Wind Sucking

I have come across a few horses in my working life that were committed wind suckers or cribbers, but I have never owned one so you can take my comments with as many grains of salt as you like.

 

Most of us already know that wind sucking stems from stress. It is not a one off response to a one off stressful experience, but a habit developed slowly over a period of time in response to chronic stress. It can be triggered by prolonged confinement, isolation from other horses, lack of movement, stressful relationship with humans etc. It has even been suggested it can be caused by chronic ulcers and gastric inflammation, although the last I checked this was more a theory than a fact. I personally suspect that it is wind sucking that leads to these ailments, not the other way around.

 

But the thing to remember that once a horse has developed the habit of wind sucking it stays for life. There is no cure.

 

Some horses are more prone to developing the habit than others. But I don’t think there is an overall pattern, other than those horses that live a life of stress are more likely to wind suck, that will help identify a potential wind sucker. In my experience, it is rare to see cold-blooded breeds or ponies that wind suck.

 

It seems to begin in early life and early training and it is uncommon to see older and mature horses begin to wind suck if they haven’t done it before.

 

A horse can be stopped from wind sucking by removing objects it can bite down on, but I have seen horses bite on dirt when nothing else was available. People often fit an anti-crib collar to their horse, which makes it difficult for a horse to gulp in air, but once the collar is removed the habit will return.

 

Wind sucking is a coping strategy that a horse uses to get through life. I have never known it to be reversed even when the stress is gone from a horse’s life. Once it starts it seems to be for life. So given that it is a mechanism to relieve stress for a horse and that it can’t be undone, my view is that we should not try to prevent a horse wind sucking using gadgets and removing things that it could use to wind suck. It will not help a horse feel better and can only exacerbate the problem by eliminating the horse's ability to use it’s coping strategy. I know that is an opinion that many will disagree with.

 

In my experience, wind sucking does not interfere with a horse’s ability to work well or be highly trainable and thrive. The problems with it are often more about how we view it than any harm the horse suffers.

 

But that’s not a blanket endorsement of doing nothing. Wind sucking does have negative consequences in a few horses. One thing that can happen is that a horse will wear down its front teeth prematurely by biting on posts and other objects. I’ve seen 12-year-old horses where the front teeth have been worn down to stumps that you’d only expect to see in 30+-year-old horse. In addition, wind suckers can eat away wooden posts and rails until they are turned into nothing but a pile of splinters. The dental issues and the decimation of fences could be one justification for removing a horse’s access to these objects.

 

The other problem that sometimes occurs is that horse can have difficulty putting on weight and develop gut complications. Horses that wind suck a lot are prone to accumulating non-digestible debris in their gut. It can be dirt, wood fibres, plastic, sand etc. If this gut trash is not passed it can cause absorption problems, colic, and gut inflammation. A preventative treatment such as an annual drenching with paraffin is not a bad idea in these cases.

 

With a horse that wind sucks I think the best management would be to let it live in a large paddock with plenty of friends and high-fibre grasses. That way it will experience lower stress, better nutrition and plenty of exercise. If this is possible, I see no reason to worry about most horses that wind suck.

Pressure Or Cuddles?

I am going to make an assertion that might surprise and perhaps even upset a few people. That is, horses do not need to bond with people. As long as a horse’s basic needs of food, water, and companionship are met, they couldn’t give a farthing if they never saw a human in their entire life.

 

But people are different. Most people want to bond with their horse. In fact, they get upset if they feel their horse doesn’t want to be with them. In an effort to fulfill this need people repeat the mistake over and over again of avoiding doing enough to help a horse change its thought because they don’t want to upset their horse or induce anxiety in the horse. They don’t want to do anything that they think might cause their horse not to like them. But this is making horse training all about the human's concerns and not about the horses. It is both an ignorant and selfish approach to training.

