken understanding of what’s comfortable for a horse, she said. Through anthropomorphism (attributing human feelings and ideas to horses), people have often thought that their horses would be “happier” in a barn with their own personal space. And while that kind of stabling has some real benefits—such as protection from predators or conflict-related injuries and shelter from bad weather—it can also lead to unhealthy stress levels.
“If you consider this logically, taking the horses’ evolution into consideration, then you must think about how these animals have lived for millions of years, on wide open areas with room to roam in social groups, trickle feeding as they moved and as their physiology is designed to do,” Yarnell said. “Stabling is the opposite: isolation, reduced space, and limited food. These disadvantages can all contribute to elevated anxiety and reduced welfare for a social, free-ranging prey species.”
While many owners would be quick to agree with this concept, others have argued that, actually, their horses prefer their individual stalls to being outdoors with other horses, Yarnell told The Horse. “Since my scientific paper was published, I've had many owners comment that their horse waits at the gate to be brought into his stable,” she said. “I think it's more likely the horse is waiting at the gate for his dinner! However, I accept that there may be exceptions.”
But, on the whole, even if current individual-stall stabling systems aren’t ideal, it’s not a reason to wrack ourselves with guilt, Yarnell added. “I wouldn't say that it's cruel,” she said. “I think there is a place for stabling our domestic and companion horses but perhaps not for extended periods due to the negative aspects.
“My recommendations would be that horse owners ensure that their horses have time to socialize or have contact with other horses and to move and feed wherever possible,” Yarnell said. “I'm not suggesting we all set our horses free, but there is a happy medium. Offering the opportunity for social interaction with conspecifics and the freedom to express natural behavior can improve equine welfare. And if there’s a housing type available that facilitates this, then I would encourage it to be utilized.”
The study, “Domesticated horses differ in their behavioural and physiological responses to isolated and group housing,” was published in Physiology and Behavior.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.
Let Horses Be Horses
By Jo Anne Miller, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member
Equine Welfare. As a new member of the Equine Welfare Committee I ask myself, what is the definition? I have run a horse rescue and rehabilitation center since 2001, using our rescue horses in our PATH Intl. therapeutic riding programs. Our rescue is fully accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries as well as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, great honors in the industry. But what does equine welfare really mean?
Ever walk down your barn isle and see a horse standing in the back corner of his stall with his head down, and totally disengaged? We had a rescue horse come to us that had spent all of his life in a stall – until he came to us.
Harold was a big, valuable black warmblood who was kept in a stall for most of his career, as his owner did not want him in the sun for fear his coat would bleach out. And, it was inconvenient for her to have to get him from the field, and heaven forbid, he got injured by being near another horse! Harold got to the point where he would no longer perform his job, and therefore became unwanted, as so many horses do.
When Harold arrived at the rescue, we immediately turned him out with our herd in a large field of 60 acres. The other horses picked up their heads and smelled the air, and went back to grazing. Harold looked out into the field with his head held high – and then he ran – no fences as far as he could see…. He frolicked and played like a yearling. And what were they eating? What was this wonderful green stuff – how good it tasted!
And then it was feeding time. We brought him into his stall for his dinner – he immediately walked to the back corner and hung his head – isolation time had begun again. His eyes no longer had any spark.
Equine Welfare – here was a horse that was well taken care of – or was he? The word welfare and well-being can be interchangeable – was Harold’s well being addressed? Let’s look at the horse for what he was born to be, a social being in a herd, walking around, eating most of the day. Instead we have built barns for our convenience. By stabling Harold 24/7, it caused him high levels of stress, and sensory deprivation, as seen by his behavior in the stall. His lack of natural social contact and play was producing a psychologically unhealthy horse, a horse that would no longer perform.
Harold quickly learned that he only came in for his dinner, and then was returned to the field. After 6 months of just being a horse, he was put back into work. He is happy now doing his job, which he does for no more than two hours a day – the rest of the time he is free, to be what he is, just a horse.
I think I have found my definition.
Jo Anne Miller
A True Story of a Horse Choosing His Person
By Marcie Ehrman, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member
During a PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee conference call, mention was made of true stories of horses choosing their people. This brought to mind a heartwarming experience I was privileged to be part of, and I’d like to share it with readers here.
