Sunday, April 11, 2010

Weird or Not?

I haven't written anything in ages and thought it was about time for my next blog entry. Well, during the past week I had the most amazing experience with a horse.

My trainer gave me a horse to ride for a while. This horse, a little bay mare, nervous and high strung, is probably the most sensitive horse I have had to work with both on the ground and under saddle. She has a very hard life before, where she was ridden by a rider that was too heavy for her and had terrible riding skills (all hands and no legs). Now, at the age of 15, we are re-schooling her which is a challenging task but one that I am really enjoying.

I have been longing this mare for the past two months to help strengthen her back and teach her balance. Yes, I am a Parelli fan and I longe my horses :) Weird, I know. This mare always rushes when being longed. She will start off at a trot, get faster and faster and faster until she breaks into a canter. Then she'd canter relatively fast (mostly because she struggles to keep her balance) until she is tired and then only slow down to a trot. This can take up to an hour, sometimes two!

Having been influenced by Parelli, I felt that I had to find a way to teach this mare to stay calm and keep her balance. I had to show her how much better it feels to stay calm. Now, my trainer is not a Parelli fan, and I am not one to force my beliefs onto others, so I knew that I wouldn't be able to play around with Parelli patterns and games (at least not by the book). What was I to do then?

I started thinking of a DVD I watched a while back called The Path of The Horse. It showed the views of a number of “natural horseman” (I'm not really sure what to call them) and Linda Kohanov was one of them. Please note that I am not a big fan of Linda Kohanov's work. It's all a bit too spiritual and “airy fairy” for me. BUT, I don't think she is entirely wrong either, especially after my experience.

Anyway, so I was longing this mare same as always. She was rushing and I was just standing at the centre watching her go around. Although she wasn't tearing around the longe ring, she wasn't calm and balanced either. Usually, I don't talk to the mare much when she works, because she tends to speed up when the commands are given. But watching her be in such a state made me want to tell her that everything is okay, she can relax. I just started to relax my body, taking all the tension out that I could. I slowed my own breathing (taking deep breaths), the same I would do when riding to keep myself relaxed. For the fun of it, I also gave soothing commands (like “steady” and “good girl”or whatever) in my head, instead of verbally. Before my very own eyes, the mare seemed to pick up on the change and slowed down! I couldn't believe it! I studied her going around and watched to see if I was really seeing what I was seeing. There this nervous mare was trotting around like she never has before. We changed direction and the same thing happened. She was fast at first but the minute I relaxed and tried to tune in with her, she slowed down.

The mare has been longing better than ever for the past two days now. Her downward transition from canter to trot is now picture perfect where it used to be a horror show. I have also observed that she is now starting to relax more through her back too :)

So, wether I sound crazy or not, I am starting to believe that when working with horses , on the ground or in the saddle, it is as much a mental “game” as it is a physical one. There are definitely things in this world that we don't understand yet, and, will take a lot of believing to understand.

Anyway, this is just what I experienced. Weird, isn't it?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

How fat is too fat?

Those who follow my more personal blog will know that I have been helping out at a small little training yard. Now, just in case you are wondering, this training yard is not one of those who are only in it for the money. So far it is the only training yard I have come across where the horse's well fare comes first, even above winning and money!

Anyway, so there is this one Welsh Cob pony there who is owned by one of the top Welsh stud farms here in South Africa. This pony will be going to the Welsh Cob championships in a few months. At the moment he is in very good condition, not too fat and not too thin, absolutely perfect for his size. He is only four years old and is a little nervous, but once he settles down he is the cutest little thing!

Yesterday his owners came to see how he was doing. The first thing they remarked on was that he had lost too much weight! They told the trainers that his food has to be doubled, because they want him to look twice his size!!! They want the pony to get two full haynets of lucenre (Alfalfa), double the amount of bran and oats every day.

Our concern is that the extra weight will be unhealthy for the poor little thing. With such a rich diet he would be prone to laminitis, maybe even colic. Then there is the fact that his new diet will contain too much energy, making him too energetic and hard to control, especially considering his nervous nature.

