Spring grass – should we be worried?

Spring grass, so very green and vibrant, and watching it emerge in the paddocks after a winter of hauling hay in driving rain and gales, has surely got to be one of life’s most precious moments! But, as with everything, spring grass comes with a health warning. Small ponies’ behaviour is often blamed on spring grass, and most of us has at some point been on a horse that has acted out of character in the Spring. But rather than simply writing it off as “naughtiness” let’s consider our horses’ behaviour as information.

Horses and ponies tend to be cooped up throughout the winter, fed on hay, with limited turnout. Their bodies and minds adapt to this, and then the Spring comes. We change their routine overnight to suddenly be out for 24 hours a day with beautiful lush Spring grass that is an entirely different food from the hay of the winter. Then we wonder why their behaviour changes!

But what is it in spring grass that causes the problem, and to what extent should we be concerned about the effect of spring grass on our horses? It is worth noting that spring grass can cause more problems for horses that have been stabled all winter, as supposed to horses that have lived out through the winter. As the spring grass begins to grow in the damp and sunny weather it accumulates non-structural carbohydrates or NSCs, which are essentially sugars and starches. The additional NSCs can cause the gut flora to become out of balance which can lead to issues such as colic or laminitis.

The NSCs increase in the grass throughout the daylight hours, so are higher in the grass by the afternoon, than in the morning. However if the temperature is below 4.5 C at night the plant cannot use up its NSCs, so they are still present in the grass in the morning. What this means for you in a practical sense is that it is better as a general rule to allow your horse to graze in the morning, but restrict grazing by the afternoon, unless the night has been cold when it may be better to try and find an alternative to grass turnout. Consider using a grazing muzzle or strip grazing to help reduce grass intake.

However with careful management of your horse’s grazing, you can help them to adjust from winter to summer, in a healthy and happy manner. Remember spring grass is good, but as we all know too much of a good thing…

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Loading – be aware of the risks

The horse is a flight animal. This means that if scared he will run away from the fear, as supposed to a fight response, where the animal will attack the object of fear. Your horse refusing to go near the trailer, is not being “naughty” but acting correctly according to his innate behaviour: “One of the most important things to remember is that horses evolved as a prey species. That means that many of their instinctive reactions are based in a desire to protect themselves from danger.” (1)

The problem arises that we are asking our horses to supress their fear and if they can’t do this, their reaction can be volatile and extreme: “Fearful large animals are dangerous animals. They are more likely to injure themselves or their handlers than unafraid animals. Fear is a universal emotion in the animal kingdom: it motivates animals to avoid predators and survive in the wild.” (2)

In order to be responsible horse owners, it is our job to teach the horse that the trailer or lorry is not a source of fear. To do so we must ensure that we train our horses to trust and respect us. To do this we must take the necessary precautions to optimise the conditions in which we load our horses. “Accidents from these types of deficiencies (Slippery surfaces on loading ramps) usually are due to poor judgement or lack of necessary precautions.” (3)

There are a multitude of opportunities for injury during the loading and unloading of horses: “Hazards to people in the vicinity include kicking, biting, or injury arising from crushing or being struck as the horse rears in the air. Further hazards arise from the weight of the doors falling onto people including when horses barge their way past.” (4) And many other ways, and other horrific accidents that have occurred while people are trying to load their horses.

A horse that is correctly trained to be loaded reduces some of the dangers of loading. Accidents can happen when “…bystanders or young people are sometimes asked to help, and they may be inadequately trained for the purpose…”(4) It is not the job of spectators at shows to help you to load your horse, it is your job to ensure that your horse is trained to do so.

“Where loading and unloading is incorporated as part of a horse’s basic training they are more likely to accept it and be compliant.”(4)

Do your homework at home. Thereby you will give yourself the possibility of having a safe and enjoyable day out with your horse, without the added stress and risk of having a difficult to load horse to persuade onboard at the end of the day.

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References:

 

The final years

By Lizzie Hopkinson

 

Keeping your older horse happy and well into his last years, is a brilliant gift you can give him. It is not always possible to do so, life can be too difficult, and it can simply not be practical. But if you have the time and resources to do so, this will help you to take the best care possible of your older horse.