I was working as a therapeutic riding instructor at a PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center in New York when one of our wonderful OTs approached me about collaborating to transition a child she had been working with to TR. This little girl was just 3 years old and had been diagnosed with profound autism, so we planned to work with her together before she became my student. Alyssa (not her real name) exhibited many of the common characteristics associated with autism, including very limited use of spoken words, lack of eye contact, repetitive behaviors, difficulty focusing, and full blown tantrums when her routine was disrupted. She had been working with the OT for several months, and seemed to love being around horses and riding. She insisted on riding our Norwegian Fjord every session, and as we worked together, she continued making amazing progress in the areas of receptive and expressive language skills, remaining focused on a task, demonstrating empathy, following verbal instructions and making meaningful eye contact. Her tantruming decreased as she learned self-regulation skills and more socially acceptable ways to express herself.
Everything was going beautifully, until – one day – it happened; our steadfast Fjord came up lame on the day of Alyssa’s lesson. By this time, she had long since moved past the transition from OT, and was in a weekly private TR session. Not having a specific plan in mind, I met Alyssa at the door and explained to her that her beloved Fjord had hurt his foot, and needed to rest. To our delight, Alyssa expressed her concern for his well-being, and asked to see him. We walked down the aisle to his stall, and he nickered when he heard her voice. After a few minutes and lots of horsey hugs, I asked her if she would like to meet the other horses. She said she did, so we walked down the aisle stall by stall, stopping at each door so I could tell her a little about that horse, and give her the opportunity to see & touch each one. At each stop, I gently asked her if she might want to ride that horse, but her answer was always an emphatic “No!” When we came to the end of the barn aisle, Alyssa asked if there were any more horses. I answered that there were, but they were all out in the paddocks. She requested to go out to see them, and I complied. The horses had just been turned out; they were way at the far end of a large field, contentedly grazing. Alyssa asked if they would come see her, and I suggested that she call out to them and see what happens. At first they totally ignored her, and then Duke, a buckskin gelding with a dun stripe who was relatively new to our Center, perked his ears, raised his head, hesitated for a second or two, and then galloped over to where we were standing at the fence. Allysa’s eyes widened with delight – she smiled and exclaimed, “Spirit, it’s really Spirit!!!” (This was shortly after the Disney movie about a buckskin horse named Spirit was showing in theaters.) I recognized my “magic moment” and asked, “Would you like to ride Sprit?” to which I got a resounding “oh, yesssssssssss!!!!!”
In so many ways, that magic moment opened the door to new experiences and incredible personal growth and development for Alyssa. As she progressed through her TR sessions, Alyssa continued to make huge improvements in her social and communication skills along with her self-confidence and riding ability. Later that year, Alyssa’s father came to the Center with tears in his eyes, telling us that Alyssa had been re-evaluated, the doctors could find no evidence of autism, and she was enrolled in a mainstream Kindergarten for the following fall.
So, were Alyssa’s bonds with our Fjord and with Duke/Spirit the catalysts that led to her astounding transformations?
Stepping Into a Higher Intelligence
By Trish Broersma, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member
It’s often challenging to find ways to talk about working with horses as sentient beings, and to articulate what it is like to have a horse as an active co-facilitator in groundwork sessions for equine-facilitated psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning. There is an invisible, nearly indescribable quality that we are seeking in interactions. It goes beyond accomplishing measurable skills that we are used to seeking in performance-oriented, typical riding lessons or the usual horse training.
Last week Chi Gong Instructor Chad Moyer said that one of his greatest challenges with Chi Gong is to move out of “doing” into “following.” I am used to considering “doing” vs “being,” so this language caught my attention. He explained that it is easy to fall into “doing” the movements of Chi Gong, to reach for a perfection of balance, movement, etc. What’s more important, however, is that once a movement is intended, like dropping the tailbone, for instance, then to shift into “following” the body in that intention, stepping away from the intention of doing the movement and instead following the body as it engages with the intention: following the abdominal muscles, the muscles of the thighs, and other processes of the body as dropping the tailbone unfolds. It is like following a higher intelligence that resides in the body.
I realized this is what we encourage in our work at liberty with our horses which leads to such profound interactions. We intend some interaction with the horse, whether it is feeding, exercise, schooling, grooming or whatever. But then instead of monitoring the “doing” of that activity, we move into a higher intelligence that dwells between the two beings, horse and human, so that a fluid, back and forth interaction takes place. There is a kind of magnetic connection that becomes palpable as that higher intelligence is entered into: a give and take between horse and human, with a dance-like feel to it, fluid and yet purposeful.
