TJB

Apr 242014
 

This article was originally published on the Sabots Libres website

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We live in a world of almost endless possibilities. The internet has given us access to information in a way that only twenty years ago was impossible. Vast libraries of books have found their way onto the electronic highway and although not always absolute in its accuracy, Wikipedia is almost as expansive – and accurate – as that highly revered (if fictional) publication, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Add to this the gigantic increase in the popularity of social media in the past 5 years (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr etc.) and the ability to research and exchange information has outgrown our ability to process it all. And suddenly a host of dangers present themselves; we don’t always possess the discipline to pursue a line of thought before publishing it as true – and millions more people believe every word of what they read without question. Case in point is all the hype around Monsanto; without wishing in any way to condone Monsanto, it is notable that people are starting to attribute all manner of disputable products with the company despite Monsanto not having anything to do with them!
And similar things are happening in the field of barefoot horses (I use this phrase to avoid associating with any particular trimming method). Hundreds of photographs are posted daily in fora and on Facebook of variously trimmed or untrimmed hooves asking for advice or confirmation. And a world of “specialists” is sitting on the sidelines waiting to dispense varying diagnoses, suggestions, warnings and arguments – purely on the basis of a (frequently poorly shot) photograph!
Obviously the horse owner has the choice to ignore all this commentary – then again, why did he post the picture in the first place? Usually for confirmation that he is treading the right path, only to be inundated with – often fatuous – remarks about this hoof, a history of hooves and just about any hoof in general… But worst of all are the “…you need to…” comments dishing out advice that most owners would be better off without.
Not that all the advice is necessarily bad, but it is often conflicting, frequently confusing and usually conjecture. Trim a bit more here, rasp a bit more there; the heels are too high/low and the frog should be shorter/longer/thinner/thicker… And here is a magic template to solve all your woes. But these people have never seen the hoof in question live.
20140424-152233.jpgI have a dark raised mark on my arm; if I was to post a picture of it on the internet I would get all manner of reactions declaring it to be a mole, to have been jabbed with a pencil (my mother’s favourite!), to be a malignant melanoma or an alien implant… In fact, I have no idea what it is other than I have had it for longer than I remember and it never changes – so I leave it alone! Which is what we should do with all these hoof photos on the web… If you’ve been there, touched it, scraped it with a hoof knife and been able to evaluate with your own eyes, ok. Otherwise, try and refrain from speculation and conjecture. I know of at least two people who have ended up crippling their horses, admittedly through their own stupidity, but at the behest of all these internet advisors.

Jan 142014
 

For the past few years, once a year, I have taken part in a Transhumance.

The dictionary defines transhumance very simply as the action or practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer

For me it is four (autumn) or six (spring) days of adventure, freedom, hard work and most important of all, learning from nature.
And in this case it is the herding of around 70 horses from the high Pyrenees in Cerdagne/Languedoc-Rousillon to the Aude in Southern France.

The Owner: Pierre Enoff; bio-mechanical engineer and musician; inherited a farmhouse and a couple of horses from his grandmother over 45 years ago. From that moment, Enoff has studied the actions and interactions of horses, their habits, their way of surviving in a natural environment; he has, and still does, actively promote the barefoot horse – his own herd being the prime example of barefoot survival.

The Riders: Of necessity with a reasonable amount of experience of riding outdoors in all terrains – a couple of hours around the lanes with the riding club every summer is not sufficient! The days are long, it can be perishing cold, or soaking wet, or both; between departure in the morning and lunchtime, and between lunch and arrival in the evening, there is no possibility for a sanitary stop – you are moving with a herd and they will not stop just because you need a pee!

The Locality: Porta, Cerdagne; the valley floor is about 1600m at this point, the surrounding mountains rise to around 2800m. The horses have a total of around 2,000ha common land to graze on.

The Destination: Denis, near St Gaudéric, Aude; a rolling grassland of 85ha with a lake. Mean height 450m.