It is well documented that one of the most important things for the elderly, both human and equine, is movement. One of the biggest problems with the elderly occurs when they put on bed rest and stop moving. Equally putting an old horse on box rest can causes stiffness and decrease in flexibility. Keeping your old horse out in the field where he can walk about will have a good effect on his general health.

Anything that helps keep your horse moving, will help him in his later years. Such as encouraging him to stretch using carrot stretches, or baited stretches. Equally massage will encourage the muscles to work better, and is an enjoyable way to spend time with horse when riding him may no longer be an option.

Make sure that you check with your vet about what to feed your older horse. Older horses have different dietary requirements, be wary of over-marketed wonder feeds – remember there is no cure for old age, all you can do is help your old horse to be as comfortable as possible in his final years.

Regular visits from a physio, an equine dentist, a farrier will help to keep him in comfort. Speak to your trusted professionals for advice on how to make your older horse comfortable, as he his needs will differ from your younger horses.

This is your chance to reward him for the years of pleasure you have had.

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Road safety

 

By Lizzie Hopkinson

The rise in road traffic accidents involving horses, is now widely reported across the equestrian world. The work done by the British Horse Society (1) with its Dead Slow campaign has done much to raise public awareness for the plight of the horse on today’s road. However, the reach of the BHS is mainly through the equestrian world, who are not the target audience. The task is to educate those who don’t understand the nature of horses.

The speed of a spook from walk has been registered by GPS on a rider’s mobile phone at 54 MPH. It is that spilt second reaction that car drivers struggle to understand. They cannot see the crisp packet in the hedge as they pull out to overtake. “Take great care and treat all horses as a potential hazard; they can be unpredictable, despite the efforts of their rider/driver.” The Highway Code. (2) This acknowledges that often despite our best efforts, horses are not robots, but we do owe it to both ourselves and other road users to ensure that we have made the best effort to ensure that our horses are well-behaved on the roads.

It is compounded by the sheer quantity of vehicles on the roads today. There are currently 7 times more cars on the road than in 1950, (3) that is an astonishing rise in volume. Coupled with the plight is falling bridleway access, “Horse riders in England and Wales have access to only 22 percent of legally recorded public rights of way and carriage drivers to no more than six percent, which means large areas have no offroad access at all” (4) So as riders are pushed off the public rights of way and onto the increasingly busy roads the problem only magnifies.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that statistically horse-riders are considered to be a minority, indeed in the Reported Road Casualties of Great Britain 2016, they are put into “other”, while pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists all have specified categories. They are listed as “vulnerable road users (usually defined as pedestrians, motorcyclists, pedal cyclists, and albeit with very low casualty numbers, horse riders.)” (5) A somewhat dismissive comment, when you think how many accidents are reported to the BHS.

We must do all we can to spread the message into the wider public, that horses are unpredictable, and ensure that we always thank other road users, to endeavour to make the roads a safer place for us to ride.

 

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References:

  1. org.uk. (2018). Dead? Or Dead Slow?: New statistics reveal threat on Britain’s roads for horse riders | British Horse Society. [online] Available at: http://www.bhs.org.uk/our-charity/press-centre/news/jan-to-jun-2016/riding-and-road-safety-campaign [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
  2. uk. (2018). Road users requiring extra care (204 to 225) – The Highway Code – Guidance – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-highway-code/road-users-requiring-extra-care-204-to-225 [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
  3. co.uk. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.licencebureau.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/road-use-statistics.pdf [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].
  4. Advice on Multi-user routes. (2018). The British Horse Society.
  5. Reported road casualties in Great Britain: 2016 annual report. (2018). gov.uk.

 

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Acceptance

By guest blogger Jane Broomfield from Silverdale Horses

If you do something totally “by the book”, it may not work out.

Best plans get screwed up, good ideas get thrown out of the window as emergencies take over.

Sometimes the things that we never expect to happen do, both good and bad, and we need to learn to roll with the punches.

We forget to breath and take in the moment as life gets hectic.

This is called life and there is no manual.

People often ask how I manage….. See above! Once you realize that some things are out of your control, life becomes a little easier.

The only person I am truly responsible for is myself and my responsibility is in a nutshell:

To treat others the same way I wish to be treated, and to bring up my children to understand the statement above!

So, what has this got to do with horses?

EVERYTHING!

Here is a story for you….

