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.

Sacroiliac Injuries

For some reason, I have three horses on my books currently rehabbing from sacroiliac injuries. One fell over in the field being moronic. Another, actually another did his in the field when he arrived at a new yard. And another has come to me for help after a year of battling with SI problems.

Not that I’ve become an expert, but I’ve definitely picked up a few nuggets of information about sacroiliac injuries and rehabilitation.

Symptoms of a sacroiliac injury aren’t particularly obvious – there’s no limpy leg. There is often a positive reaction to palpitation of the SI area (and by positive, I mean that the horse reacts to pressure, even in an ears back, angry way). Although some horses can be incredibly stoic and barely flinch when palpated. There’s slight shortening of the hindlimb stride, usually both, but many riders won’t notice it. I’d almost describe it as a “flat” movement. They’re going through the motions of moving their legs, but are saving themselves and not using their back muscles. Mostly, horses show unhappiness in the canter – bucking, going disunited, falling out of canter and general reluctance. A horse may find jumping harder, put in the odd refusal, or not bascule as well as normal. I think often sacroiliac injuries are noticed after a period of time, when the horse’s posture and muscle definition have deteriorated so that the saddle doesn’t fit, or the physiotherapist notices a change in posture.

The usual treatment for a sacroiliac injury is to medicate the joint, and then a rehabilitation programme to stabilise and strengthen the area. The medication lasts for six months, so there’s a good stretch of time to build up the work and improve their way of going without the horse being in pain, and then hopefully once the six months is over the SI area is strong, stable and pain free.

Vets usually recommend two weeks of box rest and then a six week rehab programme working up to introducing canter in the last fortnight. I always find that the typical vet’s programme is quite ambitious and based on the perfect scenario of seven days a week and a perfectly behaved pony in the field! If you can only work the horse five days a week, stretch out the rehab programme to factor this in. If the weather’s awful or you’ve been ill and haven’t progressed through the week, then just repeat that week of the rehab programme. My vet friend told me that the worst thing you can do when rehabbing a sacroiliac injury is to work a horse more than their fitness. So I work on the basis that if in doubt, plateau the work load for a few days and take more time. Besides, the owner usually knows their horse very well so can tell if their horse is ready for the next step of the rehabilitation programme, or if they need more time at their current stage to build their strength.

The first couple of weeks of the rehab programme is walk only. Long reining is often recommended, and hugely beneficial as the horse starts to work in a long and low frame without the weight of the rider. The horses that I’ve worked with this year have both done at least a week of pure long reining; in the arena and out on little hacks. Then we’ve introduced walk poles on the long reins and then riding. Initially, it’s been a ride every three days, and then after another week or so, alternating riding and long reining. The poles start off as only one or two every other day, to more poles, then more frequently, and then raising the poles. We make the workload harder by one factor at a time so as to develop the horse’s strength steadily. Again, if the horse seems to find it difficult then they can have an easier following couple of days, perhaps going back to just walking with no polework. We also introduced hillwork on hacks, again with small hills, and then steeper hills and more frequently in each week.

The first long reining session, where stretching long and low is quite an alien concept.
Within the first long reining session, this horse started experimenting with moving his head into different positions. Within a fortnight he stretched for the majority of his time in a long and low frame.

After two or three weeks of walking, we introduce trot in straight lines. On the long reins and under saddle. With the same approach – introduce the trot without the weight of the rider, then under saddle, then increase the number of trots, the duration of the trots, adding in polework and then hillwork. If the horse ends up feeling particularly tired when a new level is introduced, such as trotting up a hill, then the next day they can do slightly less. I like to maintain long reining a couple of days a week, and vary the work so that the horse’s brain is engaged and they don’t become bored.

Once the horse is feeling strong enough – I go on the basis that they should find three or more raised trot poles straightforward, and have their neck low, back lifting throughout – then it’s time for canter.

