Friday, February 26, 2016

Can You See the Problem? - Equine Eyesight

Research into how horses see is ongoing and a high priority, for good reason.  If we can understand how and what they see, then maybe---just maybe--we can better understand their behavior and how we contribute to the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
Here's looking at you, kid.

Much of what is in the linked article you probably already know.  Few horse owners aren't aware that their partner can see almost 180 degrees around him but has a blind spot in front of his face about 4 feet out.  We've seen a horse spin around to face something he knows is behind him, and we've seen him freak when a stranger reaches up to pet his head and that hand suddenly disappears from view.  We know that he will lower his head to see close up, like that cross rail he's probably going to knock down just for fun.  And we know he will raise his head to see into the distance.

We know that their eyesight is somehow connected to a brain that doesn't process quite like ours, which means he will spook at a rock on the left of the path that he just passed without incident when he was going the other way.  We still aren't entirely sure what that's about.

The interesting bullet points from the linked article are these:

  • Horses have a broader field of vision than ours but don't have the clarity because they are designed, as prey animals, to be sensitive to motion, not detail.

  • They see slightly better than we do because of the cool reflective surface inside their eyeballs that gives them that spooky glow, but the cannot, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, see as well in the dark as they can in the daylight.

  • They take far longer--as much as 45 minutes--for their eyes to adjust from being out in bright daylight to being inside in the relative darkness.

  • They can't see the ground in front of their front feet, so if they stumble on something they tend to get really upset about it.

  • Like us, they can focus with one eye at a time and with both, but it's different for them because their eyes are on opposite sides of their heads, not facing front.  So they switch from monocular to binocular vision by moving their heads around.  
Those are my picks for the most interesting facts from the article.  Putting them together, we should be able to see that the following scenario has DOOM written all over it:

You've gotten Princess out of the paddock, taken her into the barn and groomed and tacked her up for your jumping lesson.  Tacking up took a little while longer than expected because she fidgeted every time she heard a sound in the barn behind her.  She was cross-tied, so her view was limited.  You managed to get it all together and the last thing you did was adjust her standing martingale.  She likes to raise her head before the jumps and that's something that drives your trainer crazy, so keeping her head tied down is key.  You've taken her back out into the outdoor arena to warm her up.  The sun is shining brightly, and she goes through her paces just beautifully.  Someone calls your name, and you hustle into the indoor.  Your trainer tells you to do a lap at the trot then head for the first small jump, which Princess trips over.  She manages the next jump but is fighting the martingale.  By the third jumps she's run out to the left and you are upset and blaming her loudly.   This goes on for another 20 minutes, at which point she is doing the jump course perfectly and you are almost calm again.

Do you see the problems?  They're the stuff in bold.  You should be able to see that perhaps some changes in your routine would help make her life easier.  Give her time for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, for instance.  Instead of warming up in the sun right to the moment of your lesson, stop worrying about impressing your trainer and stand her in the barn to let her eyes adjust.  Either lose the martingale entirely or leave it loose until after the first round of jumps so she knows where everything is because she can raise her head to use her binocular vision and her depth perception.

Such small changes in your approach can make a huge difference in her willingness to do the job you've decided she needs to do.  Remember at all times that you chose this career for her without her input.  So cut her some slack and give her every opportunity to do it well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Do-it-yourself Rehab

Rehabilitation Exercises from the Ground |

If I seem obsessed with rehabbing horses, it's because I and everyone I know seem to have a horse in need of a little TLC.  Minor injuries turn into major problems if they're not addressed and treated properly and promptly, but rehab is never fast nor prompt.  It's the slowest part of the process, and it's important not to skip steps. That pulled tendon might  look normal again now that the swelling is gone and Footloose is moving normally in the pasture, but the strength in the surrounding muscles isn't back to full fettle until the whole horse has been worked slowly and patiently back into shape.

Think about the last time you pulled a muscle or dinged up a shoulder joint in your own athletic little self.  I, for one, can't forget as all of my old un-rehabbed injuries have come back to haunt my dotage.  You have pain in some body part--your hip, for instance--so you can't fully use that hip joint appropriately and you adjust the way you move to compensate.  My daughter shouting after me, "Waddle like the wind!" sticks in my memory, and that hip disaster sticks in my body more than 12 years past the injury date.

So there you waddle, and maybe you manage to heave yourself into the saddle to ride.  But you're not using all the muscles you should be.  Some of them are just lying there, flaccid stupid rat-finks that they are, and they're getting weaker by the day.  It takes a mere two weeks before a muscle completely loses tone, and less if you leave it completely immobile or weren't in top condition before the unplanned horizontal girth inspection.  If you take the time and put in the painful effort, you can work those weak spots back into harness in a matter of another couple of weeks.  If you wait until your pain is completely gone, that could be far longer.

And you're only carrying your own body weight.

Now look at the horse's tendon again and think about how it would feel if it were yours and you were carrying a fifty pound bag of feed on your shoulders.  Yeah.

A-rehabbing we shall go!

The linked article gives a nice selection of groundwork exercises you can start with as your horse sits around unready to be ridden.  There can never be too many stretches.  You know that.  So start with those.  Even before you are doing more than hand-walking him, stretches can figure in. Since I'm a clicker-training fan, I love using that time for a little extra trick training.  When Zip, for instance, is recovering from one of his many self-inflicted injuries to his front hoof or foreleg, the trick I cue with "Show me!" is a great stretch and a great way to judge how well his healing is progressing.

"Show me!"
 This is Zip a couple of weeks ago.  He'd had an abscess in that right front hoof that had been the very devil to resolve since it involved gravel that traveled up between the hoof wall and sole.
"Thank you!"

Once the abscess was successfully opened and my faithful horseshoer, the next step was the healing.

Now, since he'd been gimping around and at one point had some infection traveling up his leg, he wasn't using any part of his body appropriately, but the full-body-work part of his rehab is still to come.  At the moment he's on turnout just doing it himself, walking around and using all of the pieces as they were designed to be used.

But the weak right front leg and sore hoof were more important from the get-go.  So the boots went on to protect the healing hoof (a nifty item I covered two weeks ago with links and everything) and to hold the poultice to keep him healing, and the first test was "Show Me".  The pictures show him demonstrating with the right front--the damaged hoof--which is great.  That he picked it up and put it out for me to check was a step in the right direction...literally.  The better news was that he did equally well with the left front, meaning that he was more than willing to put full weight on the healing hoof.

I trained this years ago by combining "Pick it up" (the hoof), "Hold it" (off the ground), and then manually pulling the foreleg forward and adding "Show me" as the cue.  If you do all that in advance, then the next time  you want to see how he's progressing, you needn't contort and poke and prod.  Just ask, and he shall reveal!

This is also the beginning of the "Big stretch!" behavior where I ask for both front feet to be extended in a full-body stretch.  If he's feeling up to snuff, he'll perform it and it'll be good for both of us.  If he's stiff or sore, I'll get a big NO on Big Stretch and I'll know there's work to be done.

So there you have it.  Start small and work up to that five minutes under saddle.  You won't regret the time invested.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Hands-On or Hands-Off? What's the Big Deal?

Real Riders Don't Hand-Off Horsemanship - Horse Collaborative
Raising a hands-on horseman requires a
little patience, and a lot of dirt.

Oh, I do love this topic!  Next to the downside of benign interventionism, it's something that every horse owner needs to think about.  So here it comes again for your consideration on two different levels.

First, though, I promised last week that I'd have two book recommendations for you, so that's where we'll begin.

Book #1:  The latest by Michael Johnson, The Trials of Joe Ben Black, is a new and welcome addition to the learning experiences this psychologist/motivational speaker/roper from Texas shares with us.  In Healing Shine, I, for one, learned a Very Big Lesson indeed.  I learned that if the horse isn't working right, it's my fault.  Yes, always.  Either I messed up the training, am not a good enough rider, or I picked the wrong job for the horse and was too stubborn to admit it.  Joe Ben Black brings a reprise of that lesson along with the new Big One: Stop feeling guilty and fix it!  As with Healing Shine, I highly recommend the audio book.  Michael's voice is part of the charm, and on this book he sings.  Yup.  Singin' cowboys still exist.

Book #2:  The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, by Sarah Knight gives the reader not only permission to stop wasting energy on all levels on things that just don't matter (like who's going to criticize your horse's f*cks for that stuff), but the tools to effect this huge life-shift.  If there's one thing most of us need less of, it's pointless wheel-spinning in service to imaginary goals and standards.  You still have to care about the things that matter, but this book helps sort out the Line the Must Not Be Crossed.

And both of those bring us to today's subject:  Hands on, hands off, and who cares?

Here's where the hands-on meets the road.
This is normal, I swear.
What do we mean by "hands-off" horsemanship?  Off the top (and not in the linked article) we mean those horse-and-rider pairs that have morphed into a threesome (or more) because the rider-owner is either afraid to screw up the process, has insufficient experience in training horses to dare try, or is suffering from anxiety related to the idea of jumping on an incompletely-trained animal whose body mass and attitude might be a bit unnerving.

We also mean the "horseman" (now you can read the article above) who has never learned to groom, do first aid, choose a feed regimen, or convince a horse to stand still for a farrier.  No involvement in the daily care of the animal puts a huge wall between the rider and the horse.  There's no intimacy in the relationship, and if ever you want intimacy it's when you're trying to read the mind of a creature that can kill you with a single blow.

The hands-off rider is the person who sends their new horse out for 30 (60, 90) days' with a pro or who hires someone to ride the horse on site to "get the bucks out" or put a "finish" on the beast.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Without hands-off riders, most trainers would be languishing in their German boots or Resistol hats bemoaning their inability to pay the rent.  Instead, there has always been a need for pros to handle the horses that belong to the folks who can't handle them alone.  It's a wise rider-owner who recognizes his or her weaknesses and accommodates them.  Ignoring them can be deadly.

And hard as it might be to admit, not every rider has the talent or ability to train a horse intended for the competitive life.  There's a reason why only a handful of horses make it to the Olympics.  Part of that is that they also can be short on talent and/or desire to excel.  The other part is that they have not been taught how to use their bodies effectively to eek out every last bit of what talent and athleticism they have.  Not every horse is a Vallegro and not every rider is a candidate for the highest honors the equestrian world has to offer.

The hands-off owner wouldn't know a lame horse if it limped past him on crutches and can't tell if the horse he owns is behaving oddly because he hasn't spent enough time around him to know what normal looks like.

The completely hands-on rider is the do-it-yourself-er of equestrians.  This bold owner-rider was born with few fear genes and is willing to suffer the slings, arrows, bucks and rears that might go along with bringing a new horse up to (or down to) speed.  Many of us fall into this category.  You'll recognize us by the gleam in our eye when someone says, "Gee, I just can't quite get past being afraid to get on Dynamite since he ran me through the barn wall!"  We travel with a halter and lead in one hand and our insurance card in the other.  We are the epitome of what otherwise normal people see as folks with a death wish.  Leery owners love us; insurance carriers hate us.  Most of us will have a good time, rack up a long list of bodily damages and ER visits, and never see a blue ribbon at anything bigger than a locally rated show.  No National Horse Show for us.  We just don't all have the chops for that.  We would, but they're buried in the dirt with our dignity.

Learning that horses don't come groomed and saddled is a plus
for any horseman.

We do, however, all have the chops to wield a muck fork, to fill a feed bucket, and to learn how to take our horse's vital signs and describe his behavior to a vet.  We all can learn to handle our own horses  from the ground.  We can spend enough time at the barn where the horse is living  to learn all the ins and outs of his car and handling.  We can, and we should.

There is a lot to be said on the positive side of both approaches, and this is where the truth lies.  In the middle between the hands-off and hands-on riders are the ones who know when to ask for help but who understand that a horse trained without the long-term rider on hand isn't going to stay trained for long. Nothing un-trains a horse faster than a rider who didn't read the same book, and nothing is more frustrating than a horse/rider pair where only one knows whether the horse is okay to ride today.  And that is the value to combining the two approaches.

Send that young (or sour, or OTTB) horse off to a pro, by all means.  But go with him.  Spend days observing the methods being used.  Take lessons on the horse with the person who is training him.  Watch how he's handled, what he's fed.  Stand with him when the farrier trims his feet.  You'll learn volumes more than if you simply let someone else do all the work.  Use what's available to make your partnership more than just in-name-only.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Rehabbing Horses, redux

Hi-di-ho, Horse Lovers!

It's been a while.  I thought a break from the blog would help me stop whining about all the craziness in the horse world.  It did not.  I did luck into some wonderful wines, however.

Today I'm here to share two things.  Or three.  I'll count later.

The last post I wrote was about recovery and not rushing your horse (or yourself) through the necessary baby steps that work to make for a sound outcome.  I recommended taking your time, working back slowly even though it appears on the surface that a few steps could easily be skipped.

I was right.  That doesn't happen always, so let me luxuriate for a moment.....


Most recently I've been dealing with results on both sides of the recovery coin.  On one side is the 31-year-old Quarter Horse whose bout of neurological Lyme Disease seemed destined to signal his last hurrah.  His back and neck had become twisted.  He was able to walk, but preferred to stand with his hindquarters pushed against the fence or the wall for stability.

Before.: Summer 2014

During: Winter 2015
If you've never seen a neuro problem in a horse, as I hadn't, this can come as quite the surprise.  Still pictures don't do justice to the mobility issues he faced as the vet (Christopher Fazio, VMD), the acupuncturist, and I worked to get him past the illness and on the road to recovery.  A month of doxycycline, muscle relaxants, injections of scopolamine and B12 along his spine, and several relapses later, he's back to being the picture of health.  Come spring, when he shed out his gray winter hair, he'll look as he did in the "before" pic above.

The entire process, including some mild under-saddle and in-hand work to build his back muscles, has taken roughly a year.

The lesson to be learned from this is that there's no single approach that works perfectly, and there's no rushing success.  He suffered three relapses, the last in October of 2015, before coming back to full (elderly) health.  The picture at the top of the post is Leo today.  Hairy and gray, but in fine fettle.  Four months ago he barely had any fettle at all!

But he wasn't the only horse who had issues last winter.  The big Paint, Zip, suffered a bout of laminitis possibly connected to an illness.  He, too, got a month of doxy plus treatment for his feet, and he came around beautifully.  Being younger (he's coming 20) he rebounded much more quicly than old Leo could hope to.  I thought we were done with the bad stuff.  I was wrong.

He'd returned to full soundness within a couple of months and was back to light walk-trot work, only to develop some gravel between the hoof wall and sole that created a perfect abscess track.  There's nothing like a stubborn abscess in the hoof of a stubborn horse to give an owner pause about ever doing the horse thing again.  I now own even more back supporters and kinesiology tape than I thought possible.

On the positive side, I found a product that I will never again be without.  All Natural Horse Care, Canada, sells European-made horse boots.  Specifically, they sell boots that can be used for riding and for turnout as well.  That latter was my salvation.  This is the boot that saved my sanity and Zip's right front hoof.

He's not standing awkwardly.  He was showing off his boot and I caught him just putting his hoof back on the floor.  I upgraded from the Ultra to the Ultimate, which is what is shown here.  The Ultra Equine Jogging Shoe is fabulous and comes with inserts for founder as well as regular gel insoles.

But I found that arthritic hands and straps-and-buckles are not a good match.  So when the Ultimate was released, I jumped right on it.  This is all-velcro all the time!  That means I can quickly remove a boot, check the hoof under it, disinfect, treat...whatever.  Then the boot goes back on as easily as it came off, which is pretty darned easily.

These boots are wonderful for poulticing.  Just add the poultice mix of your choosing to the boot before you close the velcro or use a catheter syringe to squish it into the boot after it's entirely on.

I can't say enough nice things about this product!  I tried others.  I won't write about them here because I try to avoid completely negative reviews of anything that might work for someone else.  But you can believe me when I say that of all the options, this proved to be the best.  They're not cheap at over $200/pair, but they are sturdy enough to last for years under normal wear and tear.  Zip's been wearing these for almost a month (with breaks for airing out of everything) and they are like new....dirty, but like new otherwise.

That's all the news for this week.  Next time I'll get into a book I recently read--two, in fact--that you'll surely want to have on hand.

Till then.