Recently, winter has spring up on us. It has been cold, snowy and hard under foot. And, as I do not have a heated indoor ring. I could not ride without risking an accident. First this got to me, I had a lesson booked and I had not managed to ride, first due to the low temperatures and then due to snow, I canceled due to lack of preparation and the snow covered roads.

I was meant to be showing too. Again, no riding, so no practice and so no showing…. I could have still gone and “winged it” but, knowing my horse, not worth the risk to our partnership.

I was soooo annoyed with myself, I felt I was wimping out….

Then there comes a moment when you have to say, these are circumstances beyond my control. All I can control is my own actions, which means stop turning my emotions back onto myself when there is little I can do to change the circumstances.

So, I went skiing instead, I played with the children, we sat and had hot chocolate.

Don’t get me wrong, not riding takes it toll, but not beating myself up about it helps alot.

Being an Equestrian is about acceptance.

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Spooking for survival

By Lizzie Hopkinson

The most important thing to remember when we discuss bombproofing, is that the horse is not doing anything “wrong” when it spooks. “Horses evolved from small mammals whose survival depended on their ability to flee from predators. This basic survival mechanism still is ingrained in the modern horse. Although we have removed most of the predators from the life of the domestic horse, its first instinct when frightened is to run away from the frightening stimulus.” 1 It is possible to teach the horse to overcome its primary response, but keep in mind that is what you are asking the horse to do.

There have been studies linking gastric ulcers to spookiness, as well as anecdotal evidence to support this. It is worth noting that it is believed that around 65% of all horses suffer from gastric ulcers. This can cause the following symptoms: “cinchy, grumpy, poor performance, sensitive around the stomach/girth area, poor appetite, colicky, does not hold adjustments, something appears to be “off” but nothing seems to fix it, overall bad attitude, stresses easily, tense, spooky/nervous”2 Once you have ruled out any pain related reasons why your horse may be spooking, then you can begin the bombproof training.

Horses have good vision, to quote Paul E. Miller, DVM, Diplomate ACVO, Clinical Professor of Comparative Ophthalmology, Department of Surgical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: “Horses see at distance relatively well, but not quite as well as humans. The horse’s somewhat lower acuity means that images in the distance are little grainier for him, but not blurry. And unless the distant image is very small, a horse can see it. The horse’s eye is designed to scan the horizon (note the pupil is a horizontal rectangle) and as such potential predators at distance are of particular interest and understandably elicit a heightened state of awareness. It appears that the horse’s overall approach to unidentified objects is to treat them as potentially harmful until proven otherwise.”3

Both the speed and velocity of the spook contributes to the potential for accidents: “The horse is an animal with a mind of its own and whilst we take years to desensitise them to traffic their natural instinct when frightened, or ‘spooked’ as it is called in the horse world, is freeze or flight. When a horse is spooked it can freeze on the spot, or it can jump left or right, upwards, forwards or backwards or bolt.”4 Given the scope for reactions, it is worth spending the time to reduce the likelihood of your horse spooking at the unexpected.

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References:

1: Articles.extension.org. (2018). Horse Fight vs Flight Instinct – eXtension. [online] Available at: http://articles.extension.org/pages/23342/horse-fight-vs-flight-instinct [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

2: Laurensandshorses.webs.com. (2018). Cite a Website – Cite This For Me. [online] Available at: http://laurensandshorses.webs.com/Equine%20Gastric%20Ulcers.pdf [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

3: Horsechannel.com. (2018). How Do Horses See The World?. [online] Available at: http://www.horsechannel.com/horse-health/how-horses-see-the-world.aspx [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

4: Rac.co.uk. (2018). Horses and Road Safety Awareness, Cutting Road Accidents | RAC | RAC Drive. [online] Available at: https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/news/motoring-news/horses-and-road-safety-awareness/ [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

Photo by Anne-Lise Vieux de Morzadec on Unsplash

Practice makes perfect

By Amy Craske

Some of us are lucky enough to have our own horses and ponies to ride, and if you’re even more lucky that horse or pony will be fit and well enough to be ridden regularly! If you’re keen to improve your riding, then doing it regularly will obviously help. After all, if you wanted to get better at any sport, it’s a given that a lot of practice is needed. There is a well-known saying that to be truly expert at something you must have spent ten thousand hours practising; I wonder how many rides you’d need to rack that up! But if you only have time to ride occasionally, or have a share in a horse, or don’t have a horse at all and visit a riding school, you’re going to be at a bit of a disadvantage.