This process is one of the most personally nourishing and rewarding things I do with my horses, and it is a reciprocal thing: the horses love it, too. And more: it is this entering into the higher intelligence between horse and human that makes it possible for complex, healing interactions to occur between horses and clients. At the simplest level, for instance, we greet a horse: approaching from the front, noting the horse’s body language and responding to their signals, eliciting their welcome, then touching their muzzle. When the greeting goes beyond just practicing those actions, and the client begins to enter into something more with the horse, entering that “higher intelligence” that lies between the two, then remarkable interactions happen. The horse gently touches a place of pain on the person’s body. It steps into position to wrap its head and neck around a grieving person. A client chattering out of nervousness becomes silent and gives a gentle full body hug to the horse. A horse walks or trots away from an anxious client, who may then seek a way back into connection. There is a quality of being deeply seen between the two: both horse and human feel a remarkable recognition of one another from that place of higher intelligence between the two.
Greening our World through the Horse/Human Connection
Best Foot Forward: Tips for Winter Hoof Care
By: Christina Russell, Equine Welfare Committee
Last week marked the first big snowstorm of the season in the Northeast, which brought some states serious snow accumulation while other areas maintained record high temperatures for this time of year. Horse owners are familiar with the challenges that snow, ice and freezing temperatures bring but erratic weather patterns with temperatures shifting from warm to freezing can be equally difficult to manage.
At this point in the year, your horse should already be barefoot or equipped with whatever method of traction device your farrier recommends. Rim shoes, rubber popper pads and Borium are all excellent additions to a standard shoe to reduce snow build up and potential slipping. Regardless of the approach you have taken to protect your horse during the winter it is crucial to remember that this is only the first step to caring for their hooves.
Many centers’ regular programing may slow or go on a hiatus during these months but it is important that hoof care does not do the same. With horses in less frequent work and possibly spending more time in frozen paddocks, the need for frequent hoof cleaning and checks is crucial.
Hoof growth slows during the winter months due to several environmental factors but can mostly be contributed to decreased circulation. Keeping exercise part of their daily routine either through turnout, riding, groundwork or hand walking will help increase blood flow as well as provide mental stimulation when other activities may be limited. Slightly slower hoof growth, reducing slipping potential and less intense work loads are all reasons many owners choose to let their horses go barefoot.
It is important to keep in mind that a barefoot horse (especially once who is typically shod) may be more susceptible to soreness and bruising. Keep a close eye on your horse’s feet for any tenderness or sudden lameness, especially in the forelimbs. Bruising can occur instantly from a horse stepping on frozen or rocky surfaces the wrong way. It is especially important to be mindful while riding outdoors in freezing temperatures. Uneven, frozen footing is extremely unforgiving and creates more concussion on the hoof and can also add stress to the joints and tendons. Listen to your horse, slow down and use common sense when riding out.
Frequent changes between wet and dry weather can also create more problems in the hoof than usual. Adding round pea gravel or mulch to heavy traffic areas of paddocks (gates, feeders) can be useful in creating drainage as well as traction. Horses that are stalled more than usual during the colder months should always have adequate clean bedding but it may be necessary to aid a moisturizer to their hoof care routine.
As the hoof adjusts to the conditions accordingly by expanding and contracting, moisture and bacteria is absorbed into the hoof and can multiply. This can produce more frequent abscesses especially in a horse with weak or shelly feet. Keep in mind that this time of year damage to the hoof such as an abscess, crack or chip can take longer to heal.
Thrush is unlikely in freezing temperatures but areas that have a wet, warmer winter may be prone. Horses wearing pads in preparation for ice and snow but instead are standing in mud, could present a breeding ground for bacteria or fungal problems. Cleaning and inspecting hooves daily is crucial to preventing any infections. Taking the time to be observant and attentive to any hoof issues that arise now will ensure your horse will be ready to “walk on” when the weather breaks.
1. Heel bulb
2. Periople at the heel
4. Quarter 5. Toe
6. Periople 7. Coronary band
1. Frog- This is a rubbery wedge shaped structure positioned between the bars.
2. Bars- There are two bars on each hoof. They are on either side of the frog.
3. Sole- The sole covers the bottom of foot.
4. White line- This is actually inter-connected lamina that you can see.
5. Walls- Walls are the same basic structure as your finger and toe nails.
Tamarack Hill Farm
Let's say we jog in place---we humans. Now let's say we squat down while jogging in place. Try it, it hurts more. Now squat lower, jog higher----It hurts still more, we pant more, we struggle more. We are feeling the effects of athletically induced discomfort.
