Environmental Factors and Horses

We have 8 horses and two of them are chestnut thoroughbreds. Both of them are now in their mid teens. We acquired the mare Six when she was a 2 year old and the gelding Riley when he was a 4 year old.


For many years I lived just east of the city of Melbourne. Michèle and I leased space on a farm owned by friends. It is here that we kept my horses and ran our training business.


Winters in Melbourne are cold and wet. For 4 months of the year it was almost mandatory to wear rubber boots to slosh around the paddocks. Sometimes the mud could be so deep that you’d lose a boot as it was sucked right off your foot.


Between the mud, the rain, the cold and the wind, training horses in Melbourne in winter was a chore and my wife and I often dreamed of warmer climates.


Every winter Six and Riley suffered recurring skin problems. They both suffered a disease called rain scald, which is a persistent bacterial infection that attacks the neck, shoulders and topline. It creates sores that make the skin sensitive to touch. The sores form a hard scabby surface that covers a pussy gunck underneath. I became a dab hand at treating the infection with medicated washes every second day. In the worse years I would bring out the big guns of antibiotic injections to clear it up.


Six also contracted mud fever on her two white pasterns every winter. Mud fever is a fungal infection that causes swelling of the pastern and fetlock and eventually can result in cellulitis in the lower leg. Six always went lame and very sore. She would threaten to kill anyone who dare touch her sore legs or even looked at them the wrong way. I learned that if I caught it early with a mixture of Vaseline gel, sulphur and tea tree oil on the affected areas I could keep the disease under control.


Only the chestnut thoroughbreds were under attack by these skin conditions and only in winter. Once spring was under way, they would spontaneously disappear and stay gone until next winter.


Finally Michèle and I were able to buy our own property. We bought 150 acres in north-west New South Wales. The winters here are mild and dry, while the summer days are often over 40 deg C. Our property is quiet. We are off the beaten track and I no longer take outside horses for training. Nobody visits and I rarely leave when I’m not teaching clinics. Although we have plenty of grass it is poor quality and mostly native varieties that are good for cattle, but has all the nutritional value of newspaper for horses. Nothing like the lush rich grass the horses were eating in Victoria.


The first winter we lived in our new home, Six and Riley came down with rain scald and mud fever like every other winter. The attacks were perhaps not as severe as previous years, but they still needed treatment. However, in the second and third winters, there was no sign of the annual bout of rain scald and mud fever. I was prepared for it, but it didn’t happen.


The second thing that I noticed that coincided with moving interstate was a change in the amount of feeding the horses needed to maintain good condition. The first year we were at our new property, the horses needed a lot of extra feeding because we our paddocks are filled with poor native pastures and they were used to rich English pastures meant for dairy cattle. But as each year has passed it is obvious that our horses have adapted to the local grass and do well with a lot less supplementation. Now only the thoroughbreds (and an aging Arab gelding) are given a small amount of extra. The other horses get all their requirements from the harsh, tussock-like grasses. Furthermore, we use to have to treat for intestinal worms 5 or 6 times a year, but now we only treat once per year.


During the last 3 or 4 years of our time in Victoria, spring brought other problems for our mare, Six. She developed a severe case of hormones. I’ve had mares who showed behaviourial changes when breeding season arrived, but nothing like Six showed. Most of the year she was a sweet mare, but when she came into season she turned into a monster. A few times it was not even possible to put a saddle on her. I had never experienced a mare who showed such a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.


It happen to correspond with the time that stallions were brought onto the property by another trainer. Before the stallions arrived, Six suffered no problems when she came into season. But once the stallions came to live, it all changed for the worse. And this was despite the fact that she was kept at the opposite end of the property – out of sight and out of hearing of the stallions. I was on the verge of having her checked for ovarian tumours or hormone issues, when we moved to our new home.


However, on the 18 hour trip to New South Wales, Six must have had an ovarectomy because I didn’t know notice any changes in her during the next spring. Not only was her behaviour unremarkably different from the rest of the year, but also I was not even aware when she cycled. Her mood changes were so benign when she was in season, that I missed noticing them at first.


