The old saying ‘no hoof no horse’ gains special significance in the winter, when elements, cold temperatures and wetness can contribute to hoof decay. Here in the Midwest, this is a big concern.
In warmer climates, dryness and exposure to sand and rough terrain can also take a toll. Here a summary of factors that determine the condition of your horse’s hooves:
With these variables, there is much we can do to support healthy hooves in our horses. But one solution does not fit all…
What is a hoof?
The horse’s hoof is the equivalent of the last two digits of the human middle finger, encapsulated by horn layers. When caring for our horse’s hoof, we are concerned with the outer layers: the wall, the sole, the frog, and also the coronary band.
The coronary band: The equivalent of our cuticles. This is where hoof growth starts.
The wall: The wall is between 5 and 10 mm thick and consists of three layers. The outer layer of dense horn acts as a barrier to the inner layers. If the outer layer is healthy and maintained properly, it prevents dehydration of the inner layers.
The sole: The sole can grow up to 10 mm thick. Its Keratin* is more easily worn down than that of the hoof wall.
The frog: Keratin in the frog and bulb is also softer than in the hoof wall. With every step, the horse’s weight expands the frog, which in turn presses the hoof wall outward. This is called the ‘hoof mechanism’, a healthy and necessary function of a natural hoof.
[Keratin: a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns, etc.]
How a hoof stays healthy
With the three elements wall, sole and frog having distinct functions that interlace into one mechanism, there is a balance that we’d like to maintain:
- The wall should stay hard and strong but resilient and not brittle.
- The sole should be dry and somewhat flexible, but not crumbling or too dry and hard (think expansion).
- The frog needs to be elastic and resilient but not soggy or rock hard to maintain a healthy hoof mechanism.
Step 1 – Determine the “Current State”
When striving to create and maintain a healthy hoof in our horse, it is first of all important to determine the current state:
- Is the hoof soft and brittle?
- Is the hoof hard and brittle?
- Is the hoof dry and rock-hard?
Then we can decide what measures to take to help our horse maintain a healthy hoof. (For more important external and internal factors that determine hoof health see below.)
Soft and brittle hooves
This is what is looks like: A soft brittle hoof will visibly disintegrate. Pieces of horn break of the hoof wall. The hoof is described as “crumbly”. If shod, the farrier will have a hard time keeping a shoe on this hoof.
Causes: Too much exposure to wetness without proper ‘barrier’. Exposure to manure/urine/wet bedding/mud. Hoof horn possibly genetically somewhat soft.
Repair: Avoid wetness! Dry bedding, dry lot without puddles. Clean hooves thoroughly with water and brush, dry with a towel, then treat hooves daily with a hoof ointment or oil without petroleum-based ingredients (no vaseline).
Maintain: Keep horse’s environment dry and clean hooves daily. Treat several times per week with a natural hoof treatment.
Hard and brittle hooves
This is what it looks like: A hard and brittle hoof has lost its resilience and elasticity by allowing too much of the moisture of the inner layers to evaporate through the outer protective layer, mainly the hoof wall. It will show up as a hard, dry looking hoof with vertical cracks.
Causes: The outer layer of the hoof wall and sole does not act as a protective barrier and is stripped of its natural defenses. Harsh hoof treatments, harsh chemicals (shampoos, soaps), very dry environmental conditions, very cold environmental conditions. Hoof genetically predisposed to hardness/dryness meets unfavorable conditions.
Repair: A horse with a dry and brittle hoof can benefit from a bit more moisture. Standing in a puddle, hosing, soaking, spraying CLEAN bedding with a little water. Clean hoof daily with water and hoof brush, then dry thoroughly with a towel and apply a moisturizing, protective hoof conditioner (NO petroleum-based products!).
Maintain: Clean and condition daily or at least several times per week to maintain the outer layer’s ability to lock in moisture. Monitor the hoof for signs of dryness and soak or hose when needed.
Dry and hard hooves
This is what it looks like: Dry and hard hooves (hooves like a ‘rock’) are often mistaken for healthy hooves. If you examine your horse’s hoof and the sole and frog present rock-hard and inflexible, this is–while it looks so clean and healthy–not a good thing when we think about the hoof mechanism. A healthy hoof mechanism requires a resilient and elastic frog and bulb and some elasticity in the sole and wall.
