A new approach…

One of my favourite phrases is ‘To teach is to touch a life’. Every so often I hear from someone I’ve worked with, and I’m reminded just how true this is.
‘I was moved to write to you as I so enjoy getting your helpful hints and I particularly like this one:
“If you don’t have good balance and core stability when you are on your horse, your hands will not be able to be soft in relation to his mouth.”
I have fully understood the meaning of this after many lessons with Julian Marczak who has solely worked on my seat (6 months of weekly lessons on the lunge) and then my hands, both on my own horse and his school masters. I am enjoying my riding SO much more now that I really appreciate how to ‘feel’ the horse’s mouth with a gentle sponging effect when wishing to request more flexion or a change of pace or direction. Horses go so much better for me and the achievement of harmony between horse and rider is wonderful.
I first met you when you delivered a massage course at my friend C’s home a couple of years ago. Your visit and fantastic massage teaching marked a change in my approach to horses. My horse was the only one who showed some discomfort upon massaging the longissimus dorsi that day and upon your recommendation I had her saddle checked. It was indeed pinching her, to my shame and horror. Since then I have been so much more attentive to my dear trusting horse’s every comfort, purchasing more comfortable saddles, bridle headpiece and noseband and engaging a local physio for a six monthly check as well as regular home massage as you showed us. I enjoys all human contact and nickers every time myself or my daughter appear whether hungry or not. She makes herself understood at all times now that I am more attuned to her needs. We now ride her in nothing more than a snaffle with a cavesson noseband.

With many thanks from a happy rider and horse,

Another favourite phrase is ‘Smile and the world smiles with you’.  This might not be the case with horses, but certainly your horse work is improved if you are smiling while you are working (or playing, depending on how you view your time with your horse!).  It’s difficult to act harshly or impatiently if you have a true grin on your face – try it sometime soon!

Dealing with yard politics

I’ve been told that the best decisions are often the hardest ones to make, and as the tears well up yet again, that’s certainly ringing true for me this morning. For the first time in many years I’m without a horse to look after. Thankfully it’s not for the saddest of reasons, although 2 elderly horses on my yard have gone that way in the past week 🙁 In my case, Bell has gone to live in her (rather excellent) retirement home. She was always on loan to me, and her owners Carol and Don have a lovely farm in the Chilterns where she can be turned out with her old friend Poppy, in a huge field with the most wonderful view, with a warm stable whenever she needs it, and she’ll be doted on twice a day by Carol. I was feeling torn between spending time with Bell and spending time with Philip (who was 4 months old last week!), which meant that I permanently felt guilty, didn’t enjoy my time with Bell, and she didn’t get the quality attention she deserves. Philip hated sitting in the pushchair or being in the sling while I poo picked, so I’d end up rocking him to sleep so I had enough time to quickly hay, feed and do her field, and if I was lucky I’d be done before he woke up. I felt as though I was losing almost an entire morning every day just trying to ‘get things done that have to be done’ rather than making the most of the time we have. I can’t see things getting any easier once I’m back at work, probably until he goes to school (and even then we haven’t completely ruled out homeschooling!). So after much soul searching I decided it was best for all of us if Bell went backto live with Carol (I realise how lucky I am to have had this option). There are some Shetlands at the yard that Philip and I can play with, they’re much more his size! And several kind friends have said that I can ride their horses whenever I want to. So I really am a very lucky lady!
People’s attitudes to my decision have been interesting, and my emotions towards those attitudes even more so (thankfully Carol and Don, with several grandchildren, have been incredibly understanding). I imagine it must be similar to when one person on a yard makes a decision about how to work with their horse (for example, to follow Intelligent Horsemanship or Parelli, or to retire a horse from competition, or to stop riding their horse completely), and they experience a variety of reactions from the other liveries. Most people, especially mothers, have been very supportive, and for that I am very grateful. Some, usually not mothers, are bemused as to why I would feel the need to consider such a choice. Others, who have worked through it themselves and come out the other side, tell how they managed without having to decide one or the other (baby or horse). What’s surprised me most is the feeling I can’t get rid of that says ‘How come those mums could do it and I can’t?’.
It’s essential to remember, of course, that every person and every horse is an individual. Usually if I delve deeper I hear ‘My baby would alway be asleep by the time I’d pushed him from the car to the field’ or ‘I didn’t actually do anything with my horse for the first 2 or 3 years’, or something similar. Philip definitely isn’t asleep by the time I get to the field, and Bell’s 20 so if she’s going to do nothing for a while she’s better off in a big field with her friend. But why do I even feel the need to justify my decision?!
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years as a physio and IH Recommended Associate telling people it’s fine to make the decisions they want to make, that they have the right to do so, and to try to rise above the yard politics that might cause them to doubt themselves. One horse who sticks in my mind more than most from that point of view is L, with her lovely owner J. L was a young 4yo mare who had never been the quietest to stand to mount, but had got significantly worse. I saw her regularly for maintenance physio, and I found that she was getting more sore at the same time as she was getting more difficult to ride. She was always better for a few days after her physio, but within 3 or 4 months she was bucking and prancing for the first 5 minutes of every ride, which was totally uncharacteristic of her. She was then fine for the rest of the ride, and so the general consensus of opinion on the yard was that she was being naughty and that J should get after her and make her behave herself. J wanted to give the vet a call, and I supported her in this decision, and eventually she decided to go against the majority and stick up for her own horse and her own beliefs. It wasn’t easy, but she was very glad she did – L turned out to have early hock arthritis and after an injection to relieve the pain her ‘bad’ behaviour stopped instantly and completely!
So back to the title of this post – dealing with yard politics. You know your horse better than most others. Trust your instinct and stand up for your rights. You don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone except yourself and your horse. And don’t be surprised if there are tears along the way, because the best decisions are often the hardest ones to make.

