“My horse won’t load”

 

No matter what discipline you ride, which breed of horse you deal with, chances are that you probably know of a horse that won’t load. Whatever the reasons behind this behavior, most horse owners will agree that this is a frustrating and somewhat enigmatic issue that has disrupted and sometimes even cancelled their plans. Note that I say ‘most’ horse owners; because believe it or not, there are some people out there who actively embrace this issue and glean a sense of enjoyment from solving it!

Katie Richards of Cornwall Performance Horsemanship is based in Penzance, Cornwall. She is a freelance horse trainer who has hosted her own horsemanship clinics and clinics for other trainers with a similar philosophy, such as Warwick Schiller.Katie says “The techniques I use help the horse to reach a point where he feels safe to think, not react.”. Being that trailer loading is her specialty, it was Katie I went to when I wanted to learn how to fix loading problems- this article is a depiction of what I learned from her one rainy afternoon.

14218100_10210926105539528_653731466_n

Katie’s subject was Rocco, a very nicely put together 2yo Belgian WB X ISH, who was due to be moved to a different stables that afternoon. After a brief groundwork session, it became clear that he was a well minded individual with whom his owner Fay Panter had done an excellent job with asides from a few small but significant issues, and it was those significant issues that were exacerbating his trailer loading problem. Katie spent the first 20 minutes establishing the basics such as personal space and yielding to pressure ; this got Rocco’s brain engaged and taught him that whatever Katie was asking of him, he could find a ‘sweet spot’. This is because the ultimate aim was for him to view the trailer as the sweet spot, however this wouldn’t happen if Rocco didn’t realise he could search for a sweet spot in the first place. Once this was established, we brought the trailer into the equation…

DSC00922As you can see, Rocco was initially suspicious yet curious. Though not convinced he could put his front feet on the ramp, his head was frequently lowered towards the ramp and he gave it a sniff. Katie stood still, allowing him to weigh everything up. When Katie adjusted her posture slightly, Rocco spooked at the noise her feet made on the ramp- her solution to this was to stamp and jump on the ramp until he became comfortable with it and realised it wasn’t going to kill him. This also meant that when he decided he was comfortable enough to place his own foot on the ramp, he wouldn’t be spooked by the noise and so he would be adequately prepared to take that next step.

 

DSC00929When Katie applied more pressure to the rope, Rocco braced on the rope and decided he’d rather move his feet and be elsewhere besides the trailer. Seeing as he wanted to move his feet away from the trailer, Katie allowed him to do just that by going along with him keeping tension on the rope and got him really moving before offering him a rest spot back at the trailer, which he gladly took. He did this once more, Katie consistently took the same approach as previous and once again, Rocco figured that the rest spot was at the trailer.

“My consistency makes me reliable, consistency makes me a known entity.”: Katie Richards

DSC00930After a few minutes to process what had happened having learned the consequence of leaving the sweet spot, Rocco was now willing to place one foot on the ramp. After allowing him a period of time to process what he’d just learned, Katie increased tension on the rope just as she’d done the previous time- this time Rocco knew the answer and braced slightly, lifting his foot off the ramp, but then decided to give to the pressure and placed his foot back down. Katie stressed the importance of timing in horsemanship, explaining that she had waited for him to fully pull away from her before correcting him because “you have to give them a chance to change their mind”.
DSC00933Soon after this, Katie began to ask more of Rocco by shortening the rest times and Rocco responded by placing his other front foot on the ramp then taking it off repeatedly. He then began to show some resistance by leaning against Katie’s feel on the rope, which Katie explained was akin to the darkest hour before dawn. “Often when you’re about to get a real breakthrough you get a bit of resistance. He’s going through some real inner turmoil right now about the decision he’s about to make”; Rocco demonstrated this by defecating on the ramp while continuing to lean. Katie reminded us at this point “mental stamina is built up over time, this horse is only 2 years old and hasn’t walked on anything besides grass yet here we are asking him to walk onto a metal ramp; he simply hasn’t had the time to build up that mental stamina just yet.” She was very clear that at this moment in time, the goal was to get him comfortable with standing on the ramp rather than to get him loaded.

Katie on taking your time “The horse is allowed to have time to recollect. Horses need to be shown they can go through adversity and come out the other side, so it’s important to support them through that adversity.”