Causes: Horses with dry and rock-hard hooves are mostly kept in clean stalls, are shod, and generally well cared for. Genetics also play a role. That said, this is a clean, but not a healthy picture!
Repair: Evaluate the horse’s trim. Is the horse carrying weight on the hoof wall, the bars and the frog? If not, consult with your (or another…) farrier. A shod horse can still have a healthy hoof mechanism to some extent! If possible, apply a nourishing hoof conditioner on the clean hoof several times per day. Spray clean bedding with a little water.
Maintenance: Clean hooves daily and apply a nourishing hoof oil several times per week. Soaking in water, standing in puddles, turnout in pasture and hosing can support hoof health for a hard and dry hoof.
Tips and Tricks
To provide some moisture for dry hooves, cut a thick piece of felt in the shape of your horse’s hoof, soak it in water, place it in a horse boot (Easy Boot Trail, for example, or any therapeutic boot) and let the horse stand in it while you are grooming.
The low-tech version is to cut 4 pieces of an old wool blanket to size, big enough to wrap and tie around your horse’s feet. Soak in water, wrap and tie around your horse’s feet while grooming. (Be sure this doesn’t scare your horse and tie the pieces securely.)
Applying hoof oil
Laurel oil has been a staple in old-school hoof care for centuries and is ideal for the maintenance and to support growth of a healthy hoof. Massaging the oil into the coronary band and then down will improve the effect. You can use an old tooth brush to massage the oil into the hoof.
Hoof health from the inside
There are several internal factors that determine the horse’s hoof quality:
- Nutrition – Adequate nutrition, roughage, minerals/vitamins, balanced rations are crucial for healthy hoof growth.
- Genetics – Certain breeds tend to have certain types of hooves or typical hoof problems. Individuals also have their special genetic ‘hoof make-up’. Again, there is no one-for-all solution!
- Laminitic changes and other health factors – The insulin-resistant horse, the Cushings horse, a horse that has foundered in the past or is prone to laminitis is also a horse with possible hoof problems. Consult with your vet and farrier, care and hoof treatments can support your horse but not ‘fix’ the problem.
Hoof health from the outside
External factors determine your horse’s hoof health to a great extent. These are factors that you can control:
- Manure – manure disintegrates the outer layer of the hoof and can lead to brittle, cracking hooves or to fungal/bacterial conditions. Keep the horse’s environment as clean as possible.
- Trim/shoeing – consult with your farrier to determine the best possible trimming/shoeing solution for your horse. If your farrier applies a ‘one for all’ solution, look for a different farrier.
- Weather/environmental – While you cannot change the weather, you can change the way you maintain your horse’s hooves (above).
- Exercise – The ‘equine couch potato’ will have a hard time maintaining a healthy hoof. Adequate exercise is one of the important factors when it comes to healthy hoof growth.
Maintenance – Clean hooves and apply a conditioning hoof care treatment. This is the equivalent of using hand lotion, cuticle oil, hair conditioner, etc. It is not the ‘fix all’ but a necessary component of good care.
As always, enjoy your horse!
How to give wormer, medication, or electrolytes without battling the horse
Battling the horse for any reason is never a good idea. Even if we manage to muscle our way to goal achievement, both horse and human are left with a bad taste in their mouth, wormer or not. Any interaction between horse and human should be one of mutual understanding and cooperation, whenever possible.
Even the most well-meaning horse people, however, cave under the task of giving their horse an oral dose of wormer. Even for those, who practice fecal testing, it does become necessary to administer the foul-tasting chemical to the animal from time to time. No, I don’t buy the ‘apple flavor’! My horse’s face tells me that the stuff is not equine Godiva…
Over time, I have observed the following futile attempts to get the horse to accept the syringe and swallow the wormer:
- Ear twitching (very, very dangerous to the horse’s ear cartilage!!!)
- Tongue twitching (danger of fracturing small bones inside and connected to tongue!!!)
- Use of nose twitch (while not downright dangerous, should be reserved for real emergencies)
- Desperately hanging on to the halter (will help you spread wormer all over your new shirt)
- Spreading the wormer over food (will entice the horse to spread the food all over the ground, this used to be my method of choice…)
- and other similarly ineffective or drama-soaked techniques.
But what to do? The endurance riders among you probably already do it: You need to give your horse electrolytes during rides and probably practiced that with well-tasting syringe contents first. The trick is: Get your horse to happily accept syringes before approaching with the ill-tasting stuff!
