A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

Otis Update

I thought you’d all like an update on Otis.

He’s come through the winter nicely, although dropped a little bit of weight in the last month since his rug has been off, but I’m happy with that as he needs to be a little slim in spring so I don’t have to reduce grazing or anything. It’s not like he can be exercised to remove excess weight!

He’s still hairy, although that’s rapidly falling out of him. He’s very happy, still a little limpy in trot, but it doesn’t stop him cantering over for breakfast!

What I have enjoyed seeing these last couple of months is his relationship developing with Mallory. We always knew he was a gentle, sensitive soul. One who just rests his head against you and absorbs all your problems. Who calms you with a blink of his large, brown eye. But recently it’s become even more evident.

I bring him out of the paddock to feed as his field mate practically inhales his food and Otis’s is yummier, so it’s easier to separate them. I leave Mallory sat in the barrow, on top of the hay while I put the buckets down. Usually singing “postman pat and his black and white cat… Just as day is dawning, he picks up all the postmen in his van” because she’s delivering the horse’s food.

Then we take the barrow into the field, lift her out, and empty the hay. As I’m doing this she usually runs back to Otis, hugs his head (which isn’t much smaller than her whole body), tells him she loves him, and then turns his bucket upside down before giving it back to me, whether it’s empty or not. He just stands there, lapping up the attention, and carefully moving towards the bucket when she’s out the way.

His gentleness is paying off though, as any banana skins or apple cores are specifically requested to go to Otis now. But I love how tolerant he is of her, and how he’s teaching her how to treat others, whilst letting her express her feelings and childlike tendencies – carefully laying her favourite comforter over him, clapping, giggling in joy as she sits on him bareback, usually backwards, spinning Around the World regularly to change her view.

The Future

I apologise if this becomes a bit morbid, but I think the last twelve months have made us all more aware of our mortality. I think most people have been affected by Covid-19. For some, it’s taken an ill or elderly relative sooner than anticipated. For others, there’s been the shock death of a seemingly healthy friend or relative.

When faced with a life deadline, illness or old age, you can get your affairs in order. Ensure family know your wishes with regards to horses and pets. But as a young, healthy person, it’s not the top of my mind, for sure. But perhaps we should all take five minutes to let our closest know how we want to care for our four legged friends. Just in case.

Someone once told me that their will stated that their horse should be euthanized upon their death, on the basis that no one else could keep him in the manner she did. I felt that was egotistical, as we all try to give our horses the best care possible. But begrudgingly, I feel there is a point to be made here.

It sounds callous, to have your horse put down when you die, when they may have plenty of life left in them. But horses are a luxury, an expense. And if the family you have left have neither the time nor money to care for your horse after you’ve gone, then it is better to have them euthanased than for them to suffer neglect, or to be sold to an unsuitable home, or to end up in a rescue centre. I recently saw a fiery debate on social media about two horses who’s owner had died and the family couldn’t afford to keep them, so we’re having them put down. Initially, it seemed that there should be an alternative for two apparently healthy horses. But upon closer inspection, both horses were in their mid twenties, very attached to each other, and had some management issues. Reading that, I soon changed my mind to agree with the family, and thought it more responsible of them to take this route rather than abandon the horses to a charity.

There are several options when planning your horse’s next stage of life. Horses are financially taxing, so perhaps leave some money to help support them. Or ensure the person you’ve entrusted their care to is financially stable and able to afford to feed an extra mouth. Be realistic about your horse’s future. If they’re old, or retired with injury then they have very little resale value. A friend or family may want a companion, but otherwise my gut feeling is that it is better for everyone, if you leave clear end of life instructions. Those left behind don’t feel obligated to struggle to care for the horse, or have to morally wrestle with themselves to make a decision for you.

I do think that a young, healthy, fit horse, who still has much to give, should be given the chance to adopt a new family after you’ve gone, but again it’s worth ensuring family know your wishes in selling – whether you want them to sell via a dealer, or have a type of home in mind, etc.

A few years ago my parents told me they were leaving Matt to me in their will, but had decided that it was a back handed gift because of the costs and time involved. Which means my brother doesn’t get an equivalent “gift”. Unless he gets the family tortoise, who has so far been passed from my Uncle, to my Grandad, to my brother, to my parents…

It’s hard putting decisions like this in writing (I can’t even write my decision on here!), but verbalising your thoughts is easier, and it’s something that needs to be discussed with loved ones so they know what to do in the worst case scenario; to safeguard their future as well as your horse’s.

So apologies for the slightly depressing subject, but the last few weeks I’ve felt that it’s a topic that needs addressing, particularly with all the uncertainty in the world right now. To lighten the mood, enjoy these photos of Otis being his usual lovable, cuddly self, and long-suffering Phoenix allowing a toy to ride her.

Snaking Leg Yield

I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.

Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.

When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.

The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.

If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.

Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.

If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.

The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.

First Aid Kits

Do you have a first aid kit at the yard? Human or equine? Or both?

