Caring for the older horse

It is a privilege to have horses in our lives.
Caring for the older horse can be a challenge
but it is also a privilege. 
Thanks to improved nutrition and management many many horses are ridden well into their 20’s and it is not at all unusual to find a horse enjoying ridden life into their 30’s.
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Horses can be ‘retired’ for a very very long time………. and they cost just as much to look after, correctly, retired as they do when in work, so it makes total sense to try to keep them happy and healthy and working for a long as we can.
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Each horse must  (as always) be treated as an individual. Conformation, genes, previous career, and past injuries and health issues will all make a difference to how long a horse can be humanely worked.
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We also need to define work!     It is unlikely our 30 year old horse will be eventing at national level! This does not mean he won’t enjoy a ride around the countryside whilst happily skipping up and down banks and popping small logs.
Work will be totally unique to each individual horse and the work he is able to undertake will also be unique each and every day.  If we substitute the word work for exercise it can psychologically help us to determine a regime that is correct for our horse.
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As guardians and carers we must have the knowledge, skills and FEEL to best care for our horses at anytime let alone in old age.
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Use it or lose it….. I am great believer in this for animals and humans. Long gone are the days of doctors prescribing weeks of bed rest for just about any complaint a human suffered from. It is the same for our horses. As long as he is sound and comfortable, work (whatever that may be) will keep our horse physically and mentally well.
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Believe it or not, a horse that is suddenly retired can suffer from depression. Many competition horses get extremely distressed when they see the horse truck leave the yard without them. Just like their human counterparts, horses enjoy having a purpose in life. They also enjoy the care and attention that accompanies ‘work’.
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Never too old to go exploring!
If the horse was always  a ‘happy hacker’ why do you now feel he can no longer enjoy this lifestyle?  If it is just because he has hit a certain age, IGNORE IT!  Age is but a number after all!
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If you feel he needs to retire because he is lame, stiff, sore, hating work, looking in poor health, losing weight and / or muscle condition, off his food, has a dull staring coat, is unhappy or unwell etc you must deal with this in the same way you would if he were a six year old.
GET THE VET because there is something wrong that needs fixing.
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None of the above health indicators are the inevitable consequences of age. They are all symptoms of ill health. To just chuck a horse out to pasture because he displays any of the above signs of ill health is a welfare failing. He will hurt just as much limping around a field as limping along a lane. If his pain can’t be treated or managed …… we need to be thinking of, and planning for, the ultimate decision…….
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An older ridden horse will probably require some management changes compared to his younger self.
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Teeth will need even more attention as he gets older. Poor dental health can cause pretty much all of the above symptoms of ill health, in a direct or indirect way. A dental check up every six months, or as recommended by our dental professional, is a must.
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Hoof Boots

Our farrier will be a vital component in keeping our older horse sound and comfortable.  Can  the horse go barefoot or does he need shoes all round to keep him sound and pain free? Can he cope with just front shoes? Would glue on shoes protect his feet better? Would hoof pads make him more comfortable? What about Bar Shoes? Are hoof boots a better option now he is older and doing less road work? Do seasonal factors e.g. mud / hard ground alter the farriery requirements? A good farrier will enjoy helping us keep an elderly horse sound and well. He will also often be the first person to notice bony changes in the feet and limbs even before they start to cause stiffness or lameness.

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Regular vet check ups will detect any early signs of ill health which will be much more treatable or manageable if caught early enough. Blood tests are a great idea as they will detect conditions such as Cushins as well as nutritional imbalances the horse may have, plus a myriad of other issues.
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An appropriate de-worming programme needs to be adhered to. Our vet can advise on this as there are so many factors to consider such as herd size, stable or field kept, pasture management, current resistances to de-worming product ingredients, time of year / season and so on.
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Nutritional requirements will vary as the horse gets older. Before delving into feeds and supplements get the teeth checked first. If the horse is unable to chew appropriately the rest of the digestive system will be compromised so no matter how much food we pump into him, its effects will be less than optimal.
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Click on picture to visit Balanced Equine Nutrition’s website

I keep saying it, but tap into the (usually) free nutrition advice the feed companies offer! It will help them hugely if we have any blood results to hand as they will be able to step away from generic advice to totally relevant advice.

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Yes, they will obviously back their own products, but I have always found them to be open and honest with their advice and have even had them suggest a rivals product…..  They have millions of dollars worth of research  behind them  and will often come up with ideas that we ourselves would never have thought  of e.g. feeding an elderly gelding a brood mare or  even a foal mix for a period of  time to provide for protein or carbohydrate requirements.
These nutritional experts can also advise on any supplementation that may be required.
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To just browse the shelves of the local saddlery store picking up any (or worse, all) prettily packaged supplements purporting to make your veteran horse young again, is ill advised, expensive and potentially harmful.  Many trace elements are harmful through to toxic if fed at overdose level.  If you feed multiple supplements at the same time as a good quality feed ration it is very easy to overdose certain vitamins and minerals.
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Free access to good quality forage is essential

Good quality forage (grass, hay, oat straw, hayledge etc) will be, and always should be, the staple diet of our horses. As he gets older he may find it easier to chew and digest softer meadow hay to the harder seed hays or he may appreciate his hay being soaked prior to feeding. However we manage it, forage needs to be readily available, and ideally 24/7,  in order to maintain healthy gut  function.

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Don’t allow our elderly horse (or any horse) to become overweight. The older horse will be even more prone to laminitis (a devastatingly painful condition affecting the feet of the horse) and it will put serious strain onto the limbs, feet and internal organs.  Also, as mentioned before, being underweight is NOT an inevitable consequence of age but a sign all is not well. Veterinary attention must be sought if a simple increase in calories (usually by increasing his feed quantity, feed type or feed quality) does not solve the problem.
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Our field and stable management will also need to adapt to the horses changing requirements. The saddle fit is just as important as always. Just because he is old doesn’t mean its OK to have an ill fitting saddle.  If we use rugs or covers on our horse age may make him more prone to overheating on warm days or he may get colder than he used to during a wet cold winter (the circulation may not be as good and / or he may have a heavier coat than he used to, especially if he has un-managed  Cushins syndrome).
Level pasture and peaceful companions

A more level pasture will put less strain on his body than a very steep one. Kind, peaceful equine companions will cause him less physical and mental stress. If at all possible most horses benefit from 24 hour turn out, with appropriate shelter. Allowing the horse as much turn out as possible is highly recommended for all horses, not just the elderly. The continual ability to roam about gently keeps everything moving  and prolongs the physical and mental welbeing of any horse.

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What can we do to help keep our horse working?
Substituting the word ‘work’ for ‘exercise’ is a good starting point and helps us to focus on the need to keep the horse moving in an appropriate manner.
-If our horse competed at a good level, maybe giving the ride to a less experienced rider or child, who will compete at a lower (easier) level will satisfy his desire to work regularly, but with less wear and tear to his body.
-He may love being a schoolmaster and training riders a handful of times a week.
-See if a non competitive friend can hack him out a few times a week to keep him occupied.
-Maybe he can escort the younger horses to the training areas to watch them work whilst acting as a baby sitter.
-Plan a campaign of Veteran Horse Classes, both ridden and under saddle. If we can’t find specific veteran classes, we can enter Best Conditioned ridden and in-hand classes etc.
Show Time!
This gives us an incentive to work and condition our horse, to groom them to a mirror finish, to take immense pride in showing them off in pristine condition whilst other competitors exclaim in disbelief at their age and it also showcases our horse management skills as we maintain a horse in exemplary condition at an age where many are abandoned to a sorry state of life.
-Teach him horse agility in hand and under saddle, or we can even try our hand at some liberty work. What about training him to go bridleless (get some EXPERT help here or our nice elderly plod could get the last laugh!)?
Which ever exercise (work) regime we choose, set goals to give US a purpose alongside our horse!
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There are lots of ways in which we can help our horse to feel purposeful and don’t be afraid to experiment. An older horse will be more forgiving than a youngster and we can both go on a journey of discovery together 🙂
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The Veteran Horse Society

In the UK there is a great organisation called The Veteran Horse Society. As well as running a series of nationwide competitions for ridden and in-hand classes for the older equine (no upper age restriction!) they can offer a lot of help and advice regarding the care and management of mature horses. Click on the picture for their website

Enjoy your horse time and let me know how you keep your mature horse or pony  happy, healthy and in work 🙂
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Michele Thornton Equestrian
For regular horse posts from around the world, visit my Facebook page Michele Thornton Equestrian and ‘like’ it. Click on the FB icon to view my page 

Spring is in the air!

