I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment. Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.
For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):
“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps). She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”
The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring. But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy. At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.
It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament. Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident. She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.
I spent time this spring just getting to know her better. In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible. Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills. Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived. But even so, certain things were new. The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it. She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away. We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.
One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead. She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway. After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand. But clearly we needed a better system.
So I began introducing her to the cross ties. I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming. She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect. Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there. Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie. And just like that…we crosstied.
While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties. But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot. I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.
As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat. Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.
In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad. I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides. “No drama”. From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.
I set a few further goals for her for the summer. When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that. I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides. And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.
I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more. On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient. Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task. Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe. She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own. And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm. Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!
It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare. Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway? Should I be using some contraption? I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings. She has yet to wear a saddle. Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here]. Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?
But then I remind myself to take a step back. Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing. The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours. Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer. In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit. But there is no hurry, no rush. If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.
Horses do not progress on our schedule. My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go. There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what. So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.
c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages
I first read an excerpt of Jochen Schleese’s book, Suffering in Silence: the Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, in an old issue of Dressage Today magazine. The segment provided there included information regarding the natural asymmetry of the horse, detailing how this condition develops, and how this asymmetry impacts saddle fit. I was struck by the technical precision in the writing and the clear passion which Schleese had for the subject. I immediately ordered a copy of the book to review in more depth.
Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist, and Schleese Saddles are known as being “ergonomically correct” for female riders. In this book, Schleese goes into a great deal of detailed explanation regarding the how’s and why’s of his theory of saddle fitting. In particular, he highlights the personal research he has done into the differences between male and female pelvic anatomy, and how this can impact each gender’s relative position in the saddle. What was even more interesting to me, though, were his thoughts on the ideal fit of the saddle to the horse.
I have struggled to find the ideal saddle fit for two of my own horses; one is a distance horse who has completed two 100 mile competitive trail rides, and the other is a Connemara cross who does mostly dressage (each has their own tack). In the past, I have had certified saddle fitters adding pads, shims and all manner of other manipulations to make saddles fit. After experiencing years of frustration, I began working with someone new, who identified some basic issues, such as an inappropriate tree width, as being part of my problem. Still, the process of finding a correctly fitting saddle can make someone feel like the princess and the pea.
Schleese emphasizes that a well fitting saddle for the horse must be a priority, as this variable, more than many others, can influence a horse’s long term soundness. In this book, he describes the horse’s saddle support area, with detailed discussion of the muscles, ligaments and tendons involved. Schleese uses clear descriptions as well as outstanding illustrations and diagrams to help the reader to see and understand where the saddle should be placed, the interaction of the saddle, girth and the biomechanics of the horse, and the importance of clearing the equine scapula. I can’t say enough about the quality of this discussion, and I think it is something which every horseman should read and absorb. I simply haven’t seen it done better, anywhere.
I have since learned that Schleese is somewhat of a controversial figure in the saddle fitting/making community. There are some who feel that his “saddles for women” theme is just a gimmick to sell saddles; one saddler I spoke with said that if you want to sell saddles in the modern market, they “all better fit women”. Schleese also is a proponent of rear-facing gullet plates, a design which is counter to the principles espoused by the Society of Master Saddlers, a large certifying organization based in the U.K. However, there are many other saddlers who consider Schleese’s work to be inspirational; one local saddler says that his work is in fact what inspired her to become a certified saddle fitter.
With all that being said, I don’t consider this book to be a sales pitch, but rather the outcome of one man’s passion for promoting greater awareness of the critical importance of saddle fit for horse and rider. The text is clear and accessible to any conscientious horseman, the book is incredibly well illustrated through diagram and photograph, and many additional resources are provided where readers can learn more.
I was so inspired by reading this book that I have actually reached out to Schleese’s company, Saddlefit 4 Life, and we will be hosting a seminar with him at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on September 20, 2017. Visit www.equine.unh.edu fore more information.
Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017
For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority. For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”. Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.
Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.
Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times. She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles. Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition. She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.
Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing: hydration, gut motility and energy balance. They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.
Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss. The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow. Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride. During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.
Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates. Health concerns escalate rapidly from there. At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated. At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output. At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble. At 12%, the horse is close to death.
The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.
Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth. According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking. For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons. Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride. Another 20% were at the high end of normal. Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.
Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.
Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this. Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition. First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.
Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride. These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.
The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider. Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals. When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume. The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.
If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal. But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.
To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours. Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.
On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food. The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking. So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses. Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.
Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein. Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate. Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.
Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:
Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
Minimize the amount of protein in the diet
While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress. Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else. This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract. This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.
For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride. Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants. Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility. Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat. The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased. Slowing down will reverse this effect.
Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process. Instead, feed soaked products, including hay. The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.
A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance. There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride. Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.
There are two primary sources of energy for exercise: fats and glucose (from carbohydrates). Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities. Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue. Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.
Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it. Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight. They also have a glycogen sparing effect. Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride. Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly. A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements. Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.
One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride. Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat. In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’. Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested. The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.
Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride. On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.
There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride. Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.
This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!). Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work. Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.
Winter is here in New England. A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing. Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep. This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.
Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping. All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know. If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots. But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter. The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year. Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor. One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing. No athlete can maintain peak performance year round. Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge. After all, nature is doing it, right?
Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty. As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me! With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.
In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned. I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky. I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil. Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.
Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers. We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends. Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.
Songbirds return. At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy. The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.
But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups. Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs. Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area). Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies. And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.
Summers in New England are short and intense. There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it. I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible. I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day. My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.
This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought. I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.
The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual. I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated. On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back. But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll. Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil. I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.
Fall here is simply stunning. There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten. Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color. Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed. The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction. The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer. Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.
Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter. The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300). Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water. And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves. I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!
As fall winds down, winter begins again. And the cycle continues.
Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change. Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.
So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.
During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug. Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete. However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.
Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations. But quickly the backlash began. Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.
Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years. They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver. They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows. The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue. The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.
I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events. Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system. Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours. For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry. The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure. Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.
From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival. Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods. I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles. But yet, the impression is there.
So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again. But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details. And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero. She has been abusing that horse for years.”
Wait a minute here. Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right. She stopped performing her test. It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well. She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports. In spite of all of this…she stopped. How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?
The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet. It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw: “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What? He looked sound to me.) “He is obviously unhappy. Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable. I feel so bad for him.”
I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks. Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched. The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone. He appears healthy and willing. He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance. I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse. However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched. I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.
I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.
I must really not know much about horses or dressage. But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair. I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing. One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival. I wish I was making this up.
There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor. “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks. “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”
This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”. The stuff that no one talks about but people know about. It happens in all equine sports, at all levels. And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok. This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another. This is about good, basic, horsemanship.
Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival? Sure. I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility. But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them. So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.
If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak? Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?
Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”. She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag. This lesson has really stuck with me. The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners. And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?
The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself. Educate yourself. Learn from the best that you can afford. Practice. Eat healthy. Stay fit. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.
There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse. But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.
I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.
A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue. The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team. If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.
I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review. But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.
Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex. His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events. According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)
“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders. The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”
While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them. It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.
“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer. It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me. Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with. But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery
We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course. When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much. If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem. And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.
With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point. I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more. It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust. That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”
I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions. But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses. Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple. We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level. The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place. The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.
Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try. In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured. We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her. She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.
“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery
With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September. We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring. I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it. We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100. Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness. Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.” A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.
“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that. The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed. If it isn’t, then you have to back off. That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery
So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path. I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses. Treat your horse as an individual. Have goals but be ready to revise them. Try to really listen to what your horses are saying. They are only horses, after all. Our ambitions are not theirs. But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.
Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***. Read here to learn more.
Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports. If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.
With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations. In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all. It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful. But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for. It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe. Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.
