Is your horse’s cup full?

Listening to a book called ‘Playful Parenting’ I heard an interesting description of ‘attachment parenting’. Please note that I’m describing this in my own words and not quoting, but as I recall it the author Larry (Lawrence Cohen) talks about the child having a cup which needs to be refilled often with attention, love, support, encouragement, warmth, hugs, kisses, and all the good physical, emotional and spiritual things that a parent or care giver can give a child. When upsets happen, the child is hurt or their energy is drained, the cup empties a little, and they’ll need to return to the parent for a refill. Some children have leaky cups that need refilling even more often, and some children have broken cups. If a child’s cup becomes empty he will find if difficult to cope, and will often show this through undesirable behaviour. It can be hard as a parent to see that behaviour as a request for a refill of love and caring.

I’ve been thinking for a while about ‘attachment theory’ in the parenting world in relation to working with horses. This description struck a chord with me, because the author talks about how if you make a mistake, perhaps for example you yell at your child when you really shouldn’t have, then the cup is emptied a little and you will need to refill it. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to do a course walk around Gatcombe Horse Trials with Harry, where he described his relationship with Meade his horse when he was jumping around the cross country in terms of banking. He said that when he got things right and helped his horse out, it was like putting a deposit in the bank. When he got things wrong and his horse had to help him out, it was like making a withdrawal. The aim was always to keep in the black!
I think this can apply equally well to the leisure rider who is simply looking for a trusting relationship with their horse. We all make mistakes, have bad days, and take our feelings with us to the yard on occasion. But if the rest of the time we can balance this with oodles of time, affection, and as much understanding as we can manage, then hopefully we can keep our horses cup full.


If there’s one training tool that’s more effective than any other in the horse world, I think it would have to be ‘time’. So many people are looking for quick fixes, and in some cases this is necessary (for example where the horse is dangerous, or where the horse has to be loaded to get to the vets). But in most cases, it seems to me that the investment in time is actually why we have horses in our lives in the first place.