One of the riding club grazing valleys

This article was written around the New Zealand riding club I am a member of. In NZ we traditionally keep our horses out at grass all year round (yay!) and at this riding club,  in herds of approximately 12 horses. They change to a new paddock each week with each paddock getting about 3 weeks rest in between. Obviously  not all of this article will be relevant to stabled horses but it will give a good insight into how to care for grass kept horses anywhere in the world 🙂 

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Finally, the days are drawing out and between torrential rain storms, hurricanes and sudden freezing temperatures…. the days are getting warmer. Spring will eventually arrive and judging by the extreme weather patterns we are now experiencing globally, it will be a season of contrasts.
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I am not even going to get into the rugging ‘what, when, why’ debate (Another article can cover this topic!).  All I will say is that those horses that don’t wear rugs in the spring have much more relaxed owners when the hail turns to 25 degrees whilst they are at work 🙂
Un-rugged horses do present their own challenges!
These same owners will not be so relaxed when it comes to grooming their horses prior to riding though!
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Poaching of paddocks in winter is a real problem when horses live out.

Due to the wet winter conditions in New Zealand over the past few months our paddocks have been trashed this year. Trashed paddocks allow for a proliferation of weeds and it takes a huge effort to get them back to good health. This is why in the UK farm stock are wintered indoors to protect the land from this  ‘poaching’.  Many many UK horses are also stabled throughout the winter (and often all year round).

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This field poaching and proliferation of weeds will reduce the quality of spring grazing  which will be a ‘yay’ for those of you with ‘good doers’ (horses that easily maintain or put on weight) but it will be a ‘boo hoo’ for those whose horses are ‘poor doers’ and who are frantically waiting for the spring grass to materialize to help get the (correct)  weight back onto them  The fact that horses do so well on spring grass is proof, to any doubters, that good quality forage is the best source of equine nutrition.
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This year we will all have to be reactive to what the spring and summer throw at us. After such an abnormal winter and start to spring who knows whether we will get a wet  summer or be drought ridden for months.
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Good horsemanship (stockmanship) is caring for our animals by feel not by text books. LOOK at your horse. Is he overweight, underweight, just right ?  And do this ALL THE TIME.  Some horses can balloon overnight whilst another in the same herd can ‘run up light’ over night.  They may thrive in one paddock and struggle in another. Your horses  girth is a great indicator as to weight gain or loss.
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Most ‘poor doers’ this year will need to continue with supplementary feeding for a while longer. This wet wet wet and seriously muddy period is taking its toll on most of our horses but especially the TB types and older horses.
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Those with ‘good doers’ need to cut back on anything other than forage NOW, before the weight piles on. Laminitis is probably the most distressing ailment a horse can suffer from and no matter what the internet says, the chances of making a pain free total recovery are very slim indeed. As with ourselves, the weight goes on in days yet takes months to get off again! Prevention is the much better option.
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I keep saying it but do contact the nutritionist attached to your preferred feed company. Their advice is free and millions of dollars of research is at our fingertips. Start to check your feed bags. They all have the nutritional content on the back. Veteran  horse feeds are usually loaded with calories (it is assumed elderly horses are poor doers) so if your more mature horse is also prone to excessive weight gain or laminitis this may not be the best food for them especially as the grass starts to grow.
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The horses feet have really suffered this year and I hate to be the doom merchant, but is only going to get worse. Their feet are so wet and soft that bruising and / or abscesses will be rife, as will lost shoes. The wet warm mud is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria which will enter the soft spongy white line area of the foot with ease. You can try soaking the under hoof area with a bleach solution on a regular basis but this is still just compounding the wet soft foot issue. It is a nightmare really 🙁   The only solution is to get them off the mud which is impossible at the club.
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Spring fever!

Finally  the issue of ‘grass reactive’.  This is a term I had never heard of until coming to NZ!

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In the UK most horses are stabled 24/7 and yet we still get very bright horses in the spring. We call it spring fever!  The cure?  TURN THEM OUT MORE! And yes, this is into grass paddocks!  So in Europe, we are not looking at grass as the enemy (excepting weight gain and laminitis).  How can this be?
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Horses, like all animals, including ourselves, feel better in the spring. The warmth, longer days, sunlight, reproductive hormones etc all conspire to make us feel better. ……To feel alive……. To be happy at having survived another winter.
As animals that don’t eat grass also bounce around in the spring, don’t blame just the grass for your horses sprightly moves!
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New, sweet grass will definitely predispose to weight gain and can often make the droppings looser and if this lasts for more than a day or so then some sort of toxin binder may help (ask that free nutritionist for advice!). If you know your horse is prone to scouring (produces very wet or liquid droppings) in the spring  start using the toxin binder before you have problems. The main issues from regular scouring are dehydration, a loss of nutrient values and acid burns around the anus area and legs. ( If you Vaseline the prone areas you will provide a barrier to help prevent acid burns).
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If your horse usually has good ground and ridden manners you will just have a very happy, bright, smiley, shiny horse to play with who is full of the joys of spring.
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Good manners are a good idea!
If your horse does not have good ground or ridden manners…. check your riding hat is to the new safety standards and start training them!
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For more horse information and articles from around the world, visit my Facebook Page Michele Thornton Equestrian and ‘like’ it for regular updates. Click on the picture below

Riding on the beaches and forests in New Zealand

Click on the pictures to see videos of my latest beach adventures!

Pakiri Beach 

Pakiri Beach New Zealand

 

Woodhill Forest

Woodhill Forest

 

Muriwai Beach and Forest 

Muriwai Beach and Forest

When is a horse ‘old’?

When is my horse classed as ‘old’?
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Prior to managing  the equine rescue and rehabilitation charity yard in the UK, any horse over 7 years of age was getting ‘past it’ in the back of my mind. How wrong I was!
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Whilst working for the equine charity I quickly dropped any interest in actual age (it is but a number….) and we were regularly starting  horses for a ridden career in their late teens and even 20’s. (On a sad note, we met many baby horses with so many ‘miles on the clock’ we could not help them).
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Your horse is becoming old, not at a certain age but when he starts to show he can no longer function in a comfortable fashion doing what he used to find effortless. For a top flight show jumper the signs will be slightly different to a pleasure hack but the signs will be there none the less.
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Interestingly, well cared for fit hard working competition horses will often have a longer riding life span than occasional hacks.
Fit competition horse

‘ Use it or lose it’ is very true plus a fit muscular structure  supports the skeletal frame, tendons and ligaments and promotes better blood flow than  flaccid unfit muscle. A horse in regular hard work will often be better fed, healthier and more regularly monitored by a vet and farrier than an occasional hack, which all helps a horses long term well-being.

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The signs your horse needs to be treated as a more senior citizen include:
Reluctance to be caught or to load (if they used to be fine about it) , fidgeting whilst being shod (sign of discomfort in limbs), becoming grumpy when being tacked up, refusing jumps, jumping flat and fast, napping, not moving off the riders leg, a dull facial expression when being handled or ridden,  a grumpy or sour temperament, dull coat or is slow to moult in the spring, muscle wastage, the horse has dropped down the pecking order in the herd or gets picked on in ridden company or on the float etc. There are many more signs that will be individual to each horse.
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Now, the above can also be symptoms of  ill health or discomfort e.g. a foot abscess, but if there is no obvious cause  and especially  if the above symptoms have gradually come on over a period of time, it could well be your horse is telling you he needs to slow down a bit.
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This does not mean you immediately retire your horse! Remember ‘Use it or lose it’? As with humans, to suddenly stop their work and chuck them out to grass, can create depression in the horse and will do little to promote their well being. A decent muscular structure, achieved through appropriate work,  will encourage a long, healthy life. A working horse is also more likely to be fed appropriately, to be checked several times a day and have regular vet and farrier check ups.  To look after the welfare requirements of our mature horse we just need to moderate what we do and when.
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Adapting our work patterns is a good starting point. If the horse used to compete every weekend change it to once a  month (the great international show jump riders are very good at competing successfully up to Olympic level on horses  which are in their late teens and early twenties. The good riders are masters at managing the horses fitness levels and competition schedules).
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Poor going should always be avoided

Maybe step down a dressage or jumping level. Withdraw from a competition if the ground conditions are too hard or heavy.  Avoid slippery grass surfaces and deep or heavy artificial surfaces not just in competition but when training. Take the less steep forest routes. Avoid the deep sand dunes on beach rides and so on.

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You will find your horses’ desire and ability to work will more obviously change from day to day as they get older. Listen to him and be prepared to alter his training or work schedule accordingly.
Hoon time!
There will still be many days when hooning all the way around a ride will be his preference but he may suffer a little for his exuberance for a few days afterwards !
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We will look at the care of the more mature horse another time.