 

But there are definitely things you can do to help yourself, even if you can’t ride as much as you’d like. One useful skill is visualisation; imagining a perfect ten metre circle, or clearing that tricky spread with style. It feel a bit awkward doing it, but there is evidence that it works! There is one fairly well-known study done with basketball players, where visualising scoring perfect baskets was found to be just as helpful in improving performance as actually practising. The idea behind this is that visualisation helps to improve the neural pathways required to perform a task, just as effectively as real practice.

 

Another helpful tool is to practice elements of riding away from the saddle. If, for example, you are working on your position, an hour a week spent in the correct alignment may be undone by forty hours a week sitting slumped in your office chair! I spend a lot of time driving, and try to make the best use of it; I have adjusted my seat so I am sitting in near enough neutral spine, and I try to engage my core whenever I remember, and I hold the wheel with both hands to avoid twisting my torso. It has definitely helped my riding in periods where I couldn’t get on board as much as I’d like!

 

The other thing is to really make sure you ARE doing things properly; ten thousand hours of practice won’t help you become a better rider if you spend them being behind the movement, dropping your hands before jump, or tipping forward. Lessons with a good, supportive instructor are obviously going to help you improve your technique, but even a video of you riding can help you identify things which can be improved.

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In hand mobilisation exercises to reduce stiffness and improve movement

By Lizzie Hopkinson

The NICE guidelines for humans recommend exercise as the best treatment for osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the leading cause of stiffness in humans and horses, and many of us know for ourselves the benefits of exercise. Simple tips such as turning your horses out whenever possible will make great steps towards keeping them mobile.

We use a series of baited movements (commonly known as ‘carrot stretches’) to encourage the horse to mobilise through a range of movements that will help to keep his bodies supple. It is important to remember that carrot stretches are not appropriate for all horses, and some horses may react badly to the presence of treats. Please be careful of your fingers.  There are a variety of options to help keep you safe, for example placing your hand inside a cardboard cup with the carrot sticking out the bottom, or using a feed scoop for your treats.

Exercises are focused around the three main areas. We begin with spinal mobilisation, as the spine is the epicentre of the body, and many issues or problem stem from stiffness or asymmettry in the spine. Mobilisation of the forehand will encourage the horse to go forward more freely, allowing him to swing through this shoulder and front end. Mobilisation of the hindquarters will encourage the horse to push off from his hindleg, work from behind, and travel forwards more correctly.

Gently encouraging the neck round slowly to both sides and down towards the floor will encourage the whole of the spine to stretch. A relaxed nod through the head will travel along the length of the spine in a gentle ripple. These exercises will result in increasing the flexibility in the spine. You should notice that your horse gradually finds the exercises easier the more often you perform them.

Forehand mobilisation includes gently moving the base of the neck from side to side as though he is shaking his head to say ‘no’, as well as mobilising the shoulder and the important musculature in this area by bringing the front leg forwards and backwards.

Hindquarter mobilisation includes moving the tail and quarters to encourage a ripple effect through the pelvis, sacroiliac region and spine from the rear end of the horse, as well as rotating and flexing the hind legs to improve the ease and range of movement in the hindquarters of the horse.

As with all exercises remember that horses can be dangerous. Only do these exercises if you consider your horse is safe to work with. Don’t expect your horse to be able to do all the movements perfectly from the first attempt. In doing the exercises regularly you will notice the improvement in the range and ease of movements in each exercise. Over time you will find that translates into greater relaxation in your horse’s general movement. Under saddle you will be able to feel the difference in the quality of the paces, leading to a reduced risk of injury, increased stamina, and improved performance. Your horse will be able to feel the difference in his body, and so will you.

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Exercises to improve your confidence with your horse from the ground

Improving your confidence in handling your horse on the ground, is probably the single most important thing that you can do to enrich your relationship with your horse. The connection that you have on the ground is the foundation for everything that happens while you ride. If your horse is pushy on the ground he will be pushy when ridden. If he is anxious on the ground he will be anxious while ridden. The innate problems don’t disappear as you mount, they are usually exacerbated.