 

Some people who read my essays about training principles and watch my videos come away with the mistaken view that my training and my clinics are all rainbows and cuddles. But I am not that sort of trainer. I am the sort of trainer that will do as little as I can to get a change of thought, but as much as necessary too. That means that sometimes I am applying so little pressure that people can’t see what I am doing and other times it means the pressure gets to earthquake proportions, with most of the time it is somewhere in between.

 

In the past a small number of people have expressed confusion and even concern at how much pressure I applied to some horses. They felt what they saw me doing was not consistent with the ideas I espoused in my essays. So I want to say a few things about this.

 

Firstly, as I have written in my book, The Essence Of Good Horsemanship there is no such thing as kind or gentle training. All training requires a certain threshold level of anxiety in a horse in order for it to stop one behaviour and replace it with another. The amount of anxiety required to make a horse think what it is doing is no longer a good idea is the same for every horse. However, the amount of pressure a human has to apply to reach that threshold level of anxiety can vary hugely. So just because one horse will change its thought with a wiggle of a finger and another horse will require a whirlwind of energy from a swinging rope, does not mean one method was more aggressive or violent than the other from a horse’s point of view. They both added the same amount of worry in the respective horses to create a change of thought.

 

Secondly, when it comes to horses the end mostly does justify the means. By that I mean, if a horse finishes a session in a better emotional place and with a clearer understanding of its role than it had in the beginning, then it is hard to judge the way that happened as inappropriate or wrong. Remember this is about how the horse feels, not how the human feels.  If I can get a good change in a horse in a short time by using firm pressure or achieve the same result over a much longer time using much less pressure, I am going to get it done sooner rather than later. I don’t feel it is fair to leave a horse feeling crappy any longer than necessary just because I don’t like using more pressure. I’m not saying it is wrong to do less and take longer if that is where your skill level is, but I am not going to let my horse flounder any longer than I have to simply because I want to avoid being firmer.

 

The reason most people come to a clinic is because the things they have been doing with their horse is not getting the results they have been seeking. An owner puts trouble in their horse and many times leaves it there until a behaviour becomes habitual, then gets upset if a trainer has to apply more pressure than they would like to get the horse to think of changing their idea and behaviour. The look at the trainers as being cruel and aggressive, but don’t see fault in themselves for creating the situation in the first place and leaving their horse troubled for days, weeks and years.

 

Horses don’t care about how much pressure we use provided there is clarity and quieter emotions at the end. Horses don’t care how they got there, just that they feel better because of it. So a horse does not carry the worry that pressure might induce any longer than it takes for the change of thought to come through. Once the change of thought occurs the emotions are quelled and clarity is obtained. A horse does not fixate on the pressure that was applied any longer than that – whether it was barely perceptible or highly charged. The amount of pressure required to get a change not what is important to a horse. The pressure only becomes a problem if we don’t use enough to change a thought or we use too much to change a thought. You only have to watch horses interacting in the paddock to realize that it is not pressure that matters, but the clarity at the end.

 

It is very human to want to make sure our horses are calm and relaxed all the time. We want them to like us, so we don’t want to be the source of their trouble. I applaud this notion and try hard to work in that way. However, I don’t believe we do our horses any favours by allowing our desire to be their friend and not upset them with their need for clarity and confidence in following our idea. It never is and never should be about us.

Happiness Of A Ross Jacobs Horsemanship Clinic

I was recently asked about the music I use in the introduction of my videos and would I play the entire piece. So here it is. It's called Wedding Invitation and available on YouTube as copyright free music. I added a slideshow of photos from recent clinics.

View it in fullscreen mode and turn up the volume and enjoy the happiness.

 

The Law Of Diminishing Anxiety

I want to very briefly talk about the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety.

 

I should say to begin with that it is only a law because I say it is in my own mind. I may be the only person on the blue planet in the solar system known as the Milky Way who considers this a law to practice horsemanship by.

 

In any case, the law states that “the closer in proximity a horse’s thought and feet are, the less anxiety a horse experiences.”

 

Of course, the corollary of this law would be that the further in proximity a horse’s thought and feet are, the great the anxiety.

