Jul 232018
 

To those of us most involved in the true well-being of our equine friends, these findings will not come as a surprise but a recent French study of snorting in horses shows that the horse living in a relaxed environment produces far more snorts that one in a stressful situation. And, also not surprisingly, the stable is one of the least relaxed environments –once again confirming that a horse’s place is not in a stable…

Read the related BBC article here

Read the study here on PLOS One

 

Jan 222018
 
harsh use of bit

This month, I read at least two calls to end ‘cruel comments’ on social media -one from a Dutch trainer/rider and one on Facebook by Abi Hutton, covered in this article by Rachael Turner on the Horse and Hound website. Naturally, we cannot condone the actions of some commentators which are solely aimed from a so-called competitive viewpoint and simply intended to gain psychological advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, many of the comments made by Abi Hutton need to be carefully analysed – a great number of these ‘keyboard warriors’ is not simply attacking for attack’s sake.

The H&H article starts by highlighting the comment

“The equestrian world is a really tough place to be,” she wrote. “It’s early mornings, cold weather, long days, late nights, rare days off and non-existent holidays […] But we love it, we love those darned animals more than ourselves.”

This would appear to excuse much of what is criticised. And let’s be clear here, we are not talking criticism of a rider showing disgust at not scoring enough points, a clear round or being fast enough; we are talking of unacceptable actions directed towards the horse. And this she realises when she states

So next time you see a video and think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur, sit back, make a cup of tea and think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you, think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.

Here is the crux. Very few ‘keyboard warriors’ will actually make a song and dance of one single incident – as Hutton states, ‘there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked…‘etc. and I’m sure the majority of the warriors would, and do, accept this. What they don’t accept is actions that are clearly repeated, actions that are expressions of anger towards the horse and actions that are obviously intended despite being clearly forbidden by regulation and have been so for a long time. This last category can at times be subjective -what is ‘excessive’ use of the whip, for example?- but is also often objective -the horse that is bleeding through use of spurs or the use of rollkur/low-deep-and-round or whatever excuse of a term we would like to apply these days.

Looking a little closer at Hutton’s comments:

  • The equestrian world is a really tough place – but so is cricket, rugby, golf…so is sales and marketing; being a nurse, GP or surgeon; lorry driver; bus driver… Don’t excuse yourself for something you have chosen yourself as a hobby or profession.
  • we love those darned animals more than ourselves. Yes, you quite probably do. Nobody is denying that. But even battered children and wives are loved – and by the one that batters them; the mistreated dog is loved by its owner… What we are missing here is not love, it is respect.
  • So you’d think by the time we’ve fought all of this in the day, we would resist making cruel comments about each other on social media. Firstly, the videos are rarely posted on the same day and likewise the comments. And as I have already stated, commentary is very often related to repeat or clearly illegal incidents.
  • “…if the folks commenting want to say they’re looking out for the welfare of the horse, follow the rider around for the day and see how pretty much all they do is in the best interests of their horse.” This is sadly a very misguided statement. One of the places where the ‘warriors’ feel justified in making comment is the practice ring: here we see the riders and horses ‘warming up’. And despite claimed invigilation by officials, it is often here that the first signs of the breakdown of a supposedly good rider-horse relationship appear. But if we want to stick to basic welfare-principles, when horses are kept in trailers, or at best, tied up outside trailers, almost all day long, then we can hardly call that good. And back at home, the horse is all to often stabled for long periods, isolated from any proper physical contact with other horses, poorly (incorrectly) fed…thus crumbles the argument of ‘best interests’ all too rapidly.
  • “So next time you…think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur…think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you…” Personally, I would be horrified – not at the fact that someone was criticising, but in the interests of the horse. The competitive rider should be able take these criticisms on board since, as already noted, they are rarely made on a single isolated incident but rather on continued action.
  • “…think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.” See the previous point -we are not talking isolated instances. And we are talking competition. The jury may mark you down but even they are not above unacceptable or illegal actions.
  • “People have contacted me saying they don’t even want to ride if people are around watching. Others have been avoiding competing because they’re scared of what people will say.” I’m afraid that is what competition is all about; people watching you and noting your mistakes. After all, what Hutton is saying is that being over bent or too much use of the spur is not intentional. So it is merely social media comment on a rider’s mistakes…
  • “One of the issues with horses being behind the vertical is it’s such an easy thing to spot – but a lot of people don’t have the knowledge to see if its [way of going is] going to get better.” Once again, it is the observation of a repeated or long-lasting action that causes people to react. A momentary -albeit illegal- behind-the-vertical posture is not going to incite the wrath of every keyboard warrior out there. They don’t need the knowledge to see if its [sic]…going to get better; when it lasts more that a scarce couple of seconds, it is wrong. And if you do it even for a few seconds in the ring, how much do you do it at home when practising while nobody is there to correct you?
  • Abi said that those in the horse world are particulary [sic] vulnerable to being affected by unpleasant comments. Why? Do you think being a horsewoman or horseman makes you special? There are a great many more people outside the horse world that have a very much higher vulnerability to unpleasant comments.
  • “We’re already dealing with so many uncontrollable things. Horses can sometimes bring out the worst in people because it’s such an up and down sport…” Yet another problem in the (competitive) horse-world – so many people do not seem to be able to accept that the horse is an animal and not a motorbike. If you cannot accept that, then (competitive) horse-riding is not for you.