The day of the first canters I’m not worried about the transitions, I’m just looking for the horse to feel comfortable in the canter; and for it to be fairly rhythmical and three time. One or two canters on each rein is sufficient the first time, and the following day have an easy ride or long rein session. Once canter has been introduced I don’t think it’s necessary to canter the horse daily over the first week or so. Canter is the hardest gait for horses with sacroiliac injuries, so introducing it very slowly and steadily minimises the horse regressing or overdoing it. In the canter the horse’s pelvis moves in more of a sideways motion, whilst in the trot it’s a forwards-backwards motion so there’s new muscles being recruited and needing to strengthen. The whole pelvic area should also become more supple after canter is introduced and the horse begin to feel much more comfortable trotting in a long and low frame, with the back swinging nicely.

At this stage, whether it’s taken six weeks or ten weeks, the basic rehab programme from the vets is essentially over. But that doesn’t mean it’s back to pre-injury work. Especially if the pre-injury workload caused the injury. Time needs to be spent on the canter, getting the horse to better use their back and develop the muscles over the sacroiliac area, using canter poles, both on the ground and raised, before recommencing jumping. Realistically, it’s another month before the horse is back at their usual level of work and able to stay sound.

I find it really satisfying rehabbing horses, and enjoy reflecting on the changes to their posture, muscle tone and way of going. Although I don’t think I’d have the patience I have with client’s horses with my own!

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.

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.

Biosecurity

“Not again” is the thought going through my head this weekend as the equine world reacts to the news of an EHV outbreak at a competition venue. Last year, it was the flu outbreak, this year EHV. The reaction has been strange this time round. Last year I felt there was a very panicked, almost hysterical air. This year there has been a more prompt, and complete, response from training and competition venues in the area or with links to the infected venue, but the general equine population seems to be more confused – some are taking extreme precautions, others are continuing as normal.

Perhaps it’s because Equine Herpes Virus is less well known than Equine Flu, or perhaps it is the fact the flu epidemic was in random places, so very difficult to contain or predict it’s movement – an attack from all sides, so to speak. Perhaps it’s because everyone knows the drill for lockdowns. Or on the flip side, people are fed up of stringent checks.

EHV is always mentioned in stable management training, within the subjects of vaccinations and breeding, but I’ve only a sketchy knowledge of this often fatal virus, so I’ve found a much better article about it, which you can read here.

I’m not going to start telling everyone what you should be doing, in terms of hacking, travelling or yard lockdowns. After all, that depends on your location, proximity to the outbreak, disciplines, size of yard, facilities, and risk category of horse.

But I think it’s worth discussing biosecurity measures, which in all honesty, often become slack because they are quite laborious and time consuming.

Firstly, there is the basic yard hygiene of ensuring that each horse has their own grooming kit and feed and water buckets, and avoid sharing rugs, tack and protective equipment as much as possible. Wash out buckets daily, clean grooming kits regularly, wash saddle cloths regularly and don’t share them between horses. The same goes for rugs. Daily procedures like this take very little time and will stop any diseases passing between horses from indirect contact. In particular, not sharing grooming brushes or rugs or numnahs reduces the spread of skin infections, such as ringworm.

Of course horses on yards will have nose to nose contact with their field and stable companions and neighbours, but this can be minimised by putting inner electric fences round fields so that horses can’t reach each other (unless they are half giraffe!) and by not having grills between stables you can reduce direct contact between horses, which will reduce the spread of illnesses.

Washing hands when you leave the yard is a basic hygeine procedure from a human point of view, but it will also stop the indirect spread of disease when visiting other horses. I keep hand sanitiser in my car for this very purpose.

What other basic biosecurity measures can you take without disturbing your daily equine routine? When we’re all out at competitions and clinics as normal, do you let your horse sniff unknown horses? Personally I don’t. I keep a slight distance and avoid letting Phoenix touch noses with any horse from a different yard, even if I know their owner. Of course, it’s not going to stop the airborne spread of illnesses, but stopping direct contact will reduce the risk. And of course, using your own equipment and providing your own water will reduce the risk further.

