“Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block.”
A guest blog article by Horse Behavior Specialist Anita Kush
In my practice as a coach to horse owners and trainers, who seek a more mindful connection with their horse, I come across many, who have become caught up in a vicious cycle of unfulfilled expectations, shattered hopes and dreams, disillusionment, and more – albeit adjusted – expectations. The way out of this cycle is to start by asking ourselves the right – and perhaps uncomfortable – questions.
[Now, please take some quiet time, read each question, pause after the question, answer it for yourself, honestly. Then move on to the next …]
When we arrive at the barn, what do we really see? Is it what is before us? Or is it our vision of what we want to be or achieve? And is our horse – our colleague in this endeavor – a partner or a slave to our ambitions and desires?
Is our goal predicated on a picture in a magazine, a moment frozen in time, a video, an idea, a concept, a wish, a book telling us that – yes – we too can look like and be THIS…if only we will follow a certain method or buy a certain product or gadget…
What is meaningful horse work? It is work that is considerate, fair, helpful, firm (when necessary) and facilitates long term understanding in relationship of the two parties involved.
What is the difference between “disobedience” and learning? Is it possible that what we interpret as disrespect or unwillingness to perform certain tasks, may be in reality lack of understanding? The horse showing us what he knows and that he is unable – not unwilling – to fulfill the request? Or that perhaps our question isn’t clear. What is accomplished by demanding that certain things happen – even though it may be physically or emotionally impossible for the horse to comply?
What is the process of learning that we need to understand? Making mistakes and struggling means: Your horse is trying to figure out a way to accomplish what you are asking. He is not avoiding the question!
“Remember, it is not about the task, it is about how we come to it. Is it with willing cooperation or grudging resentment? The choice is ours.” (Anita Kush)
Riding is not about “riding”. It is about everything that happens before we even get to the mounting block. Getting on is the culmination of the totality of the relationship between you and your horse. No gadget or video can give you the answer. There is no one size fits all method or equipment. See beyond mechanics and arm yourself with deeper knowledge.
The horse has all the answers! Look at the horse in front of you: He’ll always tell you the truth and live up to your expectations. Learn to expect what you want to see – a non-confrontational, cooperative and mindful interaction with your horse!
[If you are interested in a consultation with Anita Kush, please see her bio here or call +18477910494 or email caprioles at hotmail dot com.]
How I fell in love with a product I didn’t know I need
My favorite perfume, an old hand bag, a rock my grandma found on the beach long ago and now… equestrian socks? All under the header “Things I don’t want to live without.”
A little joy goes a long way. And it can come in surprising packages. Not long ago, I got an email from Ben at Sox Trot, a US company that has been manufacturing fun socks right here in the US for 35 years. And a bit of fun is just what the doctor ordered: When Ben asked if I wanted to try their socks and possibly write a review, I didn’t think twice after seeing the unusual and wonderful designs on their web shop.
When the socks arrived shortly after, I opened the envelope to find 2 pairs of socks with horse designs that would make any horse loveresse’s heart beat faster: a fun spin on a classic design a la Hermes and a design playing on an ‘open range’ theme with a Western flair. The minimalist packaging – a small card stock wrap – the soft feel of the material (Nylon & spandex) and the fun design were promising first indicators of a lovely product.
What I liked:
- The socks are just right for a knee hi: Pull on easy, stay in place, no pinching or cutting off blood circulation, soft – yet strong – feel.
- Maintains shape
- Easily washed by hand (ideal travel sock!)
- Smile on my face, every time I look at my sock
- No funny smell (like cheap, China-made socks often have)
- Many designs plus solid colors available
- Do not bulk up under your riding breeches or make your boot feel tight
- Lovely for any occasion – don’t hide them under your riding boots!
What I didn’t like:
What’s not to like? For someone, who values quality and ‘made in USA’ along with tasteful, fun design – this product is a winner! Especially since it not only comes in equestrian designs, but also in a large variety of other designs – from cheery, tongue-in-cheek to traditional plaid and solid colors. I am about to order a half dozen to take along on a trip to Europe. These wonderful fun socks take up no space at all. Oh, I should get some more for my daughter, daughters-in-law, friend for her birthday, stocking stuffers…
What a sweet, affordable pleasure!