Once I became aware of the improvement in Six’s behaviour I made an effort to look for changes in all the horses.


It has become crystal clear that moving to NSW has had a calming affect on all our horses. They are so much more mellow. The change could make a person think there were smoking “grass” instead of eating it – if you know what I mean.


I wasn’t aware that our horses were not completely settled and happy before. It was only after moving to our new home that I was jolted into realizing that all the horses had suffered a low-level underlying stress that simmered constantly while living in their previous home.


It is easy to see that our horses are happier and healthier living here than they ever were in Victoria. If I try to explain this, the thing that I keep coming back to is that our new home is a low stress environment compared to where they use to live. There are no stallions coming and going. There are no training horses coming and going. The herd is stable with no short-term visitors. I no longer use them to help me train the young and the troubled horses, so the riding they do now is a lot less stressful.


I am certain that the underlying stress our horses experienced while living at the previous facility compromised their ability to fight skin infections and maintain condition. With that constant anxiety now gone, things have changed for the better.


This new realization has made me wonder how many horse’s issues in the world can be attributed to living in a stressful environment?


I have been to show barns and boarding facilities where there is a serious focus on competition riding and it has been impossible to ignore the prevalence of stressed horses. It seems to me that if my horses (who had a pretty easy-going life) were stressed by living in a paddock with 7 of their best mates and only required for occasional work, then what about horses who have a much more demanding life?


What must the experience be for horses are fed jet-fuel type diets, live in stables for hours a day, limited herd interaction, layers of rugs (blankets), adrenaline pumping exercise and training?


It is worth asking if some of the issues we have with our horses are caused by environmental factors and not necessarily derived from medical or training problems alone. I treated Six’s mud fever as a medical issue, when in fact the real problem was where she lived. How many issues are treated as training or veterinary issues when the real causes are in the environment they live?


The photo is of my friend Ben riding Riley when he and his fiancé, Sari visited us a couple of years ago.

Winning And Losing

I was asked during the week about my thoughts on winning and losing when it comes to training horses. The question came from one of my regular readers after they read somewhere that some trainers believe that you should never let a horse win and others say that you should let a horse win, but only sometimes.


I gave a short response to the question, but there is a much bigger issue to consider associated with the idea of winning and losing that is the reason for this article.


Firstly, the idea that there is a winner and a loser conjures up the idea that training horses is an adversarial pastime. It presupposes that horses and trainers are at war with each other and there can only be one winner. I find this notion disturbing because I like horses and look at them as friends. I don’t want to wage war against my friends – horse or human.


Even if you allow a horse to feel like a winner sometimes, that means you’re okay with leaving it to feel like a loser sometimes too. Horses live in the moment and when a horse feels it has lost, it feels it has always lost. It is not capable of adding up the tally of 5 wins and 2 losses and then feel like a winner.


We should always be striving to make the work feel good to the horse. I want the horse to feel better at the end of the work than it did at the beginning. Working with a horse should feel like two mates getting a job done together and not like a battle of wills.


So that’s pretty much how I answered the question. But I stopped short of talking about the bigger picture. In fact, I’ve be tossing up whether or not to even bring it up in a post, because I think it is both a difficult and confronting subject to discuss. But here goes.


Every time we try to change a horse’s mind we invariably also change their thinking, their behaviour and our relationship with them. Even when we just look over the fence at a horse we can induce a change.


I want to really stress this point and look at what it means.


To me it means that any time we interact with a horse we are changing what it is to be that horse. That horse is no longer the same horse it was a few minutes ago. It’s different. Perhaps the change is small and unimportant or perhaps it is dramatic and cathartic, but either way a change has occurred.


It’s generally our hope that the changes we instill are positive and beneficial to both the horse and to us. But I think when we get a change that doesn’t feel positive to the horse; we damage the innate nature of that horse.