 

This law is closely related in concept to the Cup Of Worry video that I posted last week and if you have not viewed it I strongly suggest you do so in order to get a better understanding of what I am talking about.

 

The thing that the law of diminishing anxiety adds to our understanding of working with a horse with worry is that in order to make ensure the trouble does not overflow into an extreme behaviour that becomes unmanageable we have to ensure we don’t let the horse’s mind and its feet get too far apart. That is, where a horse wants to be or wants to do is not so far removed from where we want it to be or we want it to do, that the response is more than we can handle.

 

This has a couple of practical implications for how we should consider when approaching our training.

 

Sometimes when there is a clash of opinion between our horse and us we see it as a challenge to our position as the senior partner and make a firm stand that what we want is how it is going to go. We might soften our pressure or we might wait longer, but that it is the limit of our compromise. That’s where the line is drawn as far as we are concerned. However, I believe that when our horse carries some trouble inside we should see getting to the other side of the trouble as a negotiation rather than a battle of wills. The idea of negotiating is to keep the horse’s needs and our needs close enough to avoid tipping the horse’s behaviour into the unmanageable end of the spectrum where any attempt by us to help is futile.

 

It is not unreasonable to compromise a little and allow the thought and the feet to come closer together that we can have a conversation with our horse that will enable us to quell some of the anxiety and make progress.

 

Let me offer an everyday example that many people face. Let’s say you are out on a trail ride with some friends and your friends decide to canter ahead. Your horse wants to go with the other horses, but you want him to stay back and stand for awhile while you fiddle with something. The senior partner in you may decide that your horse needs to stand still and you work hard to force that on him by strong use of the reins and perhaps legs. But Ross’ Law Of Diminishing Anxiety determines that as the other horse’s get further away, so does your horse’s thoughts. This creates greater anxiety the further away they get. However, if your horse is allowed to travel a little in the direction of the other horses (that is, in the direction it his thinking) the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety states the anxiety should be ameliorated to some degree than if your horse is not allowed to move. So you might allow him to walk or even trot, but direct his movement and his thought with some bending work so that he doesn’t just take off cantering. That way you can placate his anxiety enough to enable his thought to come back to you enough that he is able to converse with you and reduce his need to canter down the trail.

 

One more example. Say you are riding along and your horse is frightened by something moving in a bush. Your horse’s thought is to escape and move away from the bush. But again the rider in you tells the horse to not be so stupid and you try to ride forward towards the bush. As your horse moves closer to the bush it is getting further away from its idea to flee from the bush. The Law Of Diminishing Anxiety suggests that increasing the gap between where a horse wants to be and where we are making it go will cause great anxiety and trouble. Therefore, instead of trying to force our horse to walk directly up to the bush we might consider asking the horse to walk a wide arc around the bush to prevent a flight response that would get in the way of helping our horse. With each pass f the bush the arc might get smaller and smaller until our horse can walk right by with very little worry.

 

The second component that assists in avoiding disaster when working through the Law Of Diminishing Anxiety is the idea of breaking the training into small chunks. By that I mean the level of anxiety is better managed if we ask for small steps in improvement rather giant changes in one go. If the steps are small enough the gap between a horse’s thoughts and its feet never get too wide. I lot of wrecks occur when people feel their horse is going well and they get greedy and ask too much. This is often a mistake because before a person realizes it the gap between the feet and the thought is big enough to cause enough anxiety that results in a horse’s meltdown. It is better to let the learning occur in thin layers to avoid too big a separation between the thought and the feet resulting in a meltdown.

 

As I said earlier, this concept is directly related to our understanding of the cup of worry that a horse may carry. The less worry in our horse’s cup the more we can help him. In the process of trying to empty our horse’s cup of worry, I urge you to consider the Law of Diminishing Anxiety and how you can use that as a practical approach in developing a relaxed, calm horse with soft focus.


A Horse's Cup Of Worry

This video describes how a horse's worry creates behavioural and training problems and discusses a strategy to deal with them.