This is the solution that will solve the problem in the long run and make worming ‘a piece of cake’:
What you need:
- Empty syringes (farm supply store)
- Unsweetened apple sauce (individual serving cups work well)
- Any type of halter
- A little patience
Every time you see your horse, find an opportunity to fill a syringe with apple sauce and gently move your hand with the syringe around the horse’s mouth. In the beginning, your horse may react unfavorably, thinking you are approaching with the wormer.
Don’t insist that your horse look at the syringe, simply make it available around the horse’s head. Curiosity will eventually lead the horse to take a sniff and let you touch his lips with the syringe. While your goal is to eventually be able to squirt the contents into your horse’s mouth, take your time and plan for several sessions.
- Don’t ‘push’ the syringe on the horse. Hold it near the horse’s mouth and let it be the horse’s idea to approach it.
- Be satisfied with small progress. A soft eye, not moving away from the syringe, may be a good goal for the first day.
- Don’t have an agenda. Your horse will tell you when he is ready to give this a try.
- Let the horse think that it is his idea to take the syringe into his mouth.
- From then on, it’s smooth sailing!
There will be some disappointment after the first time the syringe does not contain apple sauce, but you can remedy this by squirting apple sauce into the horse’s mouth right after the wormer. He’ll take his chances with you again.
Let me know how this worked for you and leave a comment!
Enjoy your horse!
We humans are amazing animals. With our consciousness, drive, intelligence and stamina, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan, we accomplish great things and have thus made our mark on the planet (for better or worse…).
Yet, we still feel puzzled by our horses.
- Why can we not achieve our training goal?
- What is the reason for the ‘mystery lameness’ or
- simple unwillingness of the horse to perform to the best of his abilities?
Being the true humans that we are, goal-oriented can-do attitude and all, we usually turn up the ‘chatter’, involve different or more specialists, various techniques or gadgets and DO, DO, DO, DO…
What is my point? I believe the answer to the above questions can—many times—lie in a different mode of operation. As retired Professor for Physics at the University of Oregon, Dr. Amit Goswami, puts it: “Don’t just DO, remember to BE! Change your mode from DO-DO-DO to DO-BE-DO!”
What does this have to do with our horses? The “BE” is time we simply spend with our horses. Togetherness in stress-free situations, meaning away from training/conditioning scenarios, vet visits and other activities with an agenda, can yield incredible results.
What kind of “BE”-activities are we talking about?
- Going for walks (you walking with, not riding on the horse…)
- Conscious grooming (without agenda, moving slowly, paying attention to the horse’s responses, letting him guide you through the process)
- Taking your horse along when you want to chat with your barn buddy, simply stand there with him, relax and have your chat. He/she can ‘participate’. Same goes for watching someone else’s training (if environment is safe and appropriate).
- Very slow and soft body exercises, such as lowering the head as described in “True Horsemanship through Feel” (Bill Dorrance 1998) or “Beyond Horse Massage” (Jim Masterson with Stefanie Reinhold 2011), followed by just sitting or standing together.
In short: Involve your horse in as many low-stress activities as possible. If you do it in a relaxed way, you can even get the mail together!
Caution: DO NOT INVOLVE FOOD OR SNACKS in any of those activities.
What are the benefits of such “BE”-time together?
- By shutting out the chatter and the agenda that is usually attached to our every day activities, even with our horses, we become attuned to the horse. This can answer the question: “What does the horse think?” (In a very down-to-earth way, reading his responses.) This way we notice very subtle changes in his expression and learn to interpret our silent friend’s body language better. In turn, we can practice our own body language and level of relaxation and see how the horse responds to that.
- We may become aware of physical areas of concern that the horse may have. Why so? As trust grows between you through simply doing what horses do together—hanging out—your horse may feel free to express unwellness or discomfort. One example would be a horse that suddenly stands on three legs, lifting the right front, for example, instead of putting weight on it.
- Trust, as mentioned, is a big factor here. As you go for walks and engage in other simple ‘togetherness’ exercises, you get to know each other better and trust grows both ways. Trust is the basis for relaxation, which is the basis for wellness. In that alone, this type of “BE”-time can contribute to make the horse feel safe and relaxed around you, which may eliminate stress-related health problems like ulcers and muscular tension due to emotional stress.