The Route: On the map, the autumn edition is about 150km and the spring edition about 200km – in reality, with all the twists, turns, ascents and descents you cannot measure on the map, the distances are some 20% longer.

The Chase CarThe autumn transhumance begins for Enoff and his team some time beforehand, organising the night stops (accommodation is more or less the same each year but at some locations there needs to be hay on hand to feed the horses, for instance), insuring sufficient provisions, getting clearance from the authorities both at local and at departmental levelTransu! – some sections make extensive use of the public highway – and all the sundry tasks involving vehicles and tack.
Corralled in PortaFor the riders, it all begins at La Pastorale on the Sunday morning. Seventy-odd horses have to be brought down from the mountainside and corralled. They can be anywhere within an area of a couple of thousand hectares – but, horses being horses, they are seldom alone, rather in their bands and often close to the larger group to which the band “belongs”. This is always helpful, but there are always groups that will hide themselves away and, surprisingly enough, when there is a reasonable layer of snow, they are nigh on impossible to just find!
Sunday afternoon is the time for a try out – old lags having prior knowledge can pick and choose their own horse, the rest can make their preferences known and a suitable horse is allocated. If it doesn’t click during the try out, then it is no problem; there are plenty of other horses to choose from.

On the roadAnd then breaks Monday morning. 9 o’clock sharp, everyone is at the stable, brushing down and saddling up their allotted or chosen steed. By 10 we must be on the road to insure a timely arrival at the evening stop. In previous years, there have been some major problems during departure – horses have cut a dash over the railway-line running alongside the main road in an attempt to get back to their pastures… others have dived up side roads into the village… so these days, there is a carefully planned departure involving help from the village, metre upon metre of striped tape and a rapid and tightly coordinated release onto the main road.
Col de PuymorensWith the exception, weather permitting (deep snow makes it impossible), of a very short stretch, the morning is spent on metalled roads. The herd passes through the famous skiing village of Porté-Puymorens (4 seasons of skiing) up the old road from Barcelona to Toulouse that snakes up the side of the Puig Carlit crossing the Col de Puymorens at 1915m.
From here, it is a downhill trot – irrespective of road conditions, dry, wet, snow, ice – to L’Hospitalet près l’Andorre, a distance of over 9 km and a descent of nearly 400m, and lunch. The uninitiated are thinking how tough it was and the old lags are remembering how tough tomorrow morning is going to be…

L'Hospitalet

Lunch is an al fresco affair, the Equi Libre trailer being kitted out with an awning for inclement – or excessively sunny – weather and carrying two large tables and four benches providing a modicum of comfort. Soup, cheese, cold meats and salad are the order of the day and all accompanied by the obligatory french bread and red wine. Even here there is no question of really slumming it – most lunches are rounded off with coffee and bitter chocolate.

Along the RailwayNow we follow the railway line almost to Mérens-les-Vals, home of the famous Mérens horse. This is a stretch on wooded paths alongside the river with the minimum of obstructions – occasional overgrown trees and bushes and a couple of particularly narrow bits. The horses have little need of guidance – they can’t do much other than follow the path – and most of the riders are glad of the change of pace from this morning.

First Night StopTwo large rolls of hay await the horses at the night-stop – the next morning there will be just about nothing left of them. We leave the horses to it and are transported by minibus back to La Pastorale in Porta; backs need repacking tonight for tomorrow, we move the whole caravan to Comus, some 12 km above Ax les Thermes as the crow flies.

Hoof 1Tuesday dawns early – the minibus is ready to whisk us back to Mérens-les-Vals at 08:30 so everything needs to be in the trailer well before then. By 09:15 we are collecting saddles, brushing down horses – or still trying to catch horses in a few cases – and the first tentative moves are made to look at the horses’ hooves after the gruelling descent of yesterday morning. And the first gasps of disbelief at just how good they look.

