“Expectation is the root of all heartache”

“Expectation is the root of all heartache”is a quote that has been attributed to William Shakespeare (but this is not confirmed as no one has been able to find a reference in Shakespeare’s works to these words).  As I listened to the quote on a recent Physio Matters podcast however, it struck me how strongly it relates to our relationship with our horses, both in behavioural work, performance / competition work, and in health matters (including physio assessment and treatment).

Monty Roberts talks about having plan A, plan B, plan C, etc.  To me this indicates that I shouldn’t have fixed ideas about how I’m going to achieve a certain goal with my horse.  My work, schooling, or treatment, should be ‘horse led’, i.e. it should follow a route that is appropriate for my horse as well as for me.

He also mentions that I should break my goals down into bite size pieces.  It’s all too easy to see the end goal but not know how to get there, leading to frustration for both me and my horse.  If I can look at my end goal and break this down into 3 or 4 smaller goals, then break each of these down into 3 or 4 smaller goals, and so on, then in no time at all I will have a goal that I can work towards right now that I know puts me in good stead of eventually reaching my end goal.  Of course, taking note of the aforementioned and being willing to adjust my plan if necessary means that my end goal might change as time goes on!

Expecting my horse to behave in a certain way, or to perform to a certain level, or to reach a certain level of rehabilitation, can lead to disappointment.  Asking my horse to give me his best is reasonable, but no one can give their best all of the time.  Being realistic with what we can achieve together will help me to set appropriate, achievable goals, leading to contentment for both myself and my horse.

The Million Dollar Question

If you were given a million pounds to finish today something that you are meant to finish, could you do it? If not, any reason you give for not finishing it is just an excuse. Which is fine of course, as long as you realise that.
I think the same could apply to working with horses. If you were given a million pounds to find a way of teaching your horse to stand still without using violence, could you do it? I bet most of us could. So often in behavioural work, the solution is for the owner to spend more time with their horse which in turn leads to better understanding and communication (which includes listening to him). And I don’t mean a few more minutes each day, or visit him 6 times a week rather than 4 times. I mean spend hours with him every day. Spend time hanging out in the field, do some groundwork in the school, lead him out on a ‘hack’, groom or massage him, ride him in the school or out hacking or both, ride him bareback, bath him, check his feet, take a good look at his saddle fit, do some stretches with him, ride him again, and so on… all in one day, then again the next day and the next. I don’t mean gallop or jump him until he’s tired, but slow and steady just be with him. My initial learning was through conventional pony club and riding club – we were lucky enough to keep our horses at home so I got lots of time with them. Then a huge proportion of my learning came from my time living for 5 years with a gipsy horse dealer. We lived on a small holding in a caravan amongst the horses, and I was with them every daylight hour. The horses were my teachers, and if you could spare the time, your horse would be your teacher.
Sadly, of course, very few of us are lucky enough to have that opportunity. The realities of life get in the way – working to pay the bills mostly, or running around after the children. But if you could find the time, just imagine how much you could learn…

“This old horse”

Instead of sharing news with you this month (September 2014), which is full of WEG (World Equestrian Games) and Burghley, I thought I’d share this poem I came across, which pulled at my heart strings, and I’m sure at the heart strings of many others…

“This old horse”
This old horse, the Rancher said,
she’s seen some better days,
she’s eating up my profits,
and costs a lot for hay.

Another horse would suit me,
a stronger one at that,
shes seen a lot of miles
just like my cowboy hat.

This old horse, the Rancher said,
she helped me herd my steer,
I’m pretty sure shes magic,
I know I hold her dear.

Another horse would suit me,
one that can run fast,
maybe one that’s younger,
or maybe one that lasts.

This old horse, the Rancher said,
she’s long and far in tooth,
my children do remember,
her fondly from their youth.

Another horse would suit me,
a gelding in his prime,
one that needs less fixin’,
that helps me save a dime.

Why, they asked, then keep her?
Why not trade her now?
Bring her to an auction?
Replace her with a cow?

The Rancher’s brow grew heavy,
he took a staggered step,
his eyes did show his hardships,
in wrinkles, as they crept.