- Do you want you and your horse to be ‘attached at the hip’?
- Do you want to learn how to read your horse’s slightest responses, body language and signs of unwellness?
- Do you want to enjoy the benefits of ‘accidental meditation’ by quieting your mind in soft and stress-free activities with your horse?
>>>Then you are ready for “BE”-time!
To learn more about what kind of activities that can easily be incorporated in your every day interaction with your horse, drop me a line or visit my seminars page at. I’d love to meet you and share experiences in one of my 1-day seminars for horse owners.
Enjoy your horse and remember to DO-BE-DO-BE-DO!!!
“Letting Go” has sort of become a popular subject in all sorts of context. Letting go of expectations, letting go of your children, letting go of convictions or patterns that don’t serve us well. Anything from “Letting go of attachment” (Zen) to “Letting go of love” (Dr. Phil). And if you’d like see this thought expressed in a song, there is anything from Lynard Skynard (Free Bird), over various relaxation tunes to hip hop.
But what does it mean in the context of horse ownership? Having had to face the topic of letting go in various situations recently—including one very important horse related situation lately—I’d like to explore this topic a bit deeper. Note: This is a NOT a gloom and doom article! It’s all about life. ;-)
As we Americans (with or without German accent…) are a convenience-addicted society, we include death in the spectrum ‘servicable’ life occurances. With servicable I mean, “Please let someone else handle it!”. We don’t really want to have anything to do with it and let service providers such as funeral homes handle most aspects (generalization, of course). As many Western societies, we do not include death as part of life as it is the case in many other cultures. Furthermore, we cannot influence the date and time that death occurs, making it an unpredictable occurrence that we’d rather not think about.
One exception is pet or horse ownership. Here we have the responsibility of deciding when is the right time to let our companion go, meaning confront ourselves with the inevitability of death and bringing it about for our beloved companion. What could be harder, especially when there seem so many medical options to prolong life available today?
(I purposely want to exclude the topic of ‘death decision evasion’ by those horse owners, who decide to sell their senior horse at auction and thus letting someone else (the meat buyer, the slaughter house) make the tough decision.)
A little mare—and a big lesson
I recently worked on a little Arabian mare in Germany, who—for the sake of privacy—I will call ‘Dusty’, since she seemed like a bit of fairy dust to me. Sometimes you encounter animals (or people) who clearly live beyond our plane of everyday existance and just seem to have something quite extraordinarily etheral about them. And Dusty, 28 years old and riddled by arthritis and the long-term effects of old injuries, was such an animal. I was called to perform bodywork, nothing unusual, even on a 28-year old horse. Anticipating a quiet and gentle bodywork session for a reportedly ‘cranky’ elderly horse, I did not expect anything out of the ordinary. It turned out to be a very extraordinary experience where I learned so much about the horse, our human agenda, and the profound effect of the type of interactive bodyworkI have been fortunate enough to learn.
In the end, the owner and I looked at a little horse with the biggest heart, who now felt open to simply let go of any braveness and who—after some very gentle bodywork and encouragement—felt free to express her physical discomfort and general exhaustion with her condition. It would go too far to explain what happened in detail. But on that day and during the following week, Dusty taught me and her owner a big lesson: Horses often try much harder than we think to please us and ‘do a good job’. If that job is defined as “I need you to hold on longer for my sake”, the horse will try to do that, no matter how strong the pain or how great the odds may be. This is a reminder that we need to learn to differentiate between our need to keep a horse around for our sake and the horse’s situation and quality of life. We need to answer the question: Do I ask my horse to hold on for my sake or for his/her sake?
Dusty’s owner sent me several updates after the session and reported that Dusty’s demeanor had changed considerably. She was no longer hiding her discomfort and was very affectionate to her owner, following her around and just trying to stay as close as possible. She had to be removed from the herd to stay safe and spent some quality time closer to her owner. Her owner had to come to terms with the reality that letting go and ensuring a peaceful transition into the next realm (if that is what you believe, I do) in the company and with the support of the caring owner is imminent.
It would be a hard decision. Her owner had spent 25 years with this horse, met her when she was still a kid. Vets, friends and barn personnel gave various advice from “put her down” to “try this medication or that treatment”. But on that day, it became clear that Dusty had reached the point where holding on was too much to ask.