Now back to horses….
Relaxation: The mental factor
There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.
Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:
The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”. At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today. The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.
While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.
But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?
The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning
- Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
- Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
- Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.
Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness
1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace
Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:
- Ill-fitting tack
- Incorrect use of spurs
- Tightly adjusted bridles
- Hard rider hands
- Rider seat lacking suppleness
- Inconsistent aids
The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.
Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.
2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)
Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:
- Bodywork & massage
- Guided exercises
- Active stretching
- Myiofascial release
The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.
3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse
You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.
The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:
- Hollowed back or braced back
- Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
- Shallow, fast breath
- Grinding teeth
- Tight-lipped muzzle
- Overall tension and short-striding
An many more….
The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.
The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.
Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!
If you have questions or would like to dive into these topics a little deeper, I recommend my seminar “Path to Performance™ I – Releasing Tension & Restriction”.
Here some more resources:
As always – be well and enjoy your horse!
Twice every year your horse changes his coat – from thin summer coat to thick winter coat and vice versa. Right now, our horses are shedding their thick coat and horse owners are working hard with various tools from massage curry, over shedding blade to shedding brushes with soft brass bristles to help their horse through the transition. But is that enough?
Is hair all there is to shedding?
Not at all. As the days get longer, your horse’s organism receives signals to change the coat – and body and metabolism are also experiencing significant changes. The horse has to produce a large number of proteins in order to create the new coat. This is an enormous feat!
Here 5 things you can do to help your horse through shedding time:
Optimize nutrition & add oils
Now that your horse’s body is working hard to not only come up with a complete new coat but also to adjust the metabolism to the changes in temperature, it is even more important to be especially diligent in balancing nutrition: Vitamins, especially biotin; minerals; herbs that stimulate the metabolism and the kidneys. Get in touch with your local horse feed specialist to fine-tune your horse’s nutrition during this important time. Healthy oils and essential fatty acids (such as Eo 3 Omega-3 Supplement For Horses) help your horse grow a healthy new coat. Calculate the right amount and follow manufacturer’s recommendations.
Consider brewer’s yeast for horses
Brewer’s yeast can help increase feed efficiency and is a supplement that has been fed to horses for hundreds of years. Find a product that is especially formulated for horses or horse feed that already contains brewer’s yeast. (I like Horse Brewers Yeast Supplement – 4 Lbs)
Massage & curry
Support your horse’s change of coat by massaging his coat and skin, not only to remove old and itchy hair and dander, but also to increase blood circulation. This helps your horse feel better and supports the new growth from the bottom up. Use a flexible massage curry that feels good to your horse, such as “New Generation” by Haas.)
Ditch the shedding blade!
If you want to see a really shiny, smooth summer coat, replace harsh shedding blades – which can scratch the skin, damage hair follicles and roughen the soft hair of the new summer coat – with a firm brush like a coco fiber brush or better yet a 50% brass bristle brush. A 50% brass bristle brush – such as the Haas ‘Mustang’ – will gently remove the soft undercoat that is so hard to grab with a shedding blade. At the same time, it removes dirt and dander and leaves the coat clean.
Take it easy
If possible, ask a little less of your horse during shedding time. Your horse’s systems are already quite strained through the effort of changing coats and metabolism. If your horse is a bit on the lazy side during coat change season, let him get away with some of that and lighten the work load, if possible.
In short: When your horse is shedding the winter or summer coat (yes, that needs to shed, too) and grows a new coat, there is much going on ‘behind the scenes’. Taking this into consideration during coat change time will make a big difference to your horse.
Be well and enjoy your horse!
Sources: Equine Science (Pilliner, Davies)
Reasons & Remedies for Saddling Sensitivity
by Stefanie Reinhold
What is ‘cinchy’?
In a nut shell: ‘Cinchy’ describes a horse that shows an adverse reaction to the saddle cinch or saddle girth, either during the saddling process or well before – for example when approaching the horse with the saddle.
These adverse reactions can range from subtle (tense facial expression) to aggressive (kicking or biting). Any response apart from a relaxed acceptance must be viewed as a defensive response on part of the horse.
