What’s going on?

By Sue Palmer

FEI dressage rules, article 248, point 1 includes the sentence:

  1. Neither a cavesson nose band nor a curb chain may ever be as tightly fixed so as to harm the Horse


There is mounting evidence that tight nosebands ‘harm the horse’, with increased levels of stress (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/03/new-rules-on-horse-nosebands-needed-to-prevent-distress-say-researchers), and lesions to the mouth (https://www.pressreader.com/uk/horse-hound/20180426/283124249497065) .  This article from Trot On has a great video from Concordia about why we shouldn’t have tight nosebands, including demonstrating that you can grate a carrot on the bars of the mouth!!!

There are also officials and organisations looking into lesions made by spurs and by whips (https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/denmark-bans-tight-nosebands-2018-635162).  I know some horses have sensitive skin, and that the incidences were ‘very low’, but just how hard must you have to hit a horse with a whip to cause lesions?!

The study mentioned in the Horse and Hound article above was published in 2018, and as well as confirming the correlation between tight nosebands and lesions in the mouth, found that 3.2% of riders had hair on their spurs, with 0.4% having blood on the spurs.  I’m not discussing here whether or not spurs should be used, but surely, even in a sensitive horse at the top level, they shouldn’t have blood on them?  Doesn’t that indicate that they’ve been used continuously to the point where the skin has worn thin, or that they’ve been used so harshly that they’ve drawn blood?

I don’t know, I’m not competing at the top level, and I have the frustrating habit of always being able to see both sides of the story.  So when a world class eventer contacted me to say that she felt tight nosebands were essential at top level cross country as that’s the only way of staying safely in control on some horses when there’s a huge fence looming in front of you, I’m not sure how I feel.  Should we not be jumping fences that are so big that we have to create pain in our horses to maintain control?  Should tight nosebands be allowed only in cross country, where the solid fences create so much greater a risk?  Are we on the slippery slope of saying we shouldn’t ride at all because the act of sitting on a horse causes a level of discomfort that the horse has not requested (please note, whilst I can see the viewpoint of people who state this, I personally believe that many horses clearly enjoy their work, whether or not it causes them discomfort, and that it’s about listening to the individual horse and doing your best to act ethically that matters)?

The answer, I believe, is ongoing research and evaluation, and more mindfulness in equestrianism.  If you have a favourite author / blog / newsletter related to equine welfare, pain, behaviour or performance, it’d be great if you’d share it here so that others can take a look 🙂

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Horse flies!!!

By Sue Palmer

The horse flies are out and about in force in the UK.  I’m sure that each year they seem worse than ever!  There are a couple of things that some of my clients have mentioned that I thought sounded a really good idea, and I wanted to share, in the hope of helping even just one horse!


The first is a ride on fly rug with fringes, such as this one: https://www.kramer.co.uk/Horse/Horse-Rugs/Exercise-Sheets-Walker-Rugs/Exercice-Fly-Rug-with-Fringes?prod_number=422067-6_6-EC&ref=Produktportal%2FgoogleUK&subref=422067-6_6-EC.  I used to keep my horse near a river, and I looked into this option then (in the end I went for riding in an exercise sheet, as I wasn’t going to be at that yard for long).  I would definitely be strongly considering it if I was in that situation now!  I hear people moan about how they couldn’t enjoy their ride because their horse was tossing his head around, and I think that probably that ride wasn’t much fun for the horse either.  One lady nearly ended up having an accident when her horse ‘lost it’ because of the flies when she was riding and leading – they all got home safely, but with a twisted hind shoe in the process.  This is such a simple option to make riding out considerably less distressing for a horse who is sensitive to flies, and the fringes on it make me smile ?


The second idea is the horse fly trap that is now available, such as this one: https://www.electric-fence.co.uk/voss-farming-tabanus-trap-horsefly-trap.html.  The price is not cheap, but I’m a great believer that you get what you pay for.  The couple of clients I’ve spoken to who have used one have raved about it, saying that it’s literally catching hundreds of horse flies each day.  The idea is that the horse flies are attracted to the large black ball, which to them looks like the rear end of a horse.  The ball is warmed by the sun, fooling the horse flies further into thinking it’s an animal.  They land on it, and when they try to take off, they are guided upwards by the funnel, landing in water and drowning.  This site claims that you can get rid of up to 95% of the horse flies, providing you put the trap up early enough to catch the breeding females, and ideally can place it in the path that the horse flies take to their water supply.


If you’re on Facebook, here’s a useful post about horse flies put up by Penbode Equine Vets in Tavistock:https://www.facebook.com/eqwest/posts/10156417368889556


I hope this helps someone!  If you’ve got more useful tips, please do share them in the comments!