Now imagine that you are sitting on a horse being ridden (correctly) back to front. You drive with seat or legs, create some impulsion, and simultaneously you "contain-receive-balance" that impulsion with your quiet, negotiating hands, so that the horse is being asked to take a "deeper" step, come more under himself, and lift himself more rather than simply push himself along, as he'd do naturally.
We call this things like "asking for more engagement", "asking him to carry himself". Even though what we are doing may be careful asking rather than forceful demanding, it STILL hurts the horse. No, it doesn't INJURE the horse, but it causes him athletically induced discomfort, because when you ask him to engage his hocks, and start to lift and carry his own weight, it's the same as what you felt jogging in place while squatting, lots of physical exertion.
Now the horse, feeling the effects of being asked to be a weight lifter, (and having zero incentive to become a well trained dressage horse---hahahaha, you anthropomorphic dreamer!) the horse tries to avoid the engagement.
He can invert. He can roll under. He can lean on the bit. He can flip his head. ALL these front end/head evasions are---listen here---to get rid of the "correct" connection between the driving aids and the receiving aids, because that connection makes him weight lift, and he'd far rather not.
In other words, we FEEL the resistance up FRONT, in the bit, reins, hands, but the resistance we feel up front is because he doesn't like the pressure of engagement BEHIND. (It took me about 2 1/2 years to figure this out, by the way) So now we MAY think, as many of us do---"My horse is "resisting" in his mouth/jaw. I need to use stronger rein aids. I need a sharper bit. I need draw reins. I need one of those leverage rigs." (This process can turn, easily, into ugly adversarial fighting, rider demanding, scared, uncomfortable horse resisting)
NO---What we need is to think very long term about strength training. We ask him to step under (engage), negotiate for some moments of semi-lift, back off, let him recover, ask for a little more, back off, repeat, repeat for months, tiny increments, little by little, "building the horse like an onion", one tiny layer at a time.
WEIGHT LIFTING IS SLOW. WEIGHT LIFTING DOESN'T FEEL GOOD. Yes, it will eventually turn your horse into a better athlete, but your horse doesn't know that. He isn't "being bad" when he resists, he's trying to get away from athletically induced discomfort. So----GO SLOW, HAVE COMPASSION for what he is undergoing. End of long discussion. I was no big saint about horse training. It took me too many years to equate much of this. Don't make the mistakes I made, and that so many riders make. Be better than that.
Marty Head comments
Engagement from Behind won't happen when the hocks are misaligned...nor will the horse's energy flow well Forward when the first ribs are misaligned. My mare, when I found her 10 years ago, tripped and short-strided on her fronts and winged with popping joints on her hinds. Heavy on the forehand and pulled herself along with her shoulders. Now at 21, she naturally engages her hinds and has powerful extension...as she willingly offers 5 different trots. Fellow riders tell me she carries me in a collected frame as we compete in endurance. I learned how to re-balance her body...and then got out of her way, while in the saddle. She responded by willfully engaging her hinds and collecting herself. And gaining 50 lbs. of muscle in the process. SHE's the one who trained ME how to ride.
Cathy Languerand's comments on Tamarack Hill Farm’s discussion:
I recently attended a work shop on rider bio-mechanics that did just what this discussion describes. We got on a mini trampoline and jogged in place with correct alignment for no more than three minutes (no one in any class had ever done more than three minutes). If done correctly this exercise is difficult and tiring. (We spent three days doing many exercises that refine our partnership with horses.) Try it yourself, engaging your core and really picking up those knees! Do this for three minutes a day gradually building your strength. Notice when you start to feel discomfort, what motivates you to continue? Are you able to notice athletically induced discomfort in your horse? Are you able to notice if your horse is physically fit enough to carry unbalanced riders? Do you have the fitness and knowledge to provide strength training for your therapy horses? Where do you go to deepen your knowledge and skills for creating “Partnership with Horses”?
As PATH Instructors we work in “Partnership” with our horses. If our horse is not in partnership then he is in fight, flight, or disassociation. If our horse “resists” we are not in partnership. What does “resistance” look like? Fear, anger, frustration, evasion, shut down? What is your response to resistance? Please read this article through again and consider what your own comfort level is. This discussion from Tamarack Hill Farm opens a door to a wonderful conversation on achieving partnership with our horses. Do you have any pictures or comments to share?