DSC00940Rocco had shut down slightly during his mulling over of his next move in that he had stopped blinking and appeared to stall, so Katie bumped the rope gently to get his focus back on her which was enough to get him ‘back in the room’ and was rewarded with a step with a hind leg so that it was resting on the ramp.  Katie then moved to the side to insure she wasn’t blocking Roccos entry to the trailer. We seemed to be stuck like this for a while, so Fay suggested letting down the side ramp. Katie rejected this offer by saying “personally I would love all side doors to be welded shut. If you let the side door down, you are providing the horse with an exit. You are saying to him “I am putting you in here in order to take you back out”. If you promise that exit then shut it, you’ve trapped him which is what a predator would do. You’ve lied to him.” Often this half way point is where a lot of people lose their patience and accuse the horse of “taking the piss”, resorting to lunge whips, lunge lines around the horses backside and though this may sometimes work, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. It might help you win multiple battles, but you’ll never win the war. Horses zone out when they’re neither on or off the trailer because they’ve figured that pulling away from the trailer doesn’t get them anywhere, but they’re still not totally convinced that being ON the trailer is any better. This is why it’s important to continue being consistent, so that the horse will find it in himself to choose the trailer and can then learn that the trailer is a safe place for him, meaning he will choose to go on voluntarily next time.

 

DSC00942After a few minutes with Katie keeping a constant feel on the rope and Roccos front feet firmly on the ramp with a hind leg trembling while resting the fetlock on the ramp, Rocco gave to the tension on the rope and took a step forward so that all four feet were now on the ramp. After this, things seemed to progress very quickly with Katie now doing very little to influence Roccos thought process so that he could make the decision to load himself…

 

DSC00951

After some slight hesitation, Rocco bit the bullet and loaded himself! However, it wasn’t just Rocco who made the mental change in his attitude towards trailer loading…
Once he was on board, Fay said “I can’t take him now, can I? He’s just done all that work and got comfortable on there and now I’m going to throw the ramp up and undo everything you’ve just done with him”! The decision was made for Katie to come out another day and do another session with Rocco to insure that he was truly comfortable on the trailer. This was a fantastic decision on Fays part because it showed she’d truly taken in every word Katie said and had gained understanding and empathy for her horse. Fay’s decision epitomized the majority of horse problems- often it’s not the horse who needs to make the mental change, it’s the human on the end of the rope.

Thanks to Fay Panter and Rocco, Katie Richards (contact her on facebook at Cornwall Performance Horsemanship) and Logan Darrow for the photos (she is The Mindful Horsewoman on facebook). If you liked this article, you can find many more like it on my facebook page The Candid Quarter Bug.

Horse friendly ridden exercises

C’mon, own up- I know loads of you have done it, including myself: trotting mindless 20 meter circles chanting “inside hand to outside leg” like some sort of satanic dressage druid then complaining our horse won’t bend.  Many of us will have also used training aids such as the Pessoa system believing it will limber up a stiff horse, despite its lack of ability to create lateral bend, yield the quarters or anything else that actually does limber a horse up, as opposed to shoe horning it into a pseudo collected appearance and not actually solving any training issues. Thankfully, there are plenty of exercises you can do that are highly effective at stretching and suppling your horse, most of which lots of us have heard of but for some reason think that they’re too complicated or “just for dressage horses” or “just for western horses”- in reality, none of these movements were ever meant to be judged and originally came about from training war horses between battles or preparing the horses of the Vaquero cowboys for life as a functioning cowhorse able to handle long hours of labour and get out the way of a rogue bull at the drop of a hat. I’ve taken it upon myself to put forward some of the easier to digest exercises, most of which can be done at any pace and on a circle or a straight line depending on how difficult you want to make it. As an added bonus they not only work all the correct muscles, done correctly they also make your horse lighter, softer and just generally better minded.

*I’ve listed these exercises in the order I personally do them, hence the varied timeline on the pictures, but that’s entirely your choice.
*This is literally a list of exercises to give you information and ideas. It is not a step by step guide or a ‘how to’. Take it for what it is.