The most important exercise that you can do with your horse is to teach him to stand happily at the end of a rope (we suggest 12ft). Once he can do this, you will have an incredibly strong foundation on which to base everything else that you wish to be able to do with your horse.

The other exercises will build upon this work, and will enable you to feel in control and confident in your handling of your horse. Picking up the feet means that your horse trusts you enough to place himself in a vulnerable situation. Moving one foot at a time helps you to be very aware of your body language, and teaches the horse to listen to subtle movements from you and respond accordingly. Building upon the work done with moving one foot at a time, we progress to standing with our horse over a pole, requiring both trust and precision.

Once you have control over your horse in the “stop” position and while moving one foot at a time in the forward position, we can then progress to teaching our horses to back up. This requires yet more trust from our horses, as they are essentially moving “blindly”. Once we can back our horses up in a straight line, we build on this to be able to back up around a T shape.

So now you can control your horse’s feet moving forwards and backwards, so we continue to build upon the skills that we have been learning. Now we ask the horse to circle and moving his quarters, so that we can then control the horse’s lateral movement.

Once we can do all this, we can then lead the horse with a “smile in the line” or on a loose lead rope with confidence in our ability to control the horse. As you work your way through each exercise, your confidence will grow accordingly. Don’t think you couldn’t possible walk your horse on a loose line, simply break down the task into manageable pieces. Over time you will improve, and as you realise that you can control each leg of your horse, you will feel increasingly more in control and confident on the ground. This confidence will then translate to whatever else you want to do with horse, from riding to loading.

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Photo: By Kenny Webster from Unsplash

Deal with box rest

Horses have accidents or injuries, just as we do. According to the insurance company Petplan, the fourth most common type of health problem in horses is desmitis.(1) Desmitis is the inflammation of a ligament most commonly in a limb causing lameness. The general treatment for desmitis is box rest, with a program of walking across 6 to 8 weeks, obviously your individual treatment will vary. But if you consider this, then the chances are at some point in your life with horses, you are going to end up with a horse on box rest.

Interestingly the second most common health problem is gastric ulcers, which can be trigged by box rest. So, ensuring good mental and physical health of your horse on box rest is crucial to prevent a knock-on effect being caused by the initial problem.

Keeping your horse active and mobile while on box rest, may be a challenge, but using some routine of stretches can be very beneficial. Stretching is a good way to keep your horse’s brain engaged, helping to prevent boredom. “Similarly dynamic mobilisation exercises (DME) have led to an increase Multifidus CSA in horses on box rest.” (2) The stretches put together in “Activate Your Horse’s Core” have been proven in field tests, so these may be a good starting point.(3) Though, remember as usual to consult your vet, or trusted professional if you are unsure of the suitability of any of the stretches for your horse.

Beware of overfeeding your horse while on box rest. It is easy for your horse to gain weight while he is confined, and extra weight will not help his recovery. Equally starving your horse can contribute to gastric ulcers, so it is a fine line between the two. Feeding a little and often, if possible is the ideal scenario. The current recommendation is to feed during the day, horses seem to be able to cope without food better at night. (4) So, if you need to limit your horse’s intake give him less food at night and more during the day.

Remember all horses are different and what works with one horse may not work with another. If you are struggling to keep your horse in good mental and physical health while on box rest speak to your vet, it may be possible to adapt the box rest routine to better suit your horse.

References:
1. Petplanequine.co.uk. (2018). The Top 5 Most Common Health Conditions in Horses | Petplan Equine. [online] Available at: https://www.petplanequine.co.uk/top5/ [Accessed 17 May 2018].
2. Tabor, G. (2018). The effect of dynamic mobilisation exercises on the equine multifidus muscle and thoracic profile. [online] Pearl.plymouth.ac.uk. Available at: https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/3320 [Accessed 17 May 2018].
3. Stubbs, Narelle & Kaiser, LeeAnn & Hauptman, J & Clayton, Hilary. (2011). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of multifidus. Equine veterinary journal. 43. 522-9. 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00322.x.
4. Group, B. (2018). Gastric Ulcers | B&W Equine Vets. [online] Bwequinevets.co.uk. Available at: https://www.bwequinevets.co.uk/187/equine-gastric-ulcers-explained-specialist/ [Accessed 17 May 2018].