What is it with shows and fat horses? It is known that overly fat horses are unhealthy, yet, we still insist on seeing round horses in the show ring. Wouldn't it be better to have a horse with sufficient muscle to carry his rider and perform? An over weight the horse's heart will be under great strain, especially if he has to carry a rider around. The horse will tire easily too.

Personally, I would rather have a happy, healthy horse than a fat, unhealthy one.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tacking Up Trouble

It is so frustrating when a horse won't stand still when being tacked up. What should take you a couple of minutes ends up taking an hour. Why should such a simple task be so strenuous?

The solution to this frustration is to get the horse familiar with the tack. To us the tack may seem like silly objects, but to the horse these objects may look like meat eating creatures. The key lies into familiarizing the horse with his tack.

The Saddle and Numnah /Saddle pad

The saddle must be one of the scariest of tack, because it sits on the horse's back and wraps around his body. For a prey animal there is nothing scarier than feeling something wrapped over him. Before even thinking of putting a saddle on your horse, first allow him to have a look at it. Get the horse to walk past it, maybe even walk circle around it. All of this will help convince the horse that the saddle is harmless. Next, take the saddle in your arm and walk around with it while leading the horse. This is a form of retreat, building confidence in the horse.

Once the horse can tolerate the saddle being around him without having the need to move away, you have to get him used to having the saddle on his back. It is best to start off with the numnah or saddle pad, because it is lighter. Take the numnah and rub it over the horse starting at the neck and shoulder area. If the horse is worried and starts moving around keep on rubbing until the horse stands still and then take it off. You keep on doing this until the horse can stand still (preferably without you having to hold him still).

Now take the numnah and gently put the numnah on his back in the same way you would if you were tacking up. Again, if the horse gets worried wait until he settles before taking the numnah off. It is also good to do this on both sides, not just on the left side. Once the horse can stand still for this he should be ready for the saddle.

First make sure the horse is comfortable having the saddle next to him. You can even try to walk around him with the saddle. Once the horse is calm you can try to swing the saddle onto his back. If the swinging saddle bothers the horse too much, you need to get him used to it. Stand next to him, as far as is comfortable, and swing the saddle back and forth. Remember to stop once the horse calms down, then repeat. Eventually you should be able to do this standing right next to his shoulder (as you would if you were saddling). Now, swing it up onto his back. If he moves around try to stay with him until he settles and then slide the saddle off. You do this until he can stand still. The more you are able to do this, the more confident the horse will get.

The Bridle

With the bridle you can do the exact same thing as with the saddle. See if you can rub it all over the horse without him getting worried about it. Then try to put it onto his head. If he has trouble with this you can try this:
Take the bit off the bridle and change the adjustments so that the bridle is a little bigger than it should be for riding. Now try to put it on (approach and retreat will help a lot with horses have more difficulty with it). Once the horse is comfortable with the bridle take it off. Then put it on again.

The Bit

You can prepare your horse for the bit by getting him to tolerate having your finger in his mouth. When introducing the bit for the first time it can be rewarding to put some molasses (or something sweet) on the bit. What also helps to make the first time more comfortable, is to have the cheek pieces adjusted a little bit longer than normal. This way you won't struggle to get the bridle on, accidently pulling on the mouth in the process.


Some horse don't like their legs being touched. This makes it very hard to get protective boots on. The best way to solve this problem is too get the horse used to having his legs rubbed. To do this use a schooling whip and rub the leg softly. If the horse picks the leg up, keep on rubbing until he puts it down then take the whip off. Once the horse tolerate the whip you can try rub his legs with your hands. Next you want to get him to tolerate the boots. Take the boot and rub his leg with it. Eventually, he will tolerate it and you should be able to put the boot on and fasten it.