Viva España!

Buenos Dias to all horse lovers out there!

Rest stop at Horse Riding Spain

Each November I am extremely fortunate to be able to visit the Andalusia region of Southern Spain to meet up with horsey friends and to immerse myself in their horse culture.

The Pura Raza Española (PRE) horse is uniquely Spanish and has been my favourite horse breed for a very long time. Indeed, as a child, my somewhat pathetic attempts at drawing horses always resulted in horses with a very strong, arched neck with a distinct Baroque look about them. This is despite my only horse exposure being the Saturday afternoon TV horse racing and Cowboy films. I must have known about Spanish horses in a previous life!

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My annual pilgrimage has been made even more special by the fact I have been accompanied for the last two years by a wonderful group of like minded horse lovers from my current home base in New Zealand. The opportunity to introduce new people to the wonders of Spain, its horses, culture and heritage, amazing food and especially, my dear dear friends whose home is Spain, is an absolute privilege.

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SICAB Trade Fair & Horse Show

The trip is based around an amazing PRE trade fair called SICAB which is an annual event held in Seville each November. It is the largest gathering of PRE horses in the world (well over 1,000 each year) who represent the breed from 30+ countries. It is the event all PRE horse breeders and owners want to qualify for and obviously, win. It is a ‘must experience at least once’ horse gathering for anyone even vaguely interested in horses and is great fun.  Click on the picture to see a video clip of their 25th Anniversary in 2015

 

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To make the 28 hour flight from New Zealand to Spain worth it….. we start the trip by riding with my dear friends Giles and Miranda who are Horse Riding Spain. Click on the picture to visit their website. 

Horse Riding Spain

This is so much more than a riding holiday. It is an opportunity to stay in a beautifully converted marble mill whilst being fed ad lib Tapas and Spanish wine, whilst riding the softest most balanced horses you will find in a riding holiday situation, all in the company of the most passionate and knowledgeable horse people you could wish to meet. Giles and Miranda’s enthusiasm for all things Spain, but especially the horses, is infectious. They are also extraordinary hosts and everyone leaves with two more people on their Christmas card list!  Over 40% of their guests return, usually multiple times, which says it all really……

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Having a go at Flamenco Dancing!

Thanks to Giles and Miranda’s contacts we also experience a  personal introduction to Flamenco dancing as well as a private horse training performance showcasing the PRE horse (of course!) . PS I am the grumpy looking Flamenco dancer…….. apparently I need to drink more wine before having a go! 

 

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Whilst in Seville for SICAB we also have riding lessons at the world renowned training establishment, Epona. Jane Garcia and myself go back further than either of us wish to admit….  and her daughters are now the main instructors, and very talented instructors they are to.

Epona, Seville

Their school horses are pure or part bred PRE’s and are trained to a high standard. Regardless of  riding ability on arrival,  everyone  improves their skills, knowledge and love of the Spanish horse at each visit. You will also meet a lot of rescue dogs! Click on the picture to visit their website

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The trip also includes lessons with a superb Portuguese rider and trainer, Nuno Manta, on his PRE stallions, a visit to the Royal Riding School in Jerez, a 4 hours horse trek on Spain’s southern Mediterranean coastal area,  overlooking Gibraltar and North Africa, as well as cultural visits to the palaces and monuments in Granada, Seville and Cordoba plus more Pueblos Blancos (the typical white villages of southern Spain) than you can count, oh yes, and a wolf park! Accommodation is often in former palaces and castles each with a story to tell. We all leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of  all things Spain and a true love of the PRE horse 🙂

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Video compilations: Click on pictures to view 

 Horse Riding Spain

Horse Riding Spain

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Lessons at Epona

Lessons at Epona

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons at Epona

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Michele learning how it’s done! 

Michele enjoying the PRE horse

 

 

 

 

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Riding Fun in the Sun trek

Riding Fun in the Sun trek

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A few photos

Horse Riding Spain

 

Miranda & Tio Pepe, Horse Riding Spain (thank you Nigel for the photo)
Riding Fun in the Sun

 

 

Nuno Manta

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolf Park inhabitant

 

 

 

 

 

Carriage ride to the Plaza Espana, Seville

 

 

 

 

 

 

Awaiting the performance at The Royal School of Equestrian Art in Jerez

 

 

 

 

 

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See my Michele Thornton Equestrian Facebook page for more general horse info: Click on picture below

Or visit my Spain page for all things PRE and Spanish 🙂 Click on picture below

PRE Jaleoso CA

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If you like the thought of joining me one year just send a personal message through either of the Facebook pages above.  Numbers are limited to an absolute maximum of 6 riders, including me 🙂

 

Mud (not so) Glorious Mud!

When winter is fast approaching it is time to prepare  for the onslaught of rain & mud. Wet winter conditions cause many problems including  Rainscald, Mud Fever & Cracked Heels all of which can cause our horse serious distress.
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All three are caused by a bacterial infection complete with a small fungal element that affect horses exposed to wet, muddy, sweaty or squalid stable conditions. All three can result in serious infections.
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Rainscald
Rainscald affects the body of the horse (imagine the area that would be wet after an un-rugged horse  got caught in a rain shower) , mud fever affects the legs (usually the back of the front limbs & the front of the hind limbs) & cracked heels are literally cracks across the pastern areas of the legs. They are all actually the same condition with the same causes & treatment requirements just in different locations. In the US it is referred to as Rain Rot which is a very apt name.
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If your horse suffers from any or all of these conditions, instant & aggressive treatment will be required. As the scabs involved need to be treated with anti-bacterial, anti-fungal & anti-inflammatory products at the same time, vet intervention is usually required which is expensive, as are the products they will recommend! This is one of the main reason there are so many ‘old wives tales’ remedies & over the counter products available to help treat these winter ailments.
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If your horse has just one or two scabs, quick intervention with an over the counter product may well help. As the jury is still out as to which bug actually triggers the infection alongside the fact that certain soils harbour it more than others plus the fact some horses are more prone than others, it is well worth trying out the many products that are advertised to help.
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Typical cracked heels
If your horse has full blown rainscald, mud fever or cracked heels veterinary intervention along with more powerful medications, which can include a course of antibiotics, will be needed.
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The main mistake when treating the infected scabs is to place the lotions on top of them. This is an expensive waste of time!  The various remedies whether over the counter or vet prescribed MUST be in direct contact with the sore, damaged skin UNDER the scabs.
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As the horse won’t love you for picking off the scabs (ouch!) an antibacterial & anti-fungal wash / shampoo is usually applied first to soften the scabs. These washes usually require about 10 mins contact time as well, so they can penetrate into the skin. If you use warm water to wash & rinse, the scabs will be easier to remove. Once the scabs are off, you  must totally dry the area  before applying the anti-bacterial, anti-fungal & anti- inflammatory component  (imflamol gel is superb for this). Note: in severe cases it may take several days to soften and remove the scabs.
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Thermatex ‘Wicking’ rug and bandages
Obviously in the winter drying your horse is not easy! Use wicking rugs & bandages (these absorb the moisture from the skin, wick it through the material so the moisture lies on the surface of the rug or bandage ready to evaporate if weather conditions allow). You can try towel drying or even a hairdryer! Only apply the topical  medication onto dry skin. You will need to repeat this daily until all the sores are healed.
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As you can see, treating these conditions is costly & very time consuming plus, if you have no option but to turn your horse  back out into the mud ……  it will be a very slow healing process.
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Prevention is much better than cure!  In an ideal world move horses to dryer pasture over winter or place them into drained yards or covered barns. Stabled horses on dry bedding should not suffer from these conditions.
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Rugging will help prevent rainscald (as long as the horse does not get sweaty as this too will cause rainscald in some horses). If your horse is prone to rainscald, clip off as much hair as appropriate so you can keep the skin as dry & clean as possible. It is easier to see sores as they develop & much easier to treat them.
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Horses with lots of feather can be a dilemma as 50% of people will tell you the feathers protect the leg & heel areas & the other 50% will tell you the wet muddy feathers CAUSE the problem!
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Having owned a horse with feathers to die for I have a solution: keep the feathers on to start with, checking very closely for any signs of scabbing. The moment you find the beginnings of mud fever or cracked heels clip the legs totally, as short as you can, so you can treat them properly.
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I also personally cut my horses tails much shorter in the winter. They don’t need the length to swish away flies and a shorter tail gets less muddy. A long, wet muddy tail  wrapping around the hind legs is not comfortable for the horse & just keeps the hind leg  area permanently wet & muddy.