Why is my horse ‘cinchy’ or ‘girthy’?
When looking at any unwanted behaviors in horses, we are looking at 3 possible scenarios:
- An unpleasant physical experience at this moment (pain, discomfort, etc.)
- An unpleasant emotional experience at this moment (fear, panic, etc.)
- A memory of an unpleasant physical or emotional experience, which is now anticipated (but may not occur…)
A google search shows: Most trainers address a negative reaction to the girth or cinch as a behavior issue. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation. As responsible horse owners, we need to consider physical pain and discomfort first, then rule it out or address it in order to then successfully address the behavior issue or habit that may be associated with this discomfort.
Physical Discomfort as Cause for Cinchy Behavior
Asking ourselves ‘could it be pain?‘, we need to start looking at the girth area, mainly the area of the deep pectoral muscles. Here some tips:
- Run your fingers (carefully) from the center of the rib cage (under the horse, sternum) up towards the saddle area, across the ascending pectorals (see image). Look for reactions: Anything from muscle flinching in that area to more volatile reactions like kicking and biting. NOTE: Be careful! Start with very soft touch, take it up a notch only if no reaction from the horse. Never press harder than would be comfortable for you. Practice on your own leg first.
- Did you get a reaction? If yes, it is time to investigate girth fit, tightness, material, placement, etc. Your horse is in discomfort!!
- More clues: Is your horse ‘short-strided’ or tight in the shoulder? This could be another indicator of discomfort in the deep pectorals.
The detective work in finding out what causes the discomfort in the girth area (meaning in the deep pectorals) does not stop at riding equipment.
You also need to look at feet, any hidden front leg or shoulder discomfort, tightness in the poll, imbalance in self carriage. The underlying problem can also be a subluxation of any of the underlying skeletal structures (vertebrae), often called a ‘rib out’. Contact an equine chiropractor to rule out this very common cause of girthyness. More often than not, it is difficult to find the reason if all factors have been sufficiently addressed and girthy behavior persists. Gentle bodywork that addresses the entire system of the horse’s body and rules out compensation patterns – such as the Masterson Method of Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork – will often be the key to resolving the hidden causes of girthy behavior.
Reasons for girthy or cinchy behavior can include:
- a saddle with a tree that pinches in the whithers
- a saddle with protruding screws or knotty, aged flocking
- a saddle that does not conform well to the shape of the horses back (bridges or rocks)
Girth/cinch or pad problems:
- a saddle pad that bunches
- a saddle pad that is too thick, thus making a well fitting saddle fit like a shoe, that is too small
- a soiled saddle pad (for example plant debris, sand, old hardened sweat etc)
- a synthetic saddle pad that ‘heats up’ during the ride and promises discomfort later on
- a pinching girth/cinch or buckle (especially Western cinches with the buckle in the wrong position)
- a too tight girth/cinch
Physical problems (sometimes caused by above)
- Sore spots, abscess, insect bites or other wounds in the girth or saddle area (infected tick bites)
- Back pain: the horse anticipates back pain when being ridden and thus has anxiety around the saddling process (for example: back-pain due to muscle spasms or hock problems).
- Sore feet: The abdodimus pectoris muscle can get tender and sore when horses have pain or soreness in their front feet because of the way the horse moves to avoid the pain.
- The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
- feelings of panic or claustrophobia (often caused by starting the young horse in a hurry)
- a negative riding experience, either in present or past (former owner, trainer)
- unsoundness or painful illness (such as any digestive issues, ulcers, hoof sensitivities) that become very stressful when ridden
- The horse associates the process of being saddled with a stressful experience, such as
Equine massage or body work can help with any muscular issues, whether they may be primary – such as muscle spasm – or secondary – such as sore ascending pectoral muscles due to sore feet.
However, the first recommended course of action is to uncover the root cause, involving professionals such as vet, farrier, equine chiropractor, acupuncturist, etc. After the root
cause for the discomfort is remedied, the secondary discomfort and tension due to compensation can often be helped within only a few sessions of equine massage or body work.