It is up to us to make the horse comfortable with the tools we use. By helping the horse build confidence with our tools (tack etc.), we will gain his trust and respect. He will end up enjoying being around us instead of being terrified and worried every time he is fetched from the pasture.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Natural horsemanship and everything else... :p

I know I am supposed to be writing a blog on Natural Horsemanship (NH) and my opinions on it, but every time I start I can't seem to find the words! There is just too much for me to write!!!

So, I will narrow it all down to just these few key points or I will be typing all day long (not kidding!).

To me NH is a breath of fresh air. Before I knew about it, all I knew was that horses was there for riding. If you good enough you get to show and maybe even find your way to the olympic! I was never fortunate enought to get the proper training until recently (about 5 ot 6 years ago) so I know that I won't be a top rider. But NH showed me that there is so much more out there. There is so much more you can do with your horse... you can play with your horse and be its best friend- the one your horse looks up to.

Every time I look at photos of what Parelli students are doing I get hungry to learn more. I want to have a horse that will stay with me even if there are no lines attached and we in the wide open. I want a horse that will carry me and listen without having anything on (no halter, no bridle, nothing). I want to get a horse to do flying changes with me riding bareback and in a halter. I want a horse that will play with me becasue it wants to...

I am especially fond of Parelli and I will tell you why... it is not because I am brainwashed (do people really think that???)... it is because they have found a way to communicate with horses unlike anything I have ever seen. It is fascinating! Yes, you get to do fancy ''tricks'' (LOL) but what caught me was the language!!! The interpretation of the horse's actions and the adjusting of our actions to get the desired response... wow!

Seriously.... WOW!!!

The nice thing about NH is that it can be used in every day riding. Karen Rohlf has incorporated NH into teaching dressage to horses and riders alike. Visit her website to found out more.

So that is what I think of NH. It has been an eye opener for me. It could be for you too... and if not, that is okay :)

Sunday, January 3, 2010


The bit is a very important part of your tack, but how many people knows how to use it correctly? How is the bit meant to be used in the first place?

I recently watched a FEI Showjumping Show on tv and was amazed at the bits these top risers were using on their horses. What really made my eyes pop out is this new trend of jumping in a double bridle!!! Why is some of our top riders in need of using strong bits? The way I see it, they are supposed to be the people that can ride their horses in a plain snaffle with very light contact. That is the example they should be setting... well, in my opinion at least.

Watching these riders had me asking why they had to use these big bits. Watching each riders seat and use of hands painted a colourful, yet, shocking picture. If the rider didn't have an insecure seat, bouncing around, the rider was pulling the horse in the mouth to control the speed and turn. Pulling the reins!? What happened to using the seat and leg? If riding was all hands and no leg, then more people would be riding. Anyone could ride!

So this is my observations... 1. The rider pulls the horse in the mouth to turn etc. The horse starts off in a snaffle but, because the rider is constantly pulling on the reins (ultimately ruining the sensitive bars of the mouth) the horse becomes hard mouth. The horse doesn't respond to the rider's pulling, so a bigger bit is used. 2. The rider has a weak seat and doesn't use his aids properly and relies on his hands and heels (!!!) to communicate with the horse. Steering is left up to pulling on the reins and spurring with the legs. The horse is now numb to the leg and rein aids.

So how should we use the bit?

Well, it all starts off with the rider's seat. A balanced seat (soft hands) and correct use of the aids results in the soft (and correct use) of the bit. The bit is just meant as a tool to communicate to the horse's head what you want it to do. This does not mean pulling on the reins to turn or stop. The bit is meant to give the rider control of the neck and forehand, allowing the rider to adjust the forehand/neck accordingly as needed. However, the bit has to be used in conjunction of the other aids. All aids are meant to work as one. Pulling on the reins (mouth) breaks the whole circuit of aids and the horse just plods around (most likely on the forehand).

Now, the question some people will want answered now is how do you stop the horse without pulling on the reins? Well, this is where correct use of the aids are important. You should be able to control your horse's speed by using your seat briefly (half halting). If you need to use the reins, a soft squeeze should suffice. If you can't do this then maybe your horse isn't ready to go around a jumping course just yet.