I guess the difficulty is that the time needs to be spent in the right way, or at least not in the wrong way. Often people need to see that the results can be achieved before they’re willing to invest the time, and potentially the learning that they themselves will need to undergo in order to achieve the results they are looking for.
The horse who has prompted this post is a cob mare, Pixi. She stands about 14.2hh, dark chestnut, and she’s a young mare (I can’t remember exactly how old, I think 5 or 6). Her owner Mel called me initially to help with picking her feet up. I think its fair to say that Mel was a bit sceptical about what help I could offer, £70 was a lot of money to spend on a training session that potentially could give no results at all. But luckily I had been recommended to Mel by Dori’s owner (those of you who read my newsletter may remember Dori’s story, and I’ll post it up as a blog sometime soon). Dori had been an exceptionally difficult case, and maybe Mel thought that if I’d been able to help her then there was a chance I could help Pixi.
Pixi was rescued by Mel, I believe because she was too much for her owners to handle. She was actually booked in for slaughter when Mel came across her and fell in love with her. 
I asked Mel the usual questions, especially in relation to feet handling, and she showed me Pixi’s reaction to Mel asking her to pick up her foot. Mel couldn’t get her hand much lower than Pixi’s elbow before Pixi snatched her foot away and darted to the other side of the stable, as far away as she could get. It turned out that Pixi had never, as far as Mel knew, let anyone pick her feet up without sedation. Mel had owned her for 9 months and had not been able to get any further forward.
I worked with Pixi for nearly 2hrs that first session, and at the end she was willingly and relatively calmly giving me her left fore. I didn’t even start working on any if the other feet. At the time I was quite heavily pregnant, so you can imagine I was exhausted! Because of the pregnancy, I had to tell Mel that I wouldn’t be able to do any more sessions myself, and there were no other Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associates locally. So Mel got to work learning from what she had seen, and she put in the time and the understanding that was needed. A couple of weeks later I got a message to say that now she could pick up both front feet – what an achievement on both their parts, and what a relief for Mel, and probably for Pixi as well!
Over a much longer period of time Mel worked with the back feet as well, and eventually came the day when she messaged me to say that the farrier had been able to trim all Pixi’s feet 🙂
On from there, and Mel sent Pixi to a local yard for a few weeks for starting. When she came home, Mel was able to long line her comfortably around the yard, and she was pleased with how her pony had come on. She’d seen her ridden while she was away at the yard for schooling, but when Mel tried to get on Pixi at home things did not go at all smoothly. Pixi seemed petrified, and took off like a rocket before the rider could get in the saddle. This happened more than once, and Mel knew she was stuck again. She called me for more help.
It was great to see Pixi again, and to see how far she’d come with her feet. Mel was happy for me to do some physio checks so that I could ascertain to the best of my knowledge that there was no physical reason why Pixi should bolt off as soon as she felt the weight of the rider on her back. Although Pixi holds a lot of tension, I am as confident as I can be that this does not affect her in relation to carrying the weight of a rider. Most of her tension is through her poll, which although it will probably contribute to her general spooky demeanour and could potentially be affected by the bridle or by the riders hands contacting the mouth through the reins for example, it is unlikely to be affected by the weight of the rider on her back. The tension does need to be relieved, as I believe that it is related to her extremely heightened flight response, and each time she gets frightened or takes flight the tension in her poll will increase. So the tension triggers the flight response, and vice versa. In my opinion this is best approached by dealing with the behavioural symptoms alongside the physical symptoms, as one is not easily resolved without the other. Mel allowed me to do some Physio treatment, and I gave her some exercises to be continuing with long term.
In relation to the mounting issue though, in my opinion Pixi was nowhere near ready to accept a rider. If you walked up to her a little too fast, or moved a little too sharply, she was away from you as fast and as far as she could go.
I explained this to Mel, and again showed her how to help Pixi through this, then left her to it. I warned her that I expected the work to take months rather than weeks because of the severity of Pixi’s reactions, and Mel accepted this and got to work. I called in a month or so later just to see how they were doing, and was pleased to see some improvement already, but there was a long way to go.
Four months later, Monty Roberts was doing a demonstration not far from where Pixi is stabled, and Mel decided to give the Intelligent Horsemanship team a call to ask if they thought Pixi was suitable for the demo. Ultimately the answer was yes, and Monty worked hard to help Pixi overcome her flight response and accept a human being on her back. The demonstration was so powerful that it’ll be on Monty’s Online University for everyone to be able to learn from. At the end of the 45 minute session, Pixi stood, with no one holding her, while Jake vaulted onto her back, then tentatively walked a few steps.
Going back to the theme of this blog, I’m not sure any of the audience that day quite understood how much time doing the right thing Mel had spent with Pixi for her to be at the stage she was at the beginning of the demo. Monty proved in a short space of time that the desired results can be achieved, but he made sure Mel understood this wasn’t a ‘quick fix’. She still has a lot more work to do, and I think Pixi is very lucky to have found an owner who is willing to put in the time it takes.

Tuben’s story

Tuben’s Story
Our journey together began on the 19th September 2012 when Tuben came ‘home’ to the livery yard as our first horse in a mother/daughter share relationship.  My daughter Kate was 14 and had been riding for 2 years and whilst I had horse riding and loaning experience, I had taken a break from horses for over 20 years but it felt like the most natural thing in the world to do.  Tuben was advertised as an Irish Draught cross, lightweight hunter, who was 5 rising 6 years i.e.  green but sound with the basics and needing to be ‘brought on’.  Whilst I had reservations about a young horse, bringing one on felt different to training a youngster.  
However, once home things began to unravel.  It quickly became apparent that Tuben was very anxious about most things and struggled to pick his front feet up for us, he couldn’t stand still to be groomed, tensed if anyone on the yard raised their voice, didn’t like anyone to be inside the stable with him and became so anxious whilst being ridden it was unsafe for my daughter to ride him. The joy at owning a horse morphed into a new reality; had we done the right thing?  My gut feeling was that we had a really good horse but I felt overwhelmed with the myriad of problems and I felt that I simply hadn’t the skills to manage this situation.   However, we decided to take him out of ridden work and establish if the problem was pain, so we had a back, tack and teeth check and contacted Intelligent Horsemanship for some practical help.  
Our vet quickly established that he was more like 4½ rather than rising 6yrs, Alison Dochertaigh of Holistic Horse Help found that he had pain in his poll and neck but it was completely manageable and was the first person to speak beautiful words of support and encouragement to us, fortunately his saddle fit well and the lovely Linda Ruffle of Intelligent Horsemanship began our journey of repair and learning. Almost 12 months on we have learned so very much, Tuben is a superstar and it has become blindingly obvious that he hadn’t had much of an education and simply didn’t understand what was expected of him.  He is a really bright boy with a fabulous future ahead of him and currently Carrie Adams, also of Intelligent Horsemanship, is re-schooling him and he is coming on in leaps and bounds.  Kate and I are so immensely proud of him and looking forwards to building a ridden relationship with him; we feel like we are on the edge of something big!
I would not hesitate in recommending Intelligent Horsemanship and Holistic Horse help as their practical support and words of encouragement have been invaluable to us. 