Real life story – HHH Brain or Pain January 2013

Real life story – HHH Brain or Pain January 2013

Hi Sue
I always enjoy reading your newsletters and thought I would let you know that I have recently decided to try my quirky pony without the flash noseband he has worn for years after a very reputable instructor recommended it. One of the reasons for this change was that he often did things to make it hard for me to do up the drop part (putting his head down, barging me, shaking his head etc). I also decided to give it a try as I am always looking at everything to try to improve things with him. Well, I have found removal of the drop part has helped him relax his jaw and he goes better and more consistently. He is now in a Neueschule Verbindend snaffle and cavesson noseband and this seems to suit him really well. I think the original reason for needing the flash noseband was because he was trying to evade a bit that didn’t suit him. I tried many snaffle variations and gradually ended up at the Verbindend after finding that a lozenge snaffle was better for him than a French link!
I have been riding this pony 10 years and have had the most amazing journey of discovery along the way as to how I can improve him. He was virtually unrideable when I started. He fractured a stifle as a 6 year  old and never really got back into work after that, until I met him! He’d had no physio of any sort either, bless him. He is also very croup-high and I suspect had been passed along from home to home due to his quirky nature (definitely not a kids pony!). We have been through badly fitting saddles (3 bad saddlers in a row who let us down) and many instructors who said he wasn’t worth bothering with, but now I have the most wonderful pony to ride and I feel I have learned far more from him than I could ever learn from an “undamaged” pony! It’s been an amazing journey and one day I may write it all down for others to gain from too.

There have been so many discoveries along the way that it would take a book to capture them all. I have mixed a bit of everything in to solve the puzzle and build the relationship (natural horsemanship, advice from instructors, things from magazines and lately working on my own body balance and core strength with pilates (the normal sort of class, not specifically equestrian focused)) and it just keeps getting better and better! I came so close to giving up so many times and am so glad I didn’t. He actually belongs to friends but they have said that he is really mine, which is so kind. They loved him as a character, but were at a loss as to what to do with him and were trying to sell him when I came along.
It is interesting to know that he used to trip so badly, even on a good surface, that that was the main thing about him that knocked my confidence. He’d go right down on his knees. He rarely trips at all now. He’s coup-high so naturally on the forehand and that was a big part of the problem. A good instructor helped me build up his back muscles, which were very weak. The better fitting saddle has helped to put my weight in a better place, and allowed his shoulder muscles to develop better too. I used to look down (subconsciously) because I was looking to see what he may trip over, and this was putting more weight on the forehand, so when the tripping reduced I felt more confident to sit back and look ahead and out (the pilates helped with that too). I never fell off him, but I went down with him over the years 3 times when he basically fell on the forehand at speed and kind of cart-wheeled (hence loss of confidence)! Due to this I used to avoid any rough or heavy ground – this in turn meant he couldn’t work on any such ground because of lack of practice! Now I embrace any challenging underfoot conditions to help build our partnership and his co-ordination! Of course, I do so with knee boots on him if the ground is hard or surfaced.
Nice to share this with someone who understands.