So here again in a nutshell:
- Check Saddle Fit
- Check girth/cinch placement and material
- Check for wounds, bruises or muscle pain
- Involve an equine chiropractor or vet (or both)
Resolve the problem, then release any tension resulting from compensation through gentle bodywork. (You can learn basic equine bodywork techniques yourself.)
Only then is it time to replace the problematic and now habitual behavior in the horse through training measures.
As always, enjoy your horse!
Horses have been around for a lot longer than our modern conveniences like horse vacuums and show sheen spray. While we can be grateful to have access to these conveniences, not everything we use today is actually helpful or beneficial.
What did experienced stable hands do in the ‘old days’? What can we learn from them?
Sometimes, it’s the simple ‘old-school’ solution that gets the best result.
Here 10 “old-school” grooming and horse care tips:
100 strokes to shine
The German cavalry prescribed a minimum of 100 brush strokes (with a horse hair brush) per horse per day. The recruits had to groom their own horses and were subjected to rigorous inspections. Grooming was not only viewed as a means to clean the horse but also to provide a good massage, increase blood circulation and well being. But the recruits were encouraged to be quick about it: “There is no value in grooming beyond the point of when the horse is clean.” (Care of the Troup Horse, 1937)
What’s in an onion?
Apparently something that makes the horse hoof shiny. Cut an onion into half and rub the clean and dry hoof with the raw onion before entering the show ring. It will provide shine without the unwanted side-effect of attracting sand and dirt.
Laurel oil for hoof growth
Laurel oil (bay leaf oil) has been a staple in hoof care for centuries. The thrifty groom would massage the oil into the coronet band, then sparingly spread a thin film over the rest of the hoof wall. Then hoof treatment was applied to the collateral groove and the sole of the hoof, never the frog!
Caring for the sweaty horse after exercise
The hot and sweaty horse appreciates having his eyes and nostrils cleaned with a damp cloth. Then 10-15 minutes of calm walking in hand, in winter or cool weather covered with a simple wool blanket. Follow up with a vigorous rub down with a bunch of clean straw to dry the coat further, then brush the coat smooth with a coarse natural brush.
Caring for the horse’s mane
The knowledgeable old-school groom never combed a mane! Instead, the mane would be finger-combed, the dandruff on the crest would then be brushed off with a horse hair finishing brush, parting small sections with the fingers, and then the groom would smoothen the mane by brushing.
Wherever there are horses, there will be flies… Besides cleanliness, the old-school barn master prescribed a natural ally in the war against the buzzing pest: swallows. Encourage swallows to nest in your barn and you will keep the fly population low.
And another fly repellent…
If you cannot convince the swallows to nest in your barn, try a ‘spiked lemon’. Spike a lemon with cloves and hang it up in your barn.
Keeping leather soft
After cleaning saddle, bridle & other leather accessories thoroughly with saddle soap, the old-school groom would not let the leather dry out completely but instead apply leather conditioner when the leather was still somewhat damp. After letting the conditioner soak in, remove excess fat with a wool cloth, easily made by shrinking an old wool sweater in a hot wash cycle.
Cleaning very sweaty bridles
In order to remove caked on dirt and sweat before cleaning the bridle with saddle soap, take the bridle apart and soak it for a few minutes in lukewarm water with a squirt of ammonia.Be sure not to forget the bridle in the bucket! Remove after a few minutes.
Last not least… a tasty snack!
The groom in old times provided his horses with tasty branches from fruit trees, birch trees and hazelnut bushes. This was supposed to be healthy and good for the teeth. If you’d like to take it up a notch, soak some bread in beer, a snack that was (or still is…) supposedly popular in some parts of Germany. (Note: This tip is provided for entertainment purposes. If you would like to try this, please check with your vet first!😉
5 Questions that help make the right choice.
Bitting is a complicated topic, but I hope to make it a little easier for you to ask yourself the right questions. The answers to those questions can then be your guide to finding the right bit.
- What lies beneath (the muzzle)?
The muzzle is a sensitive, complex part of the horse’s sensory system. In the best case scenario – suitable bit and sensitive, light hands – it is therefore also a perfect ‘communication hub’ between rider hand and horse brain. In the worst case scenario – the wrong bit and rough rein influence – it becomes the scene of torture.