Here an excerpt of her letter to me after her’s and Dusty’s last day together. It was very inspiring to me and hope you will feel the same way:
“We put Dusty down last Thursday after she had continued to show pain symptoms even after being put on the highest possible dose of pain medication.
It was a sunny morning, not too cool, just the kind of weather that Dusty liked best. Everything was real peaceful and Dusty was completely calm. My sister, who is also a vet and just happened to be visiting [from out of town] was also there and assisted my vet. My husband was also there to say good-bye to Dusty and to comfort me.
My husband and I went to the barn early in the morning so Dusty would have some time to graze with her chubby friend Labiroun on the big pasture. I stayed with Dusty the entire time and followed her around the pasture. After two hours, Dusty stopped eating and I sat down with her and listened to her breathing. She positioned herself over my body as if I was a foal that needed protection and pressed her muzzle against my head. Then, slowly but surely, Dusty went to the spot where the barn owner and I had agreed that we would put her down. She went there all on her own. 15 Minutes before the vet came, Dusty stopped at exactly that spot as if she knew what this was all about and as if she wanted to express agreement.
When the vet came, Dusty took a small step towards her. I was so afraid that I was trembling but when it counted, I was very calm because it was more important than anything else not to put any more stress on Dusty than she already had. Labiroun did not notice anything, she continued grazing with the black pony a distance away…”
I am very grateful to Dusty’s owner that she agreed that I could share this report with you. My hope is that all who find themselves in a similar situation will feel encouraged to create a similarly peaceful and loving atmosphere around this last service to their horse.
On that note…
Life is for the living, and those we love and we have shared wonderful times with continue to live in our consciousness and hearts. At the same time, letting go is part of life. It pays to think about that part of life before it occurs and come to terms with your own beliefs and even think through steps you would take once the time comes.
- Enjoy every moment you have with your horse while you are still walking your path together!
- Don’t sweat the small stuff and see if you can make your relationship a genuine exchange.
- ‘Listen’ to your horse. If you have a good rapport with your horse, you can be sure: Your horse is trying, up to his last minute.
Be well and enjoy your horse
Have you ever had a time-management challenge, got to the barn late for an appointment, show
or event and found your horse looking like a mud-cake?
Did you ever have to have your horse look his best in a very short time?
No problem. With the right tricks and grooming tools, you can groom your horse from (dry) mud to shine in 3 minutes (per side).
Note: This works best on horses that are groomed thoroughly on a regular basis. You should only ‘brush in a rush’ when absolutely necessary. Your horse won’t like it…
What you need – the tools:
- 1 large sponge
- clean water
- a rubber curry
- a natural fiber flick brush (ick, no plastic!)
- a horse-hair finishing brush
- a soft rag
Breathe… you probably where in shock, seeing your horse looking like this…
…when the trainer is due to arrive in 15 minutes…!!
Curry your horse all over with the soft rubber curry, knocking out the curry a few times to remove the dirt from the curry. Work from head to tail, include the legs. Don’t overdo it, just loosen all the dirt and move on. This is not the time to do a thorough job. You got 30 seconds!
Use your flick brush to remove most of the dirt by brushing in long strokes from head to tail and down the legs. Clean the brush on the curry 2 or 3 times while brushing. You got 1 minute!
Wet your large clean sponge with clean water and squeeze until the sponge is damp.
Take your finishing brush in your brushing hand, the sponge in the other hand.
Brush brush vigorously with long strokes from head to tail, stroking your finishing brush against the damp sponge every 2 strokes or so. You got 1 minute!
Use your soft clean rag to smoothen the coat and remove remaining dirt, stroke in the direction of hair growth with medium pressure from head to tail. You got 30 seconds!
Take a look at your horse and remain in awe of your grooming skills for approx. 30 seconds, then clean the sponge and do the other side. Once done, follow up with the rag on the first side again.
Now get that saddle on and ready for your lesson!
Please remember: This is a great method when time is of the essence but will not thoroughly clean your horse. For every day application, get back to a mellow, thorough grooming technique that both you and your horse will enjoy.
For a more thorough day-to-day technique, read “How to groom your horse to shine in 4 easy steps“.
Enjoy your horse!
As the horse world is evolving and people across all disciplines are striving for a generally more humane approach to horsemanship—focusing on relationship and gentlenss—there has been a shift from traditional halters, bits and bridles to alternative solutions that are perceived to be more ‘natural’.