An inspiring collection of proven practical horsey tips, the book ‘Sue’s Helpful Horse Hint’s’ is now available!

For immediate release

An inspiring collection of proven practical horsey tips, the book ‘Sue’s Helpful Horse Hint’s’ is now available!

From Sue Palmer on 24th August 2013 in Stafford, Staffordshire, UK

Sue Palmer MCSP today releases her latest book, ‘Sue’s Helpful Horse Hints’.

‘Sue’s Helpful Horse Hints’ is an inspiring collection of proven practical horsey tips from Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist and Equine Behaviourist Sue Palmer.  Thought provoking and guaranteed to make you smile, this book encourages the reader to look at life from the horse’s point of view and is a must for every tack room.  This is Sue Palmer’s second book, the first being the well-received “Horse Massage for Horse Owners’, published through J A Allen.

This exciting collection of practical tips encourages the reader to look at life from their horse’s point of view, with unique hand drawn cartoons that have them giggling to themselves while they read.  In it you’ll find helpful hints you can use immediately with your own horse.  Simple ideas and exercises give results that last a lifetime, enhancing your relationship with your horse and potentially improving his behaviour and performance.
Sue says “I’m very excited that this book has reached publication, it’s been a real family effort.  I post a ‘helpful horse hint’ on my Holistic Horse Help facebook page every day, which has over 2000 followers, and I send a weekly ‘helpful horse hints’ email to over 9000 subscribers.  When I approached my mum, who has always loved drawing and painting, with the suggestion that she come up with cartoons to go with the hints and we put them together in a book, she was as excited as I was.  And with my husband Simon publishing the finished article, I’m exceptionally pleased with the end result!”
About Sue Palmer
Sue Palmer MCSP, author of ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’, is a Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist and Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associate based in Stafford, Staffordshire.  Also a BHSAI, Sue is committed to educating horse owners about the potential physical causes of behavioural problems, particularly ridden ones, and at the time of writing is physio on tour with Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks in the UK.  (A valued member of Monty Roberts’ tour team in the UK for many years, Sue is currently cutting back on her touring duties to spend time with her 1yr old boy Philip)
About Sarah Brown
Sarah Brown, artist extraordinaire, wife, and mother of three (including Sue), has enjoyed painting and drawing ever since she can remember. Horses have been a part of her life since she was a young child when she helped her father on his milk round with his pony and trap, and it is through Sarah that Sue developed her passion for the equestrian world.  Although Sarah has won competitions for her artwork and one of her pictures has been displayed in the National Gallery, this is her first published work.

This book is published by Simon Palmer, Into The Lens Ltd, and is available from  If you would like a review copy, please contact Sue directly (contact details below).

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 07976 413488

Attachment parenting in the equine world

At the recent International Society of Equitation Science conference, Andrew McLean and Paul McGreevy discussed the potential links between ‘attachment parenting’ and horse training.  As a mother with a young baby (not so young now – he’s 11 months old!), I am of course interested in attachment parenting and follow many of the principles that I am aware of in a very natural way (as opposed to doing it because a book has told me to).