Lateral flexion
back3

Have your horse stand still with his poll soft and head on the vertical while his body does a side lift. Not difficult but getting it good is extremely important. If a horse doesn’t understand something, he resists it. The reason so many horses go around with their noses poking out despite wearing all manner of crazy contraptions on their faces is because they have not been taught this simple exercise. From a bio mechanical point of view, provided your horse engages his abdominal muscles and stays on the vertical, this stretches out your horses entire top line. Simply pulling his nose around to your toe is not good enough, nor is it physically beneficial- in fact if you have to pull at all then you should stick at this exercise exclusively under saddle until you barely have to lift the rein to get the bend. If you’d like to see what I would consider satisfactory lateral flexion, there is a recent video on my facebook page, The Cardiff Quarter Bug.

Disengage Hindquarters

 

5761956_orig

 

One your lateral flexion is very good, you can keep your horses poll flexed and apply leg at the same time.This maneuver gets the horse stepping under himself with his hind legs while his front legs travel straight and the poll is the highest point; so straight away you’re getting your horses weight off his forehand, causing the hind quarters to bare weight and the hocks to bend. This is itself makes it a baby step towards collection. There should be a bend in your horse from his poll right the way back to his loins. Getting your horse to swing his quarters away from your leg also teaches him to get off your legs, particularly if you’re consistent with the level of response you accept from him. The slower the response you accept, the slower he will be off your leg.

back6

This is how it shouldn’t  be done! Brunos head is turned but he is not stepping under himself and he is running out the side door through his left shoulder; If you’re getting this, fix it before going any further because if your horse is running his shoulder out just disengaging, not only does it put him on his forehand but he’s going to do it when you steer him, when you start worrying about canter leads, when you go onto lateral work- disengaging correctly is a step you take with you rather than a step you move on from, so skip it at your peril.
Note in this picture my hand is pulled back to my hip to guide his shoulders back into alignment rather than resting just in front of the saddle in the other pictures. My hand shouldn’t have got that high, but I didn’t shorten my rein enough so that booboo occured. My bad.

Leg yielding

legyield

Once your horse is forward and you have softness to the rein and lightness to the leg, you can start to do the cool stuff! Leg yielding is pretty much travelling forward and sideways at the same time. There should always be bend through the body to allow the horse step under himself and wrap around your leg as opposed to bracing against it. Leg yielding gets the hind end stepping under and bearing weight, front end loosened up and all the other benefits of the sidepass. However, horses that have done the sidepass to death (or done it incorrectly) can start thinking backwards because they’re not expecting any forward motion- backward thinking ultimately results in pig rooting and, at worst, rearing. Being that leg yielding is a forward motion, though it gets the horse travelling sideways it also gets him thinking forwards so is mentally a very good mental exercise as much as it is a physical one.

 

Shoulder in/out

shoulderin

Shoulder in and shoulder out are biomechanically exactly the same exercise: the horses body is bent around the riders leg and walks on three tracks so that the foreleg on the opposite side to which the horse is bending is travelling the same track as the diagonally opposing hind leg, as demonstrated in the pictures above.
Shoulder in: inside hind and outside fore walk the same track.
Shoulder out: outside hind and inside fore walk the same track.
Shoulder in bends the horse into the school, shoulder out bends the horse towards the fence. As the horse is bending away from the direction in which he is travelling, a small degree of collection is required thus making the shoulder in a good starter exercise towards achieving true collection. A horse who has never done this exercise should start with shoulder out simply because the fence will stop the horse from drifting in, meaning you can concentrate on getting the all important bend.

 

Back up on a circle

backward3

Here Brunos inside ear is visible and his inside hip is cocked inward slightly as he steps back. This is because the horse needs to maintain inside bend as well as move backwards- backwards is great as it gets the horse off its forehand but if you’re looking to get the hocks bending and strengthening up any weakness on a particular hind leg, that bend is what’s going to help you out. If your horse is stiff or sparse in the loin area, you’re not going to get a huge amount of inside bend initially; Bruno barely has room for a saddle, seeming to get more compact the further along his body you go, so naturally is not as bendy as some, however this doesn’t mean he won’t bend more in future. By bending the head and quarters in the same direction, this exercise actually lines your horse up for the next exercise…

Quarters in

quarters3

Bruno cannot yet do more than a couple of steps of quarters in, which makes for unclear pictures. However never fear because Alfie, who is basically the Ricky Martin of quarter bugs with the range of motion he has in his hips and questionable rhythm but undeniably infectious enthusiasm, is here and he will give you an idea of what quarters in looks like. Basically you should now be able to bend your horses front and midsection, he should step under himself, so now you can start bending that rear section too! Quarters in is pretty much shoulder in with the quarters pushed in as well. Quarters in is the beginnings of your flying change and half pass, so if you want to do more impressive stuff, you need to get this down really good. Even if you don’t want to do the wow stuff, it’s still highly beneficial for your horse to be able to execute and hold this level of flexibility; the more flexible he is the less likely he is to get tightness- just ask Ricky Martin.

 

Rollback

rollback

Same as all the above exercises are not just for dressage horses, the rollback is not just for western horses! Done at any gait, the rollback involves (for example) walking, stopping, turning 180 degrees and going in the other direction. This one gets the horse off the bridle, thus off the forehand, transfers the weight to the hind end and is also great if you have a dull or ‘lazy’ horse as it gets them anticipating a forward movement after the turn, hence some horses get excited doing this at the faster gaits.

 

 

Not sure if anybody learned anything new there, but I only added quite a few of these exercises to my tool box over the back half of last year and they’ve been invaluable for introducing Bruno back to work after a 5 month lay off due to sacroiliac pain and kissing spines- in fact he’d been in work less than a month when most of these pictures were taken, so those of you with horses who haven’t had invasive surgery or a lay off really have no reason not to utilize the internet or the company of a good trainer and set about giving these a try. Have fun, and if you want to read more of my articles and get between blog updates, pretty pictures of the quarter bugs, and more of my writing that didn’t quite make it here you can give Bruno, Alfie and me a like on facebook at The Cardiff Quarter Bug.

 

Horse friendly ground exercises

It’s fair to say that having had a horse with kissing spines and sacroiliac pain, resulting regular consultations with vets, farriers and physios and having attended a vaquero cowboy clinic with Jeff Sanders, all in the space of 4 months that I have had one hell of a crash course in bio mechanics! Before all of this happened I had an active interest in bio mechanics anyway, however I didn’t know much beyond foundation or problem horse focused ground work . So, as awful as the whole experience has probably been for my horse, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me as it’s opened up multiple doors and given me access to training tools that I would’ve otherwise bypassed. So without further ado, here’s a few of the most basic exercises we’ve been doing with rehabilitating the weak or crooked horse in mind.

1. Backing up inclines
exercises7
Backing up features heavily in this blog, reason being that it’s one of the easiest ways to get a horse rounding his back, tightening his abs and getting his weight off his front end. You can see here that Brunos back is completely straight, bordering convex, his nose is on the vertical and his last rib is raised enabling him to get his hind leg completely underneath him; obviously all that’s great but it’s no different to a back up on the flat. What makes backing on an incline so beneficial is that the extra effort of pushing up the hill opens up the horses sacroiliac area- if there is any tension in that area, this exercise will stretch it out thus making everything else much easier. For that reason, I tend to use this as a warm up exercise. This can be very difficult at first and you may even notice the hind legs shaking with the effort of bearing so much weight to begin with depending on how steep an incline you’re using, but within a week or two your horse should be scooting up the hill with relative ease and any issues you’re having related to sacroiliac stiffness should greatly improve.
*note, please make sure your horse already backs up easily on the flat before trying this.

2. Back up on a circle
backup3

Naturally horses have one hind leg that pushes and the other that carries weight. Generally the right hind leg is the strongest, and this is certainly the case with Bruno. This isn’t generally a big problem, but if lack of weight carrying capacity on one leg begins to impact your horses training (problems with lead changes, struggling to maintain bend, pivoting on the wrong leg), chances are it’s also impacting his soundness and therefore needs addressing. Backing on a circle is probably the most effective way to begin strengthening your horses ‘pushing’ leg. Which ever way you’re circling, the inside hind will be the leg bearing the most weight and the tighter you circle the longer that leg will be under pressure, so it’s a good idea to spiral in and out rather than staying on one tiny circle. Your horse should also maintain inside bend both ensure suppleness and to make it easier for him to land on the desired leg.

