May 142010
 

Dietary supplementation for horses is a vexed area where the scarcity of scientific studies, owners’ desires to do the best for their animals and enthusiastic advertising by manufacturers all conspire to make it difficult for anyone to know the best thing to do.

There is nothing inherently dodgy or implausible about vitamins and trace elements. They are essential to life. Strictly speaking, a vitamin is a substance that has to be obtained from the diet because the organism involved is unable to manufacture, or synthesise, it in its body. For example, vitamin C or ascorbic acid is a vitamin for people but not for horses. Horses synthesise this substance in their guts; people do not, and depend on a dietary supply. A trace element is, as its name suggests, a chemical element or nutrient that is required by the body in minute, or trace, amountsIt has long been known that dietary deficiencies can lead to illness (Wikipedia 2010a), although it was not until the early part of the 20th century that all the vitamins were isolated and described. It is also indisputable that until fairly recent times, vitamin and trace element deficiencies were common in humans even in the developed countries, and in less fortunate parts of the world this is still so.

The discovery of vitamins, and the ability to manufacture them commercially, soon led to a highly profitable industry selling supplements. Once the preserve of the whole-food shop, dazzling arrays of supplements are now de rigueur almost anywhere that food and, indeed, medicines are sold. The beliefs that routine supplementation is good for everyone, that most diets are deficient and that many people have special needs for extra micronutrients have all been promoted way beyond the actual evidence, to the point where many people not only take multivitamins routinely, but take them well in excess of the recommended daily doses. Unfortunately, recent studies are showing that when it comes to vitamins and trace elements it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and substances that are vital for health in small doses can be dangerous in larger amounts. This is hardly surprising: these substances are biologically active, and all biologically-active substances are likely to have side effects as well as main effects. For people living in developed countries, the scientific evidence at present is that there are no proven benefits to routine supplementation, that modern foodstuffs are not deficient in nutrients, that most people in industrialised countries can get all of their nutritional needs from food, and that high doses of vitamins probably do more harm than good (Hall 2008; Novella 2009; Skeptvet 2009, Carroll 2010).

Might this be the case also in horses?

Equine nutritional supplements have been something of a growth industry over the last 20 or 30 years. Your average tack shop or feed store now incorporates an impressive display of vitamins, minerals and other feed additives and there are hundreds of vitamin and mineral mixes sold for horses, even though the recommended daily allowances and maximum and minimum safe levels for horses are not at all well known (Merck 2008). In the last few months I’ve seen advertising that suggests that all soils, in the UK at least, are deficient in minerals, that all pasture and hay is therefore deficient, and that all horses therefore need to be given supplements. It is very difficult to find any hard evidence on this subject. In temperate climates there are localised areas of nutrient deficiencies in the soil, and these can affect the health and growth of ruminant livestock such as sheep and cattle depending on how intensively the land is managed (Whitehead 2000), but I’ve not been able to find any comparable data for horses that is independent and doesn’t come from somebody selling supplements. If any reader can point me to any, please do.

It appears that vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the horse are actually rather rare (Merck 2008) and generally follow some other problem such as starvation or malabsorption because of age or illness. Horses’ bodies manufacture vitamin A from beta-carotene and vitamin C from sucrose in the diet. All the B vitamins and vitamin K are synthesised by the bacteria in the equine gut. Vitamin D is produced by the action of ultraviolet light on the horse’s skin. In fact the only vitamin needed by the horse that has to come from its diet is vitamin E (Kerrigan 1986). There are adequate levels of the essential trace elements in most pastures and hay for a horse doing light to moderate work, and not otherwise stressed (Wikipedia 2010c). A horse who has reasonable access to sunlight and green, growing pasture or sun-cured forage is unlikely to be deficient in any vitamins. Mineral deficiencies can arise, but these are rarely a consequence of the pasture a horse is in and more commonly a result of faulty feeding. The trace elements most likely to be deficient are calcium, phosphorus, copper, sodium chloride (salt) and selenium (Merck 2008).

It is more common for horse rations to contain an excess of certain nutrients, and this can lead to direct toxicity or to induced deficits of other minerals. Phosphorus, iron, copper, selenium and vitamin A are the substances most commonly fed to excess (Merck 2008).

In horses, the best-known example of a nutritional disorder is nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, also known as big-head disease or bran disease. It is caused by a diet containing too much phosphorus and too little calcium, and was prevalent in western Europe when many horses were fed large amounts of wheat bran. Although the link between bran in the diet, calcium deficiency and bone weakness was established by the veterinary surgeon Dr Varnell in 1860, the condition was still occasionally being diagnosed in the 1980s in horses fed excessive amounts of grain (Hintz 1987). It is still common in horses grazing certain tropical grasses, where chemicals called oxalates in the grasses combine with calcium so that it cannot be absorbed by the horse’s gut.

Selenium and vitamin E deficiencies have been considered as possible risk factors in horses prone to exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying up or azoturia) but the evidence is by no means unequivocal: if your horse suffers from this condition it is sensible to have a vet blood-test your horse and supplement, if necessary, under expert supervision. This is definitely not one to guess at yourself as even a slight excess of selenium can cause irreversible damage including loss of mane and tail hair and sloughing of the hooves (Merck 2008), and large overdoses can cause death (Wikipedia 2010b).

