Wednesday 5 November 2014

Equine Cushing's disease and behaviour

About 6 weeks ago, I asked my vet to test Benson for Equine Cushing's disease. He is 24 years old, there weren't strong indications but he was sweating a little round the shoulders when he shouldn't have been, and some coat loss throughout the summer. He came back with a high reading, and we started him on medication.

I'm awaiting blood test results, but the behavioural changes so far are interesting:

  • He is interacting much more with the other horses - mutual grooming with his old pal Paddy, and even playing nippy games, which I haven't seen him do in years
  • He is more alert and responsive, and keen to interact with people. A few people over the summer had called him 'bargy' - he simply wasn't paying much attention to his environment and was slow to respond. This included not noticing or reacting to people around him. His supposedly 'dominant' behaviour, 'not respecting' people etc. has been miraculously improved by medication...
  • He is vocalising more, whinnying to the other horses
  • He is muddy! He is rolling more
  • Not behavioural, but he's put on weight and muscle tone is looking better. 
The downward progression with Benson was very, very gradual. Improvement has been very quick. Apart from the obvious point - test your horse for Cushings if you see any small signs, this is another case where behaviour could easily be attributed to the horse having a 'bad attitude' in one way or another, when they are actually unwell. 

Sunday 26 October 2014

Friendship between horses

Paddy may be hitting his fourth decade, but he is still bright and sociable, and very much a ladies man.Over the last couple of months, he's formed a strong attachment with a very elegant chestnut mare he shares his field with, along with about a dozen other horses.

Today was one of the saddest sights I've seen in a while. The chestnut mare was moved to another field while Paddy was away from the field having his breakfast with my other horses. On turning them all out, the others were calm and behaving as usual. Paddy trotted then cantered up the field, calling and calling for the mare. He checked the whole (very large field), then just stood there whinnying - much more deeply and loudly than usual.
No blame to anyone else - Paddy's welfare is my responsibility, and none of us can find a perfect environment for our horses, we just do the best we can. Sharing a field with lots of other horses has been so good for Paddy - the downside is that horses will come and go, for all sorts of reasons. 

It really made me think about how we move horses, suddenly breaking bonds and having such a big impact on them - and often with little thought of how this feels from their point of view. We are rightly concerned and careful about introducing new horses, but may give little thought to taking horses away from a group, which is equally significant from the horses point of view. Planning ahead for group stability can make such a difference to your horse and is often undervalued or not considered at all. 

Sunday 21 September 2014

Hair by Benson (mutual grooming)

Benson giving my hair that special extra today - but amazing how gentle he is, especially when he touches my face. Of course you need to be careful about rubbing noses with a horse, but such a shame when bonding behaviours like this are discouraged or misread as the horse being pushy, aggressive etc.

Sunday 31 August 2014

Sticking to the rules in dressage

Amongst many horse lovers, dressage is getting an increasingly bad name. When I go out to clients I am often struck by their willingness to get help from a riding instructor, but their immediate rejection of an instructor who specialises in dressage - 'I don't like dressage', 'the horses always look so forced', 'I don't want anyone doing that to my horse'. And these views are entirely understandable. 

It is sad that a common view now is that dressage aims to produce horses who move in a spectacular way, whilst looking somewhat tormented. It is not, in my opinion, the rules (and aims) of dressage that are causing the problems, it is lack of adherence to the rules - sorry, but a lot of the problem is down to the judges. 

The first 2 points in article 401 of the FEI rules illustrate this well:


1. The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse into a happy Athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the Horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the Athlete.

These qualities are demonstrated by:

• The freedom and regularity of the paces.
• The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements.
• The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion.
• The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlassigkeit) without any tension or resistance.

2. The horse thus gives the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required. Confident and attentive, submitting generously to the control of the Athlete, remaining absolutely straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines.

Some would argue, quite fairly, that judgement of these points are subjective, and will always be open to disagreements and interpretation. But really, could anyone say that the above horse is 'giving the impression of doing, of its own accord, what is required'? Or that there is harmony, lightness and ease?  

The FEI rules also state that 

'Abuse of a horse using natural riding aids or artificial aids will not be tolerated'

another one where the judges seem to be somewhat out of sync with the general horsey public. That the horse and rider pictured above should come 4th in the WEG dressage Grand Prix Special is, in my opinion, deeply concerning. People will justify the scoring, saying that pictures like the one above represent 'just a moment in time', but how many of these moments are tolerated, and how uncomfortable does the horse have to be, for how long, before it is reflected in the scores? 

It's a strange world where humble 'happy hackers' would not actually allow a good number of the world's most successful competitive riders within a mile of their horses, but seeing pictures such as the one above, this would certainly be my view.  

Thursday 7 August 2014

How to put horsey people off science?

A few days ago, I was given a newspaper cutting – in fact I received 3 copies of it as a few people had seen it and thought I might be interested. The headline was

‘Not straight from the horse’s mouth – only its eyes and ears.’

Below that, the catchy line

‘Scientists have discovered the secrets of equine communication’.

Having just last week finished preparing a weekend’s worth of teaching material on equine body language, of course I was interested.

My first thought was it seemed a bit of an odd headline, implying that horses only communicate with their eyes and ears. Horses communicate in many ways – through scent, vocalisation, through body language involving their entire outline, their tails, ears, lips, head position and so on. If scientists had just proved that they only communicate with eyes and ears, what had I been writing about, finding pictures and videos of for the last month? 

And, to be picky, at most the scientists could have discovered a secret of equine communication – equine communication is rich and sometimes very subtle, and there is much we still don't know. 

Turns out, a title along the lines of  ‘Scientists have confirmed one aspect of equine communication’ might be more accurate.

This is not a criticism of the research, but of how it is presented by the press. There is a worrying divide between those researching equine behaviour and those working in the equine industry. The research in this case, understandably, does not live up to the headline and then many of those with experience with horses read on for a bit and think 'I knew that already' or 'that's totally obvious' and go on to dismiss the scientists and their results (yes, I’ve had several emails and messages already scorning this research), and both sides lose out. 

And horses lose out. Because a lot of great research is going on in many areas of equine behaviour, health and welfare that equine industries, and therefore horses, would really benefit from. Anything that turns the general equine industry off science, and discourages them from reading what the researchers have to say is a bad thing, in my opinion. 

Sunday 29 June 2014

Some special mutual grooming

Yet more horse watching today. 2 mares, lets call them Bree and Sapphire (not shown in the photo below, as they weren't my horses). Sapphire has a sore back, although I don't know the details about this.

 Bree and Sapphire are mutual grooming. Bree digs her teeth vigorously into Sapphires mane and works along her neck, Sapphire responding with equal enthusiasm. 

When they move on past the withers though, it changes. Sapphire continues to groom 'normally' with her teeth, but Bree shuts her mouth and makes a gentle circular motion with her nose until she is almost level with Sapphire's hip. She then resumes vigorous grooming with the teeth. Wish I could have shared it on video here, quite special. 

Saturday 28 June 2014

Trust between horses

These horses and ponies have been together for about 5 weeks now, and are obviously pretty relaxed in each others company!

Some of their play could look fairly aggressive to the human eye, but it is wonderful (and educational) to see how they chase, rear, nip and push each other, then settle down for a nap with no fear of or distrust towards each other. Sound asleep right behind 2 horses, where humans are advised to not even walk let alone lie down and sleep! A worthwhile goal - to spend time being active with our horses and come away with this level of comfort around each other?

In case it isn't clear, I am no more suggesting we should copy natural horse behaviour here than engage in a bout of play fighting with a horse! Leave that for the horses. But the relationship part is worth aiming for.

Saturday 14 June 2014

What's in a name?

Currently reading an interesting article by Dr. Karen Overall about the need for precision in terminology relating to behavioural problems in animals. A couple of good quotes:

"The vast majority of clients and veterinarians, wittingly or not, engage in a terminology and thought process rooted in an adversarial relationship with the animals who share their lives. Physical pain is deemed as 'real', afflicting innocent patients; behavioural pain is often thought to be someone's fault or the result of a deeply flawed character"

"If what we call something affects the way we think about it, then what we call it is essential; yet we in behaviour have been incredibly careless and in so being, have done harm"

In the horse world, there are the obvious labels that are very unhelpful - the term 'stable vice' is still used and places the blame squarely on the horse. Describing a horse as 'dominant' likewise implies to most of us that the horse is at fault.

Even the common use of 'evasion' in riding. One dictionary definition of evasion reads 'trickery, cunning, or deception used to dodge a question, duty, etc' - no doubt where the blame lies when your horse 'evades'then!

Even the more subtle language like 'my horse is making me do all the work' - a comment made by a very tired rider who was working very hard while her horse trotted very, very slowly. Understandable, but is the situation really all the fault and responsibility of the horse? Did he phone her first thing and beg to be taken out and trotted round in circles for an hour? Is he actively encouraging her to keep kicking him at every stride, thereby wickedly tiring her out? Hmm...