Apart from the fact that I don’t believe there to be anything ‘natural’ about riding, driving or otherwise using horses for our purposes in the first place, I want to question the ‘naturalness’ and also the humanenessss or gentleness of some of these devices.
Let’s do a bit of semi-scientific investigation of halters, bridles and other tools commonly used to restrain and control our horses or to simply ‘keep him in the neighborhood’.
The ‘rope halter’
The rope halter is made of rope of various thickness or flexibility. It features strategically placed knots that send ‘signals’ to the horse and in that aid the handler in controling the animal. Here a description of a ‘Be Nice Halter’—a certain type of rope halter—on the website of a well-known equine supply retailer:
“The halter for complete control every time you handle a horse. When the animal resists, the halter tightens and pressure is applied to nerve areas on the head. As the animal relaxes, pressure is instantly relieved, rewarding good behavior.” (Note: Not all rope halters tighten, this is an extremely harsh halter.)
1773 users give this halter 5 stars. Excellent! We can conclude that the halter keeps its promise: Absolute control via pressure on sensitive facial nerves results in desired results for the handler.
What does it mean for the horse?
The horse’s face is lined with a network of sensitive nerves that exit the skull around the middle of the face and extend into the muzzle. There is also an abundance of nerves right behind the ears, a very sensitive area. Note: This is where stallions bite during their stallion fights, they know it hurts!
Let’s embark on a little practical experiment to understand what this may feel like: Find an area of your own body that is bony, meaning having little flesh between bone and skin, and has a lot of nerves, for example your shin. Sit comfortably on a chair and put your leg up on another chair. Now take a rope halter with the knot on your shin and and attach a weight of about 2-3 pounds (about the weight of a 22′ longe line with brass buckle) on it for about 30 minutes. Keep tugging on it to simulate the effect of a handler adding some pressure to the weight of longe line and brass buckle. If you have a 22′ longe line with brass buckle, feel free to weigh it before the experiment, just to make sure we get it right. Do the exact same thing on the exact same spot the next day and the day after.
Feeling good? Probably not. But you may just have discovered a way to get your teen to take the trash out: “Get that bag out there or I’ll pull out my rope halter!”
By nature—due to the roundness of the rope and the resulting thin area of contact with the horse’s skin—the rope halter puts a lot of focal pressure on the horse’s facial nerves in the area of the knots and also, aided by gravity, behind the ears and on the front of the face. Combine small area of contact with a heavy brass buckle and a 12-22′ longe line (together, weighing close to 3 pounds), add the effects of gravity, consider the super sensitive nerves in the horse’s face and behind his poll and the result is a formula that can result in pain induced
- negative movement habits
- head throwing
- face paralysis
- unwillingness and other behavior issues
- an ‘upside down’ horse
- numbing of nerves, muzzles or facial areas
- chronic tension in the poll and TMJ.
My thoughts: There may be a place for the short-term, responsible application of rope halters in combination with an attached, light-weight lead rope without buckle (I purchased such a halter in Montana in 2007 and still use it on occasion.) For every-day use, a flat nylon webbing halter with leather break-away head piece or a flat leather halter is the humane method of handling your horse.
If you horse does not respect this connection, you have a training issue, not an equipment issue. A rope halter should never be used during
a) bodywork or b) longing.
A) It will cause occasional discomfort and distract the horse from the bodywork.
B) Unless in cases of extreme behavior challenges and for short-term, special-case application, you will want to use a flat halter, a longe caveson or even a bridle with a gentle bit for longing. All this is more pleasant to the horse and will enable him to move freely without pain.
A hackamore works along the same principles as a rope halter. It puts strong focal pressure on very sensitive areas of the horse’s face. It is NOT a more humane solution than any kind of bit. Rather, it’s meant for a skilled and knowledgable rider/trainer, who can work with this tool to increase the responsiveness of a horse. If you don’t have ‘breaks’ on your horse, a hackamore will NOT be a good solution, only a very painful fix for a deeper training issue. If you are not experienced in the use of a hackamore, get an experienced trainer’s input and advice, to see if you and your horse are ready for a hackamore.