I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay. At the time, Holly was just 15 years old. She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC. Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching. It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them. But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc. Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.
And there is one other detail about Holly. She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).
Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah). Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east. You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia. But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.
One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.
Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).
Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.
I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments. Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”. They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.
Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse. She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show. But Holly had an additional weight to carry: “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”
Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?
Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish. Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal. Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle. But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC. And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal. I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship. I met amazing people. I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”
I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving. Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four. And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.
After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina. The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete. After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.
But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo. The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.
Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition. Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort. According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones. With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.
I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time. It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion. And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.
In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss. Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again. She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity. I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.
While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals. To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.
I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn. I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her. Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.
The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders by Heather Cook
c 2009 Storey Publishing (North Adams), 231 pages
The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders is a super easy to read and well organized book which represents the most comprehensive summary of the concepts of “sustainable practice for horse care, stable management, land use and riding” in one place to have crossed my desk. Depending on your previous level of knowledge on the subject of eco-friendly horse management practices, this book might alternately be too basic in some areas or too detailed in others. In either case, though, you are likely to find references to supplemental sources which can direct you to more information.
I have long maintained that the equine industry needs to get on board with more sustainable management strategies. Too many farms are overstocked, with destroyed paddocks/turnouts, unsightly and unsanitary manure piles and out of date protocols. This book helps take the reader through the steps necessary to establish a different paradigm, whether starting a farm from scratch or working with facilities and layouts already in place. Cook does an excellent job of balancing general guidelines with more specific detail. For example, each chapter concludes with guidance to be considered for various climate regions in the US and Canada.
Some of the strategies covered in this book include techniques for “harvesting” water from rainspouts for use as wash water or for irrigation (which, interestingly, is illegal in Colorado); several methods of composting manure; selection of sustainable and healthy building materials; reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reclamation of muddy paddocks. In addition, there is an extensive resource list compiled in an appendix which is clearly divided into sections such as green energy, grant sources, recycling, trail riding resources, helpful government and non-government organizations, etc.
This book really is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in being a good steward of their land, or in providing guidance to someone else who is in that role. The onus is on all of us as concerned and conscientious citizens to do a better job of implementing management practices which consider the local and regional environment. A healthy farm means healthy horses.
Blogger’s Note: Cover image is taken from Sustainablestables.com, another great resources for assistance and tips on better horse and farm management strategies.
Dr. Clayton shares her thoughts at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on October 27, 2015
There is no doubt that how we ride our horses, the tack we use on them and the manner in which the horses carry themselves has a cumulative effect on their well-being over time. Whether that effect is positive or negative is one of the questions considered in the study of equine biomechanics, which combines the disciplines of physics and physiology to study how forces and work affect the body of the horse. Dr. Hilary Clayton is well known for the work she has done in this field, and she visited the University of New Hampshire in October of 2015 to share her thoughts on some of the more common interactions which occur amongst the horse, the rider and the tack.
Equine Topline Mechanics 101
Clayton started her presentation with an overview of the structure of a horse’s vertebral column and how it works. Just like in humans, the horse’s spine is made up of bone, ligaments, muscles and discs; equine discs are relatively thin compared to a human’s, and therefore horses don’t suffer from slipped discs and disc pain like humans can. Even though the horse’s spine is horizontal, it loads similarly to a human’s in that it compresses together when force is applied.
Each intervertebral joint has a small degree of mobility; when taken in totality, this allows for considerable movement along the entire length of the horse’s spine. The degree and type of movement which the topline displays varies with each gait. In the walk, there is some bending and rotation in the topline, but little flexion or extension. At the trot, there is more flexion and extension and the back is stabilized. At the canter and the gallop, there is a great deal of flexion and extension, particularly in the lumbosacral joint, and the back is stabilized.