Mérens-les-ValsOnce underway, we pass over the picturesque little bridge in Mérens, over the main road and begin the slow ascent that allows us to reach Ax les Thermes without making use of the main road. The atmosphere is good, the views are superb and everyone is feeling reasonably relaxed; until the twisting, narrow extremely steep path up through the trees. Tough ClimbWith a rise of over 150 metres in a straight line distance of just over 250m, the horses have to work very hard to climb this stretch, a number taking time out at the top to have a good roll in the snow. But then it is all downhill along wide forest rides, finally back onto the main road and into Ax les Thermes.

The herd passes rapidly around the outskirts of the town and heads out on the road up to the Col de Chioula and towards the ski-resort of Camurac. Ax les ThermesOnce again, a suitable spot alongside the road forms the ideal place for lunch – once more, very welcome after the mornings hard ride but also as preparation for the afternoon. The climb up to Chioula and back down the other side is again almost exclusively on metalled roads. Weather permitting, from Prades to Camurac is possible on farm tracks but a recent change of venue for the night halt, has also cut this short.
This is the second night spent at a location usually above the snow line and so hay needs to be provided and as before, the next morning there is almost no trace left. In previous years, use was made of a gîte just outside Camurac that was run by Flemish people – this had the added attraction of meaning the beer was well above reproach! Sadly, they have returned to Flanders and this year the evening was spent drinking self-mixed G&Ts at a brand new gîte in Comus.

Plateau de Sault 1Wednesday dawns with the possibility of one of the most spectacular parts of the route – but again, weather permitting. Too much snow makes it almost impassable but the chance of riding over the Plateau de Sault in the snow is one to take up at every opportunity. Once over the plateau, the route finally descends below the snow line and apart from the occasional patch, we have seen the last of the “real” snow.Plateau de Sault 2
Lunch is at La Maison des Maquisards; the Maquis were rural resistance fighters – named after the scrubland in which they fought – and at this house a group of maquisards was executed and the house destroyed by the nazis.
Château de PuivertFollowing another rocky descent and the fording of a river, the going now very easy. Before long, the castle of Puivert can be seen on the horizon and not long after that we are into the outskirts of the town and heading up to pastureland next to the local graveyard. Tonight the horses will have to fend for themselves – there is plenty of rough grass and scrub; we shall retire to the marionettes’ gîte.

Graveyard, PuivertThe last day; despite this realisation, activity is unsubdued and all the riders are at the graveyard before the saddles are brought up in the trailer. We climb out of the corner of the pasture and hit the road for the last time. The day is a mixture of metalled roads, muddy paths and forest tracks but still enough twists and turns and stretches at a gallop to make even this last day as good as the rest. As we finally climb the hill past the abandoned farmhouse, even the first-timers have the realisation that this is the end. Into the enclosed meadowland, we have one final gallop to the top of the hill, dismount and unsaddle our horses. The adventure has come to a close.

DénisThe horses are thanked, we watch them rolling on the grass and sniffing out the ground they have not seen for the last seven months. The last chance for taking photos of the hooves and the horses and it’s off down the hill to await the minibus back to Porta.

LogohoofHoof 3Hoof 4But what about those hooves? How do they look after four days intensive riding – a substantial part on asphalt too? In one word, superb! The myth that hooves wear out too fast is completely busted. These hooves are as good on day four as they were on day one and lameness and injury is almost unheard of.

What does this trip teach us? That horses do not suffer for being exposed to nature, having to fend for themselves, having only dry grasses and, in their absence, hay to feed on. On the contrary, the majority of liveried horses on bix and cubes and all manner of grain-based feeds, would probably have difficulty getting through day one, let alone all four days. Their shod hooves would have had great difficulty in handling the ascents and descents and the chances of injury would have been considerably higher.

Aug 142013
 

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Keeping up with the times, The Equine Independent is now on Twitter.

You can follow us on @equindependent (the full name was too long, even without “the”!)