I have a human one in my car, but thinking about it, it probably needs updating. I only use it for plasters. I also have a Pony Club one, which is definitely up to date, for when I’m teaching rallies. Horse wise, I have one at the yard. But thinking about it, it should also be updated…

A couple of weeks ago, I had a freak accident with a client’s horse, which reminded me to update my first aid kits!

My client was running late so tied her pony up in the usual spot along the fence outside her stable. I offered to tack up while she got ready. I put the saddle on; girth on the bottom hole, and then reached through from the off side to do it up. As I was putting the strap through the buckle the mare swung round towards my right leg, to try and bite me. I twitched my leg away, still holding the girth. After all, it’s not a new behaviour when the girth is being done.

Anyway, when my leg moved, the mare tossed her head away, you know how horses do in anticipation of being hit? Well she did that. And in doing so, scraped her forehead on the gate hinge.

“Oh, she’s cut her head.” says my client, bringing the bridle over.

I look. “Oh s***” I think, as I see that the small drop of blood is actually linked to a triangle of flapping skin, which is slowly starting to peel away from her forehead.

My client rang the vet, while I hunted around the yard, asking other liveries, for first aid equipment. If the vet was coming I didn’t want to mess with the wound, but I could remember that flaps of skin need to be put back in place to maximise the likelihood of it… Sticking. Is that the right word? Cotton wool leaves fibres in the wound, which I didn’t want. Eventually, I found a non-adhesive, Melolin dressing and I covered the wound and then bandaged her nose with vet wrap so that we didn’t have to hold it while waiting for the vet. I didn’t tell my client that the smooth white thing we could see was bone…

When the vet arrived he sedated her, although I think she was already semi-comatosed from the bash. He snipped away the hair, gave her a local anaesthetic and then flushed out the wound before stitching her up.

The wound looked very dramatic, especially with the diluted blood dripping everywhere. And I felt awful. Even though the logical side of me reminds me that I didn’t actually do anything aside from remove my leg from her jaws. We can learn from it; tie her tighter, use a different tie spot, but ultimately it was a freak accident. And a timely reminder to check the first aid kit regularly!

Within a couple of days the wound was healing nicely, and as the noseband didn’t interfere with it, she could be ridden lightly. The stitches were removed after ten days, and two weeks on the only sign remaining is the short hair on her forehead. I did notice the next time I rode her, that she thought twice about biting as the girth was done up.

Looking online, there are various equine first aid kits available, so it’s worth checking those out, but remember the contents aren’t exclusive, so if you can think of something else to put in the first aid kit then, perhaps specific to your horse or their usual ailments.

Diagonal Limbs

I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.

Old age.

Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.

Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.

Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.

Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.

The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.

For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.

When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.

Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.

Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.

I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram

I attended (from the comfort of my sofa) a webinar during lockdown by Dr Sue Dyson about her Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram.

What’s that I hear you say. Well, I’d vaguely heard of it, but wasn’t sure what it was all about.

How many times do you hear people saying that their horse isn’t right? They can’t put their finger on it, but they aren’t their normal self. Then they ask their chiropractor, physiotherapist, or vet to have a look. But these professionals don’t know the horse as well as their owner does so miss the subtlest signals of pain and discomfort.

Having felt horses having an “off day” I know how difficult it is to put your finger on it, but then also how to ascertain that they are feeling better or recovering.

Alternatively, you have the leisure horse owners who struggle to feel a subtle lameness – when a horse is perhaps 3/10 lame, or just slightly short in stride on a circle. In that case, they need more symptoms to look for.

This is where the Ethogram comes into play. The Ethogram lists 24 defined behaviours which are associated with discomfort: for example, teeth grinding, tail swishing, ears back. In the research carried out by Dr Dyson, horses were recorded doing a ridden set of exercises which were analysed. Those who exhibited eight or more behaviours had a degree of lameness, which was then diagnosed using nerve blocks.

How does this affect the average horse owner? Well, if you think your horse isn’t going as well as normal and can’t put your finger on it, then look out for the 24 behaviours. If they show more than eight, then start investigating. If, for example, once your saddle has been adjusted the behaviours they are displaying will either reduce (because of the effect of pain memory) or be eliminated. A reduction in the behaviour is it being displayed for less time, or to a smaller degree.

From the professionals perspective, studying the wider picture, can help diagnose the issue because the professional will dig deeper and investigate further even if there doesn’t seem to be an obvious issue. I’ve increased my awareness of the symptoms recently, looking at the body language and other behaviours which tell me a horse isn’t comfortable, and have definitely seen a correlation between “they’re not feeling normal” and the position of their ears, amount of tail swishing, head position, facial expression, etc.

Of course, you don’t want to become an equine hypochondriac, but there’s a lot of merit in paying more attention to the subtleties of your horse’s behaviour and how they are communicating with you. It might just mean you get your saddle adjusted a month sooner, which prevents muscle soreness or atrophy. Or you will catch a niggle and have it treated by your physio or chiro before a major problem occurs which will need a rehab programme.

A visual guide to the pain ethogram.