Instructors and trainers will often tell their clients that their horses need to move with a swinging back. Clayton explained that this statement is not wholly accurate. When in locomotion, the horse’s back must actually remain stable in order to support the horse’s weight and to transmit propulsive forces from the limbs. Clayton says that when the horse moves at liberty, they are not actively moving their back. The back movement we see is due to gravity, inertia and the propulsive forces of the hind leg. In fact, excessive mobility of the bones in the spine during motion is never the goal—it is the muscles which need to be supple into order to control the movement of the spine.
Clayton compared the structure of the articulated vertebrae of the horse’s spine to a beam which has a support at each end. In the horse’s case, the “beam” tends to sag a bit in the middle, due to the weight of the internal organs and other viscera. When we add the weight of a saddle and rider to this region, we increase the hollowing of the spine and the “dip” in the middle of the beam. Clayton explains that with a rider, the range of flexion and extension is the same but the entire cycle of the motion is more extended.
Through the above description, it should be immediately apparent that the weight of the rider is inherently causing stress on the horse’s topline. More troubling, though, is that when the horse’s back is hollowed as result of this weight, the dorsal spinous processes are approximated, which can lead to the development of the degenerative condition known as kissing spines. Clayton’s research has shown that far more horses are affected with kissing spines than just those which show overt symptoms; however, even at a subclinical level, the syndrome can cause the horse discomfort and reduce the quality of their performance. The good news is that when the back is rounded, the opposite effect occurs—the spinous processes are spread out. Therefore, regardless of your discipline, you horse should learn to work with a round topline.
Round Backs and Development of the Horse’s Core
Clayton compared the mechanism which causes the horse’s back to be round to a “bow and string”. The “string” is comprised of the muscles on the underside of the bones of the back, in this case the abdominal and sublumbar muscles. The “bow” is therefore made up of the muscles located above the vertebrae. Rounding their back requires the coordinated action of the horse’s core muscles.
Athletes of all species can achieve more optimal performance with a strong core. These muscles are important both for balanced movement and coordinated stabilization. Clayton divided the muscles of the horse’s core into three groups: the back muscles, the sublumbar muscles and the abdominal muscles, and the groups work in concert to achieve the maximum mobility of the horse’s spine.
The back muscles make the topline hollow, round or bend right and left. The sublumbar muscles flex the lumbosacral joint and the pelvis, which helps to bring the hind legs forward and underneath the body. Finally, the abdominal muscles wrap all around the horse’s belly, running many different directions. This group of muscles includes the transverse abdominal, the obliques and the rectus abdominus. Collectively, they literally help hold the horse’s ‘guts’ in place, as well as stabilize the spine and assist with lateral bending.
Clayton explained the function of the back muscles in more specific detail. First, she discussed the longissimus and iliocostalis muscles, which are the long mobilizing muscles of the back. They are made up of long fibers and cross many joints. These muscles are able to move the entire back of the horse.
The multifadi muscles serve the function of stabilizing the horse’s back. These muscles are located right against the spinous processes and are comprised of short fibers which cross only a few joints; therefore, they work on only a limited area of the horse’s spine. However, the condition of these muscles can have a profound effect on the shape of the back in a specific area. More will be said on this later.
Clayton pointed out that most muscles work in pairs or layers; therefore, the deep stabilizing muscles are as important as the long mobilizing muscles, as they help to prevent vibration in the horse’s bones. They also have a low activation threshold, which means that they will contract (along with the transverse abdominal muscle) simply in anticipation of locomotor activity. They then serve to stabilize the horse’s spine as the limbs move.
Limited research has been done on the many effects of the horse’s stabilizing muscles on the spine. However, research done on humans has shown that chronic back pain is often associated with atrophy of the deep stabilizing muscles, as joints then become too mobile. Impaired spinal stabilization is an important risk factor and a predictor of recurrent back pain in humans. Based on her research, Clayton extrapolates that a similar connection exists in horses.
Human research has also shown that even when back pain is resolved, the deep stabilizing muscles do not resume normal activity on their own. Physiotherapy exercises are necessary to re-train the pre-activation of the stabilizing muscles. In human patients who underwent this therapy, the one year recurrence rate of pain reduced from 80% to 30%.