His breath, he took in deeply,
as he poised to say his words,
it’s as if the earth grew silent,
that his message should be heard.

This old horse, the Rancher said,
has given me her life,
I wouldn’t trade for anything,
nor either, would my wife.

Another horse would suit me,
and perhaps someday will come,
but this old gal, I love her,
she is the chosen one.

This old horse, the Rancher said,
her service she did lend,
her and I, have seen the years,
this old horse, she is my friend.

Another horse would suit me well,
but her home is here to keep,
I owe her sanctuary,
my love for her is deep.

Another horse would suit me well,
and younger days for me,
and I will keep my promise,
until our last breaths, set us free.”

Poem by Jess Vee

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” 
If only that were true! As a race we are exceptionally good at interpreting things in a manner different to how they were meant to be interpreted. Communication is all important. A current issue that is close to my heart, as you may well be aware, is the lack of protection of title for animal physiotherapists. For anyone who is not aware of this, although the title ‘physiotherapist’ is protected (in the uk), as soon as you put an animal related word in front of it (for example, the title ‘equine physio’ or ‘veterinary physio’), the title is no longer protected, meaning that anyone can set up as a veterinary physio without any qualifications, if they were confident enough in themselves! 
Something that every Chartered Veterinary Physio knows is that in the animal field, physios are not allowed to diagnose the cause of a problem, only a vet is legally allowed to do this. It’s tricky, because of course as an owner, you want to know what’s wrong with your horse. Your physio is not able to tell you. She can tell you where your horse is sore, or tight, or lacking muscle, or uneven, but she can’t tell you why. There are always multiple potential causes, and without X-ray vision or the ability to scan, you cannot know for sure which of them is the problem. 
Thankfully, as long as a thorough assessment has uncovered all relevant factors, the treatment is often similar, irrelevant of the underlying cause. In very simple terms, reduce inflammation, reduce soreness, free up tension, build muscle tone – all of which contribute to promoting evenness. In the human field as well as the animal field, it is often more prudent to go for the conservative (non surgical) treatment approach initially, and only consider the surgical approach if the conservative one doesn’t work. This doesn’t by any stretch mean don’t get the vet involved early on – having a diagnosis means you can focus your conservative treatment on the affected area, and medication if necessary can speed recovery. I’m lucky to work with a great veterinary practice, Pool House in Staffordshire, who are very approachable and have excellent diagnostic facilities. It’s exciting working as part of a team all doing our best for the horse as well as the owner.
Back to the original thought of how important words can be, I wanted to share with you some recent learning from a book called ‘The Chimp Paradox’. The author suggests replacing the word ‘should’ with ‘could’, ‘must’ with ‘might’ and ‘how’ with ‘why’. Try it – for me it was profound.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety in horses is one of the most difficult behavioural problems to overcome. I strongly recommend that if you have 2 horses that are bonding closely, you look now into how to separate them for at least some period each day, if either is to have a ridden career.
D and T are sisters, with D a year older than T, beautiful black cob mares of 3 and 4 years. They have lived together for the past 18 months, and it’s time now for some more serious effort to go into the backing process. 
Thankfully, they have the ideal set up to begin the separation process, should it prove difficult. A stable block in a small enclosed yard, with another small enclosed area outside that, a field just the other side of that but still in view, another field part in view of the stable yard and part not, and another field completely out of view of the stable block. 
Of course not every horse will suffer separation anxiety, and these might be lucky. But if they do, using the facilities they have to gradually move the mares further apart from each other, over a period of days, weeks or months as necessary, should result in minimal difficulties in the future.

Ears back and tail swishing at saddle or rug

Recently I asked readers of my free ‘Brain or Pain’ e-newsletter:

If you approach your horse with the rug or saddle and they put their ears back at you and swish their tail, I believe they are trying to tell you that there is something they don’t like about the process. This may only be a fleeting something – for example they may not like having the girth done up but are quite comfortable once it’s done up – but personally I don’t believe they behave this way just because they think it might hurt. I say this because it’s a question I’m asked almost daily, in some form or another, and I am interested to hear your thoughts.”

Here are some readers responses, posted in case they resonate with you and help in any way.