I would also like to quote from one of the comments on the H&H article – it seems to partially sum up the problem nicely: “Nobody wants to hear the truth. Who would pay an elite trainer, to tell them they have no talent, & their horse has no talent?! The standards of equitation, & basic horsemanship, are plummeting on a daily basis, because instructors are afraid of losing much needed business, if they offend a pupil w/ the truth.” In fact, we can go even further than this. A routine visit to almost any equestrian establishment will show (so-called) professionals practising exactly that what is wrong in front of their young and impressionable riders. It is commonly said that the future lies in the hands of youth – but when youth is so blinded and brainwashed by the malpractices we call tradition, the future suddenly becomes a great deal less bright. These future stars learn from the stars of today and if the stars of today don’t set a good example, then nobody else will…

bit pulling on mouth

©iStock

Probably the biggest problem, in the end, is the definition of welfare. There may well be some justification in the argument that we shouldn’t be riding horses in the first place. But evidence would tend to point toward the horse, ridden under a good flexible saddle and by a rider of adequate ability and limited weight, being quite capable of being ridden without detriment to its health until quite late in life. But we must also consider many other detrimental factors such as incorrect management -accommodation, feed and so forth – the use of bits, shoes, hipposandals etc.

Most people in the equestrian world seem to forget that the horse is a sentient being, forget that it is a mammal. They expect it to perform exactly the same way week in – week out and when it doesn’t, they express alarm and anger. They ask the horse to be perfectly aligned, to walk in an absolutely straight line. In reality, a horse will never be perfectly aligned -mammals never are; it does not naturally walk in an absolutely straight line.

And that is where some of the arguments also become distorted. Getting the horse to be perfectly aligned is ‘a question of proper training’ and if you say that a horse does not naturally walk straight, then you can also say ‘it is not natural for it to be ridden either’. But these are irrational arguments based on futile tradition. It is impossible to have a perfectly aligned horse. It is true that some horses have muscular and/or skeletal problems but these cannot be ‘trained’ out; they need proper treatment by an osteopath or physiotherapist. Training it out is more likely to place the stress elsewhere with the result that the horse simply gets tied up elsewhere. And a horse without muscular or skeletal problems will suddenly find itself stressed as never before!

The same applies to making the horse walk in a perfectly straight line. It is not natural and to force it to walk unnaturally is to stress muscles and joints abnormally; even more so if it is carrying a rider.