Finally, you should take your horse’s temperature on a regular basis to establish what is normal for your horse so that you can quickly identify when they develop a fever. I remember when we had strangles on the yard when I was young one of the riding school ponies had strangles but his temperature was the normal 100F. But his baseline temperature was 98F, which meant he could easily be overlooked as healthy when he was actually very ill.

Big biosecurity steps to take is disinfection, which should happen all the time, but often people get complacent. For example, when a horse leaves the yard their stable should be disinfected before another horse moves in, in case the previous horse was a carrier of a disease and passes it onto the new occupant. When a new horse arrives on a yard they should be isolated for two weeks. Proper and correct isolation means a separate stable block, handlers washing and changing clothes between caring for the new horse and the rest of the yard, separate mucking out equipment, separate brushes, rugs etc. You should even burn the muck and bedding, keeping it separate from the main muck heap.

If you hire a horse box it should be disinfected before and after use, so check with the company you are using that this is their procedure.

Now that there’s a higher risk of disease, it’s time to step up the biosecurity measures you take on a daily basis. Change clothes and disinfect footwear when leaving the yard, reduce the number of different yards you visit – a farrier may want to reschedule his clients so he minimises the number of yards he visits in a day, and if you’re going to see a friend and their new horse it might be worth postponing a week or two. I will be having numerous changes of clothes each day for each yard and having a portable boot wash so I can dip my boots in disinfectant when I leave a yard.

Like with anything, it’s important not to panic, but to be sensible; don’t go anywhere unnecessarily, or to heavy traffic areas, and maintain daily hygeine procedures.

I found this useful website about equine biosecurity from the British Equine Federation.

Recommendations

In my line of work I’m always being asked for recommendations for equine dentists, farriers, chiropractors, saddlers.

I work on the basis that I can and will recommend those who I use for my horses. But sometimes I know that a client may be out of that professional’s area, so I have to have some alternative names up my sleeve.

I like to know who my clients use, for shoeing or saddle checks or massages. Because over time I can see the effect of their work, and get feedback from my clients if they are happy with the service they’ve had. Which means that when I’m asked for a recommendation I can say, “I have seen and heard good things about so-and-so who covers your area”, or “so-and-so has done a great job with a client’s horse who had a similar issue. Might be worth contacting them?”

Regardless of recommendations clients have though, I always suggest that they do their own research and make sure the name they’ve been given is a member of the society of their profession. For example, qualified saddlers should be members of the Society of Master Saddlers. According to the website, “The Society of Master Saddlers aims to ensure and achieve a high quality of workmanship through setting standards and overseeing the training of the membership’s workforce to give their customers a professional and quantified service. It continues its work to carry these standards through build, repair & fit, and to work towards the complete comfort and safety of horse and rider.In layman’s terms, a master saddler attends regular training days and has certain standards to adhere to, which means you know you are going to get good service.

Equine dentists should be members of the British Association of Equine Dental Technicians; a list of members is found on the website, just as master saddlers are on their website. Again, you know that they are attending training days, have undergone numerous exams, and have a network of support from other professionals. This means that you could ring up one member, and whilst they may be too busy or not come out as far as your yard, they will be able to put you in contact with a qualified dentist who can help you.

Farriers have a more complicated set up as they invite vets to be part of their club too. But the Worshipful Company of Farriers is a good place to start your research, as it lists the various qualifications farriers can achieve, but doesn’t have a concise list of professionals that you can search from. In which case individually research the farrier you’ve been recommended to see that they’ve passed their qualifications and if they’re training towards further exams. A lot of farriers have independent businesses, even when fresh from an apprenticeship, which I see no reason to avoid. Being fresh out of college means that they will have had access to the latest technology and knowledge. However, experience is important and can only be gained with time, so I would want my fresh faced farrier to have a supervisor. Perhaps a more experienced farrier whom they work with once a week/month and who they can ask for advice should they come across a problem they haven’t encountered before. You can only find this out by talking to individual farriers though, and making your own assessment as to whether they are able to shoe your horse well. This is more of a consideration if your horse has special foot care requirements, such as being laminitic or having a conformational defect.

Physiotherapists, chiropractors, and equine masseuses all have their own governing bodies, so it is worth spending some time looking individuals up to see their credentials, be it examinations or experiences.