The need for partnership with horses is necessary in all “arenas” of horsemanship. Therapy is what the horses do for us. Horsemanship is about our relationship with horses. Our beliefs will shape how we hold and how we use our skills.
Choose wisely, for yourself and the Horses.
PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
Sharing Space With a Loose Horse
By Cathy Languerand, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
I have not been bitten by a horse for 20 years till a week ago, when a slightly food-aggressive horse tried to grab hay out of my arms and got my hand. She is not the type of horse who gently takes a bite with her lips but the kind who grabs with teeth and ears back. (She is currently not in any therapeutic lessons because of her lack of tolerance with both students and volunteers and is being given some time off.)
I was very tired and half asleep as I went in to give the horses their late night hay. I was also in a weakened emotional state, grieving the loss of my son. I have received hugs from some horses, no changes from some, and now aggression from this one. Looking at the big picture, people have been about the same.
I always look at my own accountability in my actions. What could I do differently? Was I too emotional to go in with loose horses, should I have someone else feed? Well, the next night I went in again. I was fully present and asked (pictured) this mare staying back and not even thinking about approaching me. She did not move, and did not even look in my direction when I entered with the hay. She was not stressed; she remained at rest with one leg cocked in a resting position. I calmly walked right past her. I used no spoken words and no body language except to be present in body, mind and spirit with a conscious intention to have my own space from her as I put hay in three piles for the three horses. The other two moved around me with soft, quiet gratitude as I put out their hay. She saw me and heard me but chose to ignore me. I thanked her as I left. She went in and ate her hay after I left.
What does partnership look like? Why was this mare more reactive that night? Was it me or was it her? I have learned to recognize that animals see us as vibrational beings. When different emotions change our vibrations our animals may feel the difference. Learning to be present and accountable is a daily practice. I am grateful to all my teachers.
So when a horse is at liberty in his own space, stall or paddock and someone enters that space, how does one stay safe?
- Make sure you have permission to enter their space.
- Have a clear intention of why you are entering their space.
- Be present body, mind, and spirit. Breathe from your belly.
- Have a way to get out if you need it. A horse will always know where the gate is.
- Be calm and confident.
- Just being in their space can feel invasive to some horses. Notice and understand if your presence is causing them stress. Notice physical and emotional signs of stress or changes in behavior.
- If more than one horse is in the space, understand that you may be in the space of a non-aggressive horse who gets moved by a more aggressive horse. You can still be run over. Even by mister nice guy.
- Hand feeding treats to a food-aggressive horse can be dangerous for everyone. Be accountable, your actions may cause harm to others.
Please share your stories. We are both teacher and student for each other.
Reinforce Positivity and Progression
By Jayna Wekenman
Driving to the Cleveland, OH for the PATH Intl. Conference in November (2015), I was sharing my thoughts setting promoting and supporting Enrichment for equines aside, and moving on with other aspirations for a while. I am fortunate for a small and mighty support system, and the past 6 years have been difficult in promoting Behavioral Enrichment and Environmental Enrichment for the equine assisted industry. I have struggled with direction and “next steps” without much feedback from both those I talked with and the larger industry. In addition, much feedback regarded Enrichment as not needed nor viable. I often motivated myself, and fuel was running low. Still, I was optimistic about this conference.
Morrigan Ansons-Reilly and I had the Domestic Foragers booth and presentation for promoting foraging-based enrichment tools, toys, and techniques. Throughout the few days, many attendees and passersby commented on foraging devices they used, explained how they implemented them, and told stories of their equines‘ engagement. I also received feedback regarding events and presentations years prior. Over-all, conversations were positive, and I left with enthusiasm for the future of Enrichment for the equines of the equine assisted industry.
In processing this experience, I realized the importance of reinforcement for me. Those words, stories, and support reinforced my work when intrinsic motivation and determination were no longer enough. So, my TIP to you... reinforce those within your center or whomever you encounter working toward something positive and progressive. Intrinsic motivation and determination of those working on projects and practice progressions at your center may not be enough for those individuals as well. How little or large, your constructive criticism, support, enthusiasm, time, and/or money may be the fuel needed to accomplish or implement.
Tips for a Safe Learning Session
By Cathy Languerand, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
The following safety tips are intended to help you observe, educate and shape your choices in order to create a safe, calm session. If you set goals in the same way you would for a therapeutic riding session you will be setting yourself up for success.
- Start by having a clear idea of the skill to be learned. Take complete responsibility for yourself, your horse and your equipment. This can be anything from a trailer loading session to walking through a brook--anything that raises your horse’s adrenaline.