Back to bits...

We need to understand that the horse's mouth is VERY sensitive, lined with many nerves. When the bit is used, pressure is applied on this sensitive area. Too much pressure will cause a lot of discomfort for the horse. This is why choosing a bit is a very serious matter and should be given a good amount of thought before sticking one in the horse's mouth.

Here is some advise to consider:

Use the softest bit possible. Usually this would mean using a snaffle, but be warned : “In the wrong hands an ordinary bit, such as the snaffle, can be as harmful as a stronger bit.”
Double jointed bits, such as the French Link snaffle, are considered milder than single jointed bits, because they reduce the “nut-cracker” action of the single jointed bits. They take pressure some off the bars of the mouth and places more pressure on the tongue. Sensitive horses tend to dislike the added pressure on the tongue and prefer the single jointed bit.

The thickness of the mouthpiece of the bit is important. As rule of thumb, the thicker the mouthpiece the milder the bit. The theory behind this is that a thicker mouthpiece lies over a larger surface area thus reducing the pressure per unit area.

Horses that are don't like pressure on their tongues do well with a ported mouthpiece. Beware of ports that are too high as they may get into contact with the roof of the mouth.

The above mentioned horses may also like the hanging snaffle (Boucher snaffle). This bit is attached to the cheek pieces of the bridle via an extra ring. This results in the bit being suspended in the mouth rather than lying on the tongue, thus reducing the pressure applied onto the tongue.

Make sure your bit is the right size for your horse. If it is too small it will pinch the sides of the mouth. If it is too big it will flop around and irritate your horse. As a rule of thumb you should be able to put a finger between the ring of the bit and the side of the mouth.

If you can't control your horse using a soft bit, don't just put a stronger bit in his mouth. Solve the problem at its root... either you aren't riding properly (not using your aids correctly), or your horse needs more schooling or the horse is in pain (thus, trying to run away from it). If your horse is very hot and/or very impulsive, ground work is the key to solving the problem.

The double bridle

I just want to make a brief comment on the double bridle. I don't believe it should be used in showjumping. It is meant to be used in dressage and showing to ask the horse to move in the correct frame. In showjumping it is being used as a device to control the horse rather than to correct the frame. I believe that if you can't jump in a soft bit then you and your horse shouldn't be jumping, yet.

Brief Summary

1.The mouth is the most sensitive part of the horse.
2.Use the softest bit possible.
3.Use a bit that suites your horse (not the latest trends!).
4.A thicker mouth piece is softer than a thin one.
5.Make sure the bit fits your horse's mouth.
6.Even in the wrong hands a soft bit can be as harsh as a strong one.
7.Trouble controlling the horse should be fixed at its roots (no quick fixes!)
8.Double Bridles are meant for correcting the frame, not for control.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hidden Structures of the Equine Skull

All about the guttural pouch and the hyoid apparatus

You are probably wondering what in the world these two parts are. These interesting structures play a very important role in protecting the sensitive structures of the skull, and in supporting the structures of the skull and neck.

The guttural pouch

There are 2 guttural pouches in the horse, each placed on either side at the back of the skull. These pouches are air-filled extensions of the auditory tubes. They act as a puffy cushion, protecting the sensitive structures of the head from harsh contact with the bony structures of the skull and hyoid apparatus.

The hyoid apparatus

The hyoid apparatus consists of the two hyoid bones that are fused together to form one solid bony structure. It is suspended from the base of the skull (from the styloid processes of the temporal bone) by ligaments and is suspended in the soft tissue of the neck between the mandible and the larynx. The pharynx passes between the two arms of the hyoid bone. The hyoid apparatus functions to provide attachment points for the muscles and ligaments of the tongue, pharynx, neck and sternum.