For many centuries, good horse people have done their best to work with the nature of a horse. They recognize that horses are born amazing and try hard to avoid changing that through their training. But I believe it is a futile hope. Any interaction we have with them changes a horse – just like throwing a pebble into an ocean will change the nature of the ocean forever.


I believe that training inevitably requires a horse to give up something of itself in order to get along with people. Even the most gentle or benign methods require a horse to sacrifice some part of its innate nature.


An extreme example of this idea would be a police horse. I remember as a kid watching on television police horses charging into a group of Vietnam War protesters. The horses were being hit with placards and firecrackers exploded around their feet. Yet the horses continued to do their job. Any sane, sensible horse would have bolted in the opposite direction. So how much of the nature of those horses was sacrificed to turn them into useful police horses? How much of their essence had to be destroyed to make sure they ignored their natural instinct to flee?


Perhaps a less extreme example that comes to my mind was when I was trekking in the bush with two of my horses. We were trapped by a bush fire and the circumstances became very desperate. However, both Luke and China kept cool heads and followed my direction despite the terrifying situation. I have no doubt that we only survived because the horses were able to suppress their natural sense to panic. It could be argued that it was a good thing considering the state we found ourselves, but it is worth considering how much had the training I had done destroyed their natural instinct to look out for themselves first and panic?


I knew a fellow who trained showjumpers. He had a very nice quiet horse that was easy to handle and ride when it first arrived. But over the months the horse became more difficult to handle and even unsettled in the paddock. It would spontaneously run crazy for several minutes in its paddock before snoozing for an hour or so and then run crazy again. Everyday it would chew at its rug (blanket) to rip holes in it. There was a total change in personality, which I believe was caused by the training. I am sure the horse’s true nature was to be easy going, but an easy going horse was not what the fellow wanted. The true nature of the horse was altered for the purposes of making it a jumping horse.


When I first began training horses for a living I used the motto “keeping the horse in the horse.” It has always been my aim to keep alive the essence of what a horse is, while at the same time molding its behaviour. I no longer believe it is entirely possible to do that. Nevertheless, I am convinced that our best chance of keeping the horse in the horse only comes when we ensure a horse never feels like a loser. If we allow the training to become a win/lose situation, we turn our horses into shadows of the animals we loved in the beginning.


If we care about horses, we all have a moral boundary about what is acceptable training or treatment and what is not. It’s a personal boundary and not for me or anybody else to lecture another where to draw the line. But if we wish to make sure we never lose sight of where the line is drawn, I think it is vital that we are always mindful of what a horse has to give up of itself in order to make us feel better.

The Role Of Scent In Training

I’m asking for your help. I want to be really really rich and I need your help. I don’t need your money; I just need your ideas.


I have an idea for a training aid to help people communicate with horses that nobody has yet worked out. But all I have is the idea. I don’t know how to do it.


Let me explain from the beginning.


We all know that in the horse world communication is largely dependent on body language. When a horse wants to say something to another horse, they mostly use body language. Vocalizations such a neighing, snorting etc play a part, but overall it is a small part and horses don’t generally use it very much. Touch is another form of communication for horses. They nuzzle, groom, bite and kick to get their point across. They use the touch of their whiskers to determine distance to a close object. They can even determine if an electric fence is on or off by the feel of the electromagnetic pulse on their whiskers. But again, touch plays second fiddle to body language when it comes to conversing with the thoughts of a horse’s mind.


We spend a lot of time learning to be effective in our own body language because we know it is the most effective form of communication we have at our disposal with horses when we are on the ground. As our skills get better we learn how to control our energy, direct it in a very specific manner and show clear intent. Although, we still use touch and sound as training aids in our groundwork, they are generally less important than body language.


However, when we are in the saddle we rely on touch to talk to our horses more than any other of the senses. We use the rein, leg and seat aids to touch a horse in a very specific way to convey a very specific idea. Bits, whips, spurs, hands etc are all designed to take advantage of a horse’s ability to turn touch into a thought. We use touch in a variety of ways in order to be effective as trainers.