When it comes to back pain, Clayton says that horses go through a similar cycle to humans. When the back hurts, the deep stabilizing muscles become inactive, resulting in atrophy. This causes the long mobilizing muscles to compensate, but since they are not equipped to stabilize the spine, these muscles spasm and cause further pain. Therapeutic exercises are needed to reactivate the deep stabilizing muscles and to break the cycle of compensation and pain.
Developing Your Horse’s Core with Dynamic Mobilization Exercises
Clayton has developed a series of core strengthening exercises and sequences through her research, and she goes into illustrated depth about these in her book, Activate Your Horse’s Core (Sport Horse Publications, 2008). She gave a brief synopsis during her presentation.
Dynamic Mobilization Exercises are those in which the horse follows a controlled movement pattern which strengthens the muscles that move and stabilize the back. They are comprised of rounding exercises and bending exercises. In the rounding exercises, most of the flexion comes from the poll (high position) or the base of the neck (low position). In the bending exercises, most of the movement comes at the base of the neck.
Clayton described a protocol which provided positive results in several “couch potato” school horses. Using small bits of carrot to motivate the horse, they did three rounding exercises (chin to chest, chin between the carpi (knees) and chin between the fetlocks) and three lateral bending exercises (chin to girth, chin to hip, chin to hind fetlock). For the lateral bending exercises, the human stood next to the horse, making them bend their neck around the human. Horses did five repetitions/day and on left and right sides, if appropriate. The exercises were repeated five days/week for three months. Even with these stretches as the only form of exercise, the horses showed a positive development in their deep stabilizing muscles.
One of the benefits of these exercises is that the horse will only stretch as far as they are comfortable. Ideally, the handler should encourage the horse to hold the stretch for as long as possible, but even stretching for a short period will help improve the strength of the multifidus muscle. The best benefits are seen when these exercises are performed before the horse works each day; regular inclusion of them in a training program will help equine athletes throughout their career. In addition, these exercises can be used in youngsters to help develop the deep stabilizing muscles before they begin under saddle training and are also especially beneficial for horses recovering from colic surgery, with appropriate approval from the attending veterinarian.
The Role of Equipment and Rider in Equine Back Pain
When it comes to saddle selection and fit, it is clear that both the horse and the rider must be comfortable. While the rider can simply vocalize their discomfort, the horse must express it in other ways, and it is important for riders and trainers to remain sensitive to this communication. Unfortunately, the manner in which horses display the existence of back pain is as variable as the causes. However, both the saddle and the rider can contribute to discomfort in the horse’s topline, and certain issues are almost sure predictors of pain in the horse.
Clayton has made extensive use of an electronic pressure mat which sits on the horse’s back in her research on saddles. This specialized mat has 256 sensors (128 on each side of the spine) which measure force distribution on the horse’s back. Her research has shown that the total force placed on the horse’s back varies with the size and weight of the rider and saddle as well as the gait of travel.
For example, in the trot, the suspension phase has minimal pressure, while the stance phase of each stride has the maximum force. This is when the horse’s body is starting to rise up, but the weight of the rider is still down. The mean force placed on the horse is at least equal to the rider’s weight in the walk; in the trot, it is two times the rider’s weight and in the canter it is three times.
Clayton says that she is frequently asked to quantify how much weight a given horse can fairly be asked to carry, but she says that this is a complex question to answer. Variables such as the height, weight, conformation, fitness and soundness of the horse all play a role. For example, a horse with a short and broad loin coupling can likely carry more weight than a horse of similar size with a long or narrow loin. As far as the rider goes, variables such as weight, fitness, symmetry, balance, postural control and health issues all influence the impact they have on a given horse. Also important is the activity the horse is being asked to do—what type of work and on what kind of footing or terrain.