The bitless bridle
Even though softer and with less focal pressure, the bitless bridle works along the same lines as above. In addition, some styles constrict the horse’s head, a feeling that is so unpleasant to the horse that it will strive to be obedient to avoid this feeling. If you are planning to use a bitless bridle, observe your horse carefully. If the desired effect (obedience) comes with wide eyes and a raised head, it’s not working for your horse.
- The horse’s face, head and poll area is lined with ultra-sensitive nerves.
- Rope halters, hackamores and some bitless bridles enable the handler to use a pain response to control the horse.
- Pain-based control tools can result in behavior and physical issues (see examples above).
- They seem to temporarily solve control problems, but your horse will pay the price in the long run.
- Re-examine the tools you are currently using.
- Don’t rely on trainers, marketers, fellow horse-people or even literature (including this article!) to make
- decisions around the use of so-called ‘natural’ tools.
- Put yourself in your horse’s shoes, visualize or physically try the tool on yourself and then restrategize, if needed.
- There is no substitute for proper training. If you feel you need more control, find a trainer that is in line with your own general philosphy, even if it’s against the ‘popular belief’.
Enjoy your horse!
In the last two parts of “The Horse’s Back”, we talked about how to recognize that your horse may be experiencing back problems and what are some of the reasons that a horse may get a sore back. So you now already know some of the symptoms and causes for back pain in horses.
Today, let’s look at some no-fail/no-harm steps you can take to help your horse recover from back soreness or maintain a healthy, strong and pain free back.
Eliminate External Factors
First, before we get into hands-on bodywork or gymnasticizing for horses, we will want to remind ourselves that we need to eliminate any external factors identified in part 2 of this article series. Among those were saddle fit and rider influence. Again, investigate thoroughly, then eliminate these external factors before moving on to help the horse overcome his back soreness.
Identify and alleviate Internal Factors
We also touched on internal factors, such as pain/discomfort/restriction in other areas of the horse’s body. Another possible underlying cause for back soreness can be any type of hind end lameness, such as stifle problems or arthritic hocks. Discuss this possibility with your vet and take any steps your vet may recommend before addressing your horse’s back discomfort. Fear, worry, and anxiety—another big contributor to tightness and pain in the horse’s back—should also be identified and alleviated. Examples are an overly assertive pasture mate, ‘heavy metal’ music blaring from the barn workers radio or an irregular feeding schedule.
Now that you know the ‘what’ and ‘why’, here is how you can help your horse reclaim a pain-free back:
1. Bodywork and active stretches
I mention this as the first item, since I find it most important. Whatever else you may want to do with your horse—hopefully plenty of beneficial exercising and possibly some changes to tack, etc.—releasing tension is the precondition for building muscle in the right places.
Exercise 1—Rolling the ball
The long back muscle is an important player in your horse’s movement. He uses these muscles with every step. If they are permanently contracted and cannot release, your horse’s movement will be restricted and the back will be sore. Release tension and stimulate blood flow in these muscles with a simple exercise, no massage skills required: Take a normal tennis ball and roll it around on your horse’s long back muscle all over the saddle area. Do this before you ride. Pay close attention to your horse’s reactions and be sure it feels good to the horse. Stay off any bony areas (shoulder blade, withers, spine) and concentrate on the muscle (see image). Stop at the last rib.
Exercise 2—The horse ‘sit-up’
This exercise is well known but many people don’t bother with it. But it is indeed a very effective exercise. When it comes to horses, I found that most things that are very beneficial are simple, not rocket science… This exercise creates motion in the most flexible junction in your horse’s back: The sacrolumbar junction. This is the only spot in your horse’s back that is really flexible. All other parts of the back are relatively rigid. For this exercise, you will need to use quite a bit of pressure with some horses: Stand behind the horse and find a point midway between the point of hip and the sacrum that is relatively sensitive to the touch. Use your thumbs to initiate a movement reflex in the horse by pushing down firmly, then pulling your thumbs down toward the poverty groove on both sides. Ideally, your horse should now lift his back, tuck in his abdomen and tilt his pelvis (as in a ‘sit-up’). If your horse is not that sensitive, use two quarter coins instead of your thumbs. Caution: Be safe behind the horse! Don’t do this exercise more than 3 x per session and no more than 3 x per week. This is a reflex point and will numb if overdone.