Tight nosebands – response from a British Dressage judge

Tight nosebands – response from a British Dressage judge

A recent comment of mine in a HHH e-newsletter prompted several responses full of emotion.  The conversation below is between myself and a British Dressage judge in relation to this subject.

My initial comment:I’m feeling quite distressed about the amount of horses whose jaws are jammed shut with what I consider to be excessive nosebands, along with a considerable amount of metal in their mouths. I’ve seen so many times the dramatic changes to a horse’s comfort levels and way of going when I work to free up his tongue and jaw muscles, that the opposite must be true – if you fix his jaw or his tongue, you reduce his ability to perform. I need to read more around this so that I can produce an article on it – the anecdotal evidence is clear to me, but I need more! What are your thoughts?”

BD judge: “I agree re nosebands being on too tight. I raise this regularly with BD where others are also concerned about it, … Having had a horse who has had significant back and other pain I can say his mouth opening / resistance to contact seems to be directly related to how his back is – nothing to do with the bit or  mouth. The more pain he is in, the more he opens his mouth / resists the bit. I think that mouth opening / resistance in the mouth is often related to stress, physical or mental. What this means to me is that it is completely wrong to be able to strap a horse’s mouth shut; we should be looking for the cause of the problem. I recently emailed BD after a picture of an extremely tight noseband featured in their latest magazine and they were grateful for the feedback …
Unfortunately I disagree on performance. A lot of horses seem to work very well with their mouths strapped shut. I see this often when writing or judging at dressage competitions. I have even seen it [on the winner of a National competition] last April where I felt the noseband was tight to the point of almost certain discomfort. Personally, I was drawn to the mouth and would have marked it down but the judges had this horse as the clear winner. As yet, at least, as judges, we are not being trained to consider the tightness of nosebands. On the other hand there are also horses with evident physical problems – stiffnesses, etc who go with a still mouth that isn’t strapped shut!
I hope these anecdotes are helpful. BD have looked at a way of checking whether the nosebands is too tight – someone invented a handy device that would control against the size of fingers (e.g. should you be able to measure fit by, say, one finger’s width being allowed inside) …”
My response: “Thank you very much for your feedback.  It’s good to know that there is concern about this at the level of judging.  Unfortunately on the performance side of things there is no way of knowing how well those horses could go without their mouth / nose strapped shut – my guess would be that ultimately they have the potential to go even better than they currently are.  However, removing the restrictive noseband would of course change things so much for them that they would initially go less well, I’m sure, and so it would be a study that would be virtually impossible to carry out (for many reasons).”

BD judge:Yes I agree horses could / should go better without their mouths strapped shut. I guess they are just all different and at the moment in judging you can neglect the mouth because it is strapped shut. It would be interesting to judge a class then judge the same class with nosebands removed! “

My response:I suspect that the horse’s behaviour would not be ideal initially with the nosebands removed because they would be better able to express their opinions!  A client of mine did her college study on dressage tests with bits and then in bitless bridles, I think it was 3 combinations of horse and rider judged with bit and then without on one day, and then without followed by with on the next day.  The results were inconclusive, but of course changing a horse’s normal tack would be likely to lead to a lower score unless they’d been schooled extensively in both sets of tack, I would think.  It’s a good start though.”

Noseband too tight?

This week’s Brain or Pain newsletter included a comment about nosebands being too tight on so many horses, and how this could potentially affect performance. Can you imagine the professionals on Strictly Come Dancing being able to move so freely if they had their jaws clamped shut? There is a direct link between tension in the muscles that close the jaw, and tension throughout the rest of the body. A tense muscle cannot extend to the end of its range of movement, and since in horse competition range of movement is a factor in performance, this causes reduced performance (think of how restricted your movement is when your muscles are tight and sore the day after you’ve exercised too hard, as an example). A jumping horse needs to be able to stretch over the fence, a racehorse needs to be able to stretch his stride to gallop faster, the dressage horse needs to be able to extend his forelegs, the hacking horse needs to be able to move freely up and down hill, and that’s just the beginning.
This comment has brought several responses, all agreeing with me that strapping a horses mouth shut to hide unwanted behaviour is not the right thing to do. There aren’t necessarily any other easy answers, but as responsible horse owners, for the sake of our horses comfort, we should do our best to identify the cause rather than ignore it.

Thanks from a grateful horse owner (and probably her horse as well)

In my last post I gave my reply to a recent email from a client, and you may have noticed that I asked her if I could post her original email.  She has given me permission to do so, and here it is:

Both your recommendation of Janine Wilbrahim’s Book & Julie Houghton’s ECST have helped

“I discovered Janine, through an article in Sue Palmer’s weekly newsletter ‘Holistic Horse Help – Pain or Gain’ that recommended Janine’s book ‘’Can You Hear Me’’. 
I was fascinated to read about her ability to communicate with horses and as I had been troubled by my horse’s resistance to be tacked and rugged up, which could not be explained by the normal checks such as saddler, dentist, vet etc I was keen for her to do a psychic reading for him. 
I was amazed at the amount of detail she was able to provide just from a photo of him, from the fact that he is a clock-watcher, likes the smell of my fruity shampoo and more importantly was saying ‘’Something hurts’’ and describing pain at the base of his spine. 
Having had my saddle checked by 3 different saddlers who all confirmed it was a good fit, I was concerned about what this pain that Janine had told me about was and how to pinpoint it, as he showed no signs of lameness, had his teeth done recently and is seen annually by an osteopath and a physiotherapist. 
This weekend saw a ‘eureka’ moment when Ned was treated by Julie Houghton (a colleague of Sue Palmer) who is an Equine Craniosacral Therapist (ECST), who discovered that his left hip was unlevel which was causing a lot of tension in his quarters and tightness in his ribcage. 
After just 1 treatment, Ned is already much more comfortable, far less grumpy being tacked up and having his rugs changed, and with on-going massage and a couple more ECST treatments, will be back on form in no time !
I am amazed that Janine was able to pin-point the trouble-spot so accurately and easily through communicating with Ned via a photo and helped me solve the mystery regarding the underlying problem that more conventional checks had missed. 
I am also extremely grateful to Sue for initiating the discovery through her HHH articles that emphasise that a horse is trying to tell you something when he acts out of character and also to Julie for finally pinpointing and treating the problem area. 
Very many thanks to Janine, Julie and Sue from both Ned and I, your help is hugely appreciated!”

She replied to me:

I’d be more than happy fo you to share my email with other readers of your newsletters as it was through reading it myself that I persevered to find out what the issue was, as your constant philosphy is that if the horse is behaving strangely he is trying to tell you something. I just wish I had investigated further earlier but it is hard to know what to do when all the normal routes failed:-
– osteo that saw him last said that he only needed a check annually
– physio that saw him in the spring didn’t recommend any follow up treatment
– teeth all good as done in July
– saddle all good as done in Aug”

How often should your horse have his back checked?

Below is the reply I sent to a lady in response to an email thanking me for some contacts she made through my regular newsletter who were able to help her find and address the cause of her horse’s unhappy behaviour. It’s worth remembering as you read this that Carl Hester’s horses are treated every 2 weeks – clearly he believes (and I would say has proved) that regular physical therapy is beneficial for horses!

“I’m so glad we’ve been able to help your horse between us all. However, I am saddened by the fact that the issue was missed by your regular [yearly] physio and osteo. This is something I come across all too regularly. It seems that behaviours such as those your horse was demonstrating (and many other horse behaviours) are just taken to be ‘normal’, and so the practitioner doesn’t place enough significance on the areas of soreness they find. All too often they just report to the owner that the horse is ‘fine’, when in my opinion he clearly isn’t (or perhaps that’s how the owner interprets the message, and its a communication problem).