3. Sidepass
sidepass

Don’t scroll past this one! Please! I think a lot of people reading this can already sidepass their horse under saddle. However, I’m including the sidepass in this blog because there are misconceptions about it that mean when done well it’s great for a horse with a stiff back but done badly (which it usually is) it’s little more than a circus trick. The main issue with the sidepass is that people are trying so hard to keep their horses from travelling forward into a leg yield that they fix the neck and back straight. This in turn restricts how far both sets of leg can really cross under the horse thus cancels out any physical benefits of the exercise. You can see here that Brunos head is aligned with his hind hip rather than with his chest. Though exaggerated for clarity and incorrect by judging standards, this bend means his body is free of tension and he can really get his hind legs under him effectively making it easier for the front end to elevate and make a clean cross over of the front legs possible. With so much focus on the back end, it’s easy to forget the importance of working the front end and the sidepass is a fabulous exercise for just that being that crossing forelegs stretches out the shoulders and the area underneath the saddle.
*This will be nigh on impossible if your horse cannot disengage his hind quarters and yield his shoulders- there are lots of videos on youtube with trainers such as Warwick Schiller, Ian Leighton or Stacey Westfall touching on this, so please refer to them if that is your starting point.

4. Shoulder in

shoulderin
Most people have at least heard of shoulder in even if they’ve never done it: The horse maintains inside bend while the inside hind leg and outside foreleg travel on the same line so his feet make three tracks. Dressage people often like to make it sound a lot more difficult but in a nut shell that’s what it is. It’s a great for making the horse supple and activating the hind quarters. However, people often forget that none of these movements seen in today’s dressage were ever designed to be judged; they were designed to keep a war horse supple and less predisposed to muscle strain or injury. Nowadays people get hung up on making these movements aesthetically impressive rather than building them from the horses current abilities, hence so many of these exercises are made out to be more complicated than they actually are. Bruno’s stiffness in the sacroiliac region initially made this extremely difficult for him, so we started with shoulder out- bio mechanically exactly the same movement only the horse is facing the wall, so they can’t fall through the shoulder into the middle of the school.  The great thing about shoulder in is that it can be done at any gait, so you can increase the difficulty as the horse gets stronger.

5. Spanish Walk
spanishwalk4

Yes, really! Far from a cool trick (ok, it is quite a cool trick, I’ll admit) the Spanish walk done correctly is super beneficial for multiple areas of your horses anatomy. The stretching of the forelegs releases the area under the saddle, the act of bearing weight on the hind end in order to lift the front end strengthens the hind end and coordinating all four legs to move forward and lift at the same time goes a long way to improve a horses overall balance and rhythm. Having consulted youtube to learn how to teach this, the main problem I found was that many people had taught their horses to wave their legs frantically, but all seemed to struggle with the… well, with the actual walking part of the Spanish walk! So I got around this by teaching Bruno not to raise his legs on command, but to raise his legs and walk on on command. This ensured that he was always thinking forwards and meant that the frantic flailing you tend to see never materialized as the relief of moving forwards was a sufficient reward in itself. I did teach the jambette (where the horse is stationary while stretching a foreleg) but not until the rhythm of the Spanish walk was well established (took about 4 weeks). I have a couple of reasons for this I feel are important to highlight as to a lot of people this was a backward way of doing it:
. If you look at the picture on the right, Brunos hind leg is off the floor propelling him forwards- this isn’t happening at all in the left picture and is very slight in the center, yet his foreleg is highest on the right. The better the walk, the higher the lift.
. Balance and confidence tend to go hand in hand and if the leg is very high off the ground, it’s naturally harder for the horse to balance which will make him more clumsy walking forwards and may cause him to lose confidence, leading to that frantic waving while reluctant to go forwards; if he isn’t reaching very high to begin with, his confidence will build much faster causing him to offer to reach higher by himself.

So that’s about it! There are multiple other exercises I use, but these five are my old faithfuls that I built up from. I feel irresponsible if I don’t finish this blog by stressing that if your horse cannot do the very basics (lateral flexion, disengage the hind quarters, back up and yield the shoulders) and already knows how to deal with pressure then PLEASE get those things down first. This particular blog is more regarding the horse in a physical sense rather than a psychological one, but I need to stress that adding extra demands on an already worried horse will cause tension in the horses body and that’s the exact opposite of what these exercises are designed to achieve. Hope you enjoyed this, and if you try any of these please let me know how it goes on facebook (The Cardiff Quarter Bug)!

Is your horse REALLY in pain?