Of course, instructors have the BHS to govern us; provide training days, insurance, and support the exam system. There are also databases for Pony Club, British Dressage, British Eventing, British Showjumping etc trainers, who are also required to stay up to date with their first aid, child protection, and professional training. Regular training days ensures that we stay abreast of any training developments, new equipment to aid performance, and any rule changes to disciplines. The same goes for saddlers attending seminars where they will see new designs of tack, or witness new materials which are being developed. Dentists or physiotherapists will be introduced to new techniques or tools to help them do their job.

I would also say that it is important to chat to the professional you are considering using and see if you like them; get good vibes and find them personable. Qualifications count for a lot I feel, not only because they have the correct foundations to work from, but because they will have a network of support, both of which will help them get a vast range of experience to enhance their qualifications.

So my advice to anyone looking for a professional for any aspect of your horse’s care, is to ask a couple of friends or mentors, who’s opinion you trust and who knows your horse, and then do your own research to ensure that they are qualified, experienced enough to work with your horse, and part of a society or association which ensures they will continue to provide the best service that they can.

A Hacking Incident

I was hacking this week when we had a little accident which I thought was worth sharing in case anyone has a similar incident so that you know how to respond.

The two of us were hacking along a byway track, which is used regularly by cars and horses, when suddenly my friend’s pony staggered and started hopping along. The little mare tried to put her left fore to the floor, but couldn’t weightbear. As soon as she’d stopped trying to walk (I’d already stopped) my friend jumped off.

I could see her trembling with what I could only assume was pain. I genuinely thought she’d broken her leg or popped a tendon. My friend cradled the left fore and looked at the foot.

She told me there was a stick caught, so I hopped off too and had a look. It wasn’t a stick, it was a large nail. Embedded in the poor mare’s frog.

We decided to try and remove the nail as we needed to get her home, which was only five minutes away, and being a smooth nail we were likely to remove the whole thing.

I held the horses while my friend wiggled the nail out. Thankfully her pony knew we were helping and stood like an angel. The nail had blood on, and had penetrated the frog by about half a centimetre. You can see the darkened area at the tip of the nail on the photo below, which is dried blood.

Immediately the pony seemed more comfortable and was sound so we started walking home and discussed treating the wound.

As it was a puncture wound we want to keep it as clean as possible and avoid any infection, which can be very tricky to treat so I suggested flushing out the wound, applying some form of antiseptic – iodine spray for example – and dry poulticing the foot to keep it clean. We talked about turn out versus box rest and decided that whilst it was warm and dry it was much of a muchness as to which was more beneficial. Given that the mare doesn’t like staying in my friend preferred the idea of turning her out in a poultice.

Given that the foreign object was an old nail, I checked that the pony’s vaccinations were up to date, and I did suggest it would be worth ringing the vet for advice and to see what they recommend with regard to tetanus boosters. I know that with serious injuries they often give a booster as part of the course.

When we got back to the yard there was a farrier there, so my friend took her pony over for him to have a look at. After all, the foot is their area of expertise!

The farrier said that she was lucky; the nail had gone in at an angle so whilst it was still a puncture wound it hadn’t gone up into the foot. The lack of blood was a good thing as only the frog was damaged. And the nail had pierced the frog closer to the toe than the heel, which is preferable.

I think we had a lucky escape in that the mare is fully up to date with vaccinations, and with the location of the injury so hopefully after a few days rest and keeping the wound clean she’ll be back to her normal bouncy self!

I did send a few messages to local yards to warn them to be vigilant along that track in case there was more debris on the track to cause another injury as it had the potential to be so much worse.

Lameness Diagnosis?

It’s incredibly frustrating when your horse “isn’t quite right”, which is what one of my clients is going through at the moment. There are a couple of avenues that we are exploring, but this takes time.

You end up talking about this mystery not-quite-rightness to anyone who will listen, and invariably you run of the mill suggestions, which of course you considered on Day One. But hopefully one day, someone will make a suggestion that you haven’t thought of and you can investigate its potential.