We need to look beneath the muzzle to determine:
- How wide is your horse’s lower jaw?
- How concave or flat is the cavity of your horse’s palate?
- What is the angle/shape of your horse’s ‘bars’ (the toothless lower part where the bit rests)? Is it shaped like a roof, with a small contact area? Or is the contact area flat, wide and fleshy or anything in between?
- How thick is your horse’s tongue?
- Last not least: Any old injuries/scars/odd tooth arrangement or presence of ‘wolf teeth’?
Lift your horse’s lip, feel around, carefully grab the tongue, stroke over the bars, touch the palate and explore its shape, open your horse’s mouth and observe any visual clues. In other words: familiarize yourself with the landscape of your horse’s mouth.
- What does the exterior of the muzzle look like?
After you have explored the inside of your horse’s mouth through palpation and visual exploration, it is time to look at the outside.
- How long is your horse’s mouth (meaning the opening, where does the corner of the mouth end relative to the nostril)?
- Do you notice any chafing or cracking, warts, or scarring?
- How deep is the chin groove?
- How fleshy is the muzzle?
These factors – in combination with the factors above – are important when it comes to choosing the right bit and bridle. (E. g.: A horse with a short mouth will not do well with a dropped noseband. A horse with a long mouth does not need ‘2 wrinkles’ to have the bit in the right position.)
- What is the horse’s personality?
- Energy level: Anything from laid back or ‘pokey’ to forward and energetic. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest energy level.
- Strong-mindedness: Even with the best of training, there are horses, who insist on their own agenda more often than other, more agreeable types. It is important to be realistic about this. (No excuses! Bad training does not count!) Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most strong-minded.
- Sensitivity: This plays a bit into the physical make-up and also the history of the horse. A former school horse can be quite dull in the mouth (mentally and physically), another horse has lots of sensitive nerves and reacts to the smallest closing of the hands. Rate your horse from 1-10, with 10 being the most sensitivity.
NOTE: If you are unsure because the horse may be new to you, take your time and enlist the help of a friend or trainer to gently and respectfully explore the respective area with your horse.
- What is the horse’s job and training level?
Considering the horse’s riding discipline and training level is key. Rate your horse on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest level that can be attained in your discipline.
- What can be expected by the rider?
What type of rider will handle this horse’s reins? Rate the skill level as it pertains to a) independent seat and b) careful and sensitive use of the reins and soft hands, on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being a very balanced rider with skilled, soft hands.
Some general rules of thumb:
- A young horse and/or a horse with little training should have the gentlest bit possible. The Herm Sprenger Dynamic RS snaffle bit, for example, can be a good choice.
- Bits with leverage or double bridles only belong into the mouths of horses with the appropriate training level and under a skilled rider.
- Rider safety is first. If you ride competitive trail or endurance, for example, and you have a high-strung animal, you need to take this into consideration. And yes, bits sometimes do stop horses.
- A simple snaffle bit of some type will do fine for most applications – from dressage over trail riding to show jumping – if horse and rider are appropriately trained.
- Snaffle bits with leverage are especially harsh bits! (This includes the ‘Tom Thumb’ bit!)
- The best-fitting bit can become an instrument of torture under a tight noseband.
- Broken snaffle bits (French link, for example) are not necessarily gentler. It depends on the horse!
TIP: For horses with difficult mouth anatomy (thick tongue plus narrow jaw and low palate, for example), or horses with learned bit aversions, try a Meroth leather snaffle. Be sure to not purchase ‘copy cat’ products, as they may contain toxic tanning agents. And only the Meroth bit is 100% leather without steel or plastic core, therefore extra gentle.
Write the results of you explorations on a sheet of paper. Also list your concerns and questions, then contact several bit experts and ask what bit they would recommend for your particular horse and situation.
Chose the bit and answer that makes the most sense to you.
Your horse will be the last judge!
As always, be well and enjoy your horse!
There is a general lack of good, reliable resources and information on the topic of ‘bits and bitting’. Here some resources you might want to explore: