Thursday 29 August 2013

Are you too heavy for your horse?

I just read a piece in a horse magazine about the maximum weight of rider that a horse should carry. This is a topic that has cropped up in the equine press quite a bit recently, and it would be easy to get confused. The British Equestrian Veterinary Association (BEVA) say that riders should weigh no more than 15% of their horse's weight. A recent study in Japan might lead you to believe that this figure is actually 29%!

To take a practical example, say your horse is 15.2hh and weights 500KG. BEVA would say the rider should weigh no more than 75KG (11 stone 11), the Japanese study would say the maximum weight was 145KG (22 stone 11)! A huge difference, and not very helpful.

The Japanese study looked at one breed of horse only, in walk and trot, and so it would be dangerous to generalize from this. But can we find some general ‘rule’ to work out how much weight a given horse can carry?

The short answer is no - every horse is an individual, and there are so many factors that determine how much weight an individual can carry that it is, in my opinion, impossible to generalise. 

Considering a practical example of the weight carrying abilities of humans may help to clarify my point of view. 

Two brothers, Jack and Jim, used to deliver hay to me. They were both in their 80’s, probably about 5ft 8 ish, medium build. They would merrily unload 100+ small bales of hay and stack them in the shed, at an impressive speed. So they were able to carry much more weight than you would expect, and for much longer. Why?

Mainly, I guess, because they had been doing it all their lives. Their weight carrying technique was clearly good, they had the right muscles for the job and so on.

I’ve seen bigger, younger, fitter people who definitely couldn't do this without risking an injury.

The same applies to horses, I think. You can’t just look at their weight (or height/breed/build) and say how much weight they could carry. You need to look at their physical condition, the work they are used to, their weight carrying technique and so on. 

Looking at a couple of my horses may (or may not, who knows!) be helpful.
Benson is in his 20’s, is quite arthritic, and has been in light work only for years – including 2 long breaks for tendon injuries. This picture was taken after a full year of rest. You can see he is putting a lot of weight on his front end even without a rider. On a walking hack, he can comfortably carry a 13 stone person but I wouldn't ask him to carry this weight if he was trotting and cantering in the school. So I would not even ask him to carry 15% of his bodyweight.

I would however still ride him – he’s not one to exercise himself in the field, and during his extended periods of rest, he has become noticeably stiffer and more on the forehand, so I think that light hacking or light schooling with an appropriate rider is good for him.

At the other extreme, Elvis the exmoor pony is in good shape physically. I don’t know his exact weight, but he’s carrying something like 20% of his body weight here, and I’m quite comfortable that that is not too much for him.

So, I don't believe there is a nice neat formula to tell you how much weight your horse can carry

The best advice I can give in this area, is the usual - listen to your horse. I only worked out percentages when I was writing this, and never think about them normally! I know, for example, that Elvis can manage my weight because he can walk, trot and canter in a forward, relaxed manner with me on his back. If he seemed to be getting tense or struggling with his work in any way, weight might or might not be the issue - and my focus would be on working out what the issue was and resolving it. 

Tuesday 20 August 2013

For Humans who have behaviour problems when Loading their Horses!

Horses that are difficult to load seem to bring out the worst in us.  
Often we approach this problem by simply trying to make the horse go into the trailer. Pressure is applied to the horse’s face, mouth, hind end, sides, escape routes are blocked, and often, depending on our level of skill in the questionable art of making horses do stuff they really don’t want to do – we ‘succeed’.

Until the next time..

‘Making’ a horse go into a trailer is sometimes necessary – in an emergency situation you may have no other option. But don’t confuse it with reliable training.

Our goal when dealing with loading problems is for the horse to be relaxed and comfortable about going into the trailer every time we ask him to. If we can ‘make’ him go into the trailer, but he is tense and worried about it, his behaviour will never be consistent.

This brings up a very important point in all horse training – if the horse is worried, he will be looking for ways to feel better, and that will probably be his main focus. He won’t learn well, and he will be unpredictable as he tries to make himself feel better. His efforts could include rearing, running away, planting, backing up, kicking, barging – you name it.  

So, often what goes wrong during training is that we focus on the ‘into the trailer’ bit and forget about the essential ‘relaxed and comfortable’ bit.

The first loading case I ever handled is a classic example. By the time I got involved, 5 other professionals had been out to work with this horse, and the owner had just about given up hope. All had got the horse into the trailer, some had repeated the loading several times. All had provoked some pretty extreme behaviour from the horse, but, if you like, had won the argument and made the horse load. Unfortunately, once the owner was left alone, the problem was no better than before.

Despite this lack of success, it took quite a bit of effort to convince the owner that short, calm sessions, in which the horse took a step or two more towards the trailer was rewarded for his progress would work – she wanted to see him in the trailer during every training session. Fortunately she gave it a try and within about 10 days he was loading perfectly, and has done so ever since.

So, when training, we need to be very clear about what progress towards the goal is. A session which consists of having a big fight with your horse, and ending up with a sweaty, anxious horse inside a box, is most probably not progress.
A session during which everyone (human and equine) keeps calm, and the horse gets closer to the trailer, or further up the ramp, than he has before without getting worried is progress – and is safer for you and your horse, good for his welfare, and good for your relationship with him.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Does your horse always come when you call?

Recently someone ‘admitted’ to me that her horse didn't always come immediately when she called him. She felt that this was a sign that their relationship wasn't as good as it could be, and was relieved and surprised that, when she explained his behaviour in more detail, I thought it was a sign of a healthy relationship and good management.

Of course it seems nice when your horse is waiting for you eagerly at the field gate, or comes galloping up the field as soon as he hears you coming. My horses still come up to the yard when I arrive, but not in a desperate hurry, and mainly because the first thing I do is provide food! They are all perfectly willing to spend time with me; sometimes they approach me; at other times they are more interested in playing, grooming or just hanging out with each other and I need to ask them to come to me.

To me, this is a good thing. Above all, I want to give my horses as happy and healthy a life as possible, and if they are perfectly content out grazing with their equine pals, and not depending on me to provide all the good things in their lives, that is great. After all, I'm only there a few hours a day. In fact, I'd prefer it if they were at least as content with their equine friends as with me.

This has been reinforced recently - I'm currently at home on 'box rest' following an unplanned operation. I probably won't see my horses for a month; in the last 10 years I've never spent more than a few days away from them. So it is a great relief to know that they don't depend on me - although I think they enjoy my company, many of the good things in their lives have nothing to do with me, and I doubt that they will suffer from my absence.

Clearly, if your horse is heading for the hills every time you show up, or retreating to the back of his stable, there is a problem. But if he simply takes his time coming when you call, or you occasionally have to go and fetch him, it may simply mean that you've got his management right and he's happy!

Monday 5 August 2013

Building a relationship with a horse - quiet beginnings

Lovely feedback from a lovely woman, Susan, who came to visit my horses a couple of weeks ago. We didn't have any fixed plans - she has dogs and cats, but had not been around horses for decades. Turns out she has an interest in animal communication, and decided she would simply like to spend some time with one of my horses, Benson, and see what they made of each other. So, I let Benson and Susan loose in the school, trying to give as little guidance as possible. It was actually really interesting to watch - how as she changed what she was thinking and feeling, Benson moved between being slightly worried by her, to ignoring her, to being calm and interested in her, and on occassion even looking to her for ideas about what they could do together. For me, it is always fascinating to really slow things down and see how a seemingly small change in attitude from a person can make such a huge difference to how a horse percieves them, and whether they are a welcome prescence or not.

To use a human analogy, they looked like two strangers introduced then left alone at a party, awkward at first, then discovering they quite like each others company.

Unfortunately, Benson can't tell us how he felt about it in words, but here's what Susan wrote about it:

'An onlooker would see me standing near a horse, approaching and withdrawing and sometimes walking beside him for short distances.  What happened from my point of view was that Benson looked thoughtfully at me, taking me in as a new person, and then gradually accepted my presence and consented to walk beside me across the school a few times with both of us more comfortable each time.  I cannot put me experience of this into words but the sense of a relationship, however tentative, of acceptance and openness was unique.  It left me fizzing with an inner energy, humbled and grateful.  We miss so much in our clumsy dealings with non-human others.'

not Susan in the pic, by the way, this is Louisa!

Saturday 3 August 2013

How about less horse whispering and more listening?

'People ought to quit worrying so much about whispering to their horses and just start listening to them.' Greg Darnall

Exceptionally good advice!

I look back with more than a bit of embarrassment to my early days of horse owning. My first horse was one that I described as ‘difficult’. I didn’t worry too much about what she was doing – if she fidgeted when I put her saddle on that was ‘just her’. When she spun on the road and took off high speed for home I just thanked my lucky stars that I was still on board when we got there! She had ‘up’ days where I just knew she was going to buck, but again I put it down to her personality. If I thought at all about these issues, it was to feel a bit pleased with myself that I knew how to ‘manage’ her – how to ward off the odd threat to nip, how to speedily jump aboard an ever-moving horse, how to ‘ride through the bucks’ and so on. 

 I only started trying to listen to her when she finally had to resort to ‘shouting’ very loudly to get my attention – a spin and rear after which I ended up on the ground, with a skinned back, a bruised ego, and a big knock to my confidence.

Once I started trying to listen to her, rather than just thinking about how her behaviour affected me, I was amazed at how much I’d been missing.

This is how most of us are.  In the vast majority of cases I see, owners get in touch when they can no longer manage their horse’s behaviour – the horse has got to the ‘shouting’ stage. I repeatedly hear people say things like

'it was fine when she took 1/2 hour to catch, but last night it took 2 hours and  that's a problem'

 ‘I’ve always been able to manage her bucking, but now the bucks are really big and I broke my arm last time I fell off'

I’m sympathetic to this, as I’ve been there myself;  I think most of us have. Basically, the owner becomes seriously interested in their horse’s behaviour when it becomes frightening, unsafe or massively inconvenient to them.  I don't think this to do with people not caring about how their horse is feeling, we’re simply not very good at listening to them when they tell us.

So, next time your horse turns away when you go to catch him, makes a face at you, moves off when you try to mount, or throws in a wee buck when you are schooling him, listen to him. It’s far better for his welfare, and for yours, to resolve any issues while he’s still talking reasonably to you about them, than waiting until he has to really shout!