- Know your own limitations and level of experience. Ask your horse only what you know you can achieve.
- Wear a hard hat and gloves.
- Work with a partner who is familiar with the language of equus.
- Know how to choose and use appropriate equipment.
- Keeping your horse's adrenaline down can be done by breaking the session down into small steps with clear rewards. Study equine body language to learn where you place your eyes, how you stand, even the use of your breath can effect communication. Set yourself up to succeed.
- Plan how to use both rewards and corrections that work best for each horse.
- Choose a safe method of rewards and corrections that you and your center find to be both compassionate and clear. Make a choice to study methods that do not use force and that increase communication and partnership. (Contact the PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee for resources.)
- Know what motivates your horse. Not all horses consider food a reward. Other rewards include release of pressure, rest, or a rub in his favorite spot. Build in jackpot rewards to celebrate a “big” try. Example – the horse puts his two front feet in the trailer; back him out and take him to a grassy spot and let him eat grass for a few minutes. Again, only when your horse is calm will he truly have conquered a new skill and be able to partner with you.
- Food in a bucket can be given if chosen as a beneficial REWARD. A REWARD is given AFTER your horse responds correctly to your request. Break the skill to be learned down into small, safe steps.
- Food becomes a BRIBE when used to LURE the horse to step toward a scary object like a trailer. This will not create leadership or partnership. A bribe will work only if and when the horse feels like taking the bribe.
- Understand the why and how rewards work. When a horse is chewing food it activates the part of his brain associated with learning which is the opposite of activating adrenaline.
- Safe and calm only happen when your horse accepts what you ask without bringing his adrenaline up.
- Recognize signs of a raised adrenaline/ stress: heart rate up, respiration up, sweating, fight, flight, or freeze.
- Refine your ability to read your horse’s body language. Watch to see how he uses his senses of smell and touch, and how he explores with both front feet.
Know that your horse is confirmed in his knowledge when you can calmly and fluidly move all four of his feet both forward and backward over an object several times in a row. In addition, you will need to schedule other sessions where you repeat this exercise several times in other places.
Remember to create a benefit for you and your partner.
Benefits of Conference
Cathy Languerand, PATH Intl. Equine welfare Committee Chair
It was a nine hour drive to Cleveland, Ohio, a great time to think and plan (on the way out) and reflect (on the way back) on my reasons for attending this year’s PATH Intl. Conference. I went to share the work of our Equine Welfare Committee on emotional well-being for equines. Collectively, two committee members and I (we had never met in person until the presentation) shared our PowerPoint presentation. We all practiced together reading, exploring and examining cultures that produce optimal health and cultures that produce stress. We will soon have this PowerPoint available on the PATH Intl. website. In addition I planned on meeting others who are involved in partnering with horses in our bodies, in our minds, and from our hearts. If you were in Ohio for the conference you saw what this looks like! Through research, videos, PowerPoints, stories, and hands on with the horses, we all shared this connection of body, mind and spirit with ourselves, our horses, and each other.
It was inspirational and motivated a renewed commitment to the “path” of therapy and healing that our horses are giving use both individually and as a group. This collective gathering of our knowledge, energy and intention is very powerful, even synergistic. We immersed ourselves in this energy for four days. I was able to sit in and listen to several members of the Equine Welfare Committee, both past and present, as they shared their work and wisdom. Very awesome! Key note speaker Jackie Stevenson was a high point for me. Jackie also did an equine session at Saturday’s Horse Expo that was wonderful. Jackie invited everyone at the session to collectively or individually share with the four horses in the indoor an intention from the heart. This connection from the heart was both seen and felt by all who chose to participate.
This same connected awareness was present during every session I attended.
From Healing for Veterans to the Wisdom of Donkeys
From benefits of play to effects of trauma
From mentoring others to discussions with peers
As a Center Program Director and PATH Intl. Certified Instructor I work with horses and humans daily. As a Reiki Master I work with energy daily. As an observer at this year’s conference I was able to see, hear, and feel from my heart everyone reaching out from their hearts, connecting to this collective wisdom that is both Horse and Human within the powerful container of PATH Intl.
My “Tip” from the Horses: connect from your heart.