Drinking game: Go on any horsey page on social media. Find a post where someone is having some sort of behavioral issue with their horse. Every time someone suggests magnesium, calmers, tumeric, saddle check, chiropractor or physiotherapy, have a shot of any spirit of your choice. Every time someone suggests it’s a training issue, have a shot of orange juice. You will surely be absolutely wasted before you reach the end of the thread and will have plenty of orange juice left. The reason for that is that people naturally don’t want to think about that we might be the problem as it hurts our egos. Not dissimilar to people who medicate their kids who misbehave without first considering if their parenting is adequate, it’s easier for most people to throw time and money into finding a physical problem than it is to do some soul searching and think how our own actions could be the cause of a problem.

It’s not that people shouldn’t be looking for a physical reason that their horse is misbehaving, but all too often I find myself reading a thread where the owner tells us her horse has started bolting and people suggest the usual (kissing spines, ulcers, saddle not fitted correctly) which the owner says she will look into. However when someone pops up and says it may be a training issue, said owner gets very defensive and says something down the lines of “it’s not definitely not a schooling issue, he’s always been strong but never like this” while their profile picture shows them on their horse, togged up in a Dutch gag, grakle noseband and a running martingale while they’re carrying a whip- the fact they say the horse has always been ‘strong’ screams that the bolting has been in there for a long time, it just happens to have come out recently. The load of contraptions on the horses face in the picture say that the horse doesn’t listen to the reins, while the whip suggests it doesn’t listen to the leg either… yet here this fictional person is, insisting she doesn’t have a training issue.

Nice big dose of magnesium will sort this out! Magnesium will give this horse an understanding of the reins, teach him to be soft, to accept the bit and introduce the rider to the concept of soft hands! Oh sorry, I think I confused magnesium with training. My bad!
Nice big dose of magnesium will sort this out! Magnesium will give this horse an understanding of the reins, teach him to be soft, to accept the bit and introduce the rider to the concept of soft hands! Oh sorry, I think I confused magnesium with training. My bad!

Of course, there are times when a physical issue is indeed present. I experienced this with my horse Bruno very recently. He can pack a snaffle or a curb interchangeably, but generally I ride him in a rope halter- often I’ll take that off too, just for shits and giggles. Anything I can ask of him in a bit I can ask of him in a halter and if I can’t ask for it in the halter, I’ll go back and work at it until I can. He is not a horse prone to bucking, rearing, bolting or anything like that, to put it simply he’s just a total bro. However, when I first got him that wasn’t the case.

My partner in crime
My partner in crime

He was 4yo but had been started at around 2yo (as reiners usually are), not got much past being mounted as he proved very difficult, and was then given to the lady I got him from, who left him in the field for a year or so to wind down and then figured she didn’t have the time for such a complicated horse. So when I met him he still had all the issues his first trainer encountered:
. Pulling back while led
.Won’t load
.Impossible to catch
.Doesn’t like being touched
.Won’t be mounted
.Tense with anything above him
.Cinchy
.Explosive spooking
.Rushing on the lunge
.Box walking
.Crib biting

Very few people would volunteer to take a horse like that on, but I saw all his problems as being very easy to fix because they were all related; The first two problems are from the horse not being taught to give to pressure, thus having not learned to lead correctly. The next five issues are a combination of personal space and desensitization holes. The last ones are all manifestations of generalized anxiety. The issues listed were not problems in themselves, rather they were symptoms of the actual problems: Lack of basic education, lack of desensitization and resensitization and anxiety- in fact, you could say that desensitization and resensitization falls under basic education, narrowing the problems down further again. He also had a prominent ewe neck- but that gradually disappeared as he started stretching his head down and relaxing rather than popping his head up on high alert all the time. The fact that when narrowed down there weren’t actually that many big issues meant we progressed very quickly together and all these symptoms people often insist on treating medicinally all but disappeared within a month.

Bruno around 5 weeks after I first started working with him
Bruno around 5 weeks after I first started working with him.