Finally, the saddle itself can have a positive or negative impact on a horse’s comfort level. Each saddle is unique in terms of its load-bearing area, fit and suitability for a given horse, rider and job. Soft tissues compress when pressure is applied. The larger the area the force is spread over, the less overall pressure there will be. This is one of the reasons why more modern saddles have long, broad panels.
Pressure is calculated via force divided by area. Therefore, the pressure increases if the force is larger or if the contact area is smaller. Areas of deep pressure can be very harmful, causing ulcers or necrosis of the tissue due to increased capillary pressure. On a less extreme level, pressure can cause discomfort through abrasions. Clayton says that it is the magnitude and duration of pressure which are most important. Muscles in particular are easily damaged by pressure.
If you see dry spots under your saddle after work, these are areas of increased pressure which prevent the sweat glands from working and are cause for concern.
Interesting Saddle Trivia
In her research, Clayton has had cause to investigate a number of different areas in which saddles might impact the horse, and she shared some of her findings with the audience.
One of the first questions she looked at was whether a saddle is truly necessary. Most riders prefer to use a saddle for the stability and security it provides them on the horse’s back, and as it turns out, horses seem to prefer that their riders use saddles, too. Without a saddle, the pressure of the rider is distributed over a smaller area, and the focal points of that pressure are over the rider’s seat bones. (Interestingly, Clayton found similar results when she looked at one brand of treeless saddle, as well). Clayton found that in general, a saddle which fits the shape of the horse’s back and the shape of the rider’s pelvis will provide stability to the rider’s position, and as a result, the pressure is more evenly distributed. She also mentioned that within a breed, 80-90% of animals will have a similar back shape.
Correct saddle fit is of course of paramount importance. Correctly fitted saddles are more stable, which increases horse and rider harmony. The rigid parts of the tree, including the gullet plate, the points and the bars, can cause increased areas of pressure on the horse’s back. It is important to consider the width of the gullet plate and length of the tree’s points in relation to the position of the scapula and related muscles. When the horse extends their forelimb, the scapula rotates back and down on its back side, and rotates a little bit up in front. This causes the back edge of the scapula to actually slide underneath the saddle in this moment of the stride. A well fitting saddle should allow for free movement of the scapula when the forelimb is protracted.
Clayton says that the width of the tree is equally important. The correct width allows the load to be evenly distributed over a large area. Ideally, the contact area is long and wide, with no focal points of high pressure. A tree which is too wide may cause the gullet to put direct pressure on the withers and/or cause high pressure along the panels close to the spine. In addition, the saddle often tips forward and down. A tree which is too narrow is one of the most common causes of bridging; there is more pressure at the front and the back of the panels, and the saddle tips backwards. Clayton says that bridging is the most common saddle fit problem, and it must be evaluated with the rider on board and while the horse is in motion.
More nuanced aspects of saddle fit include assessing the width of the gullet and slope and shape of the panels. A wider gullet is usually better, because it allows mobility of the spine without causing it to hit the edge of the panels. The slope of the panels must also suit the shape of the horse’s back. Panels come in a variety of widths and curvatures, and it is important that the type chosen suits the individual animal.
Finally, Clayton emphasized that saddle pads cannot compensate for the deficiencies of a poorly fitting saddle. However, they may increase the horse’s comfort if the saddle is essentially the correct size and shape. Clayton says that pads made with natural fibers, such as sheepskin, seem to have a better degree of resiliency and spring.
Girths and Slipping Saddles
Girth design has evolved considerably in recent years, and Clayton touched briefly on the subject at the end of her talk. She said that the highest pressure beneath the girth occurs just behind the elbow in the moment when the forelimb contacts the ground. In her research, contoured girths seem to do the best job in terms of reducing both force and pressure.