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Apply barrier creams to the vulnerable areas BEFORE the paddocks get too wet & muddy. Just like nappy rash prevention in babies, we all have our preferences but I personally think it is less about what you use and more about how regularly apply it.
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Whatever you use is only a useful  barrier when it is on the skin!  I have found udder cream, zinc & castor oil cream, nappy rash products & white petroleum jelly (un-refined vaseline) very useful & all will be much cheaper if you go to agricultural or pharmacy outlets as opposed to saddlery outlets! PS  Don’t forget to protect the outside of the ears as these are very prone to rainscald in some horses and this is not an easy area to treat.
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‘Mud’ Socks
There are a few turnout boots & socks on the market supposed to help prevent mud fever & cracked heels but they are all designed to be on for a few hours not on horses that live out all the time. They will quickly become wet & muddy themselves plus any mud or grit that gets between the leg & boot will cause sores & rubs very quickly. Use them with caution & check them daily.
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Listen to what works for others especially if their horse is in the same location as yours as some products get better results  in some locations. If you move your horse to another area you may well find the trusted lotion no longer works. This is why there are so many products that claim to help (& do) as opposed to just one  ‘go to’ product that is guaranteed to work.
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If your horse has poor skin health, hoof health or coat health it is well worth looking at his diet as he may be lacking something nutritionally. All the larger feed companies have a resident nutritionist who will give free advice so do ask them what feeds or supplements they suggest that might help. A really healthy skin will put up its own barrier of oils to help protect from winter weather conditions.
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Rainscald, mud fever & cracked heels are a winter nightmare that can render your horse un-rideable & result in significant discomfort through to pain. Serious cases can result in sepsis. It is well worth taking the time to slather your horses legs & heels  (& quarters, flanks & neck if you don’t rug your horse)  in a barrier product as soon as ground conditions become wet. With a bit of luck, this may prevent these painful & costly conditions from developing in the first place.
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Good luck & spread the word of any products you have found
useful (or not!) !

The Importance of Good Grooming…… was that a groan I heard?!

 

The extraordinary colour & sheen of the Akhal Teke horse

The grooming of horses is rapidly becoming a lost art and this is a shame on many levels. With our ‘ time poor, quick fix, success before work’ culture we are being exploited by companies selling (usually at quite a price!) shampoos, lotions and potions that not only effortlessly clean and shine our horses but that magically turn them into the super models of the showing world AND make them a different colour if we so wish (or by accident if you buy the wrong ‘colour enhancer’ product)!

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Now, here is a true and embarrassing story: At the tender age of 16, I walked into my local saddlery  shop & asked for a tub of the magical product every horse management book I had ever read mentioned…… ELBOW GREASE…. Fortunately for me, the nice chap at the counter  thought I was joking and replied along the lines of ‘if only’. Though I left somewhat bemused, my total humiliation was spared!
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Now, forward the clock a handful of years (OK, quite a lot of years)  & this is EXACTLY what we are attempting to purchase. Elbow Grease wrapped up in pretty bottles!
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Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of occasions when we need to bath our horses including for veterinary purposes, but if you want that deep deep reflective shine on your horse this will only come from inner health (which is why so many  horses shine so brightly between mud patches) and the physical application of a brush.
A deep shine comes from hard work not a bottle
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Regular shampooing strips the coat of its natural oils which actually dulls the coat. Correct grooming spreads the natural oils over the coat creating the shine. Good inner health PRODUCES the natural oils which is why equine professionals can tell so much about the health of a horse (or any animal) just by looking at their coats.
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It would take too long for me to go through all the grooming tools and processes for this article but in the olden days when training in Europe, each & every day we: Quartered in the mornings / brushed off before & after exercise / strapped for up to an hour in the afternoons /  &,  if need be, brushed off again when changing from day to night rugs. I must stress that labour was cheap in those days and the internet had yet to be invented so we had no distractions (give that man a hug)!
Rubber Curry Comb

If your horse lives  out 24/7 much of the above is actually inappropriate BUT there is one piece of grooming etiquette  we really should use whenever we can & that is the massage factor. You can use a rubber curry comb (the softer the better), any number of grooming massage pads now on sale, a rough piece of toweling, a bit of hessian sacking or your hands (the Irish used to just use sacking & hands to groom and were legendary horsemen back in the day).

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Whatever you choose, you use it in slow circular movements over the muscled parts of the horse (avoid bony parts such as the head, lower legs, lower belly etc) with as much pressure as the horse enjoys. This pressure may vary from day to day, especially if he has a sore spot, so be guided by his tolerance levels.  Use a bucket to stand on to do the quarters and upper neck if need be & hold the massage utensil in the hand closest to the horses head (so in your left hand when on the horses left hand side) as this allows for the best technique plus is a great work out for you (remember the original Karate Kid?  Painting the fence & waxing the car equally with left & right hands to develop even muscle tone and strength!).
It is a fact that we see more muscle issues in horses now than we  used to and one of the theories put forward is the lack of good (massaging) grooming. If nothing else, a good massage as often as possible  is enjoyable for the horse, can highlight discomfort or muscle niggles before we ask too much of our horse, it encourages us to thoroughly check our horse, it is a wonderful bonding exercise & it is a great physical workout for ourselves!  It will also help to keep muscle tone (ours as well as the horses) which makes it a win win part of horse management.

Rugging up for winter

Well, with winter approaching (‘surely not, we haven’t had summer yet’ I hear  you groan……) it is time to start planning regarding our grass kept horses care and winter management. In this article we will look at rugs & their use.

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Just because you are cold does not mean your horse is!

Just because we feel miserable in certain weather conditions does not mean our horse does! Embrace the seasons, work with what they give you & don’t humanise your horses. We would never (I hope!) present our horses with a bucket of Hot Chocolate alongside his evening feed, so watch you don’t bring your own winter dress etiquette to the paddock e.g. beanie hat, football socks, thermals, fleece tops,three duvets, electric blanket et al…….!

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Healthy horses are very good at regulating their body temperatures in a natural state. Their diet is high in fibre which is digested in the hind gut generating internal body heat. By fluffing up or flattening their coats they can regulate heat loss & they will shelter from sun, wind or rain as appropriate. They grow  a thicker coat in winter and a thinner one in summer. They sweat & shiver as required.
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Our role as horse carers is to mimic this natural state as closely as possible & to positively intervene as and when needed.
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If your horse is only going to be ridden quietly a few times a week without working up a sweat he will be much happier & healthier without a rug.
If you have decided to go ‘rug free’ this winter then you must plan for it.
Your horse needs to be healthy & of a correct body weight & you need to  be prepared to supplement his grazing with extra fibre (hay, chaff) if it is a particularly wet and miserable winter. (On a side note, this is not the same as extra hard food. This is digested in the front gut & has no central heating effect at all). Horses take longer to eat fibre so you need to factor this into your daily horse check regime if your horse is not being fed hay or forage in his grazing paddock.
Make sure all summer rugs are removed as soon as possible so he can grow an appropriate winter coat & produce the extra  skin oils required to waterproof himself. It is still possible to clip an un-rugged horse but this will be limited to their under belly & under neck area.
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If you have decided to rug this winter, you still need to prepare.
Rugs must be removed each & every day to check for any injuries etc they may be hiding, or, causing…… Even the best fitting rugs will eventually bruise the shoulder, chest & hip areas on  a grass kept horse, who walks several miles a day whilst grazing.    Ill fitting rugs are like us being forced to wear ill fitting shoes for 7 months at a time without respite.
If you are rugging to keep an elderly or frail horse warm it is a good idea to keep the rugs OFF for as long as possible in the lead up to winter. This will encourage a better natural coat growth which is better than any rug we can buy. The better the natural coat the better additional rugs will work.
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You must have at least two well fitting 100% waterproof rugs for winter so you can swap them regularly to help reduce chafing & bruising. It also means you never have to put a wet rug onto your horse which will cause chills quicker than anything.
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If you are rugging to keep your horse clean to ride you will probably also be clipping him. Here you have two choices.
1. Rug as soon as possible (making sure they don’t overheat) to suppress the coat growth. This will make clipping easier as the coat will be cleaner & thinner. As the natural coat is lighter you won’t have to clip  off so much to prevent sweating.
2. Keep the horse un-rugged until he starts to sweat in his work, allowing as much coat to grow as possible before clipping him. Your rug will then substitute for this loss of hair. In this scenario you may need to clip a bit more coat off to prevent sweating but he will have a thicker natural covering  of coat over his back  & loin area to help keep these large muscle areas warm as well as the underlying internal organs. This can be helpful if a very sever winter is predicted where he weather may inhibit the riding of the horse on a regular basis.
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In a professional yard, in spring and autumn particularly, it is not uncommon to re-rug the horses three to four times a DAY. This is impossible for most of us so choose the compromise that has the best results for the welfare of your horse.
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If unsure whether to rug or not, remember you can start to rug up a horse at anytime just by deciding to do so.
You can’t, though, suddenly un-rug a horse in winter as he won’t have the coat or natural oils to cope. We used to allow at least three weeks of frantic rug swapping to wean a rugged horse to being an un-rugged horse in winter time.
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TB youngsters enjoying a winter feed.
Two final winter rug thoughts:
1. On the yard I managed for a leading UK equine charity a rugged horse meant one of two things: it was a poorly horse or it was an ill horse!
2. Very few European Thoroughbred mares, foals or yearlings ever wear a rug, despite living out 24/7 through the harsh winters unless…..  (you guessed it!) they are poorly 🙂
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Preparing for Spring

So, the days are drawing out & the occasional blue sky can be seen. Daffodils can be found in abundance along with lambs & ducklings.