However, fast forward 2 years down the line and we began to have some issues. Now 6.5yo I was asking more of him; more flex, more forward, more soft- we were doing everything we’d done before, only in version 2.0. Only it wasn’t so effortless anymore… I began to encounter:
.Slight resistance on the left rein
.Bend on the left not reaching the loins causing difficulty in stepping under
.Reluctance to go forward at short notice
. Inconsistent flying changes
. Head popping up while mounting and dismounting
. Abrupt downward transitions
. Struggling to use his hind end effectively in the lope on the left rein

It was all very subtle, nothing was badly wrong but something wasn’t right either. This came to a climax when one day I asked for a hindquarter disengagement to the left and he reared. He couldn’t do it on the ground either, working himself into a frothy sweat trying to do this basic maneuver so I quit right there and got him off to hospital the following week insisting on X rays from every inch of him . The results surprised even the physiotherapist; because despite his awesome range of flexion, laid back demeanor and perfect manners, he had two impingements of the interspinous dorsal processes on the left hand side: Kissing spines.Extremely mild kissing spines, about as mild as it can possibly be, but kissing spines none the less. Looking back, the symptoms were always there:
.Problems mounting- mounting happens on the left
.Impossible to catch- Headcollar buckles on the left
.Cinchy- cinching happens on the left

An X ray of a horse with kissing spines.
An X ray of a horse with kissing spines.

In short, Bruno was protecting his left hand side from day one but there was so much else going on in the way of training issues that those issues disguised the physical issues. Pretty quickly, training caused him to swap defensiveness on that side for stiffness- which is what such a mild example of kissing spines is, it isn’t painful but it IS very stiff. Ironically, the training that showed up that stiffness is probably what prevented those 2 impingements becoming fused on both sides or having a domino effect and causing more impingements further along the spine. A defensive horse could be misdiagnosed with all manner of illness and defect before finally pin pointing a problem, whereas stiffness doing a specific exercise is far easier to narrow down. I’ve spoken to a lot of people with horses with kissing spines since Brunos diagnosis and heard all kinds of horror stories; horses bolting down country lanes, random bucking fits going into canter, aggression in previously sweet horses while being groomed- I had none of these more spectacular signs to refer to. I simply had my usually willing horse vehemently say ‘no!’ doing something we’d done a thousand times.

Disengaging to the left- usually we can do it in our sleep.
Disengaging to the left; usually we could do it in our sleep- until I asked him to do it that little bit faster.

So what am I saying? Basically I’m debating if the defensive behaviors we hear about which supposedly relate to pain are ACTUALLY pain related or are simply existing problems exacerbated by pain. Being that I usually ride my horses in rope halters, it’s pretty easy for them to over power me if they don’t fancy doing something. This means I’m aware the second a training issue arises so I can nip it in the bud before it becomes dangerous. It also means that when pain is present, it becomes obvious in it’s premature phases. For people who simply try a stronger bit or tighten the flash noseband another hole or add a martingale, it’s much harder to recognize where the training issue ends and the pain starts. If your horse opens his mouth because you didn’t bother to teach him to give to the bit at the start and you respond by sticking a flash noseband on him, how is he meant to tell you when a genuine physical problem arises? Opening his mouth resulted in his mouth being tied shut, so he tries pulling against you in the direction of home instead. No problem, you can stick a pelham on that sucker and shut him up. The horse is now not only confused about the reins, he’s also been forced to keep his mouth shut about expressing his confusion and to contain his worry about this situation by the person on top essentially holding him captive. Is it any wonder that when you add pain to the mix, these horses exhibit bolting and become dangerous seemingly overnight? Is it any wonder that after the source of the pain is eventually treated, so many owners complain that they haven’t seen a huge difference in their horses behavior? Surgery is a physical fix, it will only get rid of the pain itself; it will not fix all the issues that were there prior to the pain taking root.

Brunos stitches.
Brunos stitches.

*I’ll update Brunos progress with his recovery as circumstance permits- he’s just going into his last week of box rest, meaning I can begin to document the rehabilitation.
*Follow me on facebook, search for The Cardiff Quarter Bug

“My horse naps!”

If there’s one particular problem I see and hear about on a daily basis, it’s napping. Whether it’s a horse that won’t hack out alone because it won’t leave the yard without a performance, a kids pony that drags its rider back to its field mates on the other side of the arena fence or the family horse that is great in every way apart from the fact it won’t load without a fight when leaving the yard- everywhere you go, be it at the stables, at a show or on social media, you will encounter someone with a horse that naps.