You can also hashtag equind if you have any comments related to us (TEI is about elephants…)

Jul 122013
 

Just checking over the site as administrator, I noticed a couple o f draft articles lurking. They actually go back a couple of years but for some reason never got to the point where the “publish” button actually got pushed! So, with profound apologies to the authors – and I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are, except one of you is Suzanne – I shall do the honours and push that button…

Jun 172013
 
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Foundered hooves: neglect?

A recent film published on the Internet by an equine welfare organization managed to stir up a little dust during the past week. Obviously I won’t mention the organization since in general they do sterling work but I think the film and associated comments worthy of attention.

Basically it was a short piece of film about some equids that had – principally – grotty feet. The immediate reaction from the person filming was that it was a sad case of really serious neglect; a typical and understandable reaction. Unfortunately, the film was too short to be able to make a good evaluation but the attention went almost exclusively to the feet.

So, why mention it here on this particular equine welfare site? Because I feel that all too often we evaluate from a human perspective rather than an equine one. Even large (inter)nationally renowned welfare organizations such as the RSPCA and WSPA are prone to anthropomorphism, or at least projection, when evaluating (some) situations.

There are times when we want it too good for our animals. Clean drinking water at no less than 18°C, top quality almost laboratory standard food, regularly washed and scrubbed to insure clean and pristine fur/hair… And what do our animals do? Horses roll in mud, dogs roll in horse muck… Both often prefer to drink from a pool rather than clean tap water – dogs regularly going for the most stagnant there is! Surely this should tell us something.

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Unattended hooves: neglect?

Coming back to the film – what worried me most was that the “reporter” had drawn personal conclusions about the situation apparently based upon one thing, the hooves. Although little attention was paid to it, there was some footage which seemed to show an appreciable expanse of ground, part paddock and part grass, with plenty of shade. No water troughs were to be seen but that is not evidence that there weren’t any.

So there was shade; possibly water; vegetation providing some, if not all, nourishment. The “only” apparent problem was the grotty feet and possibly a rather slow change of coat. Now I am the first one to admit that the hooves did not look good – they were overgrown and misformed. Having said that, I have seen enough ponies which have apparently been well looked after but have succumbed to misformed feet often through too much care than not enough. It is therefore very dangerous to stamp a situation with the word neglect simply on the basis of “having a look around.” On the other hand, at the first signs of possible neglect, then it is also wise to keep an eye on the situation and take action once things really begin to become clear.

I would like to make it very clear, I feel very strongly that animals should be kept in the best possible conditions but that they also should be appropriate to that animal. I would also rather someone reported a possible case of neglect than ignored an obvious case.

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Field under water: neglect?

Finally, a lot was played on the state of the hooves talking of the animals being in great pain, of the old adage “no hoof, no horse” and so forth. To put it into perspective, both the animals were moving around in such a way that pain probably would not be a major factor, if any at all; they were on softer ground which does not give adequate abrasion to naturally form the hooves; and “no hoof, no horse” is also a rather dated idea coming from the farriers who need hoof to be able to shoe a horse. In reality, the hoof is nothing more than a fingernail or toenail and as with humans, the nail will grow back; a more appropriate adage would probably be “no sole, no horse”.

Your thoughts and ideas on and provoked by this article are very welcome.

Jun 092013
 

There must be something in the air at the moment; I was recently expounding the virtues of delaying a horse’s training under the saddle only to come across an article last week on The Horse website talking about (race)horse performance at 2, 3 and 5 years related to lesions.

The cause was at that moment of little interest, the age of the horses was. Should we be riding at such immature ages?

Despite being worlds apart, the racehorse industry and the home-hack do have one main thing in common, the wish to turn their beautiful horse into a beautiful rideable horse as soon as possible. After all, most of us don’t just want to look at our horse…

There is plenty of motivation to start early too. In dressage, there is a minimum age at which a horse may compete; according to FEI regulations for international dressage competition, it is six years but for many national events, the rules are different with the minimum age being as low as three. And when one considers horse-racing, the ages are even lower – the racing of two-year-olds is quite commonplace which requires them to be saddled up for the first time when they are not much older than 1½.

