When I was a teenager I was a quick learner. I could watch somebody do something with a horse and then go away and practice it. It usually didn’t take long before I had worked out how to get my horse to do the same thing. I probably learned more from watching people and then practicing it on my own than I ever did by being instructed on how to do something. I had a good eye for seeing stuff and good co-ordination that allowed me to be effective at getting things done. I still think these are useful skills to have if a person is going to be a handy around horses.


It wasn’t until many years later that I realized I had been learning only half of what it took to be good with horses. Admittedly it was a an important half and one that everybody needs to learn in their journey to become skilled, but it alone was never going to be enough. All I was learning was to be effective at getting stuff done. I didn’t know any better because I was riding a lot of horses for people and had considerable success in competition. Everybody else seemed to think I was doing a good job and since they were older and smarter than me why would I ever question if I was on the right track or not.


Then one day I met an old bloke. I mean really old. He was old enough to remember the Big Bang. His English was weak, but that didn’t matter because when he was around horses he spoke more clearly than if he had written the Oxford Dictionary. Before he passed away I spent a lot of time in the company of him and his herd of horses. Despite not exchanging a lot of words we conversed volumes through his Icelandic and Fjord ponies.


Recently I have been thinking a lot about my friend. Particularly yesterday when I was playing with one of my wife’s horses, Guy. Guy is about 22 and Michèle was given him about 6 or so years ago. He had a lot of bad riding and handling for most of his life and was a real mess. He has been on vacation for most of the time we have had him, but the small amount of training Michèle has given him has made a hug difference. Still, it has been about 3 or 4 years since anybody has worked with him.


I began playing with him a couple of days ago because one my horses, Riley is covered in ant bites and there is nowhere I can put any gear on him that does not cause him discomfort. He looks like a leper.


Anyway, working with Guy has been fun. He is so smart and sensitive and gets easily upset at the slightest loss of clarity. He is a great project horse for somebody who is impatient. That’s what got me thinking about my friend. I realized that when I first met my ancient friend I was impatient. I remember when I was a teenager and receiving so much praise for being an effective rider, I was impatient. I remember that a lot of the success I had in jumping events was largely because I was impatient.


One of the earliest differences I saw between my non-English speaking friend and myself (and my mentors) was patience. He taught me the value of waiting. For a man that didn’t have a lot of years left, he acted around the horses as if he had a 1000 years left.


I recall one of my first experiences with my friend. I watched him load a pack onto a Fjord pony. It was freezing cold and about 10cm of snow covered everything, including the gear and ponies. But my friend waited at each step for the pony to be ready for the next buckle to be fixed or the next strap or pack to be steadied in place. At first I didn’t understand why he would go to adjust a strap, stop and scratch the pony, wait again, ask for a shift of weight, stop, touch an ear, stop and then adjust the strap. It seemed like some secret ceremonial ritual. But by the time he had done this with 8 ponies, I began to see what he was doing. He was waiting. He was waiting for the horse to check in with him and let him know it was okay. At each step he asked a horse if it was okay and then waited until the horse said, “it’s okay”.


I didn’t know what it was to wait for a horse. The idea that waiting was something you did was foreign to me. At first I thought it was some strange new-age gimmicky thing that foreigners did. But I eventually learned that my friend had figured out stuff I am still figuring out 30 years later. Sometime later I discovered that he was equally confused by me when he watched and noticed that I didn’t know how to wait for a horse to be ready. He thought it was some new-age gimmicky thing that foreigners did too.


Waiting has always been a challenge for me. I think those early years of learning to be effective also taught me that horses were meant to be on my schedule, not me on theirs. But my friend showed me that to get something done when a horse was not ready was an abuse of power and privilege – it’s what bullies do, not horseman.


I have a lot of stories about my friend. He was the first horseman I met that truly thought of his horses as family to be loved and cared for. He is long gone now, but I hope some of things he taught me are some of the things I teach my students – and maybe they will teach a new generation. Then he will never really be gone.


Photo: This is not a photo of my friend, but it think it is a good picture that conveys something about the relationship between horse and horseman.

The Horse: Evolution and Function

It is my opinion that there have been 4 great scientific discoveries in the last 100 years that have dramatically changed the way we understand the world. The first is Ernest Rutherford’s work on the structure of atoms and their decay. The second was the discovery of the DNA alpha helix by Watson and Crick. Thirdly was the ability to sequence genomes. Fourthly is the very recent discovery of gravitational waves that may lead to revelations about the universe(s), past and future, that were never thought discoverable.


However, the discovery of how to sequence entire genomes is the one that I want to mention today. The importance of this scientific breakthrough cannot be understated because it transformed Darwin’s ideas from theory to a fact. The ability to sequence entire genomes of complex organisms (including humans) has put beyond question or debate that Darwin was largely on the mark when he theorized that species evolved from species that came before. There is no longer room for discussion about creationism or intelligent design because genetic sequencing has now debunked them beyond any doubt and they now belong to the history books along with claims like the earth is flat and illness is caused by evil spirits.


So knowing that this claim will both upset and be rejected by some people, why do I put my neck on the line with it?


Since my post on March 22, I have been privately corresponding with a regular reader who felt offended by my belief that shoeing some horses in some circumstances can be a better option that leaving them barefoot. The essential argument they presented is that the hoof of a horse is both complex and brilliant. They argued that the hoof is an amazing piece of engineering that makes it optimally designed to carry out its function. Therefore fitting metal shoes to a hoof interferes with the optimal function by altering the way it interacts with the ground. The bottom line of their argument is that horse’s feet were designed to be perfect as they are for what they need to do. They believe that shoeing a horse hinders the hoof function for which it is perfectly designed to do.


I reject this argument for a very simple reason.


For an animal to possess any anatomical or physiological feature, it does not need to be perfect, it only needs to work. If we focus on the feet of horses, the hoof has many design flaws that leaves it susceptible to problems like laminitis, pedal osteitis, bruising, infections, arthritis etc, (sometimes caused by humans and sometimes not).


The hoof is designed well enough to support the frame of a horse and allow movement. But it fails in other ways. Just because a mechanism such as a hoof is the culmination of many thousands of years of evolution, does not mean it is perfect. It doesn’t need to be perfect. 


Evolution only needs to create a design that works well enough for the animal to be able to successfully reproduce. The hoof only has to fulfill its function adequately to ensure a horse from lives long enough to pass its genetic characteristics to the next generation. This does not mean it has to be a perfect or optimal design. That’s not how evolution works.


This is true of virtually every function of an organism – they all have strengths and weaknesses and being perfect for the job hardly ever exists. I use to set an exam question each year for honours year physiology students asking them to outline a better design for human sight or locomotion or kidneys or skin etc (it changed each year). With a little thought it was an easy question to answer because there is a range of ways to improve each system. For any system to exist it only has to function well enough to get the organism to the stage where it can reproduce and pass along our genes.


If you understand this fact of life you also understand that we can sometimes help overcome the weaknesses that nature has created. And example of improving upon nature might be fitting shoes to a hoof to make a horse more comfortable and functional. Another example is when good dental care can make a horse more comfortable, make it healthier and prolong its life. Perhaps another instance is parasite control – even in wild herds parasites (such as ticks) can be a major problem that both hinders the quality and length of a horse’s life.


Maybe this post is more of a soap-box type lecture than most, but my recent exchange with a reader prompted me to realize that there are people who believe that horses are made perfect and human intervention can only get in the way of their perfection. I think that concept is a hard one to justify when we look at the facts. That is not to say that sometimes we aren’t that cause for making life harder and more miserable for horses, but we also have the ability to make their life better too. The choice is ours.


Photo: Speaking of perfection ….

Cleaning A Horse's Sheath

I’m going to talk a little about cleaning the sheath of stallions or geldings. I don’t relish discussing this topic, but I keep coming across people who believe it is an important part of horse husbandry. I don’t know if it’s worth noting that in my experience it is always women who insist on cleaning the sheaths of their horses – never men. But I will leave it the Freudians to explain that one.


Over the years, I have been told many times what an uncaring horse owner I am for not cleaning the sheaths of my geldings. So after inadvertently coming across a video on the subject I finally felt compelled to explain.


I have always questioned the need to clean the sheath. I have been told several reasons why it is important, but most of them seem to be myths and not based on real facts. If a person were to believe the reasons why sheaths need to be cleaned regularly, it can only leave a person thinking it is a miracle that wild horses were ever able to reproduce.


Most people who believe in the importance of cleaning sheaths seem to have fallen for the idea that an unclean penis looks dirty therefore it is dirty. In particular, the build-up of oily substances that continually secrete from the penis leads to a build up of smegma  - sometimes dry and sometimes oily. It looks bad and disgusting, but it is perfectly normal and even healthy.


The amount of smegma produced varies from horse to horse. Horses with white penises tend to produce more smegma than those with black ones, however, both are normal. It is very rare that a horse produces too much smegma and needs to be managed by cleaning.


There is a misconception that smegma harbours unhealthy bacteria and needs to be removed regularly, but in fact, smegma protects the penis from bacterial infection. Cleaning the penis of smegma makes horses more susceptible to infection.


Some breeders also believe that cleaning stallions lowers the risk of introducing infection to a mare and also increases the rate of fecundity. However, as I have just said smegma is protective against infection (it contains anti-microbial agents shown to inhibit bacterial growth) and it has been demonstrated in a study in Pennsylvania that the bacterial population on the surface of a penis is greater days after cleaning than before cleaning. Some of those species of bacterium have been linked in other studies to uterine tract infections. It can take up to 3 weeks for the normal bacterial population to return to normal after cleaning.


Furthermore, it has been recorded that stallions in the wild reach conception rates of up to 85 percent, which compares favourably with the conception rates of many domestic stallions (70+ percent). That is not proof that unwashed sheaths lead to better productive outcomes, but it does suggest that leaving them unwashed does not diminish the rate of conception.


Another reason people sometimes feel compelled to clean the sheath is to remove a small accumulation of smegma from the end of the penis (urethral fossa) called a plug or bean. It is thought by some that this plug hinders a horse’s ability to urinate. The problem is typified by a ‘camped-out’ stance and hunched back while trying to urinate. However, it has been shown that the build up of smegma (plug) is no match for the force of the stream of urine and is easily ejected during urination when the plug grows too big. It is more likely that the posture of hunching the back is an indication of other problems such as back pain (caused by the camped-out posture) or ulcers.


Finally, occasionally a sheath can appear enlarged or swollen. Many people take this as a sign that the sheath needs cleaning. But the swelling is usually simply a build up of fluid during confinement due to the sheath being a low point on the body and where fluid drains towards – no different to how legs swell because gravity sends fluid in that direction. Most times the edema in the sheath is fixed by exercising the horse.


But are there times when the sheath should be cleaned? Yes.


I had a horse that had a squamous cell carcinoma on his penis and flies laid maggots in the wall of the tumour. It required that I washed his penis every day for about 10 days before the wound healed and didn’t need care anymore.


Sometimes a penis can have a small cut that requires regular cleaning to avoid infection. However, once the cut has healed it is not necessary to clean the penis anymore.


If you have a horse that needs their sheath cleaned for medical reasons, there are a couple of rules to keep in mind.


Firstly, never try to force a horse to drop its penis. If your horse is reluctant to drop its penis, it is better to sedate the horse (which will cause it to drop naturally) than try to physically force it out of hiding. It is a sensitive organ and needs to be handled gently.


Secondly, when cleaning the area always be gentle – do not scrub. Most of the smegma will flake or peel off easily and often you don’t even need water. Never use chemicals or harsh detergents and be careful not to break the skin.


I know some people will think this article is rubbish and not cleaning a horse’s sheath is a sign of an uncaring and negligent owner. But the bottom line is that a hell of a lot of gelding and stallions (both domestic and wild) get by and live long lives with never having had their sheaths cleaned. I know this because I have owned such horses.


This video is what prompted me to write this post. I disagree with virtually everything the vet says and does in the clip (including the assertion that smegma is skin). I would like to have treated this horse for parasites first and checked whether the tail rubbing stopped or find out if the tail rubbing ceased after the sheath was cleaned.


When I Am Made Emperor Of The Universe

I had an encounter a few weeks ago that bothered me a lot and even resulted in a disagreeable disagreement with an owner. Since then the incident has plagued my mind and I feel the need to vent briefly about things that bother me that horse owners do.


I know we all love horses. But I also appreciate that we all love them for different reasons. We have our own agendas when it comes to our reasons for why we have horses. It’s not for me to point fingers and lay down the law as to what are good reasons and what are bad ones. However, I am about to itemize some practices that “horse lovers” do that I feel questions their concern for their horses welfare.


I am happy to admit from the outset that this is a brief and incomplete list and that it probably reflects more about my prejudices and bigotry than from a thorough understanding of the subject. There maybe a few horses where there is a legitimate reason for the choices, but if it gets people thinking and talking about some of them, I’m okay about putting my head on the chopping block.


So here goes my list of how things will be different when I am made Emperor of the Universe.


* All horses should have companionship. No horse should live in isolation because they evolved to live in a community for safety. I would not own a horse if it was not possible for it to live among other horses – this includes stallions.


* All horses should live in enough space to play and run. Again, if this were not possible I would not own a horse.


* Rugs (blankets) should not be used on horses when the ambient temperature is about 13C (55F). Studies have shown that the thermo neutral temperature of horses is between 5C and 12C. I accept there maybe exceptions such as a horse being suddenly moved from a hot climate to a cold climate without acclimatization or where there is no shelter from wind and rain or to protect from biting insects.


* A total ban on the docking of tails and ears. This should need explanation.


* A ban on the trimming of whiskers. Whiskers are sensory organs and should not be trimmed.


* The decision to shoe a horse or leave it barefoot should be made on the basis of the comfort of the horse and not on any ideological dogma.


* Horses should be trained in either a bitless bridle or a comfortable snaffle. They should not progress to a more severe device until it is proved they don’t need it. If you need a stronger bit to make a horse be responsive to the reins, then they are not ready to be ridden with a stronger bit.


* Horses should not be ridden with spurs until it is proved they don’t need them. If you need spurs to make a horse respond to the rider’s leg, then they are not ready to be ridden with spurs.


* Horses should not be shown in a breed or halter class until it has proven success in a performance class. What is the purpose of breeding pretty horses that can’t perform?


* Horses should not be started under saddle until at least 3 years of age and no horse should be entered for performance competition until at least 5 years of age (including racing).


* There should be a total ban on any discipline with a high probability of injury eg, bull fighting (rejones), Mexican rope tripping (see photo), extreme endurance etc


* A horse should not be routinely made to lay down in order to subjugate it. It should only be used in rare cases as a method of last resort.


*Driving horses around in a yard in order to subjugate them should be banned.


*The only Golden Rule is that there are no Golden Rules.


There is no doubt this is a very incomplete list, but the point is not to provide you with a list of steps to live by. For me, the thing they all have in common is they each benefit the welfare of horses.


I simply want to inspire you to think about what items might go on your own list for when you are made Emperor of the Universe and wish to make horse’s lives better.

The Little Things

I got an email asking about overcoming the problem of a horse that rushed backwards out of a horse trailer.


I thought to save time I would send the enquirer a link to a video on the internet of somebody using a good approach. It didn’t take long for Google Search to find a couple of videos of trainers using slight variations on a similar idea. I’ve included links to them both here. But please don’t become fixated on the pros and cons of the videos or the trainers – that’s not what this article is about. No judgment is being made about either trainer or the work in the video – they are just included as visual demonstrations to provide clarity to you.


It is interesting to watch both video clips from the two different trainers. To my knowledge neither trainer has worked with the other, yet there are similarities that can be seen in both clips. If I was to add a video of myself working a horse with a similar problem (which I don’t have), you might also see a commonness of ideas with the other video clips.


Yet, I guarantee that if the three of us were working with identical horses and using the same general approach, the final outcome would be very different for each.


There are certain trainers whose work I can recognize just by watching or working with the horses they have trained. A few people have told me that they can recognize my work by riding a horse that I have spent time educating. A trainer’s work can be worn by a horse like a brand or a trademark.


It has nothing to do with the methods that are used.


What separates many horse people from each other is not their methods, as much as the way they apply those methods. The nuances and shades of grey in the application of feel are more important in determining the final product than any specific method.


Even when different trainers are highly skilled at what they do, the results can be variable because their objectives are different. They may all have a brilliant sense of feel and timing, but they direct it towards different goals. For example, some trainers prioritize perfecting the movement, some on speed and some on emotional wellness. Each may use identical methods (or close to), but they adjust their feel to better fit their objective.


I have found that most horse people have problems looking past the superficial. They see somebody apply a method and get a result they would like to have, then they go home and try to copy the method. Inevitably more often than not, it does not work out nearly as well as they had hoped. People are okay at seeing the obvious, but pretty poor at seeing the subtle.


I know this to be true because many people have watched me work and then assumed I was taught by umpteen different trainers – none of whom I know or would want to know. But people see the superficial similarities of things like rope halters and hindquarters yields and miss the differences in objectives.


It’s an awareness issue that comes from many thousands of hours of work at it. I believe it’s the subtleties that make the difference between a poor, mediocre or brilliant outcome.


You’ll hear lots of people rave about a trainer or clinician on the basis that they like their methods. Only occasionally will you hear people praise a person because they like the way they present to a horse. But I look forward to the time when people are less interested in examining training methods and more interested in discussing the presentation of those methods.