For those who are ‘out of the loop’ on this (I certainly was before I had Philip!), Wikipedia describes attachment parenting as:

Attachment parenting, a phrase coined by paediatrician William Sears is a parenting philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory in developmental psychology. According to attachment theory, the child forms a strong emotional bond with caregivers during childhood with lifelong consequences. Sensitive and emotionally available parenting helps the child to form a secure attachment style which fosters a child’s socio-emotional development and well-being. In extreme and rare conditions, the child may not form an attachment at all and may suffer from reactive attachment disorder. Principles of attachment parenting aim to increase development of a child’s secure attachment and decrease insecure attachment.
When parents are taught to increase their sensitivity to an infant’s needs and signals, this increases the development of the child’s attachment security.[2]
AP is most accessibly summarized by the 7 Baby B’s:
  • 1. Birth Bonding
  • 2. Breastfeeding
  • 3. Babywearing
  • 4. Bedding close to baby
  • 5. Belief in the language value of your baby’s cry
  • 6. Beware of baby trainers
  • 7. Balance

An article on the presentation by McLean and McGreevy comments:

And that’s where attachment comes in. There’s been a lot of hype in recent years about “attachment parenting.” So guess what? “Attachment horse handling” might just become the new rage. McLean said horses that feel a closer “attachment” to their trainers will have a stronger sense of security compared to those that feel less attachment. As a prey animal, an insecure horse is a fearful horse, and a fearful horse is a looking-around-and-not-paying-attention-to-his-trainer horse. So a lot of what might seem like “horse whispering” as well as all sorts of touch therapies might really be “horse attachment.” If your horse is attached to you, he’s going to be more likely to have a lower state of arousal—meaning, he’ll be calmer and more focused on his learning session—and hence, he’ll be more likely to learn: “Tactile contact is an antidote for insecurity,” McLean said.

Particularly of interest to me in this article is the paragraph:

Paying greater attention to our horses’ fundamental affective need for touch, then, might help facilitate a stronger attachment between horse and human. One way to achieve this, McLean said, is to replace patting with stroking when we want to reward the horse for a job well done. “Patting … tends to cause vigilant behavior and high levels of arousal,” he said. “But stroking causes more affiliative (bond-forming) behavior.”

Could this be partly why owners who massage their horse before working them so often report to me that they get the best work from their horses on those sessions?!

To read the full article at click on this link:

Horse Massage for Horse Owners courses 2013

Horse Massage for Horse Owners Courses 2013

Sunday 18th August (all proceeds to the charity ‘Have a Heart’)

Venue: Abbotsholme Stud, Rocester, ST14 5BP (
Cost: £100 per person, to include lunch
Time: 10am to 4pm
Contact: Leisa Calder on 07742 412905 or [email protected] or via Facebook at

Sunday 27th October

Venue: Priory Farm Equestrian, Bradley, Staffordshire, ST18 9DE (
Cost: £110 per person to include lunch (£100 per person for members of the Bradley Dale Riding Club)
Time: 10am to 4pm
Contact: Helen Smith on 07967 154187 or [email protected]

Sunday 3rd November

Venue: Abbotsholme Stud, Rocester, ST14 5BP (
Cost: £100 per person, to include lunch
Time: 10am to 4pm
Contact: Leisa Calder on 07742 412905 or [email protected] or via Facebook at

Saturday 16th November (all proceeds to the charity ‘Have a Heart’)

Venue: The Dressage Secret, Penkridge, Staffordshire, ST19 5RP (
Cost: £100 per person to include a copy of the DVD ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’ (RRP £24.95)
Time: 10am to 4pm
Contact: Sue Palmer on [email protected], or via

Course details

This course is must for anyone who would like to improve the health, well being or performance of their horse.  Practical, educational and easy to follow, Sue Palmer MSc Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist and author of ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’ shares with you the knowledge and skills you need to massage your own horse.

Learn about equine anatomy, massage techniques, and how to combine the moves to develop a complete massage routine.  With the emphasis on how you can work with your own horse, Sue offers an insight into how to reduce pain and stiffness in your horse as well as improve performance.