Is there any practical use to these ramblings? Maybe... notice the way you think and talk about your horse, especially when things aren't going quite as you would wish. You may spot one or two wee words or phrases that place blame or imply a deeply flawed character! I still catch myself doing it at times. Then change the words, and it may well change your attitude, which might just change your relationship with your horse, and can certainly make you better at resolving problems. 

Tigger meeting the resident stallion at his new home. Inconvenient behaviour when you want to ride him, but no point in blaming anyone - he's just being a horse :-)

Monday 26 May 2014

Mixing 2 herds of horses

Last week, my horses left Severie - their quiet mountain retreat where they have been for about 9 years. The last time most of them had travelled was 9 years ago, moving to Severie.

They have moved to a busy riding school - beautiful location again, with wonderful turn out, but totally different environment in many ways - full of people, horses, lots going on.

On Friday, the journey began. We walked them together about 3/4 mile from Severie, to a spot that a horse lorry could actually get to. Despite not having travelled for years, 4 of them walked straight on to the lorry - leaders were calm, they were still together as a herd, and so were not worried. Tigger loaded hesitantly, then promptly decided it was a bad idea and came back off the lorry. Then loaded again... sadly, we were too busy with the horses to take any video.

They spent their first night together in a small paddock, fairly exhausted I think, but seeming calm.

All good so far... next move, to introduce them to their 10 new field mates and their new field. I've introduced single horses to a group before, but never an established herd so was interested to see how it would go. As three of the horses (Benson, Flynn and Paddy) are 24, 25, and nearly 30, and maybe less up to a lot of excitement, we decided to introduce the 2 younger ones (aged 9 and 14) first. I videoed all of the first few minutes of both introductions, and have only cut out bits where I got distracted and filmed my boots or a bit of mud instead! Quite long, but didn't want to skip bits for those really watching the sequence.

Far too much interesting stuff in here to comment on it all. A couple of points:

* the lack of huge drama! The existing Drumbrae herd, although young, are well socialised and calm. There was ample space for the horses to interact or avoid each other, and no competition for limited resources. There was friendly investigation, some chasing/foreleg strikes and so on, but all very civilised.
* When Tigger and Elvis went into the field, they spent their time meeting their new field mates and didn't investigate the field. When the older 3 horses joined them, they paid little attention to the other horses, and moved around the field instead. The older 3 came in about 3/4 hour after the first two; Tigger already seemed sufficiently settled that he didn't join them in much of their exploration.

They have now been at Drumbrae for 3 days, and not a scratch or mark on any of them - could not have gone better!

Friday 21 March 2014

Humans at play : a pony's perspective?

Today I was grooming Paddy's tail (it looks as pictured below about once every 5 years I should add - this was just a 'brush out the worst of the mud' deal). Elvis (the exmoor pony) came over to investigate. He often does this - he watches both the groom and the groomee(?) with great attention and will sometimes join in, grabbing bits of tail. 

I could be wrong, but seems to me that he views this as play behaviour on the part of the human. If he were to pick up a bit of Paddy's tail and do stuff with it he'd definitely be initiating play. Interesting to think how often horses may interpret our actions in a totally differently way to us. 

Monday 3 March 2014

Stuck in the mud (Tigger the wonder horse??)

Today, I decided to venture out through the mud bath that we laughingly call a path, to put hay out in the field for the horses. Having successfully deposited 8KG of hay, the horses followed me out and tucked in. 

Then it went a bit wrong. Our field has some serious boggy bits in it. The horses are on the whole smart enough to avoid these, the humans (or this human anyway) aren't that smart. So, I went the wrong way, and ended up knee deep in mud, with one lost welly. And I'm on my own - nearest human maybe 3 miles away. Not relishing the prospect of landing face first in some seriously deep mud!

But... not on my own, I have horses! After spending about 2 seconds pondering the sense of calling over a horse when my foot is bare and well and truly stuck in the mud (please, please don't let Elvis decide to come and play with me!), I called Tigger. Despite having just started his hay, he came over. He stopped exactly where I asked him to, and stood while I leaned on him and retrieved welly, unstuck foot, removed sock etc. Then I took a knee-deep tentative step, and he moved with me. So we slowly made our way, me leaning a hand on his back, 'til we reached the only ankle-deep mud. I took one good big step, and he turned and went back to his hay. 

Make of it what you will - one thing is for sure, a horse who is in the habit of moving at your pace is very handy at times :-)

Saturday 15 February 2014

Safety in Numbers?

The place where I keep my horses is isolated to say the least. Until recently, a farmer used the adjacent fields for cattle and sheep, and kept dogs in a shed nearby. He's just retired, and at the end of January, the dogs, cows and sheep were finally all gone.

I'm now very aware when I'm up there that there isn't another human for a good couple of miles (and I quite like it!). Foolishly, I hadn't thought too much about how it might affect the horses. There are 5 of them, and they watch out for each other, so I hadn't really considered what they felt about the other surrounding animals.

Since the other animals left, the horses are noticeably more alert and 'spooky'. Flynn has been leaving his hay frequently to gaze over the field where the cows used to be. How much did they depend on very visible signs from the cattle when possible dangers arose, and the audible signals from the dogs? Interesting...

Sunday 26 January 2014

Stereotypic Behaviour in Horses (Video)

If you've been around horses for a while, you'll probably have seen a stereotypic behaviour or two (traditionally known, awfully, as stable vices). You may, for example, have seen wind-sucking, crib-biting or weaving.

Many horses show less obvious and less easily identified stereotypic behaviours. I often see small stereotypic behaviours in client’s horses, which the client has either not really noticed, or just taken to be random meaningless behaviour. I have seen several horses being punished for these behaviours, one under the guidance of a riding instructor at a clinic.

So, in brief:
·         Any repetitive, relatively invariant and apparently functionless action is probably a stereotypy.
·         This includes crib-biting, wind-sucking and weaving, but there are many others
·         These behaviours are triggered by arousal, for example frustration, excitement, acute or chronic stress or pain
·         These behaviours can sometimes be physically supressed, which will generally be very stressful for the horse.
·         Performing the behaviour is a reward in itself, so they cannot be corrected by punishment.

Stereotypies such as the one shown in the video are usually harmless. Flynn, the horse in the video, behaves as shown for a minute or two when he is anticipating his breakfast! He will also do this if he is worried. In his case, it doesn’t take much arousal to trigger this behaviour; as you can see in the video, he doesn’t look wildly excited by the prospect of breakfast but he’s still excited enough to trigger the behaviour.

With clients I’ve often found these behaviours to be useful (when they are infrequent and not harmful)   – for example:
·         A reported increase in performance of the stereotypy is a warning there may be a physical problem before it is otherwise obvious.
·         It’s an early warning sign during training that the horse is becoming a bit stressed, again often before any other physical signs are easily seen
·         If a change in management leads to an increase in this behaviour, you know your horse isn’t too thrilled with the changes! Your horse can give you very clear and early feedback about his welfare.
·         In general, it gives you information about how your horse is feeling, before they have to tell you in less subtle ways, which is always a good thing.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Trigger Stacking and horses (is your horse really 'fine' or just 'manageable'?)

Quite often, clients come to me confused as to why their horse suddenly 'exploded' at something they usually seem to cope with. This short video (about dogs, but equally applicable to horses) gives a very clear explanation of one of the causes for unexpected behaviour.

Trigger Stacking & Stress Hormones Video

So certain events may arouse (for example excite or worry) your horse somewhat, but he doesn't react in an extreme way. If several things happen close together, it all gets to much - and he 'explodes'.

This may sound really obvious, and most of us are aware of examples of this - say you want to compete your young horse - you don't introduce him to travelling in a trailer, going to a strange new place, and competing all in the same morning! At least you probably don't do it twice ...

The smaller incidents can confuse people. To take a fairly recent example, we have a young cob called Freddy. Access to Freddy's yard is blocked one day, and the farrier is coming. His owner takes him down to a quiet farm track for the farrier to shoe him. He's a little fidgety, but 'fine'. The farrier arrives, and Freddy is a bit more 'difficult' than usual, but can still be handled. As the farrier is putting on his second shoe, a tractor comes into view. Freddy 'explodes' - neither his owner nor the farrier can hold him, and he takes off for home, half-shod. The owner is mystified - he's never behaved like that before.

On initial questioning, Freddy is reported to be 'fine' with the farrier usually, fine on his own, and good with traffic. With more detailed questioning, we find that Freddy is actually:

* a little worried when separated from other horses, a bit nappy hacking out alone but manageable
* a little uncomfortable with the farrier, but the farrier always manages to get him shod
* a little worried by tractors; he will 'scoot' past them on the road, then settle down.

So - it's trigger stacking.