‘Top’ sportsmen and women always lay claim to fabulous abilities; only they are capable of using a double bit and reins for such imperceptible subtleties in signals; only they know exactly how much spur to give -and it never hurts the horse. But there are obvious questions to be posed here: at just what point in your career did you acquire these abilities (unlikely they were bottle fed with them…)? after all, before you discovered them, you were undoubtedly yanking at the bit and prodding in the ribs too… And shouldn’t we be principally riding our horse through use of the seat and legs, not through the ankles and the hands? If it is so necessary to have a bit to direct the horse with subtlety, how is it that people manage to turn their horses on a sixpence, with just a piece of cord around the horses neck?

Horse in morning sunshine

©2017 Sabots Libres

So before you start to complain about people who point out your errors, just think first. Are they so ‘unjustified’? Are they just being ‘cruel’? Or do your feelings for your horse go no further than love? Because respect is not what YOU need, it is what YOUR HORSE needs…

Jun 102016
 

First of all, we would like to thank everyone that took part in our survey. There were one or two dissenting voices and, sadly, one person descended into a personal attack on one of the survey’s authors; nevertheless, in general, the reception was positive.
Just to clear up one or two points raised:
We are sorry that not all the answers in the multiple choice questions suited everyone – occasionally choices have to be made when setting questions and, as anyone who has taken part either in professional psychological tests or simple online quizzes will confirm, at times we are given to choose from something not entirely appropriate to our own situation. We could possibly have given an “other” option a little more often…
A few people felt the questions to be biased. The questions were reviewed by equine professionals, amateurs and even the veterinary profession and we have made a concerted effort to avoid bias; the personal opinions of those involved in the survey should have no place in the actual results. One source of confusion over this matter may be the fact that questions were “streamed”; where there was an either/or choice, subsequent questions would relate to the principal answer. However, the questions remained essentially the same (for example, someone who used a bit was asked why, someone who didn’t was asked why not). Again, maybe some explanation at the start of the survey might have been better.
The results are not intended to reflect what is good nor what is bad: we are not seeking to divide opinion nor to take any side in an argument with this survey; we simply want to present a picture of the current welfare situation of the horse. Remember, welfare is not the same for everyone: one considers stabling essential, another an abomination, one considers barefoot to be the right choice, another finds shoes a necessity. Whatever the personal perception, we have tried to portray the variety of ways horses’ welfare is approached without being judgemental.
Although the survey has been posted within differing disciplines, the actual demographics are a little more complicated. Just which discipline stables more or shoes less, who feeds what and when, these things are neither represented nor asked in the survey. This alone prevents jumping to conclusions about who might be “better” for their horse – a question that, as has already been stated, is not being posed.

So, what are the initial results?

Stabling:

  • a larger number of respondents indicated that they keep their horses out 24/7 with only 1/5 stabling their horses; from reactions to the questionnaire, it is probable that a number of owners responded with 24/7 since they do not stable all year around.
  • of those stabling, nearly 90% stable at night, although more than a third of these said they reverse the situation at certain times of the year, keeping their horses in during the day and turning out at night.
  • only one person said they always turn out at night.
  • more than 10 % of respondents said their horses are never turned out.

Turnout:
of those horses stabled

  • a small majority has between 6 and 12 hours turnout
  • a little under ⅓ of stabled horses being turned out for up to 18 hours
  • just under 10% are turned out for somewhere up to 6 hours a day
  • only one horse is shown as spending more than 18 hours a day on turnout
  • as already recorded, more than 10% are never turned out

for all horses, stabled and not stabled – but, of course, not including those not turned out:

  • just 5% are segregated in their own paddock or field; the reasoning was not specifically questioned
  • a very small majority is turned out with one or two other horses
  • more than 40% is turned out in a larger group – these two last groups account for over 90% of the horses represented
  • 5 horses have the company of other animals including donkeys, cattle, chickens, goats, sheep and dogs – although two are apparently also in the company of a different sort of horse!