Interestingly the hyoid bone/s derived from a gill arch in jawless primitive fish. Through evolution of jaws the hyo-mandibular gill arches evolved into the hyoid bones. It is thanks to the hyoid apparatus that a frog can fire its tongue to capture it's prey. Humans too have a hyoid. Unlike the horse's ours is horse- shoe shaped. You can feel the hyoid connections to your sternum by placing your finger at the notch in the base of your neck, opening your jaw and wiggling your tongue.

The hyoid is a very important structure to consider when riding the horse. As mentioned the tongue attaches to the hyoid. The hyoid is capable of very little movement (equivalent to that of teeth) and is fixed in relation with the base of the skull. Thus, if the horse's head is strongly repositioned for exaggerated flexions, such as the rollkur, it will result in the tongue being drawn up. This has a negative effect, because it hinders the mouth and inhibits the horse from having total relaxation in the mouth. It also decreases the available space in the “throat” area (as a secondary effect to extreme flexion), making breathing very difficult. Another reason why the hyoid has to be considered is, because the six muscles of the sternum attaches to it (as mentioned). These muscles form the underline of the horse and greatly affect the mobility of the forehand of the horse.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Approach and Retreat

Isn't it just annoying when you want your horse to walk past a scary object and your horse completely freaks out? Or what about when you want your horse to cross a stream and he digs his feet in, refusing to move? How do you deal with this?

You might try to smack your horse, thinking he is misbehaving. You'd use your aids more strongly, hoping your horse will give in and just move along. Unfortunately, horses are by nature skittish about unfamiliar objects. They are merely prey animals trying to survive. To us the object might be nothing (a bin, a plastics bag, a little stream, a butterfly!), but to the horse it might look like some monster out to get him. It is this fear response that allows the horse to survive in its natural habitat,however, in the “humansville” it can get them into trouble. So what should you do?

Since, we are the horse's leader in “humansville” it is our responsibility to prepare the horse for what he will have to face in “humansville”. You would have to get the horse to trust you, knowing you'd never ask anything of him that will harm him. Now... there is a good way and a “bad” way to go about this...

The “bad” way is not necessarily bad, but does not suite all horses. This method will involve you forcing your horse to accept the scary object/s without acknowledging the horse's mental and emotional state. You would just take your horse straight up to the object and hope for the best. Now some horses might be brave enough to get close enough to the object to get a better look, but most horses will put up a fight.

The good way is to get your horse familiar with the object/s that is more natural for the horse. In nature horse's hardly ever walk straight up to a scary object to investigate it. They would approach it in a zig zag pattern, rather than straight, and move a little bit at a time. Once they are convinced the object is harmless, they might get close enough to touch it with their noses and eventually maybe their feet. So, to get your horse familiar with an object you just have to emulate this...

Start off by walking your horse past the object (not to it) while keeping a safe distance away from it. How far you want to be away from the object depends on the horse. You will want to be as far away from it as the horse feels comfortable. You then walk past the object (with you positioned between the object and your horse), pretending it is not even there. If your horse chooses to stop and have a look... allow it! Watch your horse for signs off worry (flaring nostrils, tense muscles etc). If your horse looks worried move further away from the object. Once your horse is okay with being that distance away from the object, you can get a bit closer (but only as far as your horse will allow). Again you just walk past it until your horse is comfortable. By to and away from the object will actually help build up your horse's confidence. The more you retreat, the more confident your horse will get. The more confident your horse is, the closer he will be able to get to the scary object. Eventually your horse will be able to get right up to the object without trying to bolt off.

Approach and retreat... that us all you have to do! And it works. What makes this method so valuable, is that you end up enforcing your bond with your horse. Your horse will respect you more, because you didn't punish him for being scared or forced him to jump off the cliff. At the end your horse will be emotionally and mentally fitter. Most important of all... you preserved his confidence.

Approach and retreat can be used for anything from getting the horse used to being saddled, to having his ears touched to crossing a river! How long it will take the horse to get used to the object will depend on the horse. Some horses may only need 4 hours where others may need 2 weeks. However, don't be tempted to rush things. Take the time it takes and it will take less time. It is all worth it in the end for both you and your horse :)