This happened to me last November. I was tacking up a client’s horse when another livery whom I knew from sight was riding in the arena next to me. I wasn’t paying particular attention except for the fact she seemed to be faffing. Trotting, then walking, then changing the rein and trotting again. So I asked if she was okay.

The rider launched into this story about how her horse had been slightly lame on and off all summer and she’d had the vet, physio, saddler, dentist and no one could shed any light on the problem.

The horse was fractionally lame, and the rider really noticed it as a reluctance to go downhill with pottery steps. After four or five days, the horse was fine for another few weeks.

I asked when was she shod. I wasn’t about to slate her farrier; as far as I could tell the mare was shod well. She had been shod the week before, and had been slightly lame last weekend.

With a bit of deduction, we worked out that the farrier had been on Wednesday, and the mare had next been ridden on the Saturday. Which suggested to me that the lameness could be due to the farrier or her feet.

My only real suggestion was that the farrier was taking the mare’s hooves a little too short for her liking so the shoes felt uncomfortable for a few days. Looking at the feet, the toes didn’t look too short, or that they’d been dumped, but I know that some horses have more sensitive feet – thinner hoof wall, sensitive laminae closer to the edge of the hoof, etc. Tight shoes could cause short strides and a reluctance to go forwards. I wasn’t sure if it would cause a reluctance down hills.

The lady went off with this suggestion and looked in her diary. Each lameness period coincided with new shoes. So she rang her farrier and talked to him.

The next time I saw her she updated me on her investigations, and said the farrier had taken on board her thoughts about the shoes and they were going to put the mare onto a seven weekly shoe cycle, and leave her with slightly longer toes.

Since then, the mare has been sound: full of energy, jumping confidently, and winning competitions.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert in horse lameness or farriery. I based my suggestion on the fact that I’ve previously seen a horse shod badly (the toes were dumped and the shoe was too small for the foot) who became reluctant to go forwards and became pottery in her stride. This is why it can be so useful to talk to others about your horse’s not-quite-rightness. They may have seen a similar situation and be able to point you in the right direction so that with the help of the right professional your horse becomes sound.

Body Posture

I’ve become more aware recently of horse’s posture and what clues this gives to how they’re feeling and their way of going.

Stand back and take a good, critical look at your horse as they stand quietly on the yard. Do they stand square? Do they look like their weight is evenly distributed?

A horse with a good posture will stand fairly square, weight balanced evenly on all four feet, and look comfortable. It sounds silly, but it should look like they’re holding this stance easily. Their head and neck shouldn’t be held too high or tense, and you shouldn’t see tension along the back. It depends on conformation, but the back wants to be basically horizontal. The top of the horse, from their poll to their dock, wants to look longer than from their neck to their tail. Below is a photo of Phoenix showing a good posture: she’s standing evenly, albeit not square, and whilst she needs to work on relaxing her brachiocephalic muscle, you can see she has a good length of topline.

So what posture problems are there?

An inverted posture, a term I learnt recently, is when the back and top line muscles are tight and tensed. This causes the neck to draw back and up, the back to hollow. It’s a bit like looking at a “u” shape. This could be caused by a problem in the back, such as kissing spines, or purely sore back muscles and a badly fitting saddle. Some horses who are weak over the back, perhaps due to age or level of training, may adopt this posture after being ridden if their muscles have become overtired. A horse lacking topline muscles may appear to have an inverted posture, and they can look to have a pot belly. Which will disappear as they start to use their abdominals properly as it will lift and shrink. Phoenix developed this posture just before she had her first physio session and it was due to tight muscles in her back. However, the change in her posture afterwards was instantaneous. For those horses who have adopted this position for a long time, to compensate or protect other areas of their body, it can take a long time to improve their stance.