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Photo by Florian van Duyn on Unsplash

How to handle the heat?

By Sue Palmer
I have to say that personally, I am loving the weather that we are having in the UK at the moment! As long as I don’t have to move around too fast, and I can get into the shade on a regular basis, I would far rather that it was warm and dry than cold and wet. I’m lucky though. My job is outdoors, I can treat the horses in the stables if we need to be in the shade, and although my work involves much physical effort, it is not cardiovascular.

I realise, however, that not everyone feels the same, and that many people are struggling to know what to do for the best for the horses when the sun has shone for such a prolonged period of time. We are not used to it in England! The grass has dried up, and people are having to feed hay in the fields as there is nothing there for the horses to eat. Does anyone know, by the way, when it is safe for the horses to eat hay that has been cut and baled this year?

So today’s blog is asking what advice you can offer others in relation to maintaining your horses health, and a reasonable degree of comfort, in the hot weather? Dr David Marlin offers some excellent advice on his FB page on how to cool horses quickly, including spraying them with cold water. Commonsense tells us not to overwork horses on the hard ground any more than we would overwork them on the soft ground, as the repeated concussion could lead to injury. I would hope that everyone is providing their horse with a constant source of water, although I spoke to a client this week who found her horse had had no water during the day, despite being on full livery.

What hardships have you found in the heat, and how have you overcome them? Or do you, like me, enjoy the warm weather?

Look forward to hearing from you 🙂

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Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash

“What we didn’t understand was the complexity of the referrals coming in…”

A new initiative on managing chronic pain at a Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust was reported on recently in Frontline, the magazine for Chartered Physiotherapists, and I felt there was some relevance to horses that I’d share with you. The focus was on managing chronic pain using a team approach rather than heading straight for investigation and medication, based on NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) guidelines.


Chronic pain, as opposed to acute pain, is pain that has lasted for a long time.  It is described in various ways, but is pain that has lasted beyond normal healing time, and it’s usually classified as chronic if it lasts or recurs for longer than 3-6 months.  I know plenty of horses whose back, neck or quarters has been sore for at least that long. The article says “‘We’re looking at the whole person rather than just their pain”, which fits perfectly with the way I feel about physiotherapy for horses.  If you’re interested, there’s a scholarly article on the classification of chronic pain here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4450869/


Owners commonly ask me whether their horse is in any pain, and it’s reasonable to assume that on palpation (when I feel through the muscles), many ridden horses will have a level of discomfort, as would most humans, especially athletes. This soreness on palpation is not necessarily bothering the horse though on a day to day basis, in a similar way that many athletes would not complain about their various points of discomfort, because they willingly accept it as ‘part of the deal’. With horses especially, it’s important to take into account the ‘whole’, in particular to listen to the owners’ report of the horse’s performance and behaviour. Does your horse appear to willingly accept any discomfort that he has going on, or does it bother him?


Just because a horse has ‘always been that way’ doesn’t mean he isn’t in chronic pain.  I highly recommend watching the Equitopia video with Sue Taylor, ‘Recognising Subtle Lameness’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lPvyxzSER0), as well as the other videos in the series, for more thoughts on this. Anyone who has watched a foal play can imagine how he might damage himself in a lasting way. Side reins left on for a prolonged period of time, as commonly happens during the ‘breaking in’ process, may lead to long term pain.  Pulling back when learning to lead or tie up can put an immense pressure through the poll which does not always resolve by itself. And that’s not counting the various limb injuries and pathologies that may occur, including in the young unbacked horse, without the horse being noticeably ‘lame’, and which may also lead to secondary pain in the neck, back and quarters. The Frontline article states “You’re … living with pain, fatigue, and the secondary suffering around anxiety and depression, and all the other things that spiral out of control. It’s the same for back pain…” Might this explain some of your horse’s spookiness, grumpiness, or lack of willingness to work?


The article reports that the emphasis of the new Cumbrian initiative includes cognitive behaviour therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy as well as appropriate physiotherapy, as opposed to heading straight for investigation (i.e. scans, X-rays and other tests) and medication.  You might think that the ‘acceptance and commitment’ side of things is not relevant in horses, but how about the owner accepting the horse’s physicality and potential shortcomings, and committing to the best course of treatment for him? Whether or not it’s best to go straight for veterinary investigation is also more difficult in the equine field.  If your horse is visibly lame, then the vet is most definitely your first port of call.  If the issue is a change in performance or behaviour, or equally importantly, long term concerns over your horse’s performance or behaviour, then a whole team approach may well be needed, including vet, physical therapist, saddler, farrier, dentist, trainer, behaviourist and nutritionist. In these cases, as in the findings of the Cumbrian initiative, heading straight to investigation and medication is not always the best answer, and your horse may be better supported by care from the team. A Chartered Physiotherapist or other well qualified physical therapist is ideally situated to be a key member of this team, with their approach to the ‘whole horse’ at the forefront. At all times though, you are the ‘key worker’ of your horse’s team, and your horse is relying on you to listen to him and take action.