Feeding:

  • nearly ⅔ of horses has unrestricted access to grass, slightly more than those with unrestricted access to hay (57%)
  • more than 20% of owners restricts access to grass whereas just over 10% restricts hay access
  • about 6% of owners allow their horses brief grazing with slightly fewer not allowing any grazing
  • between 4% and 5% of owners each fed hay once, thrice or four times a day with a very small majority in this group that feeds twice a day
  • more than 5% of owners never feeds hay

grains/cereals:

  • just two horses are fed grains/cereals ad lib – the authors are not sure whether this is actually the case, or whether the answer was misunderstood.
  • 17% feeds their horses restricted grains/cereals – this could possibly be categorised with the following:
  • over 40% feed once or twice a day – the numbers being divided almost equally
  • a large number but by no means a majority (38%) never feeds grains/cereals

supplements:

  • nearly ⅔ of owners gives their horse supplements, of these
  • ⅔ give once a day and ⅓ twice (just 1 and 2 people respectively give 4 and 3 times a day)
  • the supplements given vary widely although often they appear to be of a “general” nature. Very few owners indicate that they use specific makes. Magnesium and turmeric (curcuma) feature fairly regularly, as does vitamin E – only one instance is given of giving vitamin C. Other fairly specific mentions worth noting are biotin, zinc and copper and selenium. Although nobody specifically recorded iron, there was one owner that gave seaweed.

salt/mineral licks:

  • 4/5 of owners give their horses access to a salt lick – a third of these also offer a mineral lick
  • the remaining 1/5 give a mineral lick alone.

Activities:

  • Few people seem to take part in competition with any regularity, harness racing being almost completely absent!
  • A slightly larger group rides in harness recreationally but by far the most popular activity is recreational outdoor riding over short distances
  • Freestyling is fairly evenly spread among the occasionals, sometimes’ and the mostlies – although, when considering other demographics, a slightly surprising 35% never practices freestyle

frequency:

  • More than a third of respondents is active more than 16 hours a week with just under 40% active between 8 and 16 hours
  • Just 7½% fall into the category of less than 4 hours.

Feet:

The singling out any group within this survey was never the intention and probably nowhere is more prone to the pointing finger than within the sphere of the horse’s hoof. For this reason, although the figures are extant from the point of channeling the questions, the actual split shod/unshod is not discussed.

the shod horse:

  • a fairly even split – more than 60% total – indicated that their horse would go lame or his feet would wear down too fast without shoes
  • just over 10% felt their horse needed them for competition despite it not being a requirement, with less than 5% citing competitions that do require shoes
  • a fraction under 9% cites poor/crumbly/split hooves as the reason for needing to shoe
  • nearly 18% had been advised by a professional to apply orthopædic shoes – more than 10% being the vet
  • a small number cited comfort as a reason for shoeing; arthritis and acute laminitis being others

the unshod horse:

  • less than 5o% has always been barefoot
  • more than ¾ believe shoes to be damaging to the horse
  • over 12% cite the restricted amount or absence of riding as a reason for not shoeing
  • maybe surprisingly more farriers advised barefoot than vets but the total number of cases was appreciably smaller than advice to shoe.
  • transition experiences varied, some took a long time, others were almost instant. In general, 6 months seems to be a normal period
  • more than 60% considered using hoof boots of which nearly 20% ended up not
  • the overwhelming majority cite the reason for boots as being difficulty on stony or rocky terrain with ¼ citing transition difficulties.
  • nearly 25% has stopped using boots; 50% still use them but only on difficult/long rides.

Bits:

The use, or not, of bits was fairly even – a tiny majority choosing bitless over a bit.
Most people seemed to prefer the bit for the control they experienced, but this was also the general reason given by those who didn’t bit ! Several people expressed a desire to go bitless but said they hadn’t (yet) got the confidence. Nearly 60% of those who used a bit, said that they also rode bitless. The most used bit was the snaffle or a derivation thereof while the most used bitless setup was the sidepull.

Finally, 97% of people said that the horse weaned naturally from its mother between 6 and 24 months with a small majority indicating 6 – 12 months.
Although a clear majority, well over three-quarters, said the horse was fully grown at between 5 and 8 years – with 3 – 5 and 8 – 15 each taking a 10% share –  nearly 40% considers a horse capable of being ridden at between 3 and 5 years with 55% choosing 5 – 8. Just two people felt 6 – 12 and 12 – 24 months to be possible.