“I am sorry to say my mare is an ears back tail swisher at the saddle and rugs. I have never managed to find any physical reason but she also hates being touched, though she is always fine to be touched after she has been ridden, always like a smoker who needs a cigarette ie edgey beforehand. Some days better than others but over 10 years I have not managed to eliminate the problem though of course if it was severe I would have tried harder. 


Sometimes I have noticed that if I walk into her field with the rug, she walks off pointedly. In that case I leave the rug off as other days if I walk in she doesn’t necessarily walk off but (perhaps even with ears back) stands and lets me put it on. I have not nailed the reason for this but I suspect its something to do with her understanding the weather and her needs more than I do, and so if she sees the rug and walks off I would usually respect that and leave it off.”

“Thanks for your latest helpful hints.  I always enjoy reading them and picking up more useful hints to help or get me thinking.  With regards to your observation regarding a horse putting back their ears / swishing a tail when you approach with a saddle.  My boy, Levi, turns his head towards me when his saddle is getting tight (which it is at the moment thanks to all the grass!).  He just turns his head and looks at me and sometimes nudges me but doesn’t more the rest of his body and is lovely to mount / ride etc.  He doesn’t move at all once the saddle is correctly fitted again.  

I once had someone comment that he was being naughty as it looked like he was going to bit me which I thought was interesting as years ago I might have ‘told the horse off’ for bringing his head into my space whilst tacking up.  However with Levi I’ve learned to not presume he is being naughty trust him not to bite me (he never has) and as a result I have an early warning system of when my saddle needs adjusting – no second guessing now, the horse tells me.”

“Yes I think you are right – however I think much care is needed when discussing this with the owner. I have a ‘difficult to fit’ horse and spent 10 years trying to find a saddle/girth/saddle pad combination that did not result in a tail swish or ears back when I put it on. Of course I had a lot of advice from saddle fitters/other ‘experts’/other owners etc. Eventually I decided that the problem might be ‘remembered pain’ and that it surely couldn’t be a problem anymore because I had spent so long and so much money trying to make it not a problem – including having a saddle ‘made to measure’.

Last year though I had ‘another’ new saddle and I have finally got to the point where I can put the saddle on and do it up without a reaction. So I must therefore conclude that she has had 10 years of discomfort EVEN THOUGH I tried my best throughout that period and consulted professional saddle fitters and other experts. It is a total minefield for the average horse owner and I don’t know what the solution is. I would say to professional bodyworkers, vets, instructors etc. if you do see a horse react to a saddle please be gentle when discussing this with the owner – unless you are in possession of a large number of saddles, girths, pads etc. that you can loan to them for free, because your opinions and advice will doubtless conflict with other advice that they have been given by others. 
I can only hope that one day enough research will have been done into saddles that no-one ever has a problem, until that day I think we will all have to muddle through as best as our bank balances and will allow. 
My horse also dislikes rugs. I have never found one that fits her really well which I suspect is part of the problem, I find that whatever she wears slips back and is tight across the chest and shoulders. Mostly she goes un-rugged unless needs must.”

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Could your headshy horse have a chronic headache?

“All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

The current focus in medicine (include physio in that) is on evidence based assessment and treatment. Whilst I am very much in favour of this, I think that like most things this should be adhered to in moderation. After all, if we only ever used treatments that were proven (from a scientific point of view) to work, then nothing new would ever be discovered. Plus the statistics are that something like 50% of the science that is ‘proven’ today will be ‘disproven’ within 5 years. 
So often I work with a horse by following my instinct. Often I feel frustrated that I am not following a more scientific approach, but what I do seems to help the horses, and my training and core principles are most certainly based on science, so perhaps the ‘instinctive approach’ is simply something extra on top of the underlying science. It’s difficult when I can’t explain to an owner exactly what I am doing or how or why it works, but the results speak for themselves. I am continually searching for more answers, and ongoing learning is a passion rather than a chore.
A while ago I commented to a client that I believe a horse who is headshy is more likely to be spooky. In my opinion, this is because headshy horses probably have some level of permanent equine headache, and I believe that a horse whose head is continually hurting is more likely to be spooked, because the pain would keep his body on high alert. There is no evidence to support this, and I doubt whether anyone funding research will ever get interested enough in the subject to investigate it. But on a very small level, I ask each of my clients many questions about their horse, including asking whether he is headshy (or earshy) and whether he is spooky, and in my mind there is a link. In the same vein, I believe that mare-ish behaviour and headshaking are also linked to being headshy (or earshy). And yes, in many cases I believe that good physio (osteo / chiro / massage) can help, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the horse.
No matter how much you know, there’s always so much more to know….