I also find it sad that so many practitioners recommend yearly or six monthly check ups for horses that have pain issues that I believe they need maintenance treatment to help with. It seems to me that practitioners are frightened to offer the treatment that the horse needs, maybe because they are frightened that the owner will think they’re being greedy. In my opinion a horse that is doing a reasonable amount of work (I.e. most riding club type horses) should have a physio assessment and treatment every 3 months, unless they are particularly healthy in their musculoskeletal system. That way any pain issue has not been there too long before treatment, and if no pain issue has arisen then the treatment will enhance the horse’s performance, improve his willingness to work, and reduce the risk of injury and the chances of a pain issue arising. Of course, if the practitioner is not actually spotting the problem in the first place, this doesn’t help! Horses didn’t evolve to live in restricted areas, eat from haynets, or carry the weight of a rider, so no matter how careful we are, they are likely to suffer strain through their musculoskeletal system. Only a well trained, experienced and empathetic practitioner can assess the effects of this strain (I.e. not the average horse owner, although I do have many people telling me that they’ve felt their horse’s back and there’s nothing wrong – would they go to a lay person if they had a back problem themselves, or would they go to a professional?!), and treat and advise appropriately.

I’m sorry to have gone on, as you can probably guess this is a source of frustration to me on a daily basis! Particularly when I am called to address a horse’s behaviour who has supposedly had his back checked, but to my eyes the behaviour is clearly pain related – I have dozens of stories of that being the case. Would you be willing for me to share your email with readers of my newsletter to encourage others to look for the solution that’s right for their horse, and to trust in their instincts?”

The Back Person

What or who is the ‘back person?

This post is prompted by an email I received from a client asking if what Amy and I do (as Chartered Physiotherapists) and what Alison does (as an Osteopath) is the same as what the ‘back person’ does.

My first thought was that I’m not explaining my role well enough to my clients!  My next thought was how confusing it is for the average horse owner to know who to call to assess and treat their horse.  Hopefully I can give you a bit more information here…

One of the questions I’m often asked is ‘what’s the difference between a physiotherapist, a chiropractor, and an osteopath?’ My answer is that although we all start from different training backgrounds, our aims are all the same, to help the horse to be more comfortable and to perform more easily.  The most important thing, in my opinion, is whether that practitioner is right for you and your horse, and here you have to at least partly trust your instinct.  If you don’t like what they do, don’t ask them back!

Whilst qualifications are by no means the be all and end all, they can play some part in giving you confidence that the person you are paying is doing the right thing by you and your horse.  The titles ‘Osteopath’ and ‘Chiropractor’ are protected titles, so if your practitioner is an osteopath or a chiropractor then you can be confident that they have at least completed recognised training.  This doesn’t necessarily, of course, mean that they are good practitioners, but it’s a good start!

The title ‘Physiotherapist’ is sadly more complicated.  Whilst in the human field it is a protected title, if it has an animal related word in front of it then it is no longer protected (e.g. Animal Physiotherapist, Veterinary Physiotherapist, Equine Physiotherapist).  This means that anyone can call themselves a Veterinary Physiotherapist and set up in business, even with no training or qualifications at all (in fact, I was told of someone today who has done just that).  To be sure that you are employing someone who is a qualified Physiotherapist, you should look for the word ‘Chartered’.  You can find your local Chartered Animal or Veterinary Physiotherapist at www.acpat.co.uk.

There are of course many other practitioners helping horses, ranging from massage therapists to reiki, and plenty in between.  Some of these therapies are self regulating, many aren’t.  Again, trust your instinct, and do your research.  Word of mouth is very powerful, although it’s worth remembering that just because a certain practitioner didn’t get on with one person isn’t a guarantee that they won’t get on with you.

As for what or who is the ‘back person’, any of these people can be given that term by horse owners!  Chartered Physiotherapists, Osteopaths, and Chiropractors have trained for a minimum of 3 years (most of them longer, I took 7 years to qualify as a Chartered Veterinary Physiotherapist) and will have a BSc in their subject, and probably an MSc as well.  None of the other therapies have such rigorous training in order to qualify.

I hope this helps a little, please feel free to drop me an email if you have any questions or comments.


P.s. If you’d like to arrange for Amy or Alison to visit your horse for assessment and treatment then email me today.

p.p.s. If you’d like to do more to help your own horse physically, take a look at Horse Massage for Horse Owners, available as a book, DVD or course.