To find your local Chartered Physiotherapist visit www.acpat.org, and to find your local Registered Animal Musculoskeletal Practitioner, visit www.rampregister.org. For links to other recognised organisations (e.g. saddlers, farriers, etc), visit www.thehorsephysio.co.uk and click on ‘BPT’ then ‘Links’.

Sue’s blog

The most recent edition of the Intelligent Horsemanship magazine (an excellent quarterly magazine for members of the Intelligent Horsemanship Association, www.intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk) included articles such as “Man or Machine: which comes out best?”, ‘Roadwork: Dr David Marlin gives us the facts”, “What is it with women and horses?”, an interview with Tim Stockdale, a plea to find the IH Young Equestrian Photographer of the Year, and one of my favourites, “Lameness: Are we looking at it all wrong?”. Client of The Horse Physio, Lisa and Chris Harrison, were featured with their horses Bluebell and Harvey, in the ‘IH Members Pictures’. the ‘In Other News’ section included a piece on microchips soon being the law for all horses in England if you want to avoid on the spot fines, and Lizzie Hopkison (of Ethical Horse Products, www.ethicalhorseproducts.co.uk) provided an excellent article on “Building a bond with your horse”, inspired by my book “Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?”, explaining how to determine if your horse’s performance or behavioural problem is due to ‘brain’ (i.e. the horse is taking advantage of the owner), rather than pain (i.e. the discomfort the horse is feeling is leading to this behaviour) or training (i.e. the horse doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him).


The lameness article was written by Daisy Smith (www.howveryhorsey.co.uk) and consultant Dr Jessica Kidd MRCVS. They begin with a ‘lameness dictionary’:

Lameness / Unsoundness = an abnormal gait or stance of an animal that is the result of dysfunction of the locomotor system. In the horses, it is most commonly caused by pain, but could also be due to neurologic or mechanical dysfunction.

Mechanical Lameness: is caused by a physical abnormality, such as scar tissue, that prevents the normal motion of a limb. Mechanical lameness does not typically cause pain.

Poor performance: is defined as a situation in which a horse has had a decrease in performance levels, or one that has not reached it’s expected potential. Poor performance can be caused by lameness, but also respiratory and cardiac conditions.


Daisy and Dr Kidd discussed questions such as ‘Should we ride lame horses?’ (sometimes, yes, but the key is to get advice from a professional you trust), ‘What is lameness and is there mechanical lameness?’ (yes, there is mechanical lameness, but it’s uncommon), ‘In an ideal world all horses would be perfectly sound, but that is surely not realistic?’ (absolutely, and as people we’re not all sound either), and ‘If a riding school pony is not 100%, should it continue working?’ (perhaps, as the degree of lameness does not directly correlate to a pain scale).  The article is well worth reading.  In my work as an ACPAT and RAMP registered Chartered Physiotherapist, I’m often asked the question (usually by others on the yard who are concerned about a friends horse) whether it’s ok to ride a ‘lame’ horse.


My favourite definition of lameness comes from a talk I heard Sue Dyson give at the Saddle Research Trust conference a few years ago (don’t miss this year’s conference by the way, www.srt2018.com!).  She described lameness as “an asymmetry that can be changed with nerve blocks”.  Most horses (and most people!) are asymmetrical to some degree.  The question is whether that asymmetry is caused by pain – and if it can be changed by nerve blocks, i.e. by removing the pain, then clearly it’s caused by pain.  Finding and removing that pain can be another problem altogether, of course!


As a physiotherapist, I see plenty of horses who are very sore through their back, but their attitude does not indicate significant (or even any!) discomfort in their ridden work.  And I see other horses who are hardly sore at all on palpation and limb range of movement, but who are clearly saying they don’t want to work.  I specialise in figuring out whether the ‘I don’t want to work’ attitude is actually caused by pain, or whether the horse is taking advantage of his owner, or not understanding what’s asked of him.  I wrote ‘Brain, Pain or Training?’ (https://ethicalhorseproducts.cartloom.com/store/1573/D1E812BAECF34512C0FC71473136DFE4/?parent=https://www.ethicalhorseproducts.co.uk/QuickShop/Specials.php#.W0WR5k-2BpM.link) so that you can figure this out for yourself.