From my heart to yours,
PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Chair
10 Ways to Use PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee’s Guidelines for Equines in Therapeutic Horsemanship Programs
By Jayna Wekenman, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee member
Guidelines for Equines in Therapeutic Horsemanship Programs was created as a resource for PATH Intl. members, PATH Intl. centers, and others. Care and Welfare for Therapy Horses is a presentation and webinar accompanying this document. Both are readily available through the website (Home -- Education -- Industry Links -- Equine Welfare) or at: http://www.pathintl.org/resources-education/resources/equine-welfare.
The following offers 10 ways in which the Guidelines and presentation can be utilized as a resource. Please share your comments and more ideas in the Equine Welfare Community on Community Connections.
- Both resources were created in collaboration with AAEP (American Association Equine Practitioners) which is comprised of (mostly) veterinarians working to improve the health and welfare of the horse throughout the equine industry. The presentation suggests benefits to veterinarians of being involved with PATH Intl. centers. These resources can be used in educating veterinarians and/or veterinarian students about PATH Intl. and PATH Intl. programs.
- Similar to the benefits suggested for veterinarians, collaboration with PATH Intl. members and centers can be beneficial for equine products and services. These resources can be used as a tool for laying out these benefits when eliciting sponsorships of equine products and services. Furthermore, these resources can be a tool in aligning goals of collaboration i.e. defining fitness of equines, amenities of barn and program areas, etc etc.
- Use both when training volunteers and staff.
- Using the Guidelines to help define your program’s preventative maintenance for equine health and roles of individual people within the equine welfare team.
- Develop a checklist (or use the example) to gather information for evaluation and documentation of equine health and wellbeing. Include weight, concerns, current feed, laminitis checks, and more. Then, host Equine Welfare Days with veterinarians, staff, volunteers, participants, and public to collect data for each individual equine.
- Host an Equine Education Day for public, kids, and potential participants. Both resources include easy-to-use pictures and info that can be used.
- Definitions and language used throughout each resource regarding equine welfare can be used in creating a common language for discussions amongst staff and volunteers of programs and the larger PATH Intl. membership on Community Connections.
- Create conversations regarding behavioral concerns of program horses amongst program personnel and participants. Use the Attitude vs Pain slide amongst others. Many of these conversations can be processed for learning outcomes in EAL and EAMH.
- These resources can serve other equines, barns, participants, and professionals in the non-PATH Intl. equine industry, too.
- Print the Guidelines for Equines in Therapeutic Horsemanship Programs off and use it as a manual for day-to-day operations. Keep it accessible.
What to Do if Your Horse Is Stolen!
by Molly Sweeney, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee Member
The best thing you can do before your horse is stolen is take precautions NOW to help prevent horse theft from ever happening. Extensive information is available from Stolen Horse International at www.NetPossee.com. More information can be found in the book, Horse Theft, Been There-Done That by Stolen Horse International’s founder, Debi Metcalfe. All her material is under copyright, so the following tips will be minimally basic. The website and book will give you comprehensive prevention tips and guide you in making a search and recovery action plan. You will also learn when horse theft is a civil case and when it is a criminal case and what that difference means to you and your horse.
Prevention: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
- Document, document, document
- Photograph, photograph, photograph
- Be aware of pitfalls in horse donations, leases and sales, and always have legal signed papers to protect everyone and the horse in these transactions
- Security at all times. From NetPosse you can buy a W.H.O.A. sign, WARNING: HORSE OWNER AWARENESS, Horses and Equipment Have Permanent Identification.
- Have a crisis team and a trained network in place to call into immediate action if a theft does happen.
- Make an action plan including a list of people to contact and places to go in person
Search Action Plan:
- Take immediate action. Time is of the essence in horse theft cases.
- Get the facts of the theft
- Call appropriate Law Enforcement Agencies and Livestock Units for your city, state and/or county
- File a report with Stolen Horse International through www.NetPosse.com
- Determine the Reward offered
- Create a flyer with all the horse’s information and photo and post it ASAP in every public place and on all the social media you can think of
- Go in person to horse auctions and notify equine slaughter facilities. Presently (September 2015) Congress has voted to not fund horse inspections, effectively banning equine slaughter facilities in the USA. Equine slaughter facilities still operate in Canada and Mexico. Check annually to see if any have opened in the USA.
- On a daily basis, follow-up, follow-up, follow-up
- Keep a record of all actions, calls and any correspondence
- Don’t give up!
- Have all documents with you to prove ownership
- Never go alone
- Prosecute as much as you can under the law. Often the value of the stolen item determines whether it is a misdemeanor or prosecutable felony. Check your state laws so you can declare the appropriate value of your horse. In Texas it is now $2500.