Part of the reason this problem is so prevalent is that often people don’t even realise their horse is napping. Walking back home a little bit faster than he walked when you set out? Napping. No really, how is your horse walking home faster than he set out any different to him galloping home in a blind panic faster than he set out? Both are bolting, the gait or speed is irrelevant. If the horse wants to be somewhere other than where he is, he is napping. What about that horse who screams the place down and paws when it’s being tacked up in the stables out of sight of its field mates? If it can’t handle being 30 paces from its friends, it’s no wonder it rears and spins when asked to leave the yard alone. Yet again, the horse feels that something else is a better option than doing whatever the rider is asking of it. Perhaps napping is the wrong word for this behavior, as napping has connotations associated with laziness- and being that laziness isn’t the cause of napping, to say the word is inappropriate is an understatement.

In humans, you would call this kind of behavior destination addiction. If someone always seems to change jobs, move house, switch spouses and none of it ever works out, that person is more than likely has destination addiction. They always think that happiness is around the next corner, they never consider that it could be where they stand right now. When you think about it, the horse who rushes home and the horse who keeps circling to his field mates is no different.

So how do you go about fixing this? I’ve spoken in the past about how I prefer to let a horse make a mistake if he’s intent on making it and then correct it, rather than try to suppress or contain the mistake and end up micromanaging the horse thus creating tension or causing it to switch off. I apply this same philosophy to napping/destination addiction. In laymans terms, if the horse wants to go some place other than where I want to go, I let him go there… then make life very difficult for him until he wants to leave.

nap1
Here we see Bruno just leaving the barn- I dropped the reins on his neck and he immediately took me back to the door way where his mates are. Not a problem, I let him go there and simply irritated him with my legs and kept him walking in pointless circles for about 30 seconds- by that point he was desperate to get away from there as it turned out not to be such a cool place after all!
nap2
So we finally left the barn and cross to the car park (left) then when he chose to take me through the gate, I let him chill there. Either he can go to the barn and run around in circles expending energy and getting heckled, or he can go outside and chill out. No contest which option horses will go for!
Being that it only took around 30 seconds for Bruno to leave the barn of his own accord, I thought maybe it was too good to be true. As expected, he was a little too keen to get back there when offered the chance- not a problem at all! Because I REALLY enjoy trotting around in circles for no reason for an unlimited amount of time, I really do. So we did the same thing again, annoying the hell out of Bruno until he figured the barn still wasn't the cool place he initially thought.
Being that it only took around 30 seconds for Bruno to leave the barn of his own accord, I thought maybe it was too good to be true. As expected, he was a little too keen to get back there when offered the chance- not a problem at all! Because I REALLY enjoy trotting around in circles for no reason for an unlimited amount of time, I really do. So we did the same thing again, annoying the hell out of Bruno until he figured the barn still wasn’t the cool place he initially thought.
After going back and forth reasserting that the barn isn't where the party's at, this is the end result- a horse that happily leaves the barn with a spring in his step and not looking over his shoulder. I do this same exercise what ever a horse is napping to, whether it's the barn or another horse or something else entirely. The objective is to make home a bum deal and where ever you want to go the get out of jail free card.
After going back and forth reasserting that the barn isn’t where the party’s at, this is the end result- a horse that happily leaves the barn with a spring in his step and not looking over his shoulder. I do this same exercise what ever a horse is napping to, whether it’s the barn or another horse or something else entirely. The objective is to make home a bum deal and where ever you want to go the get out of jail free card.

So that’s about all I have to say about napping/ destination addiction! Of course, the cause of destination addiction should always be addressed before the destination addiction itself- which , invariably, is anxiety of some kind usually stemming from lack of preparation and/or effective leadership on the rider’s part. It’s also important to be sure that YOU are not napping or suffering from destination addiction too! Know your horses lateral flexion isn’t great but you want to hurry up and get that canter work going? Complaining about your horses inability to stand still but intent on taking him to that show at the weekend? Currently have your horse in a Jr Cowhorse bit with a flash noseband and a martingale to school your horse on the flat but talking about going hunting next month? You don’t need me to tell you that you have a napping problem as well. Make your current position as pleasant as it possibly can be and the place you want to be will naturally catch up with you.

*follow me on facebook- search for The Cardiff Quarter Bug

The new Cardiff Quarter Bug

After the surprise success of my blog The Cardiff Quarter Bug hosted  over on Weebly, I decided that if after a year people were still reading my material I would buy a more professional and user friendly domain. Thecardiffquarterbug.org here on word press will be exactly the same as thecardiffquarterbug.com only now you will be able to find my old articles individually instead of having to scroll through them all to find the one you want.
Thank you for your continued support over the last year.