For the professional trainer and owner, it is all a question of money. Often the horse is – or can become – quite valuable. Keeping a horse costs money (ironically, for the owners of such horses, it is often just a fraction of their earnings) and the natural desire is to see the horse earn its keep as soon as possible. And eventually, a racehorse can be put out to stud and earn yet more that way – these days not even needing to attain a respectable age with the ability to freeze sperm – but the health of the horse is never the greatest consideration.

So what about the mere mortals of this world? Most horse owners will agree that a horse should not be ridden until it is about 4 years old. A respectable age, one could say; the horse is obviously no longer a foal and is more likely to grow outwards than upwards. However, the growth plates are still a long way off being closed. The last plates will close somewhere between 5½ and eight years old – and it is specifically these growth plates that are found in the back of the horse – all 32 of them!

Most growth plates lie across the weight bearing plane – think of knees, ankles, shoulders etc. – and are less affected by the carriage of weight. But the growth plates in the back lie parallel to the weight bearing plane whereby the back is easily streched and thus can suffer under the weight of the rider.

skeleton of the horseTo clarify, this is the order and the approximate age at which the growth plates close up:

1. Birth: distal phalanx (coffin bone)

2. Birth and six months: middle phalanx

3. Between six months and 1 year: proximal phalanx

4. Between 8 months and 1½ years: metacarpals/metatarsals (cannon bones)

5. Between 1½ and 2½ years: carpal bones

6. Between 2 and 2½ years: radius-ulna

7. Between 2½ and 3 years: ulna/femur, section that carries weight above the radius; tibia

8. Between 3 and 3½ years: humerus; bottom part of the femur

9. Between 3 and 4 years: pelvis begins to close, beginning with the extremities of the ischium, ilium and sacrum

10. Between 3½ and 4 years: lower part (that carries weight) of the scapula (shoulderblade)

; top neck vertebrae

12. From 4 years: tarsal bones then the growth plates between fibula and tibia (not without reason that 18th century literature forbade ploughing, crossing of deep mud and jumping for young horses)

13. Between 5½ and 8 years: vertebrae (the larger the horse and the longer the neck, the longer it takes for the growth plates to close up. For stallions, add another six months: this means a “warmblood” horse of about 17hh will not be fully grown until 8 years old.)

Of course, all this does not mean that we cannot do anything with our horses until they are eight, but it should certainly set us thinking about our training schemes.

For the professional horseworld, time is loss – except the economics are not taken into account. Maybe not so interesting for the racehorse owner – his horse is often little more than a money factory – but certainly for the livery and riding school owners. In much of Europe, the average age of a riding school horse is horrifically low and the general life-expectancy shows no correlation with what a horse should (healthily) be able to reach. Based upon the size of the animal and the size and rate of its heart etc., the horse has a potential life-expectancy of 50 years. Realistically a little lower at around 40 to 43 years. But a horrific number of horses has already been written off by the age of 20 – imagine writing off people when they get to 38 or 40…

Take a look at the table below – and decide for yourself which of the two columns fits your way of thinking best:

Begin training 3 years 7 years
Full potential 7 years 10 years
End “useful” life 18 years 35 years
Total work period 15 years? 25 years

Just by delaying the moment we start to ride by just 3 years, we can win 10 years in “useful” life. It makes you think…

 

Growth plate information: Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses, Dr Deb Bennett, 2005
“Useful Life” table: based on observations by Pierre Enoff, bio-mechanical engineer
Original article published in Dutch: http://www.kobolt.nl/gezondheid/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/   https://sabots-libres.eu/site/engagement/2013/leeftijd-bij-inrijden/