Over 47% considered a horse to be old at between 22 and 27 years with just over 30% placing the old horse between 27 and 35. Just 6% placed the old horse above 35 years, considerably less than the 15% that felt the 15 – 22 year old was old; although only two people put the age at 8 – 15.
These figures tend to correlate with the perceived average age at which a horse dies, 36% saying 22 – 27 and 33% saying 27 – 35. The latter seems to be something of a limit – just 11 people thought the average age of death to be over 35. It was rather disheartening to see how many people chose a lower age, well over ¼ putting it at under 22.

Most people again placed the life expectancy of the horse in the 27 – 35 bracket although now a third went for the 35 – 42 age range. Just over 5% considered it to be over 42 – nobody placed it below 15. This last was surprising since 1% felt the longevity to be in this bracket. In general, it appears that respondents felt longevity to be one bracket higher than life expectancy although 12.5% put it above 50.

Responses were received from, in no specific order, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, UK, USA

 

We would like to thank everyone that has taken part; the survey is still open and will remain so until the last week of June and the final – full – analysis should be available by mid September.

Jul 082014
 
This article was first published by Sabots Libres: Ban on Stabling Horses in the Netherlands

In a public ordnance dated 5 June 2014, published in “Het Staatsblad van het Koninkrijk de Nederlanden” issue 210, year 2014, is a clearly defined ban on the keeping of horse in stables or boxes.

Specifically:

Article 1.6 The Keeping of Animals 

1. An animal’s freedom of movement may not be restricted in such a way that the animal experiences unnecessary suffering or injury.

2. An animal must be provided with adequate space for its physiological and ethological requirements.

 

Article 1.8 Housing

1. A building where animals are kept, must provide adequate light and darkness to fulfil the ethological and physiological requirements of the animal.

 

In order to fulfil its ethological and physiological requirements, a horse cannot be kept in a box or stable. Lighting and darkness in stables and boxes and the space they offer is inadequate for the requirements of the horse.

Sadly. the law, and the interpretation thereof, are two different things. It is unlikely that the animal police will take any action where the majority of horses are stabled, even where the boxes are too small.

Apr 242014
 

This article was originally published on the Sabots Libres website

20140424-152122.jpg

We live in a world of almost endless possibilities. The internet has given us access to information in a way that only twenty years ago was impossible. Vast libraries of books have found their way onto the electronic highway and although not always absolute in its accuracy, Wikipedia is almost as expansive – and accurate – as that highly revered (if fictional) publication, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Add to this the gigantic increase in the popularity of social media in the past 5 years (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr etc.) and the ability to research and exchange information has outgrown our ability to process it all. And suddenly a host of dangers present themselves; we don’t always possess the discipline to pursue a line of thought before publishing it as true – and millions more people believe every word of what they read without question. Case in point is all the hype around Monsanto; without wishing in any way to condone Monsanto, it is notable that people are starting to attribute all manner of disputable products with the company despite Monsanto not having anything to do with them!
And similar things are happening in the field of barefoot horses (I use this phrase to avoid associating with any particular trimming method). Hundreds of photographs are posted daily in fora and on Facebook of variously trimmed or untrimmed hooves asking for advice or confirmation. And a world of “specialists” is sitting on the sidelines waiting to dispense varying diagnoses, suggestions, warnings and arguments – purely on the basis of a (frequently poorly shot) photograph!
Obviously the horse owner has the choice to ignore all this commentary – then again, why did he post the picture in the first place? Usually for confirmation that he is treading the right path, only to be inundated with – often fatuous – remarks about this hoof, a history of hooves and just about any hoof in general… But worst of all are the “…you need to…” comments dishing out advice that most owners would be better off without.
Not that all the advice is necessarily bad, but it is often conflicting, frequently confusing and usually conjecture. Trim a bit more here, rasp a bit more there; the heels are too high/low and the frog should be shorter/longer/thinner/thicker… And here is a magic template to solve all your woes. But these people have never seen the hoof in question live.
20140424-152233.jpgI have a dark raised mark on my arm; if I was to post a picture of it on the internet I would get all manner of reactions declaring it to be a mole, to have been jabbed with a pencil (my mother’s favourite!), to be a malignant melanoma or an alien implant… In fact, I have no idea what it is other than I have had it for longer than I remember and it never changes – so I leave it alone! Which is what we should do with all these hoof photos on the web… If you’ve been there, touched it, scraped it with a hoof knife and been able to evaluate with your own eyes, ok. Otherwise, try and refrain from speculation and conjecture. I know of at least two people who have ended up crippling their horses, admittedly through their own stupidity, but at the behest of all these internet advisors.