After a cold, wet, muddy winter with endless dark mornings & nights (not to mention lost shoes!), do we horse people rejoice?

NOPE…….!

naughty-thelwell

Instead we can just be heard endlessly debating the best rug to put on our horse at that moment in time, interspersed with comments as to at which point the spring grass will render our horse an un-rideable nutter!

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We CAN make spring a great time though & all it takes is a little planning & common sense.
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RUGS: Just admit that you will NEVER get it right & you will save yourself a lot of angst!  Unless you sit by the gate with a car boot full of every rug your local tack shop stocks there is no way your horse will be in the perfect rug every moment of every spring day! Sitting at work worrying about the brilliant sunshine that has suddenly poked its head through the hail storm that rattled through 2 minutes earlier will not only make you miserable it  will also make your work colleagues think you are somewhat mad….

Rug

My personal opinions on rugs are thus:
A wet rug is never good. It is more likely to cause rubs & can even promote chills. No rug at all is better than a wet one (internally wet this is!).

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Spring is often the time of year when we first encounter sweaty horses again & rugging on top of sweat is not a good idea. As well as potentially causing chills, (especially if you ride in the evenings & then turn your horse out again), the abrasive  salt in the sweat increases the likelihood of rug rubs.
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Overheating is a potentially  serious health issue & should be avoided if at all possible. It is impossible for a horse to cool himself if he is swaddled under a duvet thickness winter weight rug complete with neck cover.  A HEALTHY horse on appropriately fed fiber is actually rarely cold even in the depths of winter as he will generate internal heat by the digesting of fiber (grass & hay) & can move around to keep himself warm & out of prevailing winds & rains. If in doubt, put a lighter weight rug on.
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A lightweight totally waterproof rug is the best spring option as it will act as a windcheater, will protect from the odd hail storm, wont be too hot during a sunny day & will obviously stay dry underneath on wet days (& spring  rain seems to be particularly wet rain!).  The increased quantity & nutrition of the spring grass will also help generate more than enough internal body heat to keep the horse comfortable in a cold snap.
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I personally like to remove the rug totally as soon as I can. Even the best fitting & designs of rug cause continual pressure across many parts of the horse e.g. shoulders, hips, withers. This causes at best, low grade bruising & at worse actual rub or pressure sores. In the UK many horses have to wear aniti- fly or sweet-itch rugs during the summer so spring is the only window of opportunity we have to allow the horse to go rug free.
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Evo 19
Horses love being rug free!  The constant rolling in muddy puddles is not just to make chipping off the mud a nightmare for us when preparing them to ride! Rolling acts as a muscle massage & skin mud-pack. It can help to remove parasites & is just a pleasurable thing for a horse to do. It removes dried in sweat & helps to shed the winter coat. Being rug free also allows a bit of skin exposure for Vitamin D & helps to heal any rug bruising or rubs that may have occurred & let’s face it, who doesn’t like the feel of warm sun on their skin?
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Grass: Yes, spring grass contains more sugars & yes, this can make horses ‘silly’ !
However……A well trained horse appropriately handled & fed will NOT suddenly become dangerous. If he does…… you need to look at your horses training, your own ability & your feeding regimes……
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Typical Laminitis stance
Typical Laminitis stance

The sugars in spring grass have a much more sinister effect though, which is the potential to cause laminitis. This is a devastating foot condition accompanied by horrific pain & often results in humane euthanasia on welfare grounds.

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The horse management to prevent us getting bucked off in spring is the same as that to reduce the likelihood of laminitis so good horse management is a win win solution!
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The grass will start growing when the soil temperature is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius approx) or above. As a result you can’t just say the grass will start growing on such & such a date as a harsh cold winter into a quick warm spring will result in the  grass growing sooner than after a mild winter but cold spring. Be assured though…. the grass will most definitely grow  at some point!
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With this in mind, be prepared well in advance! It is totally alright for a horse to drop a bit of weight in winter (this is NOT the same as becoming emaciated or losing muscle mass). This is natures way of preparing the horse to reproduce  safely (an overweight mare will find it hard to conceive & a fat pregnant mare may grow a foal that is too large to be safely delivered) & to cope with the influx of new growth spring grass without becoming morbidly obese or coming down with laminitis, both of which would make is easier for a predator to catch the horse in the ‘olden days’.
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If you have been giving supplementary feed to your horse over winter cut this back BEFORE the grass starts to grow. If you don’t you have given your horse a springboard to obesity & possible laminitis as well as behavioural issues. Unless your horse is working HARD a handful of food to make them feel loved is all they require. Hard work is the equivalent of hunting 2 times a week, along with the associated fittening work so don’t confuse an amble through the country lanes on the occasional sunny winters morning work of any sort let alone hard!
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Body Scoring 0 - 5
Body Scoring 0 – 5

In an ideal world you want the spring grass to change the horse from a winter body condition score of 2.5 approx to one of 3 not from a 3 to a 5…….. (This is using the 0-5 scale as opposed to the 0-10 scale equine body condition score scale).

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If we are pumping the horse full of hard food this is going to magnify the sugar effect of spring grass as instead of the grass being utilised to improve body condition it will just make them fat & naughty! If your horse has specific nutritional requirements e.g. young, old, infirm, then discuss his feeding requirements with your vet or a specialised equine nutritionist (each equine feed company will have a nutritionist & advice will be free!). The same is true if the horse is lacking certain minerals etc e.g. selenium.
Most of us, with the best of intentions, not only overfeed our horses but feed them the equivalent of lollies, ice-cream, & burgers…… all are fine once in a while but will cause serious health problems if they become the staple diet.
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Most horses in spring will do very nicely on straight forward chaff….. no ‘sprinkles’, no rocket fuel grains, no molassed products JUST CHAFF! This will help to settle the digestive tract (& as fiber is digested in the hind gut generating significant internal body heat, will keep the horse warm during cold snaps) & will go a little way to reducing the ‘silly’ effect sugar can have on some horses by keeping the digestive track functioning efficiently.
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Cutting down his grain based food is the single most important thing you can do coming in to spring to help the well being & mind of your horse.
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Suitable exercise cures many ills!
Suitable exercise cures many ills!
The final thing I am considering in this article is exercise: like naughty children & dogs…… exercise is a great cure for naughty horses!
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Start to work your horse more BEFORE the grass starts to really grow. This will fit in with lighter mornings & evenings & hopefully better weather making it pleasant for horse & rider. It will also be the start of your competition fittening campaign if you compete at all. If you are a pleasure rider, a fit horse & fit rider will enjoy themselves far more & stay sound longer, so whatever your horse aspirations, spring is a good time to up the anti!
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A horse in regular work that is not overfed will be happier in himself, safer to handle & ride & usually you wont even notice the ‘spring grass effect’ in a negative way. You will just have a happy, smiley horse who is enjoying his life in the warmer weather as much as you are.

Happy (Southern hemisphere!) spring & enjoy your horses!

 

The problem with horses is……. we try to ride them!

Thel catch

I have huge respect for whoever it was that first decided it was a good idea to ride horses & we have been suffering for this bravery ever since!