Sound is another sense we can use to help in training. A lot of people use voice in their training. I don’t use it much except for the occasional ‘cluck’, but I know lots of people who like to use voice commands in their work. Generally, our voice is a poor training tool. It is certainly the least effective because horses have not evolved to use it themselves very much. They don’t see it as anything but mostly noise when we use it. That’s why you may sometimes hear a person say “trot” when lunging their horse, but you never hear “extended trot” when they want their horse to extend at the trot.


There is one other very important means of communication for horses that we humans never give much thought to and certainly don’t utilize in our training – smell. Behaviourist estimate that scent is the second most important form of communication in horses – only just below body language. It beats touch and sound by a mile. Horses have scent sensors in their nasal passages and their mouths. A horse’s ability to detect odours is second only to dogs.


Horses use smells to learn about the world. They can find water by smelling for it from huge distances. They smell each other to learn if another horse is male or female. They sniff almost everything they come in contact with to find out if it is safe, alive, dead or edible.


From the point of view of training, a particularly useful function of how horses use smell is their ability to decide friend or foe. When two horses meet, the first thing they do is sniff. They sniff noses, sides and hind ends. Sometimes they even sniff each other’s undercarriage. They gain a lot of useful information from the smells they detect, such as gender, dominance, maturity, reproductive status etc. The scents they discover influences how they behave in the next moment – dominating, submissive, aggressive, run away, follow blah, blah.


For a long time I have been intrigued how two horses can decide if they will be friends or foes within seconds of meeting. I am sure that the odours they pick up from each other are integral to this decision. People tell me about horses that hate men and I can only think a horse discerns the difference between men and women by the way they smell. I’ve seen horses use smell to decide whether to get closer and investigate an object or to steer clear and not go near something. A horse can detect the smell of something long before they get close enough to touch it.


There is not a lot of good research regarding the role of olfactory sensors in a horse’s life. Most of it seems pretty rudimentary. However, this subject has fascinated me for more than 20 years and from my own anecdotal observations I believe horses gain an enormous amount of information from scent.


Imagine if we could exploit this physiological phenomenon to our advantage in training. What if we could use a horse’s ability to smell a friend to our advantage? Consider if there was a way we could spray our clothes with an odour that instantly told a horse that we are their best friend; they can trust us; focus on us; follow us; stay close or stay away. Picture an end to separation anxiety or loss of concentration or fear of new things. It would revolutionize the way we interacted with horses.


So my brilliant get rich quick scheme is to come up with a way that we could spray ourselves with scents that evoked changes in how we related to our horses or could assist in our teaching. For example, if you had a horse that was unsettled in the trailer, you could spray the trailer with just the right odour to calm and relax it. Or if your horse was always looking for the other horses, you could dab a little magic scent behind your ears to help it forget about them. There are a million ways that using smells could be the biggest breakthrough in animal behaviour since Pavlov’s dog asked, “What’s for dinner?”


Of course, I’m not really asking to be really rich from this idea. It’s a joke.


I just want to encourage you to think about the complexity of communication with our horses and how despite the incredible mental capacity of humans, we are stupid when it comes to appreciating the inner workings of how our horses see and understand the world.


The photo shows two horses meeting and utilizing both body language (notice the different postures) and smell (sniffing) to exchange information. I wish I knew what the smells were telling them.

Horse: A Brain With Moving Parts

If I asked most people to draw a picture of a horse chances are they would draw a head attached to a neck, attached to a body, attached to four legs and finally add a tail, ears, eyes etc to their masterpiece.


However, if I were to draw a horse, I’d draw a brain with moving parts attached.


A horse is neither a head or legs or a tail or neck? Even putting them all together, you still don’t end up with a horse – just a resemblance of what looks like a horse. If you amputated a leg from a horse or docked the tail and ears, you’d still have a horse. But if you lobotomized the brain, you’d only have something that looks like a horse, but the essence of the horse would be gone.


To me, a horse is a brain encased in moving parts. When I attempt to interact with a horse, the conversation is not with the legs, neck or torso. My relationship is with the mind of a horse.