Finally, Clayton discussed saddles which seem to constantly slip to one side. She says that it is important to determine if the cause of the slip is the horse, the rider or the fit of the saddle. Subtle hind limb lameness can be blamed for the cause of many slipping saddles, particularly when the slip occurs consistently to one side and with a variety of different riders on board. In 60% of these cases, the saddle slips towards the side of the lame/more significantly lame hind limb. The slip will go away when the lameness is eliminated through the use of nerve or joint blocks. Clayton commented that rider crookedness is more likely to be an effect than the cause of saddle slipping. Clearly if the cause of the saddle slip is lameness, this issue must be addressed before the problem will go away.
Clayton’s presentation covered a broad range of topics, but one theme was quite clear—riders have an obligation to their horses to ride them in as correct of a manner as possible, in the best fitting tack possible. In this way, riders and trainers can actively contribute to the preservation of the horse’s long term soundness and promote their well-being.
As the caregiver for a 33.5 year old equine (who has been in my life since he was a mere lad of 16 years), I am frequently asked for insight or advice in terms of the care of the older horse. I have to admit that in Carmel’s case, I think I have had the advantage of some good genetics—his dam was a maiden mare in her upper twenties, who was bred by a recently gelded youngster who jumped the fence. Clearly there is something in these lines which is determined to survive!
That being said, I feel that Carmel’s longevity and good health can also be attributed to several critical care and management decisions along the way. I have the unique advantage of basically knowing his whole life’s history, and I know that he has always been well taken care of. With the ever improving quality in veterinary care and an increase in owner education, it stands to reason that more people will be finding themselves caring for aged horses who are still sound, happy and healthy members of the equine community.
For me, caring for an older horse has been a gift, but it has not been without its hard times too. Once horses reach a certain age, it is a tough truth that as the steward of that animal’s well-being, you will be asked to make some hard decisions. Horses are expensive to maintain, and it isn’t everyone’s reality that they can afford to keep a horse who doesn’t suit their personal needs anymore. I feel quite strongly that if you make the commitment to keep a horse into their retirement years, you have an obligation to do right by that animal—which usually means that you will be doing more than just meeting the horse’s basic needs for shelter, feed and water. It is important to know, going into it, just where your personal “bottom” is—knowing this will hopefully help ease the difficulty of making judgement calls when they come before you.
So with all that being said, here are five tips from my own personal experience caring for older horses.
Tip # 1: Give them a job. In my opinion, a horse which is used to competing, regular riding or even just weekly pleasure outings doesn’t do well in complete retirement. Horses are creatures of habit and routine, and when they are used to a consistent program, it can actually increase mental stress and contribute to physical issues when their work is ceased, particularly when such a change is made abruptly. Certainly as horses age, their job will change. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a niche to fill. The term “schoolmaster” is frequently used to describe the experienced horse which teaches the novice. While it is perhaps most appropriately used to describe horses trained to elite levels, I believe that the term is relative. Carmel never competed above novice level in eventing but went on to give lessons to many beginners who learned to walk, trot, canter, and jump small fences on him, and he took several Pony Clubbers up to the D3 level, all after he “retired” at 20. Even today at 33.5 years old, I take Carmel for twenty minute hacks a few times per week in order to provide him with some sort of structure and routine.
Tip # 2: Quit while you are ahead. A corollary note to tip # 1 is that in order for your older horse to have a job, they must retire mostly sound. This means that it is imperative for you to be highly in tune with your horse and to fully consider the consequences of pushing them “just one more season” at a level which is becoming a physical challenge. While we certainly can prolong the performance career of our horses through the judicious use of all means of sports medicine therapies, it is my opinion that the conscientious horse owner must always consider at what point enough is enough. Horses which need extreme maintenance to perform at a given level should probably step it down a notch to where their job can be done without taking such lengths. In my case, that time came when Carmel was twenty. While he was still handling the height and width of novice fences at that point, I could tell that the effort was becoming greater and his recovery times longer. Instead of risking an injury which might result in permanent lameness, I opted to change his job.