Another horse I work with, who I actually suggested saw a physio, had a posture which always concerned me, he always rested his left fore and right hind, and held his nose pointing out, as if sore in the atlas area of his neck. He tended to hold his legs slightly out from under his body – hind legs camped out, and forelegs almost pointing. He just generally looked uncomfortable. I was really pleased this week when I rode him after two physio sessions; partly because he felt so much looser and more comfortable under saddle, as well as able to adopt the long and low posture, but he was also standing much more squarely, with his legs under him, and his head isn’t stuck out quite so much. Of course, he still needs some work from both the physio and his riders, to undo all the tightness and to rebuild the correct muscles, but I felt that we were heading in the right direction with him.

Another horse I’ve been working with, who is long and lanky in build, and always struggles to have a topline, has really improved since Christmas. He was working well for me, but wasn’t working consistently through the week and his posture was still very much inverted and I was really starting to get concerned that we’d have massive problems in the future, but thankfully after boot camp, and his owner increasing his workload, as well as his routine changing for the better, he’s starting to work more consistently for both of us. We’ve introduced a Pessoa session once a week to encourage him to work long and low without a rider’s weight, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve notice him standing more square both before and after exercise. His farrier noticed that he was much straighter since his last visit, and you can see the muscle in the top of his neck improving. After exercise he is also letting his fifth leg hang out, which whilst it grosses many people out, is a gospel sign that he’s used his abdominals. And as his abdominals tone up, his back will lift, and his topline will become engaged and improve. I’m really pleased with his progress and the improvement to his posture and muscle tone.

Each week I’m now trying to critique all the horses I work with, to assess their posture to see if they’re holding a limb awkwardly, or look uncomfortable in any area of their body, and we can then get them treated if necessary. I’m also becoming more aware of the small changes in their muscle development. Once you train your eye you can hone in on all the small details, such as the hindlegs being too far under their body or left out behind in the halt which suggests tightness in either the flexor or extensor set of muscles.

It’s worth trying to take a step back each week and assess your own horse’s posture as well as their body condition, and you’ll hopefully pick up on any problems nice and early and can get treatment or adjust your training plan accordingly.

Equine Flu

Last week the UK Equestrian population was thrown into panic. British racing was shut down due to three cases of equine influenza in racehorses. A particularly nasty strain of flu too. It’s a subject that we need to take seriously, but we need to be careful not to create a mass hysteria.

Flu in horses is a highly contagious serious respiratory virus, which whilst not usually fatal itself, can lead to potentially life threatening secondary infections such as pneumonia. Flu, along with tetanus, is recommended by vets that horses be vaccinated against, and many competition bodies insist on it.

Signs of equine flu

  • A very high temperature of 39-41C (103-106F) which lasts for one to three days

  • A frequent harsh, dry cough that can last for several weeks

  • A clear, watery nasal discharge that may become thick and yellow or green

  • Enlarged glands under the lower jaw

  • Clear discharge from the eyes and redness around eyes

  • Depression and loss of appetite

  • Filling of the lower limbs

Equine flu is endemic, which means that there is always the odd case somewhere. Our problem at the moment is two fold. Firstly, the horses who were first identified to be suffering from flu were vaccinated. Which means that this strain of the virus is new, and particularly vigorous. Secondly, the fact that it was racehorses who first contracted the virus means there is a massive risk of the disease spreading nationally due to the number of horses attending each race meet and the distance of which they travelled, the number of humans and horses in which a racehorse comes into contact with on a daily basis.

British Racing did completely the right thing by shutting racing down, taking swabs of all horses who were at risk fixtures, quarantining yards and risk horses, and getting the virus under control. It is necessary to inform the wider equine community too, because the flu virus is airborne so there is a risk to local equines. The fact that racing was halted made national news, and unfortunately I did hear some misinformed newsreaders, who could have potentially caused panic amongst the general public. Really, they should have just warned the general public not to touch horses they meet out walking to help reduce the risk of the disease spreading – there was talk about equine flu being contagious to humans!

Now the virus strain has been identified as the Florida Clane 1 H3N8 strain, vets can begin to research whether horses have been vaccinated against this strain. Vaccination doesn’t mean that they are immune to all types of flu, but it does mean that they will have reduced symptoms if they do contract it. From my reading, it appears that this strain of flu has only been used in vaccines since September 2018. Together with the fact that vaccinations become less effective after six months, it is recommended that all vaccinated horses have a booster vaccination now. Unvaccinated horses are advised to have the initial vaccination course.