As for the known toxic and harmful effects of overdoses: vitamin A in excess can damage the bones and skin and cause developmental problems in unborn foals, and too much vitamin D can cause calcium to be laid down in the blood vessels, heart and soft tissues as well as bone weakness and weight loss. It can be fatal. Iodine toxicity, resulting in an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre) can occur in horses fed too much dried seaweed. Too much potassium can cause heart problems. Feeding magnesium to excess – possible if you give your horse a fortified diet and also a magnesium-based ‘calmer’ – may interfere with calcium absorption and lead to a deficiency of that mineral. Iron excess can interfere with the metabolism of copper. Too much copper can cause problems with the uptake of selenium and iron (Merck 2008).

Current veterinary advice is that a horse in light to moderate work who is fed a balanced diet with plenty of good-quality forage (including hay or haylage and decent grazing), who spends at least 4 hours a day outdoors in order to metabolise vitamin D from sunlight and who is not in extremely hard work is, if otherwise healthy, unlikely to need any supplementation except for common salt, sodium chloride, which may be given as a free-access lick or added to the feed (Merck 2008). There are, however, circumstances in which it is possible for a horse to suffer from deficiencies. The most obvious is the fat horse or pony who needs to be on a severely restricted diet in order to control his weight. He may not be getting enough food to fulfil his needs for vitamin precursors (the substances that are converted to vitamins in the digestive tract) or trace elements, especially if his diet is based on soaked or poor-quality forage. Phosphorus deficiency can occur in horses eating poor-quality forage and no grain. It leads to weakening of the bones and low-grade lameness, but the owner is likely to notice the horse eating soil or other non-foods before any clinical signs develop. Very old horses may need supplements to compensate for the reduced efficiency of their digestive processes. Horses kept permanently stabled or rugged may have vitamin D deficiency as a result of insufficient sunlight on the skin. Horses in very hard work that makes them sweat a lot will benefit from electrolyte supplements to compensate for the sodium and potassium lost in sweat. If they are also fed high-fat diets they may need extra vitamin E. Horses who are chronically stressed, or ill, may have higher than normal requirements for some vitamins and trace elements. Pregnant and lactating mares may need supplements too (Wikipedia 2010c).

If your horse does have a clinically significant deficiency, he might need a higher level of supplementation than he’d get in an all-purpose vitamin and mineral mix, so it is worth having a proper test and just giving him what he really needs. In fact, if you have any suspicion that your horse may have a vitamin or trace element deficiency, it is far better for your bank balance and his health and soundness to have him blood-tested, and to adjust his diet accordingly.

For obvious reasons, it is best to have this test done by your vet and not by a company who is selling supplements and who has a vested interest in finding a deficiency. Nutritional deficiencies are easily and inexpensively diagnosed using blood serum analysis and this is the only reliable way of doing it. I wouldn’t personally be tempted by alternative diagnostic techniques such as hair analysis (Barrett 2008) or applied kinesiology (Barrett 2009) as they haven’t been shown to work in independent tests and in many cases the person or company offering the technique is also selling supplements. Do-it-yourself diagnosis and treatment also has its risks. I have heard of owners giving their nervous horses magnesium and vitamin B supplements ‘because they are essential for the proper working of the nervous system’ – and so they are, but nervous behaviour isn’t necessarily the result of a disordered nervous system, and the horse may not actually be deficient in those substances. Even if these owners don’t cause any actual harm with their oversupplementation, they are spending money on products that will do no more than produce vitamin-rich and mineral-rich urine. There are cheaper ways to improve the nutritional status of your fields, if that is the problem.

In conclusion, though most horses are unlikely to need supplements, some may benefit from them. And if your horse is one of those who would benefit, it would seem most sensible and economical to find out what he actually needs, given that supplements cost money and that some are dangerous in large doses.

By Alison Averis

(Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

References

Barrett S (2008). Commercial hair analysis: a cardinal sign of quackery. www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/hair.html

Barrett s (2009). Applied Kinesiology: phony muscle testing for ‘allergies’ and ‘nutrient deficiencies’. www.quackwatch.com/01/QuackeryRelatedTopics/Tests/ak.html

Carroll R (2010). Vitamins. www.skepdic.com/vitacon.html

Hall, H (2008). Should I take a multivitamin? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=160

Hintz HF (1987). The nutrition and feeding of horses. In Veterinary notes for horse owners. Ed by P D Rossdale. 17th Edition. Stanley Paul, London.

Kerrigan, R (1986). Practical horse nutrition. Adelaide, Australia.

Merck & Co. inc. (2008) Nutrition: horses. www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/toc_182600.htm

Novella S (2009). Another negative study of vitamins. www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=372

Skeptvet (2009). Orthomolecular medicinebig talk, little evidence, real risk. www.skeptvet.com/Blog/2009/08/orthomolecular-medicine-big-talk-little-evidence-real-risk/

Whitehead DC (2000). Nutrient elements in grassland. CABI Publishing, Wallingford.

Wikipedia (2010a). Vitamins www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/vitamins

Wikipedia (2010b). Selenium. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/selenium

Wikipedia (2010c). Equine nutrition. www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Equine_nutrition

Apr 272010
 

At the end of March I left the dismal weather in the UK for the sunny Gambia to present at the first Pan-African Conference on Working Equines. The conference, entitled ‘Better Management, Improved Performance’ was organised by the World Association for Transport Animal Welfare and Studies (TAWS) in association with The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). Speakers and experts with experience of working in The Gambia, Mali, Mauretania, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Sudan attended for the 2 day seminar and then a field trip to the GHDT head-quarters.

The opening talks set the scene, describing the changing management systems of agriculture in The Gambia and the changing roles of cattle and equines in this sector. Dr Touray (Chairman of the Gambian Vet Council) explained that in the 1930s there were 30,000-40,000 cattle and now there are an estimated 425,000, a reflection of the intensification of cattle farming.

Thirty years ago, horses and donkeys were rare in The Gambia, with oxen providing the majority of the draught power, but now 87,000 cattle and equines are used for this purpose. There are now 25,000 horses and 40,000-50,000 donkeys in The Gambia working hard helping to plough fields, carry water and other loads on their backs or draw carts. [I nearly said ‘pull carts’ but one of the first lessons when you start learning about working horses is that they don’t ‘pull’ carts – they ‘push’ into their harnesses to move the cart. There are fun ways you can show this practically but they don’t work so well on paper…]

Introducing Equine Expertise to the Gambia

The dramatic and relatively rapid increase in the number of equines used in transportation and agriculture in a country with little experience of managing and caring for equines has resulted in welfare problems. Ill-health of the animals can be catastrophic for the farmers dependent on them as they can often only afford a single horse or donkey.

The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT) was set up in 2002 with the principle aim of improving the health and welfare of working equines and, in turn, reducing the poverty of their owners. It became apparent to the organisation that although animal health workers were taught extensively about livestock health and management, there was a lack of equine-specific training. The GHDT partnered with The Gambia College School of Agriculture to address this, and in 2008 and 2009 16 students were selected to be taught additional modules in equine health and management. The extra modules were funded by the GHDT, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) Trust, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Trust, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and the Donkey Sanctuary.

After the graduation ceremony, the students attended the seminar as professionals to learn from presentations and to participate in the exchange of ideas on the two central themes of management and prevention.

The Threat of Disease

The GHDT has been working in The Gambia since 2002, and in the eight years of providing basic veterinary support at the nearby markets, they have come across a range of diseases, some of which were previously unknown in The Gambia.

Some highlights from the presentations on disease:

  • Some of the diseases are really gruesome. For example, African Horse Sickness (AHS) is caused by a virus spread by midges and causes equines to cough up frothy fluid from nostril and mouth, and fluid buildup in the lungs. It is a highly infectious, distressing and deadly disease. Epizootic lymphangitis is another highly contagious disease; a fungus causes the lymph vessels to stand out, then nodules form along them, which then turn into abscesses exuding copious amounts of pus – gross. Strangles, a disease horse owners in the UK will be familiar with, has emerged as a significant problem. Jamie Gartsides presented lots of practical ideas on how this disease can be managed in rural settings as encountered across Africa.

  • GHDT had been reporting cases of equines with an unknown neurological disease with a high mortality rate. The horses can be seen to pace restlessly in circles. Laura Peachey (RVC) described research into the cause of the disease – most likely to be cerebral trypanosomiasis. Further work is needed to identify the specific strain involved and to provide appropriate treatment.
  • Most projects working with equines in developing countries include a de-worming programme. Chris Proudman (University of Liverpool) explained that research involving people in rural African communities has showed that ‘worms’ are not in the top five concerns to owners with respect to their donkeys and that owners do not recognise the signs of heavy parasite burden. The best way to control worms is the same world-over – a combination of faecal removal and strategic use of de-wormers. He reminded us that 80% of worms are in 20% of the hosts so when you do worm counts it is important to do this for all horses that live together. Faeces collection ‘poo picking’ was highlighted as an excellent method of preventing transmission, and in Africa this has additional economic benefits as faeces can be sold for fuel, fertilizer or even used as barter!
  • Between one third and one half of the world’s human population has no access to basic surgery, and for animals access is even less available. However, in his presentation Patrick Pollock (University of Glasgow) described how it is possible to perform many procedures under basic field conditions. Fortunately, many procedures can be done with the equine standing and sedated and with the use of local or regional nerve blocks. Indeed such techniques have several advantages and are therefore ideally suited to areas where standard surgical facilities are not available.
  • Another presentation that explored low-tech practical solutions was Alex Thiemann’s (The Donkey Sanctuary) appraisal of traditional solutions for the treatment of wounds and other conditions. Thiemann explained that the majority of the world’s population of working equines is located where access to modern/Western medicines and high-tech diagnostic equipment is limited, either by cost or availability. However, simple remedies and techniques can be effective and also empower local people to use their abilities successfully. Recipes were provided for alternative oral rehydration fluid, pain relief and wound treatments, and Thiemann revealed the secret treatment for donkeys that come to the Donkey Sanctuary with poor appetite and how to reverse hyperlipemia – copious amounts of ReadyBrek! Thiemann explained why some traditional treatments work – for example, sugar paste for wound treatment is an ancient Egyptian/Greek remedy that is still used in parts of Africa- the main action is antibacterial and can be especially useful for infected wounds.

Prevention Through Education

The need for education of owners to prevent some of these diseases and problems resulting from poor care was an ongoing theme and formed the focus of some of the presentations on the second day.

Some of the presentations had already described how communities can provide useful information about how common diseases are and what the local methods of treatment are. In my presentation I explained how WSPA (The World Society for the Protection of Animals for who I work) has been changing our approach to involve communities also in the solution. Our work to improve the welfare of horses in developing countries used to focus on providing treatment where it would otherwise be unavailable. We funded mobile clinics so that vets could reach the animals in need. However, this is very expensive, does not reach all the animals who need us and also we used to spend a lot of time patching animals up. We were more interested in really making a difference to the lives of equines, not just in treating their wounds but in making sure their needs, physical and mental well-being, were met. I have been trialling ways of working with communities that depend on working equines for their survival focussing on changing the way they are kept – e.g. through fun activities and discussions considering all the things a horse needs, and nurturing changes in their care. Using examples from my work in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Uruguay and The Palestinian Territories I explained what we have learnt about working in this way and shared some of our exciting results. For example, in Cambodia owners have been making their stables much bigger so that the ponies can lie down properly and get proper rest, and in Uruguay incidences of colic decreased by 74% as a result of owners clearing grazing areas of rubbish so preventing horses from eating plastic bags.

Other educational programmes running across Africa were described. For example, Amadou Doumbia (SPANA) explained that most of the problems faced by working equines in Mali are because of the way they are managed and worked. SPANA devised training programmes for representatives of groups of owners about how to care for their animals. The results were impressive – in one project area mortality reduced from 62% to 5%, and wound incidence from 42% to 11%, highlighting that education can lead to improved welfare.

Putting Theory into Practice

The two-day seminar was followed by an optional extension to the GHDT base in the village of Sambel Kunda, 230 km and an 8 hour journey from the comfort of the conference hotel. Here delegates got a taste of how horses and donkeys are kept in rural areas.

There were some practical demonstrations. Ann Varley led a lively session in which some bemused horses and donkeys were painted (it washed off afterwards!) to show their skeletons and then to demonstrate how harness design should enable maximum comfort to the animals and maximum efficiency.

Anyone who thought that learning about cart design would involve donkeys doing the work was in for a surprise as Professor Hovell harnessed people to the carts so that delegates could truly feel the difference between the effects that different designs had on the ease of drawing a cart.

Making a Difference

As eloquently summarised by Heather Armstrong (GHDT) “Horse and donkey owners across Africa face significant challenges to keep their animals in good condition to work productively. Some of these challenges can be overcome with simple changes in their management and some challenges are more difficult to deal with. Equines are vital to the economy of the country and they and their owners deserve our support. It is essential that Gambians are taught about how to care and manage these animals and GHDT has been working to achieve this.”

The conference brought together delegates whose work spans many countries in Africa and provided an opportunity to learn from each other and to consider how to best work in often challenging field conditions. The practical demonstrations were particularly memorable and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more horses and donkeys across the world might shortly find themselves being painted!

Many organisations are working help the equines that work so hard for people all around the world and donations are always welcome. Some examples:

By Suzanne Rogers, The World Society for the Protection of Animals (SuzanneRogers@wspa-international.org)

Mar 212010
 

Are pressure halters and thin rope halters good or bad? Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.

These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.

If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.

The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.

My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.

I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?

Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.

It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.

With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.

We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.

If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.

The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.

However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.

For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.

I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.

If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.

It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.

I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?

If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.

The Dog Whisperer” who is currently starting a UK tour is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Ignorance is no longer a defence.

I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!

I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?

The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.

By Ben Hart

(www.hartshorsemanship.com)

Thank you to Ben for another fantastic and thought provoking article. Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.

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The events page has been updated – please take a look for events from both Ben Hart and the Equine Behaviour Forum.

Mar 072010
 

In the equine world there are many sellers of goods and services who say that their products will make your horse healthier, or happier, or easier to ride, or more likely to win competitions. How can you evaluate these claims, and sort out the facts from the fiction? And when does it matter?

It matters most when it affects your horse’s health. Once, if your horse was unwell you called the vet. Nowadays you can call on a whole range of therapists and practitioners. Some of these people may also be vets. Others may not, and might even be working illegally (in many countries, it is against the law for anyone other than a qualified vet to treat an animal except in certain defined instances). Veterinary medicine is far from perfect, but “vets don’t know everything” doesn’t mean that they know nothing. Scientific veterinary treatment is based on a thorough and well-established understanding of equine biology, from the whole animal right down to the atoms and molecules within its cells, and on the nature and causes of illness. In contrast, many alternative treatments are based on ideas that are not consistent with what we know about the laws of biology, chemistry and physics. Scientists don’t know everything, but we know enough to be able to say with confidence that although some are more plausible than others, most alternative therapies cannot possibly work in the way that their proponents say they do.

So, that being the case, how is it that so many people swear and declare that therapy X “worked for them” and cured their cystitis, or backache, or their horse’s scabby skin, or whatever? It is because it isn’t possible to tell, from personal experience alone, whether something works or not. If we do A and B happens, it is all too tempting to assume that A causes B, when in fact B might have happened for one or more of many other reasons. This is why the scientific method developed: people realised that observations and experience alone – even careful, patient observation by many people over many years – were not enough to determine what is true and what isn’t. The scientific method is a way of testing things objectively, eliminating as far as possible our tendency to jump to the wrong conclusion. Scientists certainly start with observations, but instead of stopping there and assuming that A must cause B because their observations suggest so, they go on to devise experiments to test whether A does in fact cause B. Only if many experiments, done by many people looking at different aspects of the question, all tend to give the same answer do they tentatively conclude that yes, A does cause B.

The total evidence to date suggests that almost all alternative therapies “work” through placebo effects (feeling better because you expect to, among other things). This includes animals and babies, contrary to popular belief: because animals and babies can’t tell us how they really feel, the effects of a therapy are assessed by the owner, parent or practitioner; people who are very likely to see an improvement because they wish to see one. Animals who don’t know they’re being treated are unlikely to experience placebo effects in the same way that people do, but they can be conditioned to respond in a certain way to treatment, and this can lead their owners to report apparent improvements when nothing has actually changed (Ramey 2008, Bartimaeus 2009, Averis 2010).

Although most owners would recognise a genuine emergency and would not hesitate to call a vet for something like a suspected fracture, or colic, alternative therapists do get called upon for the sort of low-grade, minor, irritating-but-not-life-threatening chronic conditions, aches and pains for which there really isn’t any treatment, either in horses or humans. Because many of these conditions do go away or improve on their own, the therapy is likely to get the credit. The danger here, of course, is when the horse does have a serious condition and the owner, impressed by the apparent success of a therapy, calls the therapist to deal with something that really needs a vet. As the vet RPC Coombe wrote recently in the British horse magazine Equi-Ads: “If you notice a loss of performance, what order of investigation do you instigate? If the answer is riding friend(s), instructor, osteopath, chiropractor, physio, back man, saddler, farrier, quack and the yard dog before the last resort, the vet, then beware! Time and therefore prognosis may be squandered potentially at the expense of long term soundness.”

Science also matters in training horses. Nowadays there seem to be almost as many training methods as there are trainers. Some base their methods on tradition: methods that have been found to work over many years. Others are trying ways supposedly based on the natural behaviour and social relationships of the horse. And a great many people, from both camps, get it wrong. Recent studies published by the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) suggest that over 80%, and in some populations over 90%, of ridden horses demonstrate a behavioural problem (Hockenhull & Creighton 2008; 2009). Inappropriate behaviour is one of the main reasons for horses being sold on from training yards (Hayek et al. 2005), or given to horse charities because they are too dangerous to ride (Waran 2005). A surprising number of horses referred to a veterinary hospital with suspected clinical problems were found to be physically healthy but to have behavioural problems inadvertently trained by their owners (Waran 2005). Horses think like horses, behave like horses and learn like horses regardless of what we believe, and regardless of what we think we are teaching them. In both health and training the facts, the laws of nature, the nature of horses, hold true despite what we would like to be true. It seems entirely reasonable, therefore, to look at the results coming out of the sciences of learning and animal behaviour, and to develop training methods based on those. This is the aim of ISES (see above and reference list below). The society was founded by a group of people who felt that many of the current difficulties in training and animal welfare were the result of the lack of science in equitation. Many riders expect their horses to think and reason as a person would; to make sense of signals a person would find confusing; and to act with far more consistency than they do themselves. Knowing more about how horses’ minds and bodies work can only help to make our expectations more reasonable and our communications more comprehensible.

Many commonly-accepted ideas in the horse world are based on unsupported belief rather than on biological reality. Too much nonsense has become mainstream in the horse world because too few people are willing or able to question what they are told. That includes those selling the ideas, as well as their customers. The problem is one of misguided belief, not of dishonesty.

So – here are a few of these questionable ideas. But don’t just take my word for it: please follow the links, read the evidence and make up your own mind.

  • Anything – therapy, training method, supplement or feed – that uses the words ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ or promises instant cures for chronic conditions or problems. These are not valid biological processes (Carroll 2009).
  • Any therapy based on the idea of manipulating or rebalancing some sort of mysterious, undetectable ‘energy’ or vital force. Not only is there absolutely no convincing evidence whatsoever for any such force, there is no need to look for one: the clinically significant goings-on of the body are already perfectly well explained by processes and structures that are known and well understood (Crislip 2008; Stenger 1999). ‘Energy’-based therapies are generally survivals of ideas from a time when people didn’t know how bodies worked, and this was their best explanation in the absence of knowledge about blood circulation, the nervous system, microbiology and biochemistry.
  • Anything that claims to be safe and beneficial because it is natural. Many natural things, from virulently poisonous animals and plants to earthquakes and volcanoes, are extremely dangerous. Many synthetic substances, such as purified active ingredients in drugs, are safer than the raw plant materials from which they are derived. More on this in another article.
  • Anything claiming to ‘boost the immune system’. This is scientifically meaningless, cannot be tested, and in any case there is nothing a normal and healthy animal (horse or person) can do to improve immune function (Crislip 2009). Indeed, would you want to? Many equine problems such as COPD and other allergies are the result of an overactive immune system, not a weak one.
  • Anything where the proponents say that science – especially if they call it ‘Western science’ – cannot be used to test their claims. With sufficient ingenuity, anything can be tested. What these people generally mean is that science is fine when it supports their ideas, but when it fails to support them, it is because the scientific method is useless, not because their ideas are wrong.
  • Funnily enough, anything that is advertised as ‘supported by science’. What this often means is ‘there are one or two weak, just-about-positive studies out of the thousands of negative ones that have been done’. Advertisers can almost guarantee that their readers will not look up the references to check, even if they are able to do so.
  • Training methods (or therapies) based on ideas that contradict most people’s understanding of reality, especially if developed or promoted by one person, and even more especially if that person claims to be a misunderstood genius. Lone geniuses are rare, and idiosyncratic ideas generally turn out to be wrong (Skeptvet 2010).
  • Training methods based on the concepts of leadership, or dominance/submission, or the idea that a horse must respect his trainer before he can be trained. These ideas may be at odds with learning theory (Goodwin et al. 2008).

By Alison Averis is the editor of Equine Behaviour, the quarterly journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. (www.gla.ac.uk/External/EBF/)

(Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. )

References and Further Reading –

Averis, AM (2010). Horse health, management and training – why we need science. This website.

Bartimaeus (2009). The placebo effect in animals, and their owners. www.skeptivet.blogspot.com/2009/07/placebo-effects-in-animals-and-their.html

Carroll, R (2009). Magical thinking. www.skepdic.com/magicalthinking.html

Crislip M (2008). Impossibilities. www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=204

Crislip M (2009). Boost your immune system? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=1828

Goodwin D, McGreevy P, Waran N & McLean A (2008). Horsemanship: conventional, natural and equitation science. In Proceedings of the 4th International Equitation Science Symposium 2008. Ed by J Murphy, K Hennessy, P Wall & P Hanly. www.equitationscience.com.

Hayek AR, Jones B, Evans DL, Thomson PC & McGreevy PD (2005). Epidemiology of horses leaving the Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing industries. In Proceedings of the 1st International Equitation Science Symposium 2005. Ed by P McGreevy, A McLean, A Warren-Smith, D Goodwin & N Waran. www.equitationscience.com.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2008) The prevalence of ridden behaviour problems in the UK leisure horse population and associated risk factors. In Proceedings of the 4th International Equitation Science Symposium 2008. Ed by J Murphy, K Hennessy, P Wall & P Hanly. www.equitationscience.com.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2009). Equipment and training risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses. In Proceedings of the 5th International Equitation Science Symposium 2009. Ed by P McGreevy, A Warren-Smith & C Oddie. www.equitationscience.com.

Ramey, D (2008). Is there a placebo effect for animals? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?cat=290

Skeptvet (2010). Warning signs of quackery ahead. www.skeptvet.com/blog (February 28 2010).

Stenger, V (1999) Energy Medicine. In Alternate therapies in the horse (with D Ramer). Howell Book House, New York. www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Medicine/EnergyMed.html

Waran N (2005). Equestrianism and horse welfare: the need for an ‘equine centred’ approach to training. In Proceedings of the 1st International Equitation Science Symposium 2005. Ed by P McGreevy, A McLean, A Warren-Smith, D Goodwin & N Waran. www.equitationscience.com.

Useful websites for investigating the scientific consensus about the various therapies and practices

The Skeptic’s Dictionary www.skepdic.com. An excellent source of information about all sorts of topics connected with science, pseudoscience and critical thinking. Before you try some new therapy or treatment on your horse, check it out here.

www.skeptvet.com. Internet blog by a veterinary surgeon, with some good articles about the use of various alternative treatments on animals.

Feb 142010
 

For a while a conundrum has been playing with my thoughts. It all started one chilly but sunny Saturday, during an ordinary training session, whilst training a horse that for the purposes of this article we will call ‘The Pony’. It was nearing the end of the session when The Pony tripped over a protruding root an came very close to stand on my foot. In an effort to preserve my foot I quickly asked the horse to move back with a little pressure on the chest. A fairly benign act in response to which The Pony quickly ceased stumbling toward my vulnerable metatarsals and politely backed away. The training session continued without incident but a question remained in my mind.

Pressure and release is a commonly used method of horse training, within equestrian literature it is often cited as a simple but effective use of negative reinforcement. Whether it is a pressure on the chest of a horse to ask for a reverse, the use of the head collar to lead the horse, a gentle pressure on the reins to ask for a halt or the use of advance and retreat to approach a nervous horse, it is almost impossible to avoid the use of negative reinforcement in training. However until the incident with The Pony it had never occurred to me that positive punishment maybe an inextricable part of negative reinforcement. Can negative-reinforcement occur with out positive punishment? The Pony had be negatively reinforced for reversing away from me by the release of pressure, but it had been the addition of the pressure which had prevented further advancement.

Negative reinforcement is defined within all behaviour literature as the removal of an unpleasant or aversive stimulus in response to a wanted behaviour to reinforce the behaviour, and thus encourage the behaviour to reoccur in the future. This is a definition that most people are familiar with. However, the training incident with The Pony made me think – in order for something to be removed it must have been applied at some point in the past. For the aversive stimuli to be removed to reinforce a behaviour it must at some point have been applied. The addition of an aversive stimulus is the definition of positive punishment, the effect of positive punishment is that it reduces the likelihood of the behaviour it is a consequence of occurring in the future. Pressure on the chest of The Pony prevented further forward advancement towards my foot, so is it that I positively punished the forward movement? And as an extension of this thought, is it that every use of negative reinforcement begins with the use of positive punishment?

This is may seem like a conundrum based in the semantics of academic definitions but the practical consequences of positive punishment being inextricable from negative reinforcement are not dismissible. The most important practical consequence of positive punishment is that it discourages the behaviour it is associated with from occurring again. When applying the negative reinforcer, be it pressure or the advance of advance-retreat training, we must be careful that the behaviour it is being applied to is unwanted or the positive punishment would diminish a desired behaviour. The training should thus ensure that the negative reinforcer is attended to with regards to not only the timing of its release but also it’s application, this will ensure that wanted behaviours are not punished.

The problem of positive punishment being inextricable from negative reinforcement and the two training methods not being mutually exclusive is one that has impacts on training which could effect the psychology of the horse, the effectiveness of the training and the welfare of the horse. Punishment has been correlated with side effects which are important to our training of horses and must be understood to preserve the horse’s well being within training. Although this article is not the place to detail the problems and side effects of punishment I will briefly outline the most important ones below.

  • Punishment teaches only what not to do and does not suggest a more appropriate behavioural replacement for the one being punished.
  • Punishment can invoke emotional reactions in horses, such as fear or aggression. These reactions are more likely with physical punishment. In order to avoid these reactions, any punishment applied should be sympathetic to the horse’s personality i.e. how reactive they are and also to the situation. Positive punishment and negative reinforcement are both based in use of stimuli which are to a greater or lesser extent unpleasant for the horse, such as pressure, and as such it must be ensured that the horse is not stressed by the punisher in order to ensure emotional reactions are not experienced.
  • Pain-elicited aggression can be induced if painful physical punishers are used. Pain can heighten a flight/fight response and cause aggressive reactions in the horse as they try and escape the threat of pain, therefore positive punishers which cause pain should never be used in training.
  • Anxiety caused by punishment can actually impair the horse’s ability to concentrate and learn effectively. Extremes of emotion inhibit the brains cognitive abilities and thus impair attention.
  • Learned helplessness is a condition induced through the incorrect use of punishment. Learned helplessness occurs when the horse feels they cannot avoid punishment over a sustained period of time. The horse learns that any attempts to escape are futile and thus the horse will not attempt to escape or avoid the punishment, even once an escape or avoidance method is offered.
  • Avoidance behaviours – if the horse learns to associate a person or situation with punishment, the horse may logically try to avoid that situation or handler.
  • It is also possible for horses to selectively suppress the punished behaviour until punishment is less likely, either when the punishing handler is no longer present, or when the horse believes that it is less likely to be punished for the behaviour.
  • Punishment can reduce the horse’s interest in their work, if a horse is punished the horse’s motivation will be diminished and thus the horse is less likely to participate willingly in training.

If negative reinforcement by its definition begins with a positive punishment these problems that are associated with punishment are consequently also a problems intrinsic to the use of negative reinforcement. It is therefore essential that they are considered carefully if negative reinforcement is to be used in training. The application of the negative reinforcer must follow the rules of applying positive punishment if side effects are to be avoided in the horse.

The rule of applying punishment to avoid side effects are as follows, the punishment must be –

  • Immediate
  • Consistent
  • Never painful
  • Never dealt in anger
  • Specific to targeted unwanted behaviours and not delivered randomly or accidentally.
  • Never used during confusion

Obviously each horse has their own tolerance levels for different stimuli. An aversive stimulus for one horse may not be unpleasant for another. However given that negative reinforcement is based upon the release of an aversive stimulus, it is highly likely that the stimulus use as a negative reinforcer could also be a positive punisher for the horse. I would be interested to hear if anyone could think of a training scenario in which the negative reinforcer when applied could not be considered a positive punisher because I must admit I could not think of one.

To finish this article I would like to say that I don’t believe that we can avoid the use of negative reinforcement in training but any part of training that uses aversive stimuli, i.e. negative reinforcement or positive punishment should be carefully considered with regards to the strength of the stimulus and its application.

By Emma Lethbridge

www.emmalethbridge.com

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Jan 222010
 

Whilst at a trade show early in 2009, I got chatting to a lovely lady called Vicki who was manning a stand on behalf of the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). It had always been an ambition of mine to be involved with charity work abroad. After explaining that I, along with my business partner, run a small business teaching children how to see the world from a pony’s point of view, Vicki mentioned that my work could come in handy and to get in touch with the charity director. A few days later, after an hour long phone conversation, I was signed up to go to Gambia for two weeks in December 2009. My journey was soo amazing it has taken me a few weeks to process it all in my own mind, and it’s been harder still to condense it down in to a short article, but here it is…

After a six hour flight, an overnight stay in the capital, a three hour wait for a ferry, a six hour car journey, two 45 minute boat journeys and several wee stops in a prickly bush, we approached the small village of Sambel Kunda in West Africa. The journey to our destination could only be described as epic. We arrived in the pitch black and could hear the commotion before we could see anything. It was over whelming, the whole village were out with drums and whistles; they were dancing, clapping and singing. The children were chanting ‘welcome, welcome, welcome’ and I heard one man say repeatedly ‘Heather is here and she has brought her friends’…wow… we had arrived!

In the early morning sun the following day, there was the first opportunity to get a good look at where we were. The charity have a large two storey house that caters for the large groups of volunteers that visit throughout the year. Overlooked by the house’s balcony are two large paddocks where the donkeys and horses have a good run around and stretch their legs before the sun gets too hot. 30 degrees would be considered a cool day! A short walk away is another yard for all the stallions.

22 of us have left the cold behind to come to Sambel Kunda and offer help in any way it’s needed. Among them are – a vet, veterinary nurse and a small team whose sole purpose is to build a playground next door to the local school. I have come as prepared as I can be with lots of teaching notes, visual aids and lots of laminated pictures to show the children.

The first week of our stay is dedicated to the ‘Horse & Donkey Show’, which is an annual event. We spend the first few days sorting out all the tack that has been kindly donated by people in the UK. Then we put up marquees, bunting and notice boards. It’s the night before the show and we already had competitors arriving. There are no luxury horse boxes here; some people have to get their horses and donkeys across the river and some have walked for two days to get to us.

Show day gets off to a flying start with the secretary’s tent inundated with competitors. Some horses and donkeys have just a thin piece of rope around their necks or through their mouths, this is swiftly removed and they are sent off to their show ring sporting a new soft head collar. With such a large group this year, there is plenty of help for judging classes, stewarding, running the tack stall, first aid stall and manning the veterinary tent. The vet is busy all day treating various injuries, giving wormers and advising people to visit the dentist and/or farrier who are also on hand all day. The day is a resounding success, we see lots of horses and donkeys in beautiful condition, we have a fabulous write up in the main Gambian newspaper and the Donkey Club boys get to show off their new game of ‘Donkey Ball’ to a huge and excited crowd.

It takes another day to put everything away, and once the volunteers for the first week are safely on their way home, it’s on with the general running of GHDT. There is plenty to do at the GHDT, not only is there on-site wound checks needed on various animals, but the GHDT also travel to 10 local schools to teach children about the care of horses and donkeys, and to lots of markets each week to treat any sick or injured animals.

Going out to the local Lumo (market) is where the harsh reality of the Gambia hits you. The days are long, hot and extremely dusty. People queue to see the vets and staff and we see everything from horrific injuries to illness and disease. The weeks cases included; a horse with a septic tendon sheath; a horse with a badly swollen and broken penis; maggot infested wounds; burns; sores from poorly fitted and ill maintained harness; rubs and sores from tethering and abscesses. Lots of horses had a heavy worm burden and levels of emaciation I have never seen. It sounds horrendous, but once you are there in the thick of things, you quickly get past the shock and have to just accept the reality of the place and get on with the job of patching them up as best you can and sending them on their way.

The charity is very well known in the area, so sometimes on the way back from markets people would call and ask us to stop in on their compound on our way through, which we willingly do. There is currently a neurological disease affecting many horses and donkeys in Gambia. It is not yet known what causes this but it’s most often fatal. I saw one such case with a little bay horse that had been down on the ground for three days before the owners called the GHDT staff. Generally speaking Gambian’s don’t believe in putting things to sleep on religious grounds, but when they could see how much this little horse was suffering, they agreed. It was a distressing experience and I fought every ounce of my being not to cry for him, but I was blown away by how professional and swift the GHDT staff were in dealing with the situation. They have received superb training from UK vets and they come in to their own in situations such as these. In order to learn more about this disease they had to take samples from various parts of his body, which is a job no one enjoys, but without these samples they don’t have a hope of finding the cause.

Each evening everyone came back to the house and we filled each other in on how our days went. It’s not the easiest thing for such a big group of strangers to suddenly live together, but we came together brilliantly. From making each other laugh over dinner, to looking after each other when a tummy bug worked it’s way round us. We took it in turns making the tea and keeping the gas powered fridge stocked with beer (what a luxury that was!).

During this trip, I quickly realised that all the things I had prepared to teach and show children were just not suitable. Even things that are so basic for us here in the UK, like providing ‘Fibre, Friends & Freedom’ are not appropriate. Gambians can’t offer an environment where their horse or donkeys have friends as they have a working animal, not a pet and they often struggle to support the one they have They can’t offer the animal freedom; when they are not working they are usually tethered to a pole within the family compound. In terms of Fibre, they offer them what there is available, which is a hay so coarse that you snap each piece like a twig.

It also quickly becomes clear that you can’t come to the Gambia and tell people what to do. It is far better to do things, let people see the benefits it brings and they’ll soon follow suit. As an example, I stood talking to a young boy about his donkey at the show, I gently stroked the donkey’s ears and neck and the donkey promptly leaned against me and fell asleep. Within a few minutes I had a group of children with me all eager to have a go and even starting to argue over who got to stroke the donkey.

Two weeks suddenly seemed like two minutes; I’d just about got used to the heat and dust, understood what is needed from an education point of view and begun to appreciate the sheer scale of it all, before I found myself boarding the plane to come home.

My experience in the Gambia has left me questioning so many things that go on in the UK. For example, if injuries like the ones we saw were sustained in the UK, the horse would be put to sleep without hesitation. As mentioned above animals are rarely put to sleep in the Gambia and not only do they recover from their injuries; they recover extremely well and go back in to work, even from broken legs. It makes you think that perhaps we are too disposable with our horses here. Amazingly, they also recover from these injuries with little medical intervention, including pain relief. The charity relies on vets volunteering from the UK and often has to manage for several weeks without one present. They also rely on drugs donated from the UK, so once they run out there’s nothing else to offer.

I found the behaviour of the animals very interesting. You will see a lame horse, trotting down the road, pulling a fully laden cart, with rubs and sores all over him from the harness, but he doesn’t spook, nap or attempt to flee. They stand calm and still whilst you treat what must be painful injuries. They are resigned and accepting of their life where there’s never a mutual groom, a good roll or frolic in the sunshine with a herd of friends, but can they miss or crave something they’ve never had?

Another interesting thing is that the children ride on the rump of the donkeys and we all told them to sit forward. As soon as they did this, the donkey would dip his head to the floor, drop his shoulder and deposit the child on the floor! To be fair, the donkey doesn’t seem to mind the child sitting so far back and will walk, trot and canter on command. So, were we right to tell them to move? From the look we got from the child on the floor, I think perhaps he was OK as he was!

There are two people I met who cannot go unmentioned. The first is Heather Armstrong who runs the charity, a woman for whom there is no commendation high enough for what she does. She oozes a calm and radiant energy and yet works so incredibly hard. She is constantly organising the next set of volunteers, ensures they have a safe (albeit long) journey and are well prepared for the task and environment ahead of them. She has to negotiate with officials, village elders, local dignitaries and the Gambian Government to continue her work or bring in something new. She organises training for the staff and teachers to keep them motivated and up to date so that they can offer the best possible care. She spends her year travelling to and from the UK (which as described above is no mean feat), she keeps everything running smoothly and is always so thankful of any small gesture offered to her charity. Along with other members of her family, Heather has dedicated her life to improving the lives of the horses and donkeys of the Gambia and of the Gambian people by sponsoring their education and aiding their health care. As I tried to take stock of everything around me I found it hard to imagine what their lives would be like without Heather and her charity.

The second person is Anna, an angel on earth if ever there was one. Anna is from the UK and is in her second year of volunteering there. She has to be so many things all at the same time. She has to be a nurse to sick and injured animals, a nurse to sick and injured people, she has to be a diplomat, book keeper, teacher, mother and mentor – she is a shining star; not only to the GHDT but to so many people and animals of the Gambia who have been taken under her wing. Nothing seemed to phase Anna and she never ran out of patience even when she must have heard her name called 100 times from people, all wanting something from her.

I have been humbled to tears during this trip; by the people I met and worked with, by the spirit and will of the horses and donkeys and I’m so very proud to have been part of this project if only for a very short time.

By Joni Caswell.

For more information on the Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust and to see photo’s of the amazing playground everyone worked so hard to build, please check out www.gambiahorseanddonkeytrust.co.uk . GHDT are also on Facebook.

For more information on the school sponsorship programmes, please check out www.sssgambia.co.uk