We all know that to be true. I’m not giving away any hidden secret by telling you this. Every horse person knows that horses are smart and emotional. It’s their intelligence and emotions that in large part drive their behaviour, particularly in training.


Yet, despite the fact that we all know it, so much of our training ignores it. We train horses like they are just the sum of their moving parts. When we train, we train their parts to move in the way we want them to move. We choose specific exercises to train their gaits. Then we choose other exercises to train their posture. More exercises to train their obedience and still others to train relaxation.


The thing that exercises do is build strength and suppleness in horses. Like a human athlete, exercises are needed to increase the strength, fitness and suppleness of the body to prepare for the work. Without the exercises to improve these things a horse is capable of doing about as much work as a couch potato. The best we can hope for is an okay walk, trot, canter and halt. But the right exercise prepares a horse for the physical demands of extension and collection in all its various forms. But using exercises to build strength, fitness and suppleness is not educating a horse – its just physical work.


A horse learns only by what the brain absorbs. Bone does not learn, muscle does not learn, skin does not learn. Only the learning parts of the brain learn. They learn and they tell the rest of the horse what to do and when to do it.


I want to be very clear with what I am saying. Exercises are a vital part of training horses – no question. But just performing exercises is not necessarily teaching. The neck, the torso, the legs, the mouth etc of a horse do not do the learning. For example, we do not train the mouth of a horse to accept the bit because the mouth has no capacity to learn and retain information. The mouth is capable of an enormous amount of sensory information, but it does not remember or understand that information. The brain of the horse takes the information the mouth sends to it, interprets the information and then remembers the information for learning purposes.


We have probably all heard the expression that good horse training is “all about controlling the feet.” I think too many times this has been misinterpreted to mean that if you can control the feet of a horse, all is right with the world. In other words, many people have taken the expression to mean that good training is about training the feet.


But I have already stated that bone, muscle and skin do not learn – they are dumb. Only the brain learns and only the brain tells the feet what to do. It’s not the other way around where the feet tell the brain what to think and feel. If you want to train a horse to do a task, you have to talk to the brain. If you try to bypass the brain by making a horse perform (using strength and gadgets) you’re in for a battle of wills which you might win, but you might also lose. At the very least the best relationship you can hope for is as master and slave.


What I am trying to say is that training exercises are important in preparing a horse for the physical demands of hard work, but their value in the learning process is only in regard to how the brain interprets the exercises. That statement may seem obvious, but experience has taught me that it is not so obvious to many people.


A large number of horse people are constantly seeking the magical exercises that will fix all their training issues, which suggest to me they don’t understand the function of training exercises.


When we choose a particular exercise to educate a horse, our most important aim must be to talk to the horse’s brain in a way that tells the horse to relax and focus. That’s it. That is the single most important job any exercise should have.


When that message has gotten through to the horse, we can use the exercise to instil mental clarity and physical strength. Once we have the mind of the horse quiet and focused, we can use the exercise to explain how to respond to the rider’s reins, legs and seat. The learning can begin. But without our ability to direct the horse’s mind to relax and focus, the exercise has only marginal value. We might teach the horse to be obedient, but the quality of the work will be a fraction of what the horse is capable of giving. Plus it will inevitably lead to a damaged relationship between horse and rider.


This is why two different people can perform exactly the same exercise with the same horse and get different results. One person uses the exercise to firstly quiet the mind and established sufficient focus before becoming particular about the accuracy of the movement. The second person ignores the resistance and anxiety and simply uses the exercise to create obedience of the feet. The two outcomes are galaxies apart.


So much training ignores the fact that training is largely a mental exercise, not a physical one. If you doubt this statement, just look at the modern competition dressage. It’s a disaster. For example, at the recent European Championships in Aachen there was a parade of stressed horses performing horrible tests. Most notably Andreas Helgstrand’s ride on Fiontina in the 5 year old class could arguably be described as abusive (and has by some experts), yet was rewarded with incredibly high marks from judges! It’s not just dressage; the problem is at every level and in all disciplines. I believe it stems from the fact that people forget they are riding a horse’s mind, not its body.