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Midi
A long way from grazing in a field!
What were originally beasts of burden, work & war were fortunate to find a modern day life as a recreational pursuit otherwise they would now only be seen in zoos & wildlife parks (or the meat section in our supermarkets…….).
However, this change of status has come with some issues. Whereas horses used to be worked long & hard, albeit usually at slow paces, we now want them to become top class athletes demonstrating on a daily basis the Olympic motto of Higher, Faster, Stronger.
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This is fine except that the poor average horse does not have 24/7 access to a team coach, sports psychologist, physiotherapist, team doctor (or state sponsored medication programme!)  yard manager, saddle fitter, remedial farrier, state of the art equipment manufacturer & so on.
Instead….. they just have us!
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Now before you all jump up & down chanting that you don’t compete & never (intentionally!) gallop your horse I can assure you than whenever we climb onto their backs we are indeed asking them to go significantly Higher, Faster & Stronger than their planned day which was to eat forage for about 18 hours with a few snoozes along the way!
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With this in mind it is not at all surprising that the riding of horses can often present us with a bumpy ride (pardon the pun!).
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Thel buck
The Buck!
All horse people are familiar with the words: bucking, napping, rearing, spinning, spooking, shying, jibbing, bolting etc & each ‘vice’ is a degree subject in its own right. However, some basic common sense can help us all to survive the company of our horses whilst riding them,  as well as also allowing the horse to enjoy our company!
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If we are ‘over horsed’ our natural (& extremely sensible) anxiety will make him anxious as well. We are supposed to be the horses ‘rock’ & protector from harm & daffying around the horse in a tense nervous state is never going to end well!
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Taking lessons to help US to communicate better is the way forward.  Don’t confuse this with training the horse. By this I mean that it is not a long term fix to send the horse away for schooling as the old issues will return the second we are reunited as we ourselves have not learnt how to better communicate in the language of ‘horse’.
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Private lesson
Training session
There are dozens of different ways to effectively communicate (train) our horses & my advice is to find someone you personally trust that is also local enough to be a regular (& if necessary, ongoing) sounding board & mentor. As you & your horses’ needs progress this person may well change.
Once we have eliminated ourselves from the equation if our horse still presents us with issues whilst being ridden we need to look for other possible reasons.
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PAIN is the biggie…… As horses are prey animals they are very stoic in their approach to pain & don’t make a habit of pointing with a hoof at their sore back or hock joint.
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It is unlikely to be an obvious injury the horse is suffering from as most of us will instantly recognise a lame horse or an open wound & will call the vet & take appropriate action. No, it is much more likely to be an ongoing ‘niggle’.
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Think how much a tiny grain of grit hurts when it gets into our shoe. If we can’t stop immediately to get it out, we alter our gait (limp) to protect our foot but whilst doing so, we put extra stresses onto numerous others parts of our anatomy. If we tried to do a half marathon in this compromised state, we would have an awful lot more than a sore foot to contend with at the end.
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This is the same for a horse. A tiny grass seed trapped under a shoe or in a hoof boot. A bit that is slightly too fat or wide or narrow. A girth that is too loose or tight or too wide in the elbow area. The obvious saddle fit issues. The less obvious ill fitting rug (which is on for significantly longer each day than a saddle….). A bridle browband that is too short, a headpiece too thick, a noseband too high or low (& the obvious abusively fitted crank noseband). Martingales & breastplates, brushing boots & over-reach boots can all cause a low grade discomfort that results in a compromised gait leading to long term pain responses.
Those who ride bareback & bitless are not immune from causing pain. Ill fitting bitless bridles can put pressure onto the enormously sensitive  facial nerves & not all horse conformations can carry a rider comfortably bareback.
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VetPhysio.co.nz
VetPhysio.co.nz
As any physio will tell you, pain or damage in one part of the body often presents as an issue in another part of the body that is seemingly unrelated.
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When working for the UK equine charity we ALWAYS started with the premise that any behavioural issues were pain related & worked back from there (we had a great team of staff so could eliminate rider or handling issues as we could usually find the perfect person to communicate appropriately with the horse- Cath & Boston  🙂  ). We also had the expertise readily to hand to do everything from bute trials to scintigraphy to help diagnose or eliminate pain as a root cause.
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If pain has been categorically eliminated then the MEMORY of pain (which also means fear) could be the issue.  Chat to any 100m sprinter who has suffered a serious hamstring injury whilst racing & they will tell you that the psychological memory of the pain lasts way longer than the actual pain & most will require sports psychology just as much as physio to get back racing again.
Cartoon horse running
Take that thought with you when current pain has been eliminated even if your horse is not called Usain or Bolt!
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Finally, for this piece, remember horses are just that, HORSES! They are wild, beautiful free spirited creatures that have conquered continents, ploughed millions of acres to feed humanity & have achieved the Olympic motto a thousand times over of HIGHER, FASTER, STRONGER .
Why then do we expect riding them to be easy & hassle free… ?
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We will look at specific problems another time 🙂
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CIMG0567
Give horses the respect, love & care they deserve & always remember… it is for us to learn their language & needs. It is not for them to learn ours.
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Quality of Life

 ‘Is my horses Quality of Life acceptable?’ is a question that only animal owners have to ask. Hopefully, some of the criteria we adopted at the equine rescue & rehabilitation yard I managed in the UK may help those of you who are asking this question or who know it may arise at some point in the future.
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If you are already asking this question, your horse is telling you something that you have picked up consciously or deep in your heart…..
If you are thinking ahead, then you know that owning any animal comes with a huge burden of responsibility as we come towards the inevitable end.

There are no hard & fast rules as each horse & circumstance are individual. What is NEVER acceptable though is for your horse to be in constant or regular pain. If this is the case you must seek veterinary advice as to how to not just manage but alleviate this pain. As your vet will explain, long term pain relief comes with serious side effects (usually to the internal organs) so it is important you understand this ‘trade off’  & work alongside your vet to monitor your horses overall well being.

Facial expression of a pain free, relaxed and attentive horse (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer). (b) Facial expression of a horse in pain, comprising all features of the pain face including asymmetrical ears (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer). (c) Facial expression of a horse in pain, comprising all features of the pain face including low ears (Ill. Andrea Klintbjer).
(a) not in pain, (b) in pain, (c) in pain, ears back

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How do I know my horse is in pain? Unfortunately, like most prey animals, horses are extremely good at masking pain. In the wild, the moment they show discomfort let alone pain they will be targeted by their predators as the ‘easy’ next meal so it is in their best interests to be stoic when confronted by pain. It is up to us, their carers and guardians, to know the subtle tell tale signs that all is not well. A dull eye, sunken haws (the natural slight dip above the eyes becomes pronounced), unhappy ears, dull &  harsh coat or one that won’t moult, sunken flanks, weight & muscle loss, grumpy or even aggressive temperament & then the obvious lameness & stiffness, reluctance to lie down, difficulty in getting up are just some of the signs that all is not well.

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As a rough guide, your horse should be in compliance with the FIVE FREEDOMS. These are the global animal welfare criteria by which animal welfare organisations and legal prosecutors assess if an animal is being humanely looked after.

  • freedom from hunger or thirst
  • freedom from environmental or physical discomfort (has appropriate shelter from the elements, is not wearing an ill fitting rug etc.)
  • freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • freedom from fear and distress
  • freedom to indulge in normal behaviour patterns (happily & confidently engages within their herd or paddock arrangement, gets appropriate time in a field with others, to play, roll, exercise etc.)
Bullying can be very distressing for the horse
Bullying can be very distressing for the horse

If your older (or young)  horse is being relentlessly bullied preventing him from accessing the water troughs or hay piles this is also causing fear & distress not just hunger & thirst. This could be solved by  simply moving your horse out of  a herd environment.

 

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Maybe your slightly arthritic horse is struggling with hilly or rocky terrain & again, something as simple as moving to level pastures could radically improve his quality of life.

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Emaciated elderly horses
Emaciated elderly 30 year old horses

It is NOT acceptable for an elderly horse to be seriously underweight. This is not an inevitable symptom of old age. It is a sign that all is not well e.g. teeth issues, organ failure (digestive tract through to the kidneys & liver), a tumour, heart issues, foot or any other ongoing pain,  inappropriate feeding and so on. Veterinary advice must be sought. If you have an emaciated horse you are just as likely to be accused of providing unacceptable care, regardless whether he is 6 months, 6 years or 26 years old.

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The same horses after 2 years of appropriate care

 

The older horse requires very regular dental checks, vet checks and farrier attention alongside appropriate nutrition, exercise, protection from the elements and good old fashioned TLC. Click on the picture to see the wonderful story of these two senior citizens who were nursed back to health using nothing more than appropriate and timely horse care and management and a lot of love 🙂  

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A very clear graphic regarding elderly horses

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The horses actual age is not a criteria. I have met many wonderfully happy, healthy & working 30 year olds and, sadly, many desperately distressed 6 month old equines (the downside of working in the UK’s largest equine rescue & rehabilitation yard….).

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As your horse enters his twilight years it can be helpful to take a photo of him mid summer and mid winter, just in a headcollar, using the same background, and date this photo. You can then compare as the months go by to see if there are any subtle changes you are not noticing on a daily basis. An honest knowledgeable friend who does not see the horse each day can also be a good ‘sounding board’.