Exercise 3—The active tail pull
Yes, horse people pull on their horse’s tails all the time, with mixed results ;-). This exercise is a bit different, in that you will want to actively engage the horse in this exercise and make him use his abdominal muscles. Here is how to do this with your horse: Stand behind your horse and hold on firmly but carefully to his tail with both hands. Then pull back (you can even lean back a bit) until you find a point of resistance and the horse actively resists the pull, meaning you cannot pull him back any further, he is leaning forward. Then SUDDENLY let go. It’s important to do this quickly! Observe your horse’s abdominal muscles and area around the sacrum when you do this. He should quickly engage his abdominals and tuck in his pelvis just a tad. You will also see muscles around the sacrum engage when he recovers his balance. Do this two or three times before riding.
Exercise 4—The good old carrot stretch!
Active carrot stretches are great for the horse since he determines the amount of stretch and you cannot do anything wrong. They are fun and will make you really popular with your horse since he will anticipate the treat. Folks who don’t like to feed treats, don’t worry! You are feeding the treat within the framework of a predictable exercise. The horse will quickly learn that this is the only time he gets treats. For carrot stretch instructions see my previous article on carrot stretches with horses.
If you are interested in learning more about your horse’s back and how to keep it healthy, please visit my seminar page. You may also enjoy learning more about equine bodywork. I recommend Jim Masterson’s book Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension.
2. And now… the ‘G’-word: GYMNASTICIZING
When you google ‘gymnasticizing’, you will see that the word mainly pops up in the context of dressage training. However, we don’t all ride dressage. Do we still need to ‘gymnasticize’ our horse? And what does it mean?
The answer is YES, we all need to gymnasticize our horses, no matter what type of activity we engage in with our animal. The reason: We are asking him to perform unnatural things like carrying a rider or pulling a cart. So what does gymnasticizing mean? It simply means to build maintain the horse’s muscles and self-carriage to an extent that will allow him to stay SOUND and well while performing the activities we ask of him.Since ALL of the horses back muscles are locomotion muscles…(!!!), it is important to ensure that they can release and contract. This can be achieved by regular targeted exercise, targeted to the needs of your horse.
Sounds complicated, but it’s not at all. For most recreational riders, the effort will be rather small. If you horse is an active athlete and you compete, you will need to think about gymnasticizing a bit more than the average rider.
Here some basics:
Longing is not simply mindless running about on a circle or tiring your horse to let off ‘steam’. It can be a very meaningful way to gymnasticize your horse.
My tip: Get a good book such as “Horse Training In-Hand: A Modern Guide to Working from the Ground: Long Lines, Long and Short Reins, Work on the Longe” and glean some tips and try some techniques. If it gets overwhelming, stick to some basic longing techniques. Stay away from auxiliary reins! They can be necessary in special cases, but generally cause more harm than good. How much? 3 x 20 minutes per week can work wonders.
Cavaletti and ground poles are a wonderful and low-tech tool to improve your horse’s fitness, rhythm and mental focus. Whether you are a Western rider, a dressage Queen or a trail enthusiast… your horse will benefit from these basic techniques. Great teachers in this area (and very compassionate horsemen) are Reiner Klimke and Walter Zettl. Again, I recommend to get a good book, such as Reiner Klimke’s book Cavalletti: Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Rails or a DVD or even VHS (you can find good deals on ebay).
Last not least: A good hack!!!
I will call the outdoor activity or hitting a trail with your horse ‘hacking out’ here, versus ‘trail riding’. The reason: Trail riding is often understood to be a leisurely activity, spending time with your horse and fellow riders in the great outdoors and….mostly keeping the horse at a walk. This is counterproductive for what we’d like to do: strengthen the horse’s back.
Your horse’s back will be strengthened by a nice, fresh tempo on the trail. A forward walk, then a bit of brisk trotting, a nice walk, followed by a brief canter, etc. Tackling hills and slopes at various gaits will also help your horse. Important: Post the trot and be in a two-point in the canter! Enable your horse to move freely and stay within his limits. A tired, sweaty horse or a horse that ties up after exercise is NOT what we are after. It’s better to ride for 2 hours at a doable pace than race about the park for an hour! Give your horse at least 15 minutes of brisk walk at the start of your ride to warm up before you start picking up the pace.
So, you see, it’s not all that complicated. Once you know
You can apply a few simple techniques to make great strides in getting your horse’s back into shape. I hope that these pointers inspire you to get on the path to your horse’s wellness and enable your horse to perform at his personal best.
Be well and enjoy your horse!