A rider can’t be heavy handed and barge through trouble by hammering away at an exercise and expect brilliance. First we must establish okay-ness and focus for the exercise to have any benefit. There is no higher priority.


I think in theory my message can seem obvious. But I equally know that in practice a change in what the horse’s body is doing can seem like a change in what it is thinking and feeling. Unfortunately this is not always true and we often misread what is really going on because we want to believe we are on the right path. We need reminding to look for what is changing on the inside of the horse before we worry about what is changing on the outside of the horse.


This is Andreas Helgstrand riding Fiontina at the recent European Championships in Germany.

The Outside Rein: Two Handed versus Neck Reining

I have written before about the role of the outside when asking a horse to make a turn or perform a circle. Coming from the world of dressage I was taught from an early age that the outside rein is always applied during a turn to ensure the shoulder’s of the horse do not drift to the outside of the turn. In other words, when turning to the left (for example) a rider should apply a feel to the right rein to prevent the horse drifting to the right.


Despite years of brain washing about the importance of the outside rein to keep a horse balanced in a turn, I don’t use it anymore. I don’t teach others to use it either.


I have recently been in discussion with somebody who asked me how to marry the concept of using the outside rein when neck reining a horse with my opposition to using the outside rein in two-handed riding? Why is it okay to apply outside rein when neck reining, but not when riding with two hands?


It’s a good question. However, I don’t believe there is any conflict between the two principles.


The reason why riders apply the outside rein when riding with two hands is because there is a disconnection between the inside rein and the horse’s thoughts. In a perfect turn, when a rider picks up the inside rein it should signal the horse to think to the inside, flex laterally to the inside and his feet should follow the arc of the turn. The correctness of the turn is dictated by the ability of the inside rein to direct the horse’s thought to follow the feel of the inside rein.


A horse will always try to follow its thought, so if the inside rein does not connect to the horse’s thought it will try to drift to the outside of a turn. This is where the outside rein comes into play. By using the outside rein, it blocks the feet from following the horse’s thought to the outside. The outside rein acts like a fence or barrier to allowing the horse to overshoot the turn. It doesn’t change the horse from thinking about drifting to the outside, but it does stop it from physically happening.  However, if the horse follows the feel of the inside rein with it’s mind, the outside rein becomes superfluous and is not required to fix the problem of the horse drifting to the outside.


So the answer to the problem of a horse leaking out of a turn is to connect the inside rein to the horse’s thoughts, not hide the problem by applying the outside rein. There are various ways of doing that, which are outlined in my book The Essence Of Good Horsemanship. But I hope I have sufficiently explained why I don’t teach people to use the outside rein when riding two-handed.


What about when riding single-handed or neck reining? Why is okay to use the outside rein when neck reining?


When neck reining is done well the outside rein makes contact with the outside of the horse’s neck to indicate to the horse to think to the inside, laterally flex to the inside and follow the arc of the turn with its feet. In other words, when turning left, touch the horse on the neck with the right rein. The horse will think and look to the left, bend left and turn to the left.


Of course, not all neck reining is done well. It’s not uncommon to see rider’s use the outside rein to push a horse to turn to the inside. This inevitably causes crookedness and imbalance. There is where the outside rein is not connecting to the horse’s thoughts. However, with correct training it is enough for the horse to feel the outside rein against the outside of its neck in order to direct the thought to the inside.


To me there is a huge difference in the role of the outside rein when riding two-handed versus single-handed. With single-handed turns the outside rein directs the horse’s thought and the feet to the inside. In contrast, with two-handed turns the outside rein simply blocks the feet from leaking to the outside, without a consequent change in the horse’s thought.


In the case of neck reining, the outside rein is actually intended to direct a horse’s thought, but in two-handed riding its purpose is to separate what a horse is thinking from what the feet are doing.


I think this video is a good example of neck reining done well. Bryan Neubert is demonstrating neck reining with an educated horse and then showing how he would start the training with a green horse.