So my overall answer to the question ‘Lameness – are we looking at it all wrong?’ I think is often ‘Yes’.  I think that some horses are retired due to lameness when they would happily keep working, and there are many physical and psychological benefits to exercise for people that can be assumed to transfer across to horses in my opinion.  And there are many more horses who are actually lame, but not recognised as being so.  The key, in my opinion, is listening to the horse, as well as having a trusted team around him to advise you.  Dr Sue Dyson is a pioneer in this field, and her Equitopia videos ‘Recognising subtle lameness’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lPvyxzSER0&t=1147s) and ‘Diagnosing subtle lameness’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDvzKV8H4XQ&t=4s) are two of my all time favourites.  Every instructor, saddler, farrier, physical therapist, and all other equestrian professionals should have to watch those videos as part of their training, in my opinion.


Do you have a horse who is lame, but still in work? Have you retired your horse due to lameness? What can you share from your experience to help others who might be in a similar situation?

Right clothes for the weather?

In the recent heatwave I spent some time observing how people dressed. Some people are very prepared, the moment the sun appears, so do they dressed in cute sundresses, with matching sandals. Others, (myself included) seem to take a few days before they realise that they need to adjust their clothing to the current conditions. A few people just carry on regardless, wearing the same outfit that they wear throughout the year.

This has more to do with horses than may meet the eye. Being adaptable means that you can quickly change according to your circumstances. So, a few people will realise straight away that it will be too hot to ride when they normally do so, and will act accordingly. Maybe getting up at 5am to hack out, or only working their horse for 10 mins, or choosing to spend some time simply massaging their horse. Their acceptance of the change in circumstance and the speed of their reaction leave them in a much more positive state.

Other people may take a while to adjust. So will unsatisfactorily school their horse at midday for a few days, before working out that this was not a good plan and then alter their plans. While a few people simply resolutely carry on, regardless of the change in scenarios. We can all imagine how well this position of rigidity will work out.

Adaptability is one of the key skills in our lives, and applying it to our horses is equally important. So before you ride, take a look around and see whether you are simply behaving as you always do out of habit. Or whether your circumstances have changed to an extent where your previous habits are no longer applicable. You might be surprised.

Meanwhile enjoy the sunshine and your horses!


Recognising facial pain in horses

By Sue Palmer

The brilliant Sue Dyson (of the Animal Health Trust http://aht.org.uk) and Equitopia (www.equitopiacenter.com) have done it again!  The third in their series of recognising pain or discomfort in horses.  The first was on recognising subtle lameness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lPvyxzSER0), the second on diagnosing subtle lameness (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDvzKV8H4XQ&t=4s), and this third is on recognising facial pain in horses (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUzvYluYsSo&feature=youtu.be).


H has had a history of poor care – some would call it abuse – in homes where he was treated more like a machine than a horse.  Eventually he found his forever home, where he is very much loved, and treated like royalty.  Before long though, his behaviour deteriorated, and after veterinary investigation, it was clear that this was because of long term pain. H was finally being listened to.  He was operated on, and is now back in ridden work, apparently willing, and certainly no longer demonstrating the severe pain behaviours that showed a year ago.


Yet if you watch his face in his ridden work, it’s clear to me that pain is still present, and this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUzvYluYsSo) just confirms that even more clearly.  The vets have given him the all clear in relation to his operation, he has his saddle / teeth / back checked, he is doing everything his owner is asking of him, and yet I believe he is still communicating significant discomfort.  This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUzvYluYsSo) suggests that when the pain is removed, for example with nerve blocks, the facial expression changes almost instantly.  It is my experience that in the large majority of cases, once the pain is removed, the pain behaviours go away.


It’s not always an easy road to follow, and I don’t believe that it’s possible to find the root cause of pain or discomfort in every single horse (it’s not possible in people, so why would we think it might be possible in horses?!).  But we have a duty to do our best for our horse, and to investigate as many avenues as possible, if our horse is clearly communicating pain or discomfort.


Horses can only communicate pain or discomfort through their behaviour or performance, and as owners we can learn to recognise that pain, and to find the right help for our horse. I wrote ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?’ (https://ethicalhorseproducts.cartloom.com/product/embed/styled/147885/?parent=https://www.ethicalhorseproducts.co.uk/QuickShop/Specials.php#.WxhNvBP3nVo.link) to help people recognise when pain or discomfort might be the root cause of a behavioural or performance problem.  These videos support the same theory, and are beautifully filmed, edited and produced, making them easy to watch and popular to share.  Please spread them far and wide, for the good of the horse.