Tip # 3: Allow for plenty of turnout. We all know that horses are herd animals which are meant to travel up to one hundred miles per day or more, foraging along the way. It is a reality in our increasingly developed and suburbanized world that our horses frequently must be kept stalled due to lack of appropriate turnout areas. This is truly unfortunate and contributes to all manner of health and behavioral disorders. I have been very fortunate that since owning Carmel, he has almost always been able to live in an in/out situation where he can come and go from a shelter at his own desire. Barring that, he has lived at a facility that allowed him to be out about twelve hours per day and kept in only at night. I really do believe that this living situation has allowed him to remain sounder in the long run, both in mind and body. Arthritis never had a chance to really establish itself in his joints in a debilitating manner, and his lungs remain clear due to good air circulation. My horses go out every day for at least a little bit, even in extreme weather –and what is funny is they almost always choose to go outside in spite of it. I do not think that we do them any favors by locking them in for our benefit. So long as they have an accessible shelter if they need it—let them be out!
Tip # 3: Provide routine veterinary care. Older horses require the same regular veterinary care that any other horse receives—but having a good relationship with your veterinarian can help you to customize their care to suit your individual needs and situation. For example, your older horse still needs to be vaccinated each year, but some of the risk based vaccines may no longer be a priority. This is important if your horse is one who has had a history of mild or moderate reactions to vaccination. Annual monitoring of your older horse’s bloodwork can give you a baseline from which to compare results if your horse begins to seem a bit “off”; it can also allow your vet to notice changes in the function of the body’s systems early. Many older horses end up developing pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID (usually called Equine Cushing’s Disease), which often causes symptoms such as an extremely heavy hair coat that is slow to shed, a cresty neck, abnormal fat deposits and sometimes hoof abscesses and laminitis. Confirmation of this disorder is done via blood test completed in winter, spring or summer. For most horses, Cushing’s can be regulated through the use of diet modification, exercise and medication (pergolide)—but you will need to work closely with your vet. Older horses also need routine dental care, but as they age and the available tooth decreases, they may not need regular floating—your vet or other qualified dental professional can advise you on your horse’s specific needs.
Tip #4: Give them a little attention every day. Just because you may not be riding your older horse as regularly doesn’t mean that daily attention isn’t important. At a minimum, I always pick out feet every day and do a once over of Carmel’s entire body. In the winter, blankets come off at least every other day, but preferably daily, to check on body condition. (Blogger’s Note: To blanket your older horse or not is a topic for another blog—I have chosen to blanket Carmel due to his tendency towards being a hard keeper and also because his PPID can cause thermoregulatory challenges.) Even as Carmel’s activity level has decreased over the years, I have still religiously groomed him every day. I think this is important for so many reasons—it is a way for me to keep my bond with him, and because I am in close contact with him, I notice the tiniest changes in his attitude or way of being. Grooming promotes circulation and stimulates the oils of the skin to come to the surface, and for horses who are struggling to shed, regular grooming can help ease the process.
Tip # 5: Feed the right amount of a quality feed. Older horses can be challenging to keep at an appropriate body condition. Some are easy keepers and they need little to no grain to maintain a healthy weight. Others, like Carmel, tend more towards being too thin and therefore careful feed management is necessary in order to keep them in good physical shape. There are numerous senior feeds on the market which are formulated to meet the needs of an older equine. They tend to be palatable, fortified, extruded and complete—meaning that if your horse struggles to chew forages, the senior feed can be used as a sole source of nutrition. Most also dissolve easily in water to make a mash for those horses whose teeth are not up to the task of chewing. Something I learned along the way is that senior feeds are meant to be fed at a much larger quantity than regular feeds. We are so conditioned to feed “little and often” that it can be hard to understand that as much as five pounds of senior feed can be fed at one meal, with as much as fifteen pounds per day being totally reasonable and safe to feed.
The truth is that taking care of older horses is mostly about continuing to practice good horsemanship and to attend to their basic needs with the same level of attention to detail as for a competition horse. Certainly the onset of age related conditions will require some modifications to their riding schedule and maintenance plan, but with quality care the older horse can remain a productive and happy equine citizen well into their golden years and beyond.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian