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

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Barrett S (2008). Commercial hair analysis: a cardinal sign of quackery.

Barrett s (2009). Applied Kinesiology: phony muscle testing for ‘allergies’ and ‘nutrient deficiencies’.

Carroll R (2010). Vitamins.

Hall, H (2008). Should I take a multivitamin?

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.

Novella S (2009). Another negative study of vitamins.

Skeptvet (2009). Orthomolecular medicinebig talk, little evidence, real risk.

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

Wikipedia (2010a). Vitamins

Wikipedia (2010b). Selenium.

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

May 022010

Linda Parelli recently increased her notoriety when a YouTube video of her working with a horse received “trial by internet” (the Linda Parelli video mentioned). Her response to the wide-ranging criticisms included the reason that she needed the horse’s attention to be focused on her in order to work him safely. This prompted further on-line debate – if you don’t like the way Linda Parelli did it, how would *you* get the horse’s attention?

For me this begs the question “is it really necessary, or even desirable, to have the horse’s attention on the trainer all the time”?

Horses have evolved for 60 million years as a highly successful prey animal. They keep themselves alive by almost continually keeping some of their attention on what could hurt them. They group together in herds to help keep themselves safe and, with rare exceptions when a horse may lie down and sleep watched over by another horse, they are always looking out for themselves and each other. In contrast, humans have been domesticating horses for about 6000 years. We expect to be able to take a horse out of its herd and have it focus on us, and us alone, for periods of typically about an hour, maybe with just the occasional break.

I was watching my horse have a roll recently. We had just come back from a fast ride on a warm day and he is not clipped. He *really* wanted to roll. Yet even though it was something he really wanted to do, he walked around the field, pawed the ground, walked a bit more, looked out to the horizon, walked a bit more, looked to see where the other horses were, looked back to the horizon and then finally had his roll. With so little focused concentration on a behaviour he was really motivated to do, how can we ever hope to have focused concentration on a human whim with little incentive for the horse?

Instead of trying to force the horse to do something that is clearly so unnatural and illogical for it, why don’t we work with the horse’s behaviour instead of against it?

Most people “need” the horse’s attention to be focused on them because they perceive the distracted horse to be dangerous. So what happens if we force the horse to focus? Typically, we will be making the horse turn his head in a particular way, maybe towards us if we are on the ground or straight ahead if we are riding. Does this guarantee the horse’s attention on the task we are trying to accomplish? Probably not, the horse could still be thinking about anything (assuming we have not yet become so aversive that we *are* the most threatening stimulus in the horse’s environment). Unfortunately, as soon are we become more coercive we just don’t know what the horse is thinking. That to me is much more dangerous than being merely distracted.

For the sake of my (and my horse’s) safety, my priority is to know as much as I possibly can about what my horse is thinking. That involves using as little coercion as possible and giving him maximum opportunity to express his feelings. What does he like? What doesn’t he like? What is worrying him? What does he need to think about before he feels he can safely carry on with the ride? With all this information I almost always know how he will respond in any situation. His responses remain small because he does not have to fight and I can remain relaxed and comfortable with almost anything he does.

Perhaps counter-intuitively for people who have always believed they need to (over-?)control their horse, this does not produce a horse who “takes the mickey” or will always choose not to do any work. When we hack out (on plenty of roads as well as tracks), my horse will want to stop and look at things but it is only ever a brief look to reassure himself that all is ok. If something concerns him, e.g. a manhole cover, we can wait for a gap in the traffic so that he can have enough space to walk around it if he needs to – so much safer than me trying to force him over it, with so many uncertainties in the outcome. If a horse is more fearful than this on the roads and his behaviour likely to be more dramatic, then we should consider very carefully whether the horse should be out and about at all. Some carefully shaped training in a safe environment would be much more advisable until the horse is feeling more confident.

Reassessing what is reasonable in our horse-human interactions is a vital key to improving our relationships. When things go wrong, we almost always expect the horse to change his behaviour – even if we acknowledge that we have made the mistakes! A healthy relationship requires give and take on both sides of the partnership and, given that generally the horse has not chosen to be part of the partnership, I think it is only fair that we take on a little more responsibility for our behaviours. If we are afraid of something the horse might do (typically through its own fear), then we should be considering how to address our own fears – coercing the horse is not really a valid way of doing this.

How different the Linda Parelli video could have been if, when she realised the horse was so distracted, she had allowed him a few minutes to relax in the environment and taken the time to consider *why* he may have been distracted (including the consideration that apparently he was partially blind, although that was far from the only consideration). This could have been so much more instructive to the thousands of people who watched the video. And it would probably have done her reputation a lot more good as well!

By Catherine Bell (

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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 (

Apr 122010

The science of behaviour does not yet have all the answers to the questions posed by our horses; in fact it does not have all the explanations for human behaviour and learning fully defined.

When dealing with the elements of behaviour which are unknown, our interpretations are supposition of behavioural intent. We make assumptions on the horse’s behaviour based on what we ourselves know and have experienced. In effect, we are imagining how we might behave in similar situations; we are judging behaviour based on our map of the world.

Our understanding of the world and our interaction with the elements of our environment are based on what we have learnt and experienced in the past. Our unique map of the world is what we use to interpret the behaviour of our horses and predict their possible future actions. Essentially we are often guessing why a horse behaves the way it does. Factors such as environment, experience, learnt behaviour and our genetic make up combine to create our personalities and shape the way we behave. Therefore, it follows that our understanding of the world and our experiences will determine how we view the actions of others. We naturally label the actions of our horses depending on our own personalities and beliefs.

This is why the same action in a horse can be interpreted differently by two people who view the action at the same time. We make assumptions about behaviour based on who we are and what we know. The difficulty is in knowing if your map of the world is correct. We each sit in our world believing that we “know” how the world really is. If we do not understand that our maps may need to be redrawn occasionally then we will never question our view of behaviour and interpretation of individual acts of the horse.

Only by being open to the possibility that we are wrong with our interpretation, can we really begin to search for the truth. We must work on developing our balanced view of the world, we must ensure we are learning and growing before we can best guess the actions of our horses.

Our actions in relation to the horse will depend on how we interpret their behaviour. Our interpretation of behaviour can lead us down many different paths which may or may not be the best ones for the horse. So many horse owners feel the internal turmoil of peer pressure. Most livery yards have a splinter group of “experts” ready to pass judgement on every behavioural situation and activity.

The quiet owner trying to do the best for their horse can be bullied into feeling useless, and totally confused to which way to go, which drains self confidence very quickly. Many an expert can have a very convincing argument.

What I often find is that deep down, owners do really know what is right for them and their horse. However, they are just not yet strong enough to believe in themselves enough to act on what they believe.

How do we know what to believe? Firstly don’t believe anyone, not even me. That way we learn to question everything. I don’t mean an aggressive disbelief, or a statement of judgement that all people are liars, just that, at first, do not believe anyone. This includes ourselves; our beliefs that we are not good enough clouds our decisions and makes us lie to ourselves. Don’t judge or accept information immediately, just listen to what we are hearing or what we are thinking and then listen to our inner voice.

The inner voice seems to be the sum of all our knowledge and experience. If we are quiet and still we will know whether what we are hearing is the truth. If we are not hearing our little voice, quietly research the subject as much as we need and then listen for the truth again.

Who we are as people determines who we are as trainers because who we are determines how we perceive the equine and its behaviour. What we believe about the behaviour of equines will determine how we behave towards them. Our behaviour towards our horses will determine how they behave and a self fulfilling prophecy begins.

Many people have experienced the insight that their horse is a mirror for their own behaviour, and they are. We do not need to blame and pass judgement on ourselves for not being good enough. We just need to become aware of our own behaviour. Awareness allows us to choose our actions and reactions. Awareness of our own behaviour is the first step on the path to horsemanship and a deeper trust of ourselves as equine trainers.

Consider the following quotes –

‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t you are probably right.’ – Henry Ford

‘We do not see things as they are we see them as we are.’ – The Talmud

‘Its all a matter of perception.’ – Crawford Hall

When you really believe something, you will behave congruently with that belief.

By Ben Hart

(Thank you to Ben for an interesting 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 Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

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


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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. (

(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 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.

Carroll, R (2009). Magical thinking.

Crislip M (2008). Impossibilities.

Crislip M (2009). Boost your immune system?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Ramey, D (2008). Is there a placebo effect for animals?

Skeptvet (2010). Warning signs of quackery ahead. (February 28 2010).

Stenger, V (1999) Energy Medicine. In Alternate therapies in the horse (with D Ramer). Howell Book House, New York.

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.

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

The Skeptic’s Dictionary 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. Internet blog by a veterinary surgeon, with some good articles about the use of various alternative treatments on animals.

Feb 282010

With my toddler’s second birthday fast approaching, the subject of boundaries is close to my heart. The “just you wait until….” brigade has been out in strength, warning me of the need to enforce boundaries before my toddler turns into a monster. Funnily enough, different people with the same message gave me similar warnings about my horse when I decided to take more of a positive approach to his training. I am still waiting for him to turn into a monster – did I just get lucky? Could I get lucky again? Or could I just be doing something right?

We tend to think of setting boundaries as rigid rules which must never be broken. We are horrified if we find ourselves in the situation where our horse or child is testing the boundaries. What should we do about it? Is it a dominance issue? How can we re-enforce the boundaries ethically (missing the irony in trying to “force” anything ethically)? What will people think? How will we cope?

Perhaps the last two questions are the key to the issue. We rarely stop to consider why we have set those boundaries. Of course, we tell ourselves that it is for the good of our horse/child but very often there are other reasons, perhaps more subconscious. We are terrified of what people might think and we are terrified of the unknown. But suppose, just suppose, that the real question we should be asking ourselves is “are my boundaries reasonable?” If the horse/child in question thinks not then we have a whole new world to explore.

The only writer I have seen delve into this thorny subject is Alfie Kohn, author of “Unconditional Parenting”, which I would recommend to anyone with children and also to anyone with an interest in the use of non-manipulative positive reinforcement with animals. It is a wonderfully challenging book which really got me thinking about how we can use positive reinforcement to enhance the personality of the horse/child, instead of just trying to achieve certain behaviours for our own advantage. One of his “principles of unconditional parenting” is to consider whether or not we are making a reasonable request of the child:

“Here’s a very unsettling possibility: Perhaps when your child doesn’t do what you’re demanding, the problem isn’t with the child but with what it is you’re demanding. It’s remarkable how few books written for parents even raise this possibility. The vast majority of them take whatever their readers want their kids to do as the point of departure, and then offer techniques for getting compliance. In most cases, these techniques involve “positive reinforcement” or “consequences” – that is bribes or threats. In some cases, they involve more thoughtful and respectful ways of interacting with children. But almost never are parents encouraged to reconsider their requests.”

I find this so refreshing. And I would say it happens even less frequently in the equine world, hence my need to quote from parenting books.

We all need to be consistent when teaching boundaries, and it is great that this is so well-recognised. But sometimes I think we have gone too far the other way. From the point of view of the horse/child, our boundaries must often seem totally arbitrary and not sensible. If we could be slightly more flexible in our choice and implementation of boundaries then we could allow a lot more harmony into our relationships. Instead of trying to enforce an unreasonable boundary we can simply relax it slightly. The occasional relaxing of boundaries
does not turn anyone into monsters, very often the opposite can happen and our horses can become safer because there is less confrontation. The biggest obstacles to our relaxing of boundaries are our egos and our fear of what the consequences might be. Those are not reasons to continue to enforce unreasonable boundaries, just reasons to explore within ourselves and our motivations for choosing our boundaries.

The accompanying photograph shows a time when my ego got the better of me. It was a sponsored ride and I wanted to do the photographer’s fence and buy the picture. My horse refused the jump a number of times and ultimately I fell off. I decided not to try again. ‘What? And teach your horse that refusing gets him what he wants?’ I hear you say. Actually, since then I have started listening and generally allow him to refuse if he doesn’t want to jump. He very rarely refuses, despite there never being any consequence for “non-compliance”. If he does then there is a reason for it – on the day of the sponsored ride I am pretty sure that the reason was the hard ground at that particular fence hurting his shoulders (long-standing problem). My safety was compromised, not by my horse’s “disobedience”, but my failure to listen to him.

The opportunity to make choices and decisions is very often lacking from both traditional and “natural” horsemanship. Almost all forms of instruction, including most clicker training and positive reinforcement, involve manipulating our horses’ behaviour to suit our own goals. But what about our horses – do they not have opinions too?

It is well-documented that we benefit from making choices, for example Alfie Kohn goes on to say (with references):

“When teachers give their students more choice about what they’re doing, the results are impressive. According to one summary of the research, the advantages include ‘greater perceived competence, higher intrinsic motivation, more positive emotionality, enhanced creativity, a preference for optimal challenge over easy success, greater persistence in school (i.e. lower drop-out rates), greater conceptual understanding, and better academic performance’.”

There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that horses might experience all of this, and I’m not suggesting that it all applies to horses. But our mammalian brains are not so different that I think the analogy is irrelevant. Why would horses not also benefit from a share in the leadership, after all, that is what happens in a wild herd. Different horses take on the leadership role in different situations, depending on their expertise and desires. My experience with my horse certainly convinces me that there is a psychological benefit to us sharing the decision-making and that this enhances our mutual trust and relationship.

Relaxing boundaries is not something that should be done instantly as this can indeed create monsters that are unhappy in their confusing new world of freedom. This is a mistake often made by people who suddenly decide that they want to switch to using pure positive reinforcement and drop all their boundaries. The changes should be made gradually, giving you both opportunities to feel your way and work out what is genuinely important to you. The journey becomes more about moving the boundaries than enforcing them and our goals can become more about the relationship and mutual understanding than the jump or competition. Whether other people like or approve of our new goals can matter less and less as we enjoy the benefits of our new way of “working” with horses.

You may laugh at my naivety but I am looking forward to having a two  year-old. I am looking forward to learning more about myself, my son and our journey together. I refuse to call it terrible…..

Jan 292010

Once upon a time, a horse owner said to an alternative therapist: “Thanks very much for treating Billy last week. He was much more relaxed than usual in the stable that night, and he went really well when I rode him the next day – more forward going, more supple and more willing than usual. I’d like you to come and do him again”.

Very satisfactory for all concerned. The horse was going well, the owner was happy and the therapist had a new client. Except for one thing – the therapist hadn’t treated Billy last week. She’d gone to the yard as requested and met not the owner but the groom, who through a misunderstanding had asked her to treat another horse. The owner, not knowing this, had ridden Billy the next day and had attributed her good ride to the treatment she thought the horse had had the day before.

Now this alternative therapist had an enquiring and scientific mind and decided to conduct an experiment. She asked a friend of hers whether she could give the friend’s horse a free session of her therapy. She didn’t want the friend to watch what she did, but she did want the friend to give her feedback afterwards. And she didn’t do anything to the horse at all. While the friend thought she was doing the treatment, she was actually sitting in the manger reading a book and the horse was eating his hay. When the therapist later asked the friend what had happened, she was not altogether surprised to hear a tale about a very relaxed horse who “went so much better than usual when I rode him the next day”.

Unlike most stories that begin ‘once upon a time’, this one is true. It illustrates very nicely the danger of attributing a change in our horse’s behaviour or performance to something we have just done. Or, as in this case, that we think we have done.

You might suspect that I enjoyed telling this story because I am highly sceptical of alternative therapies, and you would be right. However, that isn’t really the point here. The therapy in question, unlike many, actually had some biological plausibility: it was a manipulative technique that many people find relaxing and invigorating, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to suppose that horses might also get at least temporary benefits. The point is that the intervention (or non-intervention) could have been anything: a veterinary treatment; a new feed or feed supplement; a new saddle or bridle; a visit from the farrier or equine dentist – you name it. The only necessity was for the owner to believe that any improvement in the horse’s behaviour following the intervention must have been a result of that intervention. As we have seen, the intervention didn’t even have to happen. All that was required was for the owner to want to make that connection.

The fact is that a horse will vary from day to day in how lively, enthusiastic, supple or willing he feels and there can be many reasons for this: working hard the day before, a slip in the field, more time than usual in the stable, the weather, the time of day, his social relationships and the amount of sleep he’s had, to name only a few of the possibilities. It is just unfortunate that we, with our pattern-recognising, all-too-human brains, are likely to come to the wrong conclusions about the reasons why, because of what we want to believe. If we have given the horse something we believe will improve his performance – and especially if we’ve paid a lot of money for it – we are likely to think that any subsequent improvement in performance is a result of what we did. As you can see, the fact that a change in behaviour followed an intervention does not prove that the intervention caused the change, and this is where science comes in.

Science is just a way of testing things. It’s not esoteric or mysterious. All you do in essence is ask a question, test it and then come to a conclusion. Imagine you own a nervous horse who is reluctant to eat from a bucket in the stable. Your bucket is black. You wonder whether the colour of the bucket makes any difference. So you go round the yard and borrow as many different-coloured buckets as you can. Each day you give your horse his feed in one of them (including the original black one), and record something like the time he takes to start or finish the feed, or the number of times he knocks the bucket over: something you can put a number to. Then once you have tested them all several times over several weeks, you compare the results from the coloured buckets with those from the original black bucket. You’ve used the scientific method to test whether bucket colour makes a difference to the time it takes your horse to eat a feed. You have results that you can use. If the horse eats best from a blue bucket you’ve solved your original problem. If you find no difference, you’ve still got a result. Now it’s time for a new idea: what else might make my horse reluctant to eat? This is how we make progress in science.

Unscientific ideas tend to start with the conclusion. You have the same horse with the same problem, but rather than doing the experiment, you just go out and buy him a yellow bucket because you believe that according to ancient Chinese philosophy, yellow is the colour associated with comfort, security and eating. The first problem with this approach is all the untested assumptions it makes: that the Chinese philosophy makes sense; that horses see the same colours in the same way that we do; that they respond psychologically to colours in the same way that we do and so on. The second problem is the likelihood that having bought the bucket you will then go on to notice all its positive effects while ignoring any negative ones, thereby reinforcing your original decision. And whether the results are good or bad, you have no idea whether the bucket really made any difference, because you haven’t done anything to find out. You haven’t compared buckets of different colours before making a decision: you’ve started with the decision.

What if you then wanted to start a business selling buckets for nervous horses? The person who found out that her horse preferred the blue bucket would have to do a more careful experiment to see whether her results were likely to hold true for all nervous horses, not just her own. She would need to try harder to avoid having her results affected by human errors such as wishful thinking, existing beliefs and her expectations, or by variation due to age, sex or breed among the horses, and would need to show that the positive results for say blue buckets were more than she would expect purely by chance. She would need to know whether the results made sense in relation to what is already known about horse biology, such as whether horses can actually distinguish blue from other colours. I won’t go into details, but the scientific method includes techniques to deal with all of these, helping to make a study as objective as it can possibly be. This person could then use her evidence to advertise her buckets: “Blue buckets decrease eating problems for 96% of nervous horses”, if that was what she found. The person who began with the assumption that yellow buckets were the ones to use, however, would have to convince other people to accept her beliefs without any evidence, and so would probably rely almost entirely on testimonials from satisfied customers. You might have thought that was fair enough, before you read the story above and discovered how easy it is to be led astray.

So, if you wanted a bucket for your own picky anxious horses, which bucket-seller would you choose? The person who sold blue buckets because she had done the experiment on lots of horses and discovered that most of them ate best out of blue ones, or the person who sold auspicious Chinese yellow buckets because she believed them to be effective? Sure, this is a trivial example, but horse owners make almost daily choices on behalf of their animals, and some of these choices could have large effects on their horses’ health, soundness and sanity, not to mention their own bank balances. Much of what we are offered has never been properly tested to see whether it is safe and effective. Wouldn’t it be better to buy from someone who had done the work and testing before putting the product on sale? Some things have been tested, and have been shown to be ineffective, but they are still for sale. Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell which these are, before you spend your money? That’s why we need science.

Note to readers: I’m well aware that it is not always easy to tell the difference between what is supported by science and what is not, so I intend to write more about this in my next article.

By Alison Averis

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Jan 172010

I had a thought and as it rambled though my mind I wrote it down. Now I would like to share that thought with you.

How do I know that I am the person to work with a particular horse?

Working with equines is not about the individual trainer or owner, no matter how great their equine training skills, marketing or publicity may be. It is about the sheer brilliance and ability of the horse, donkey or mule to figure out what on earth we humans want, what they have to do to survive, to receive rewards and to avoid discomfort. An incredible amount of equine intelligence and behaviour goes into just dealing with humans.

When people are derogatory towards other trainer, horse owner or methods of training, their comments often reflect their own egos and personalities. It is so often about them, not about the horse. The only true way to find the horseman inside each of us is to let go of our egos and say “it does not matter what other people say about me, I am truly in the deepest part of my soul and conscience working for the horse. I am the lightest I can be and I have continued to improve and learn more as I expand my own comfort zones, it is not about me it is about the horse,” only then are we truly moving in the right direction. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge others until we have evolved to be the best horseman we can be.

There are many good trainers who advocate thousands of different methods. Their words are incredibly convincing and motivating to others trying to emulate the trainer’s skill with horses. However, what we should be doing is trying to emulate the greatness of horses, with their ability to learn and their ability to develop an understanding of different methods of communication and ways of thinking. They are the most amazing creatures, and if we give them a chance, they would teach us about ourselves, but we seldom give them that opportunity.

When we are insulted or verbally attacked by another person for what we are or what we do, the immediate reaction is to fight back and justify ourselves. We argue, “no you are wrong, I am right, I did it because…” but this aggressive defence does not often work as the person who has initially attacked us has two options of recourse. They can fight back and attempt to justify what they have said or what they have done because of their beliefs or situation. As people push against our beliefs, we fight back to justify our feelings and thoughts and this tends to encourage more of a fight response in our challenger and a vicious circle is created. Unfortunately, we see the same thing with horses when they do not understand something or if they behave in a way that says “I don’t like the way I’m being handled.” The tendency is to push back, by making more work for them, applying more pressure, using a harsher bit, a firmer spur or a bigger smack.

The second option available to our verbal challenger is to concede, they could say “You are absolutely correct, I was wrong, I criticized you for the wrong reasons. I attacked you because I was personally upset by you, because I was angry and felt threatened.” It is very difficult for us to admit that we are wrong or that perhaps our egos have been motivating our actions. When we work with horses we must learn to take truthful responsibility for our behaviour and then learn to think, “Ah! I can see you do not understand. I need to explain what I want a different way. I need to change the way I am communicating, I need to be patient and work with you,” then we could all become better horsemen. When we are verbally attacked we should listen to what is being said and look for the motivations behind the words, just as we should look for the motivations behind our horse’s behaviour.

If the true nature of equines was not to be amenable and compliant with a willingness to adapt to the confines of captivity we would never have domesticated horses as a species. Ability to learn is one of their greatest attributes, yet we humans have not learnt the lessons that they are teaching us. We take our own ego, aggression and discomfort and put it onto the horse and make the horse pay the price of our lack of balance, lack of control and lack of understanding and then the horse mirrors back what it is forced to work with in us. We overfeed them, under-exercise them, limit their mental stimulation and we wonder if they suffer. We too become bored, we become angry, we become overweight and we suffer. Our horses mirror the things we do to ourselves, how we humans deal with domestication determines how our horses behave.

In domestication there is no true ‘natural’ environment, trainers created the term Natural Horsemanship to make clients feel better for the restrictions domestication and training places on our equine partners and to set it apart from traditional methods. I am not knocking our attempts to be more understanding trainers and to create better environments for our horses to live in, this is essential to our horse’s physical and mental health. However, I would like to stop us hiding behind the word natural as an illusion of perfection in horsemanship. Horsemanship is in the process of evolution and Natural Horsemanship is just a step on the evolutionary path that one day will hopefully be replaced with an even better form of horsemanship, perhaps behavioural science. Nothing we do to the horse is natural compared to the life of the free roaming horses.

The horse in the feral situation has a capacity for compassion, aggression, fight, flight, softness, rest and play. All the aspects of their personality are balanced and whilst individuals may have different characteristics, they can display them all, from the stallion that will play with his foals to the mare that will discipline a youngster. We humans often advocate and lecture with the intent to promote our own greatness, our own ability and our method. However, in horsemanship it is not our way that we should seek, it is the horse’s way and we must begin to reach into the very essence and soul of the horse to understand who we are and who we need to become as human beings, to truly release our potential as horsemen, as parents, friends and partners.

People ask constantly “What do I do when?”, “What do I do if…?”; “How do I deal with this situation?”; “What does this mean?”, as if there should be a dictionary of horse terms that we can use to identify their every single motivation, action and belief. As yet we humans are incapable of indexing our own behaviour, so what chance do we have with the horse? The answer to these questions is always, “it depends.”

Hopefully we all know what it is to feel love yet everybody’s definition of love is a unique perception. True love, love for a friend, love of an object, love for gardening, all of these feelings are different. So how can a trainer say with certainty what a horse thinks or that certain behaviour should always be met with a set pattern of training? There is an uncertainty in true horsemanship, that if we let it, will create growth and strength and learning within the trainer. I believe that in every horse owners lifetime comes a horse that does not fit everything we have previously learnt. With this animal we either begin to learn and grow, we become stale and stubborn, or we sell the animal to someone else and they learn the lessons instead. This is what the horse can give us, an understanding of ourselves but we have to “leave our egos at the door” because it is not about us.

We have domesticated another species and for 6,000 years we have restricted them, we have controlled the very nature of who they are, yet we search for the beauty of who they can be when they are free from our influence. When they are doing everything we ask or when they are running across the plains of Nevada, we perceive them as a most beautiful spirited animal. When their behaviour contradicts what we want or when they question us by communicating “I can’t do that,” when they show us “I don’t know how to do what you ask,” or when they act based on fear, the unenlightened tendency is to label them as troublesome, stubborn, difficult, or deceitful.

This journey of horsemanship, is not about learning to be a horse, it is about learning to be the best human being we can be. We need to find balance, to be able to set a boundary, to be able to say no, that’s not I want you to do. It is not whether we say no, it’s how you say no that is important to the horse. Horsemanship is about being able to open yourself to the possibility of being wrong, the possibility of change, the possibility of needing to know more, it’s about being able to put your tools down and say “I understand and accept the effort involved in making the try, thank you.”

When we criticize another person for their lack of ability or belittle a trait that we find unsuitable, have we first looked at ourselves to establish if we are without that trait, that we are perfect and that we can do everything? There is strength in softness and vulnerability, in being able to decide when to pick our battles, when to open our hand and let the rein go, when to step back and accept that it is OK to make a mistake. There is strength in being able to take responsibility for ourselves and we should learn not blame ourselves for the mistakes. We take responsibility for mistakes and learn from them and move forward, and there lies the subtle difference between blame and responsibility.

Our lives are governed by who we are. There is no reason to believe that horsemanship would be any different. We can be our own greatest enemy. We cause ourselves to be shy, to lack confidence, to be afraid, to be angry and to be impatient. We allow our brains to run freefall in a series of thoughts connected to the emotions, causing us to rebuild or destruct exactly who we are time and time again. We let this happen every day of our lives, yet we seldom grasp the opportunity to truly change, and to use change as a path to becoming a better person.

The first part of change is not to try and change, it is to accept the potential and possibility of change. When we change the way we think, we can truly change who we become and how we behave. It will be uncomfortable, but we can do it and we will be better for it. We can develop more understanding of ourselves, so we do not waste our potential by settling for anything less than the best we can be. However, choosing to learn will be a difficult and often painful road to follow, so we should not start the journey lightly. We all have a destiny to be the best that we can be, whether that means we become the best road sweeper, best nurse or the best horse trainer we can be does not matter, only that we strive to improve. We cannot possibly hope to obtain perfection in every single area of everything we do, but we must continually be open to the possibility of being the best that we can be, to challenge our potential, to actually begin to develop our knowledge of who we are.

Why did I have this thought? Well, so often I hear equine professionals say “The horse was fine, the owner was the problem!” It is time we all took more responsibility for who we are as horse people and worried a little less about what our neighbour believes to be true. When I talk about horse trainers I believe anyone who interacts with a horse in anyway is teaching it something and is therefore a trainer. Universally we need to accept the horses are the smart ones, after all they have to figure out what we want. Not enough credit is given to their ability to adapt and deal with the difficulties of working with humans.

The followers of “Natural Horsemanship” advocates are about to do exactly what they claim they despise in traditional training methods, namely make an exclusive club and pass judgment on other trainers and methods and develop the ‘We’re right so you can’t be’ attitude. The antidote to this is simply more walking the talk. What individuals do when training their horses is their choice. However, the common thread of Natural Horsemanship is putting the horse first and if we all do that, then in a few years we should all end up in the same place. Behavioural science is perhaps the next step in the evolution of horsemanship because it is not subjective, but horsemanship will always remain a balance of Art and Science and to ensure we use the science correctly we must first know ourselves.

I would wish for every trainer to recognize the efforts and bravery of the horse before they extol their own virtues. After all it is the horse that is doing the learning and the horse that has to overcome their fears and phobias. Horse trainers should remain humble, as it is clearly the horse that deserves the credit first. I feel it would be best if we trained ourselves before we trained our horses.

How do I know I should be working with a horse? I open myself to the possibility that I should not be working with them and then I leave my ego at the gate so that I can hear what the horse has to say on the subject.

Like I say it is just a thought that I had, and then I wanted to share. However what you think is far more important to your horse than what I think.

By Ben Hart

© Ben Hart April 2009