So as well as some vaccinated thoroughbreds contracting flu, there has been some isolated and seemingly random cases in non-thoroughbreds across the country. Part of me is curious: if the racehorses hadn’t had flu or meets been cancelled because of it, would the general equestrian public have heard about the stand-alone cases so soon? Perhaps locally, but I don’t think it would have been such big news until now, when there are more cases.

So what does this mean for us?

As horse owners, you need to stay abreast with the news, and be aware if there are any cases near to you. It is worth booking your horse in to have a booster vaccination. I’m lucky: Phoenix is due her booster anyway so was booked in for this week. I have brought Otis’s forward by a couple of months too, for peace of mind. Plus I can’t possibly forget their boosters next year if they and Matt (Mum’s brought his jabs forward a couple of weeks too) are due on the same day!

In terms of competing, or leaving the yard, advice varies. As far as I can see, if there is a case of flu in your county, or local area, than a total lockdown is advisable to reduce the risk of your horse contracting the disease. Otherwise, most vets are advising that you continue with your normal routine, albeit with care. Don’t share equipment between horses, don’t let horses touch noses out hacking or at competitions. Learn the symptoms of equine flu, and be vigilant. I guess I just think that if I don’t need to go out, then I won’t. However, if there’s something I really want to do (such as a clinic or competition) then I will risk assess it to decide if it’s worth going.

I think it’s also important to speak to any visitors to your yard: farrier, dentist, instructor, physio, etc. Check that they are following basic bio security steps, haven’t come into contact with infected horses or worked in a risk area. From a work perspective, I’m lucky that I work in quite a small area, so don’t have the worry of venturing near to any danger zones (yet!). I need to keep an eye on the news and hope it doesn’t spead any closer. I will continue with my usual hand sanitising procedure between yards, and add a boot dip as well as have a couple of changes of clothes in my car. Then if I do come into contact with a suspicious horse, I can completely change upon leaving that yard.

I think this flu outbreak will give everyone a bit of a kick up the bum with regards to bio security. Competitions and venues open for hire are now requesting to see passports and proof of vaccination within the last six months before allowing horses on site. To me, it’s always seemed silly that you arrive at a competition, unload, tack up, chat to the competitor next to you, and then go and present your passport. Surely, as with an airport, you should have to show your passport before entering.

With competitions getting more vigilant, hopefully more owners will vaccinate their horses if they’ve allowed them to lapse. I read that a shocking 60% of the equine population are unvaccinated. Below is an image which sums up why it is important that the majority of horses are vaccinated to protect them all from disease.

Along with competitions bucking their ideas up with bio security, yards should also be more conscientious over bringing new horses onto the property. Most yards I’ve been to have an isolation procedure on paper, which is used if a horse comes from a suspect area, but in general are very lax about integrating new animals. Vets recommend an isolation period of 21 days, which seems an awful long time! But at least after 21 days your horse is fit and healthy. Hopefully from now on yards will be stricter with their isolation procedure and take more caution with imported horses or those who have been in contact with those.

I do think that it’s important to maintain transparency. Strangles comes with a stigma, and we should be careful that equine flu doesn’t get the same taint. After all, no one holds a flu party, like parents hold chicken pox parties. It’s bad luck if your horse picks up the virus. So far I’ve seen that yards and businesses are being very honest when they have a case of Equine Flu. Which will hopefully help reduce the spread of the virus in the local area. Unfortunately though, the dreaded keyboard warriors have been at it again, and written many an unkind word on social media. Come on equestrians, we need to work together and support each other to stop the spread of Florida Clane 1!

Below are some useful websites to get all the latest updates on the flu outbreak:

https://www.aht.org.uk/disease-surveillance/equiflunet

https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/

https://m.facebook.com/Stranglessupport/

https://bef.co.uk/News-Detail.aspx?news=more-cases-of-equine-flu