Having a plan and the ability to take IMMEDIATE action will go a long way toward a successful recovery.
Face Value: Equine expressions defined through EquiFACS
Christina Russell, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee member
Professionals who work with horses have long understood that horses communicate through body language, vocalizations and facial expressions. This often may be one of the first lessons we teach our students and volunteers in order for them to better understand how to safely work around horses. Many participants in EAAT programing enjoy learning how to read a horse’s head position, ears and eyes to determine if they are frightened, calm or curious. For children, understanding the swish of a tail or a pair of pinned ears can feel like clues to understand a secret and often times silent language.
Horses are highly social animals who have a clear organizational structure and relationships within their herd, similar to many other mammal species. Communication is a key element to maintain these relationships, but there is also typically a focus on the whole head and body of the horse as opposed to specific facial expressions.
A recent research project from the University of Sussex (Jean Wathan, Anne M. Burrows, Bridget M. Waller, Karen McComb) descends deeper into the subtleties of equine communication. A new system referred to as EquiFACS (Facial Action Coding System) has been designed to identify and record all possible facial expressions in horses based on the underlying facial musculature and movement. This type of facial coding system is not new and has long been used in behavioral and physiological settings for humans. Facial coding systems have also been adapted for primates and other domestic animals.
EquiFACS is the first system designed specifically for equines. This system identifies the muscles or muscle groups which may move to create an expression, as well as the type of movement. This standardized approach makes it possible for observers to record expressions without the emotional bias or interpretations people often assign facial expressions.
Most of the existing research on equine communication has been focused on expressions found in one particular context. The observations for this project were made by observing 15 hours of video footage that captures a variety of naturally occurring behaviors in 86 different horses. There were 17 facial actions identified and recorded as opposed to 27 in humans. The facial actions were divided into Upper Face Actions, Lower Face Actions and Ear Movement Descriptors. Any of the equine expressions which were seen similarly in humans were also specified, as well as possible combinations of the specific face actions.
The creation of the anatomically based EquiFACS system will be instrumental in furthering research on equine communication. This tool will make it possible to record consistent horse facial expressions in any context as well as make comparisons to other species. This will only further the understanding of equine communication and strengthen efforts to improve welfare for domestic horses.
To view the full article and findings:
Grooming: Building a Connection
By Marcie Ehrman, PATH Intl. Equine Welfare Committee member
During our monthly equine welfare committee conference call, I agreed to write a “Tips” article on flies. I actually did start writing the article. And then, while grooming my pony, I began to think about the meaning of the words, “grooming as ceremony,” one of the topics we discussed in a planning session for our presentation at the International Conference. No spoiler alert here – it just made me think about the enormous value of spending time observing, bonding & connecting with your horse while engaged in the seemingly ordinary task of grooming.
Starting out, observe your horse’s demeanor and his mood. Is he attentive or distracted, relaxed or tense? Allow all your senses to partake in the experience – (well, maybe not taste!). Really see him – focus large and take in the whole vision of him; then focus in and observe his hair coat, his muscling, the contours of his feet – every minute detail. Pay attention to his eyes, his ears, his jaw set, his mouth and lips. Watch the movement of his tail. Observe his breathing – is it fast or slow, deep or shallow, regular or irregular, and does it change during the grooming session? Notice his stance – does he tend to cock one hind leg more than another? Does he prefer standing with one particular leg forward or back? Does he lower his head as grooming progresses? Have you found his “lippy spots” (those places that feel so good when brushed or curried that his upper lip will move as if he is offering to return the favor)? Play with using minimal gesture, words and touch to ask him to pick up each foot. Refine these over time – you will probably find him offering you his feet (in sequence) with just a light touch or even a word or signal. Work toward using ever more subtle cues to ask him to lower his head, back up or step sideways. Observe & feel his legs – familiarize yourself with the muscle, bone and joint structures, the ridges and hollows. Use your hands to feel for any swellings, lumps, bumps or temperature changes as you move them down his legs and around his hooves. Breathe in his smell, listen to him inhale & exhale and enjoy the rumbling of his gut sounds. Mentally check in with him periodically throughout the grooming session; learn to recognize any changes in demeanor and degree of relaxation, whether obvious or subtle. Allow yourself to feel very present with him.
So next time you pick up a curry comb or body brush – really “tune in” to your horse, and transform a routine task into a truly bonding experience.
Please share your experiences “tuning in to your horse” at PATH Intl. community connections page.