Horses are provided by the venue, there is no facility for bringing your own horse on the above courses.  If you are interested in arranging a massage course at your own yard, please contact Sue ([email protected]) for more information.  ‘Horse Massage for Horse Owners’ is also available as a book (published by J A Allen) and a DVD, to get your copy today visit

Massaging your horse gives something back in return for all he does for you, and will help you and your horse to truly enjoy the time you spend together.

Holistic Horse Help Price List

I need to update my price list (you can see the current one at under ‘Bookings’ then ‘Prices’) because since having my baby boy my work hours have changed, and this affects my availability and hence my pricings.  I’d really appreciate it if you would have a glance through the information below, and feedback to me ([email protected]) anything useful.  Is there anything else I should include, anything I should take out, anything that’s not clear?  Thanks in advance for your time.  Sue

Prices below are based on an initial assessment and treatment lasting approximately 1.5hrs, and a follow up session lasting approximately 1hr.
Travel is charged at 50p per mile round trip from ST17 9JQ (based on mileage given on AA Route Planner)

Sue (physiotherapy and / or behavioural work), available Thursdays and Fridays
Within 30 minutes of Stafford (ST17 9JQ):
Initial assessment £60 plus travel
Follow up £45 plus travel
Further than 30mins from Stafford (ST17 9JQ):
£200 plus travel for up to 5hrs work, plus £40 per hour if extra hours required.  £50 deposit required to secure the date, payable online through ‘Shop’ at
Physiotherapy treatment days 
Bring your horse for physio at a yard where Sue treats on a regular basis.  Please contact Sue for dates, availability and to book your place. £10 deposit required to secure your place, payable online through ‘Shop’ at
The Dressage Secret, Stafford, Staffordshire (ST19 5RP)
Monthly treatment days: 
Initial assessment £70 , follow up £50 
Appointments are also available with Sue at this yard any Thursday or Friday (subject to availability): 
Initial assessment £80, follow up £60 
Chorley Equestrian Centre, Chorley, Shropshire, WV16 6PP
Monthly treatment days: 
Initial assessment £85, follow up £65
Centre Lines Dressage, Newark, Nottinghamshire, NG23 7PZ
Monthly treatment days: 
Initial assessment £85, follow up £65
Amy (physiotherapy only), available Wednesdays and some weekend days
Initial assessment £60 plus travel
Follow up £45 plus travel
Horse Massage for Horse Owners Course, available weekdays or weekends
£500 plus travel for up to 8 people.  Please contact Sue for further information.
Talks and Demonstrations
Please contact Sue for further information
Filming and Photography by Simon Palmer
Visit for more information

Wither pockets and fat pads

A recent Holistic Horse Help Helpful Hint stated “Does your horse have a dip in the muscle bulk just in front of or just behind his withers? This could indicate muscle tension and weakness.”

Following a query from a reader of the HHH newsletter (you can get your weekly copy for free by signing up at, this is an expansion of that comment.

The area that I’m talking about here is the area that the front of the saddle sits on / in, commonly known as the ‘wither pocket’.  It’s just behind the back of the top of the shoulder blade.  If you look at a 2 or 3 year old horse who hasn’t been ridden, they won’t have dips in this area, and they shouldn’t.  Look at older horses, and you’ll see a more variable pattern.  There certainly shouldn’t be a dip there, ideally the horses’ back should look similar to the back of a 2 or 3yr old (unless they are an older horse – more to follow).  
The reason for the dip, if there is one there, is muscle wastage (or muscle atrophy) – literally the muscle has died away.  The most common reason for this, in my experience, is poor saddle fit.  This could be current poor saddle fit, or it could be poor saddle fit in the past – it takes a long time for muscle to rebuild, and sometimes it never does, depending on the age of your horse and the damage that has been done.
Imagine the blood vessels running through the muscles under the saddle.  The blood can keep flowing if up to a certain amount of pressure is applied, but if more pressure than that is applied then the blood supply is literally cut off temporarily.  So if the saddle is putting too much pressure through the wither pockets, then literally the muscle will die because the blood supply is cut off for the length of time that you are are sitting in the saddle.
Add to this that most saddles continually move just fractionally, allowing areas where too much pressure is being applied to free off temporarily and the blood to keep flowing.  If for some reason the saddle doesn’t do that, again there is the potential for muscle wastage in the areas where the pressure is a problem.
Older horses who have general muscle wastage will often have these dips in the muscle, even if they are no longer ridden.
The other area that I commonly see muscle wastage from poorly fitting saddles is under the back of the saddle.  This is often assumed to be ‘fat lumps’, because the horse looks like he has lumps of fat behind the saddle.  In my experience this is far more likely to be that the muscle under the back of the saddle has wasted away, rather than that the fat behind the saddle has expanded.  This most commonly happens as we come into Spring and Summer and the horse puts weight on, causing the front of the saddle to be lifted as the withers widen, and the riders weight to be tipped further back in the saddle.
If your horse has muscle wastage due to poor saddle fit, he is likely to be quite tight and sore in that area.  Physio can help to relieve this, but obviously the most important thing is to make sure your saddle fits the best it can.  You can find your local Chartered Physiotherapist at, and your local Master Saddler at