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When you feel the inevitable is on the horizon, don’t ask social media ‘friends’ or even your actual friends (who may feel pressured to give you the answer you want to hear, whichever that is). Ask your vet.

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Your vet is the most  important person to involve. They are trained to prevent suffering (preventative, curative, alleviative) and to promote welfare and they have the knowledge, skills and means by which to do this.

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Their main role is not to tell you you need to be making some really tough decisions but if you ask the right questions they will give honest answers. My favourites are :

-If he was your horse what would you do? 
-In your opinion is my horse suffering?
-If money were no object what can I do to keep him 100% comfortable?

These questions help the vet to open up to a frank & honest dialogue which it is often difficult for them to instigate.

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Quality of Life is a HUGE topic & don’t ever feel it is something you need to deal with alone. Surround yourself with knowledgeable, pragmatic friends, your vet, your trainer etc . As horses rarely pass away in their sleep it is an inevitable consequence of owning horses that you will at some point need to make the ultimate decision…….. Horses are also extremely large & expensive animals to care for & can become a huge financial drain at any time let alone towards the end.

If you can’t afford to give your elderly or chronically unwell horse the time, facilities, resources & medication needed to fulfill the 5 Freedoms, this is also a totally acceptable reason to be considering the ultimate decision. It is  100% kinder than offloading your elderly horse to an uncertain ‘retirement’ future that you have no control over. (More on this another time but please, don’t ever abandon your elderly or sick horse when he needs you the most. It is the most cruel thing you can do).

As their guardians and carers we owe our wonderful, kind, noble and honest horses the very best we can give them throughout their time with us. Don’t let them down when they need us the most……. 

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Please note: Everything above is personal to me. It is not the definitive narrative on this topic & there will always be exceptions. Making the decision to put any animal to sleep is monumental & for info, it does not get easier….  as indeed, it should not.
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Below are some publications that deal with the care of older horses:

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How to stay motivated to ride in the winter!

Winter wheelbarrow
Remind me what too hot feels like again?
Keeping motivated during the cold wet winter months is not easy. Indeed, motivation is probably what distinguishes a world champion from the rest of us. The rain is just as wet, the night just as dark, the cold just as freezing yet some people can put all that aside & continue as if everything was perfect for riding & caring for horses.
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I have a couple of weather related sayings (gleaned by surviving 5 decades of UK weather!) & these are: 1. ‘If you wait for the weather you will do nothing‘ & 2. ‘There is no such thing as bad weather if you are wearing the right clothes‘!
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With regards to the first, if we let a bit of cold or rain put us off what is next?  Too windy, too hot, too dusty, too hard, too wet, arena is too busy….  our excuses just flow more & more easily until there is NEVER a good time to ride.
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The second one is more true than at first you realise. If you are at all cold or wet whilst riding or caring for your horse you are indeed wearing the wrong clothes! Commercial fishermen keep dry & warm (ish!) trawling Arctic seas… just saying!
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DON’T buy your winter survival clothes from a saddlery shop. They will be 4 x the price they should be as the word ‘horse’ is involved & they  would fail any trade description dispute as they are never waterproof & rarely warm below 10 Celsius!
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If you are happy to buy  new, try farm merchants, angling or ex military outlets & companies who supply commercial outdoor workers / councils etc. These may look at bit workmanlike but will be fit for purpose.
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My mom is cold
What happened to you? My mum is cold!
A much cheaper way to go, (remembering one winter usually trashes our horse related clothing),  is to visit charity shops. Avoid boutique towns (unless you are looking for your strappy cocktail dress!) & aim for more rural areas. Not only will items be cheaper but there will be a good supply of coats for all weathers & at a price where you can keep a dry spare in your car  for emergencies. The price will be such that you won’t cry at the ceremonial dumping of your disgustingly dirty ripped coat come spring time! Cheap gloves from a $ store or similar compliment your winter wardrobe!

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It seems more logical to wear thicker jodphurs or breeches in the winter but these actually soak up the rain & take ages to dry. It is far better to buy a really lightweight pair & wear waterproof over trousers on top if raining or especially cold. Rubber riding boots, though waterproof, do make your feet very cold. A pair of cheap wellies for the muddy & wet work & then a more insulated synthetic riding boot to ride in is the best way to go. Leather riding boots are by far the best…. but most of us can’t afford a new pair after each winter!
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Once you are no longer feeling wet or cold it will help you to get motivated!
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We (or somebody reliable) MUST check our field kept horse at least once a day on welfare grounds. In the winter supplementary hay & / or hard feed may also be needed. If you are going to all this trouble & expense why not ride / train/ handle your horse at the same time? You are already outside in the elements!
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Bumpy in the middle
Sitting trot takes a lot of practice!
Set goals. This winter I am going to: improve my riding position / learn to sit to the trot or canter/ work without stirrups / teach my horse to bow / teach my horse Spanish Walk / work on carrot stretches or rehab in hand pole work /teach my horse to stretch on the lunge & under saddle / teach my horse to work in a softer bit or without gadgets such as martingales / improve my horses fitness or paces or top line and so on.
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Riding to  music can be wonderfully inspirational so tie that ghetto blaster to the fence & get dancing (it will also help to prepare your horse for your Olympic Gold Medal winning lap of honour as well as improving your ability to stay on in the ghetto blaster corner! ).
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You WILL ride today!
You WILL ride today!
Booking a monthly lesson with a coach that will set goals & who is scary enough to make you work between lessons can be a great motivator (my son’s best guitar teacher was also the British cage fighting champion….. for some reason he never missed a days guitar practice!).
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Aim for an early spring competition date even if just a fun ribbon day. If you are not into competing, look at a sponsored ride or book a horse holiday somewhere where your own horse is welcome. Even just arranging a beach or forest ride can help you to want to keep yourself or horse riding fit.
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riding with friends
Riding with like minded friends is fun
Ride with friends as often  as you can so you can motivate each other.
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Anything that helps you through that extra tough day!
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To help you work towards your goals give yourself rewards : when you can work without stirrups for 20 minutes,  have a glass of wine or some chocolate or buy that wonderful new pair of riding boots!
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A wall calendar strategically placed somewhere you can’t avoid that you tick each time you ride is a good motivator. Your handbag diary or google calendar is too easy to ignore! You could colour code it e.g. red means you rode without stirrups, green means you hacked, blue means you worked over poles or jumps etc.
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Muddy horse
What mud?
Ask your work colleagues to quiz you each day as to what you did with your horse the previous day….. they will delight in being harsh critics if you did nothing! Get them interested in your passion. Show them photos of what is involved in caring & riding a horse. They will be blown away as to how much hard work is involved especially when you show them the 100% covered in wet mud horse photo!
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Azzura & Ana
Remember, there are a lot of people out there who would give anything to be able to own & ride a horse so we are HUGELY privileged & should try to enjoy every special moment we have with our amazing 4 legged companions.
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PS A confession…… it took me two weeks of excuses before I could make myself write this article…..
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Again, many thanks to the wonderful Normal Thelwell & his pictures. His books were my first ‘horse’ books …… which probably explains a lot  🙂
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Suggested related reading:
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Search : From Leading to Liberty in the box below for some great training ideas to keep you busy this winter!

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The Problem with horses is…….

The problem with horses is……. well actually there are too many problems to mention in one post!  This is not really surprising as horses are the largest animal humans regularly interact with.

Scared pony

If you look at how few humans can control a 10kg dog (& I don’t even dare to mention a 3kg cat….!) why do we expect it to be any easier when handling 700kgs of horse?  This is made worse by the fact the horse is a prey animal which makes the species even more reactive to external stimuli than predator animals such as dogs.

 

 

 

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Horses can hurt us. Horses can hurt us really badly without even meaning to. If they kick out at a fly & catch us….. well it hurts to put it mildly! ‘Just’ having your foot stomped on can result in a seriously broken foot complete with the most amazing shades of blue & purple. And yes, I speak from experience!

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Squashed foot

(On a side note, if you do get your foot badly trodden on by a horse get your boot off as quickly as you can. Your foot will swell extremely quickly & a boot will restrict blood flow. If you are wearing a long leather boot it will become impossible to remove it without cutting it off. IF your million dollar leather riding boots do ever need cutting off…. cut the stitching along the back (or any) seam as the boot can then be repaired by a good cobbler. Remember to mention this to the paramedic as well…. those extremely sharp scissors will be for your boots…! )
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Staying with foot squashing for a moment more, if you elect to wear steel toe capped work boots around horses they need to be to farrier or army grade. If not there is a real danger the actual steel toe cap will be crushed INTO your foot causing even worse injury & the boot will also be extremely difficult to remove. Low grade steel toe caps have occasionally severed toes in this situation.