Let me tell you a story… about confidence

Confidence is a fragile thing – do all you can to protect it. That applies to both horse and rider, of course.
H has owned J for more than 5 years, and they enjoy gentle hacks through the countryside. J is a big lad, with little known about his past. Poor confirmation led to a ligament injury with mild long term lameness which continues to affect him, but doesn’t stop him from enjoying gentle hacks in walk. 
A few months ago, J started to play up out hacking. H’s confidence gradually decreased, and she lost any enjoyment in riding. Finally, 6 months ago, she gave up, not knowing how to overcome their problems.
Thankfully, she’s decided to give me a call. The first thing I’ve addressed is J’s understanding of what we expect from him in hand, in particular insisting that he stand still when asked. This, combined with changing his medication after discussing the case with his vet, led to an entirely different horse, one that H suddenly felt she might enjoy sitting on again.
So far they’ve 3 times in the past week, just in walk around the arena for now, but the smile on H’s fave and the pride in the way J is carrying himself leads me to hope there’s lots more to come!

How to listen so your horse will talk…

How to listen so your horse will talk, and talk so your horse will listen: A practical approach to the links between equine behaviour and pain.

Would you like to understand whether a horse you work with is playing up because he’s being naughty or because he’s trying to tell you he’s hurting?  Would you like to know whether his poor performance is because he can’t or won’t? In this talk Sue Palmer MCSP offers practical advice on how to tell the difference.
Sue is a BHSAI, Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist and Equine Behaviourist (Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associate). The only person to hold this combination of qualifications, Sue is passionate about spreading the word that horses can only tell us they are hurting through their performance or behaviour. This talk / course offers practical ways to help you decide whether your horse, or a horse you work with, is under performing or misbehaving because he’s in pain. And if you decide it’s not pain related then Sue draws upon her extensive experience in the world of equestrianism to offer some suggestions of how to work to overcome the problem.
Author of ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’ and ‘Sue’s Helpful Horse Hints’, Sue has ridden since she was three years old, competed nationally for Pony Club and Riding Club, and competed in British Show Jumping and British Eventing. Living and working with a gipsy horse dealer for several years in her early twenties has given her a unique view of the horse world and a wealth of unusual experience to draw upon in addition to her more traditional qualifications. 

Non-violence or pacifism?

Listening to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ (audio books are my most recent pleasure, especially since purchasing a ‘Parrot’ in-car speaker system to I can actually hear them properly!), my ears pricked up when he mentioned his opinion on the difference between non-violence and pacifism.  It’s not something I’d ever thought about before, but since I claim to work with horses in a ‘non-violent’ way, I looked it up.  As I heard it, Mandela seemed to be saying that non-violence meant being opposed to violence in any situation, whereas pacifism meant being opposed to violence but violence may be used in self defence.

Wikipedia says, amongst other things “Nonviolence is the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition”  and “Pacifism is opposition to war and violence… and opposition to violence under any circumstance, even defence of self and others…. Some pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that nonviolent action is morally superior and/or most effective. Some however, support physical violence for emergency defence of self or others.

It seems to me there’s a lot of confusion – as usual, words are used simply as labels, and the intended meaning may well vary from person to person.  As far as working with horses goes, I would certainly say that I aim to avoid using violence of any form (but there again, what is your definition of violence?!), and that in this matter I am acting as a pacifist.  However, I believe that the safety of the human (and often the horse at the same time) is paramount, and if I or others were in danger, I believe I would do whatever I felt necessary to alleviate the danger.  My priority is always to avoid dangerous situations, which is where I feel that knowledge and experience play an essential role, but ultimately my feeling is that if the human is injured or worse, then who will look after the horse?!