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody 
and Nobody. 

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that 
Somebody would do it. 
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did. 

Somebody got angry about this, because it was Everybody’s job. 

Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that 
Everybody wouldn’t do it. 

It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what 
Anybody could have done! 

This is a favourite story of mine, and it came to mind when I was treating a horse recently who belongs to the wife of a farrier, and we were discussing how the farrier had in the past been hurt by a horse he was shoeing.  Something I’ve said many times is that teaching your horse to pick up his feet willingly is your job, not your farriers job.  If you need help, it’s out there – contact your local Intelligent Horsemanship Recommended Associate at  Farriers work hard enough as it is, without the added difficulty of a horse who is unhappy about picking his feet up.  Equally importantly, it can be very stressful on your horse to be asked to do something that he doesn’t understand or is uncomfortable doing.

Most farrier problems are straightforward hypersensitivity – the horse is naturally sensitive to touch on his legs because they are an essential part of his survival kit.  This is relatively easy to overcome once you know what you’re doing and have the right tools.  Some are due to pain – simple pain like an abcess in the other foot meaning the horse doesn’t want to put his weight through that foot for example, or more complicated pain like an assymetrical pelvis or hock arthritis.  I’ve worked with a couple of horses who hadn’t willingly had their feet trimmed for nearly 2 years!  One was a rescue mare who had been badly treated in the past and was petrified of having her feet picked up – she had been sedated for trimming until I met her but is now able to be trimmed without sedation.  The other was a coloured gelding who would barge his way out of the situation no matter what his owner tried – he turned out to have severe arthritis in both hocks and it was just too painful for him to pick his hind feet up.  He is now on medication and easy to trim.

The story above could refer to so many things, both in the equine and the human world, but when it comes to your horse, you are his guardian and it is your responsibility to ensure that his needs don’t get left to everybody, somebody, anybody or nobody.

Relief from headshaking?

I’m so excited! As you may have heard, I’ve been treating a horse called Fergus as a case study to see if I can help relieve his head shaking symptoms. You can see some snippets of video of his treatment on my Holistic Horse Help Facebook page. He was a horse whose symptoms were so severe that he would strike out with his front feet at times while moving to try and relieve the irritation. Fergus has had 8 treatments over the past 4 months, and yesterday I received this message from his owner Trudy:

Hi Sue, Just wanted to say that Fergus has walked in then back out across the hay field while Tim has been cutting the hay in full sun and he didn’t tic his head once, no clenching of his jaw or nostrils! This is great to see ? I had to have my new body protector fitted, it will be ready for Friday, so fingers crossed I can hack out for the first time in months at the weekend. This time last year I had to stop all work, and I could not hack him out as his symptoms were so bad he become unpredictable, and walking through the hay field was hard work back then, I feel sure that all your hard work has changed his life….will keep you posted. Trudy xx
Wow! Whilst there’s no way I can extend this to say that I can help all head shakers, and we certainly can’t say for sure that Fergus is ‘cured’, and its still early days, you’ve got to at least admit that this is a promising start 🙂
Onwards and upwards …