Jul 122013
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Jun 172013
 
foundered hooves

Foundered hooves: neglect?

A recent film published on the Internet by an equine welfare organization managed to stir up a little dust during the past week. Obviously I won’t mention the organization since in general they do sterling work but I think the film and associated comments worthy of attention.

Basically it was a short piece of film about some equids that had – principally – grotty feet. The immediate reaction from the person filming was that it was a sad case of really serious neglect; a typical and understandable reaction. Unfortunately, the film was too short to be able to make a good evaluation but the attention went almost exclusively to the feet.

So, why mention it here on this particular equine welfare site? Because I feel that all too often we evaluate from a human perspective rather than an equine one. Even large (inter)nationally renowned welfare organizations such as the RSPCA and WSPA are prone to anthropomorphism, or at least projection, when evaluating (some) situations.

There are times when we want it too good for our animals. Clean drinking water at no less than 18°C, top quality almost laboratory standard food, regularly washed and scrubbed to insure clean and pristine fur/hair… And what do our animals do? Horses roll in mud, dogs roll in horse muck… Both often prefer to drink from a pool rather than clean tap water – dogs regularly going for the most stagnant there is! Surely this should tell us something.

unattended hooves

Unattended hooves: neglect?

Coming back to the film – what worried me most was that the “reporter” had drawn personal conclusions about the situation apparently based upon one thing, the hooves. Although little attention was paid to it, there was some footage which seemed to show an appreciable expanse of ground, part paddock and part grass, with plenty of shade. No water troughs were to be seen but that is not evidence that there weren’t any.

So there was shade; possibly water; vegetation providing some, if not all, nourishment. The “only” apparent problem was the grotty feet and possibly a rather slow change of coat. Now I am the first one to admit that the hooves did not look good – they were overgrown and misformed. Having said that, I have seen enough ponies which have apparently been well looked after but have succumbed to misformed feet often through too much care than not enough. It is therefore very dangerous to stamp a situation with the word neglect simply on the basis of “having a look around.” On the other hand, at the first signs of possible neglect, then it is also wise to keep an eye on the situation and take action once things really begin to become clear.

I would like to make it very clear, I feel very strongly that animals should be kept in the best possible conditions but that they also should be appropriate to that animal. I would also rather someone reported a possible case of neglect than ignored an obvious case.

horse in water

Field under water: neglect?

Finally, a lot was played on the state of the hooves talking of the animals being in great pain, of the old adage “no hoof, no horse” and so forth. To put it into perspective, both the animals were moving around in such a way that pain probably would not be a major factor, if any at all; they were on softer ground which does not give adequate abrasion to naturally form the hooves; and “no hoof, no horse” is also a rather dated idea coming from the farriers who need hoof to be able to shoe a horse. In reality, the hoof is nothing more than a fingernail or toenail and as with humans, the nail will grow back; a more appropriate adage would probably be “no sole, no horse”.

Your thoughts and ideas on and provoked by this article are very welcome.

Jun 092013
 

There must be something in the air at the moment; I was recently expounding the virtues of delaying a horse’s training under the saddle only to come across an article last week on The Horse website talking about (race)horse performance at 2, 3 and 5 years related to lesions.

The cause was at that moment of little interest, the age of the horses was. Should we be riding at such immature ages?