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Horses also bite (we all know the saying ‘horses are dangerous at both ends & uncomfortable in the middle’!). Going back to our 10kg dog… if that bite  can hospitalise you, think what a horse can do.

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Biting

Horses have 36 to 42 very LARGE teeth with several hundred kilos of animal behind them. Ouch! Now most horses don’t automatically attack humans. If they did we would have used them as a food source rather than riding & pack animals as they would be far too dangerous for most of humanity to handle. Horses do nip (feels pretty much like a bite when they get you!) & bite each other in the wild as part of their herd communication. A mare will nip her foal very firmly if it bites her teat when suckling or if it misbehaves in any way. A young horse that has no boundaries will be more likely to be attacked by the lead stallion & other senior herd members so mum is telling the foal what is & what is not acceptable behaviour.  A stallion or dominant mare will often be seen snaking its head & neck whilst nipping at the hind legs of its herd to ‘hurry’ them along or out of danger.  When stallions fight (which is one of the most ferocious fights in the animal kingdom) the teeth are a huge part of this. So yes, horses do bite!

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The most likely causes of being bitten by a domesticated horse include just being in the way e.g. horse turning around to bite at a fly or another horse & getting you  instead.  Girthing up is another time that often provokes the bite response (more on this another time  🙂  ) as can grooming ticklish areas.  Always be aware of this & take sensible precautions e.g. tie them up when grooming or tacking up. Even a saint of a horse will react if you scrub a dandy brush over a new sore or wound you were unaware of so don’t take liberties. It is unfair to punish a horse for something that was totally avoidable with a bit of foresight.

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Feed time is another opportunity to get kicked or bitten! Feeding a GROUP of horses hard feed (mixes, pellets , straight grains etc) all together in a field is a very dangerous occupation & should be avoided if at all possible.  Obviously feeding one or two friendly horses together is a much safer option but even then, be on your guard.

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Feeding several horses together will almost always eventually end in tears with either yourself or a horse getting kicked or badly bitten. If you HAVE to do this e.g. you can’t catch the horses & tie them up somewhere safe, it may work to have mangers that are spaced along the fence line so you yourself don’t have to enter the field with buckets of food. The spacing must be wide enough that if both horses swung their quarters towards each other & both kicked out at the same time they would not make contact.

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Group feeding of horses in a field is not only dangerous but actually causes the horses considerable stress. Some will be bullied & may not actually get any food. This anxiety & bullying will start way before the feed is due (assuming you feed at the same time each day, which you should be doing…. But more about that another time!) as they anticipate their meal. A lot of horses are injured by feeding hard food this way, not just people.

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Another injury we can get that is scarily common when in a field with horses is to our knees.  You don’t need to ski to trash every ligament & cartilage your knee possesses! This is most common in wet muddy conditions & usually occurs when you turn quickly (or even slowly)  to get out of the way. Your foot stays trapped in the mud but your upper leg turns… ripping the knee. I personally know at least three people that have done this, all whilst feeding or catching horses & all three were seriously hurt & required surgery… The rest of the time we step out of our wellies which though funny to watch does obviously put us in a vulnerable position!

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Draining or packing gateways with lime stone or similar & not feeding multiple horses in the field help prevent this sort of situation arising.

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Being pinned is another horse injury. (It also happens to cattle farmers.) Pinning is where the horse squashes us against a solid object e.g. a wall, fence, post or whilst in a trailer or lorry etc.

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Pinning
Now usually a sensible horse has just moved by accident & the moment it feels us it moves away again. We have probably all had this on numerous occasions.

Being pinned properly is terrifying, dangerous & can actually be fatal.Crush injuries will involve internal organs not just bones.

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A ‘normal’ horse pins us due to fear e.g. rushing away from a real or perceived danger or through ignorance e.g. no manners or understanding of moving away from us & the importance of personal space. Believe it or not….some horses pin us on purpose.  A horse that does it deliberately is a very dangerous animal indeed & its handling is beyond the scope of my posts. I have met it once (she would trap you in the stable & then pin you to the wall) but in her defense, humans had treated her pretty abysmally up until the time I knew her..  🙁

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Cross ties

Being pinned often happens whilst grooming & tacking up especially if the horse is a wriggler! Using cross ties virtually eliminates this from happening which is why stalls with cross ties are so common on professional yards (this is where a tie rope is placed BOTH sides of the horses head). They also make it virtually impossible for a horse to turn round to nip you as well! My first experience of them was at the age of 16  on a national hunt racing yard & they pretty much saved my (ignorant) life! (As with all things, don’t cross tie them for any longer than essential as it does limit their ability to move, which is sort of the point!).
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Now for the good news! Though EVERY horse is quite capable of all the above, with a LITTLE bit of common sense & HUGE respect for our horse, we can virtually eliminate being bitten, kicked or pinned!

Having said that, as we are all human, just letting your guard down for a moment (which is often very early in the morning, late at night or when in a hurry!)  the horse will take great delight in reminding us just how insignificant we are compared to them & how privileged we are that they respect us enough to look out for our well being most of the time….

Cuddling pony

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Next time we will look at some riding problems but in the meantime…..   safe horsing!

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A MASSIVE thank you to Normal Thelwell for his pictures. His incredible insight into  animals & people is as relevant now as it ever was  🙂

Discovery Horse Tours, Costa Rica

Nestled in the jungle near the Pacific coast town of Jaco, Andrea & Chris have set up the most wonderful horse riding experience.

From initial contact (a personal email back by return advising me on the best holiday to book for my needs) through to Andrea & her husband Chris helping me with travel arrangements on departure, nothing was too much trouble. This vacation is seriously understated on their website as it is so much more than ‘just’ a riding holiday!  This is a total Costa Rican experience with two people who look upon you as a new friend.
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You ride some VERY nice horses who are fit, well, sound & at peace with themselves & their life. Pretty impressive as most are ‘rescues’. The tack fits & the strict weight limit ensures that the horses are comfortable in their work & it is immediately apparent that the welfare of the horses comes first, second & third!

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Cee Cee & Amadora. What lovely backsides!
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First thing each day you are taken to a local restaurant or cafe for breakfast where you choose from extensive menus. You then ride a wonderful trail in the relative cool of the mornings  where you are virtually guaranteed to see an amazing array of animals & birds. You are then treated to lunch at yet another local eatery (you will not go hungry on this holiday!) where the afternoons activity will be arranged. These include off the beaten track rain & cloud forests complete with canopy hanging bridges through to  waterfall pools to cool off in.

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Hanging canopy bridges at Rainmaker Cloud & Rain forest.

CR Tort, Are, Mont, Alt, Disc 394

View from Rainmaker forest.

 

 

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CR Tort, Are, Mont, Alt, Disc 349

You are taken on an extraordinary crocodile excursion where you will get extremely up close & personal to many crocodiles in their natural habitat. You will almost certainly meet Obama, Raul Castro, Miley Cyrus, Pretty Eye (was Pretty EyeS until an accident …..) to name but a few…. This gives you an idea as to the humour with which this tour is delivered 🙂

You can also choose between yoga/ surfing/ zip-lining/ massage experiences to while away one hot afternoon.
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CR Tort, Are, Mont, Alt, Disc 368

Then there is the Tropical Spar ride. This must be totally unique to Discovery Horse Tours. Where else could you ride a beautiful & happy horse through the jungle, dodging White Face Monkeys & Toucans before arriving at a secret waterfall pool? It does not stop here. You then cover yourself in the most amazing mineral mud for a once in a lifetime totally natural mud spar.  With your skin still tingling it is time to float leisurely in the pristine pool, gazing up at the rain forest tree canopy whilst being watched by Jesus Christ lizards, monkeys & the most amazing array of birds & butterflies….  Sounds pretty unique to me?!
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Just to make you feel even more special, you are then taken to watch the sun go down over the Pacific ocean in the specially designed sunset amphitheatre located in a 5 star mountain resort which also has the most extensive cocktail list I have ever seen!
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CR Tort, Are, Mont, Alt, Disc 322
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the very comfortable Pacific Beach front hotel you stay in where the sand meets their pool & Scarlet Macaws & Iguanas watch you curiously…. A truly magical experience.

 

CR Tort, Are, Mont, Alt, Disc 319

 

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Andrea has a special love for liberty work & bridleless riding & has used her stunning location to entice a very impressive list of natural horsemanship & liberty trainers to Costa Rica. It appears to be much easier to encourage busy people to visit paradise!
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Andrea & Emma

Andrea runs regular clinics so do check out their website for more information (details under ‘Recommendations’ page).
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Emma Massingale  & Andrea (with the hat!).