Despite being worlds apart, the racehorse industry and the home-hack do have one main thing in common, the wish to turn their beautiful horse into a beautiful rideable horse as soon as possible. After all, most of us don’t just want to look at our horse…

There is plenty of motivation to start early too. In dressage, there is a minimum age at which a horse may compete; according to FEI regulations for international dressage competition, it is six years but for many national events, the rules are different with the minimum age being as low as three. And when one considers horse-racing, the ages are even lower – the racing of two-year-olds is quite commonplace which requires them to be saddled up for the first time when they are not much older than 1½.

For the professional trainer and owner, it is all a question of money. Often the horse is – or can become – quite valuable. Keeping a horse costs money (ironically, for the owners of such horses, it is often just a fraction of their earnings) and the natural desire is to see the horse earn its keep as soon as possible. And eventually, a racehorse can be put out to stud and earn yet more that way – these days not even needing to attain a respectable age with the ability to freeze sperm – but the health of the horse is never the greatest consideration.

So what about the mere mortals of this world? Most horse owners will agree that a horse should not be ridden until it is about 4 years old. A respectable age, one could say; the horse is obviously no longer a foal and is more likely to grow outwards than upwards. However, the growth plates are still a long way off being closed. The last plates will close somewhere between 5½ and eight years old – and it is specifically these growth plates that are found in the back of the horse – all 32 of them!

Most growth plates lie across the weight bearing plane – think of knees, ankles, shoulders etc. – and are less affected by the carriage of weight. But the growth plates in the back lie parallel to the weight bearing plane whereby the back is easily streched and thus can suffer under the weight of the rider.

skeleton of the horseTo clarify, this is the order and the approximate age at which the growth plates close up:

1. Birth: distal phalanx (coffin bone)

2. Birth and six months: middle phalanx

3. Between six months and 1 year: proximal phalanx

4. Between 8 months and 1½ years: metacarpals/metatarsals (cannon bones)

5. Between 1½ and 2½ years: carpal bones

6. Between 2 and 2½ years: radius-ulna

7. Between 2½ and 3 years: ulna/femur, section that carries weight above the radius; tibia

8. Between 3 and 3½ years: humerus; bottom part of the femur

9. Between 3 and 4 years: pelvis begins to close, beginning with the extremities of the ischium, ilium and sacrum

10. Between 3½ and 4 years: lower part (that carries weight) of the scapula (shoulderblade)

; top neck vertebrae

12. From 4 years: tarsal bones then the growth plates between fibula and tibia (not without reason that 18th century literature forbade ploughing, crossing of deep mud and jumping for young horses)

13. Between 5½ and 8 years: vertebrae (the larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the growth plates to close up. For stallions, add another six months: this means a “warmblood” horse of about 17hh will not be fully grown until 8 years old.)

Of course, all this does not mean that we cannot do anything with our horses until they are eight, but it should certainly set us thinking about our training schemes.

For the professional horseworld, time is loss – except the economics are not taken into account. Maybe not so interesting for the racehorse owner – his horse is often little more than a money factory – but certainly for the livery and riding school owners. In much of Europe, the average age of a riding school horse is horrifically low and the general life-expectancy shows no correlation with what a horse should (healthily) be able to reach. Based upon the size of the animal and the size and rate of its heart etc., the horse has a potential life-expectancy of 50 years. Realistically a little lower at around 40 to 43 years. But a horrific number of horses has already been written off by the age of 20 – imagine writing off people when they get to 38 or 40…

Take a look at the table below – and decide for yourself which of the two columns fits your way of thinking best:

Begin training 3 years 7 years
Full potential 7 years 10 years
End “useful” life 18 years 35 years
Total work period 15 years? 25 years

Just by delaying the moment we start to ride by just 3 years, we can win 10 years in “useful” life. It makes you think…

 

Growth plate information: Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses, Dr Deb Bennett, 2005
“Useful Life” table: based on observations by Pierre Enoff, bio-mechanical engineer
Original article published in Dutch: http://www.kobolt.nl/gezondheid/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/   https://sabots-libres.eu/site/engagement/2013/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/