I learned as a child the importance of turnout and company, and as an adult that was confirmed by my studies in equine behaviour. As a Clinical Equine Behaviourist I come across many ‘behaviour problems’ that are simply remedied by providing a more natural lifestyle for the horse. My horses have freedom of movement 24/7 all year round, when not in the fields they have an all weather turnout area with access to shelters.
I was taught that sensible ponies lived out. And if a pony wasn’t sensible, it was because they didn’t get enough time out of the stable.
I’m delighted to see that Ros Canter keeps her horses out. Research indicates that field kept horses stay fitter than those stabled. If it’s good enough for a Badminton winner it should be good enough for everyone! Well done Ros!
We need to change the way livery yards are set up in the UK- horse welfare must come first and year round turnout in fields or decent sized, well surfaced all weather turnout areas should be available for EVERY horse ❤️.
Every now and again I feel the need to call the horse world out on something. Mostly I like to promote what I see as good practice, focusing on ethical, welfare friendly methods of management, riding and training. I believe that the best way to create change is, in the words of Gandhi, to ‘be the change’. For me this means that rather than focusing on what I see around me that I don’t like, instead I focus on DOING what I do like and believe to be right.
However, in this day and age, and with the horse world under increasing scrutiny in terms of social license, I do feel the need to ask the question “what do you recognise as ‘good’ riding”?
I ask this because I frequently see people being described as ‘good’ riders and I’m not entirely sure that I agree.
Is a ‘good’ rider someone who can sit tight no matter what the horse does? Someone who has enough confidence that they can get a horse to do whatever they want? Someone who can ride through the bucks, the naps, the spooks? Who can bend the ‘tricky’ horses to their will? Someone who knows exactly when and how to use the whip, a sharp kick or a firm hand to shape the horse’s behaviour?
These are the riders that I hear described as good, whether they are teenagers or adults, but I’m afraid to say that I disagree.
What we are seeing there is someone who has learned to ignore the horse’s emotions. Someone who pays no attention to indicators of fear or stress. Someone who has learned how to use physical strength, determination and force of will to make the horse perform, regardless of how the horse might be feeling.
Over the last twenty years in my profession as a Clinical Equine Behaviourist, I have had countless clients who have been told ‘there’s nothing wrong with that horse, they just need firm riding’. Often the clients have tried sending the horse for schooling. They have improved with the professional rider, but then reverted when coming back to their owner. I’ve heard people say ‘well that’s just because they’re not a good enough rider’. This can be a factor if the issue is to do with timing or balance or consistency, all things that as a Behaviourist, Coach and Trainer I can help clients work through, or guide them to an appropriate rider to help them. However, frequently, those horses have turned out to have a physical issue underlying the problem behaviour, for example intermittent slipping stifles, PSSM, or even kissing spines and degeneration of the hocks.
In fact, I recently had a chat with an old friend who had a horse who had started to ‘misbehave’. After various investigations, the insurance company had tried to dismiss the problem as a behavioural issue. However the owner was adamant that further investigation was required, so they organised bone scintigraphy. It turned out that the horse had had a fractured pelvis.
Imagine if my friend had listened to the advice to put a ‘firmer’ rider on the horse to ‘ride them through it’?
The horse would have either developed a very severe behaviour problem, or else shut down and behaved despite the pain they were in. Neither of which would have been ethical.
Even if the issue had been behavioural, we certainly wouldn’t have dealt with it by telling the horse to ‘shut up’ and get on with things. We would have worked to find the underlying stresses, removed them or changed the management and training in order to help the horse feel happier.
So although I can have respect for a rider who is brave and has excellent balance, strength and suppleness and can stay on, I’m afraid I don’t class as ‘good’ someone who has learned to ignore how the horse feels and learned to effectively bully or force the horse into doing what they want.
For me, a truly ‘good’ rider is someone who has feel, empathy and tact
Someone who recognises what the horse is telling them and responds appropriately to reduce stress. Someone who, instead of relying on physical and mental strength, takes the time to learn about learning theory, behaviour and the emotion/ motivation of the horse and how to recognise and understand body language. Someone who can give the horse confidence, not because they force them, but because the horse trusts them, feels safe with them and is willing to have a go at doing what they ask.
Most importantly, a good rider is an advocate for their horse. Someone who stands up for them, who can say ‘no, they aren’t ready for this’, or ‘there is something else going on here’. Who will call in the Vet and the Behaviourist and work to get to the bottom of a problem.
You can see why it is so important as a Behaviourist for me to have a good working relationship with the vets that refer to me. When a horse doesn’t respond to the kind of behaviour modification that I do (which is based on LIMA principle- least intrusive, minimally aversive), or if there are behavioural indicators of pain, even if the horse has been given the all clear, I will want the owner and the vet to know that the horse isn’t responding as we would expect if there were no pain issues, and that further investigation is required.
The last thing that I will be doing is telling my client that they need to send their horse to a ‘good, strong rider’ to sort them out.
Don’t get me wrong, a well balanced, secure rider is doing to be much nicer for the horse to carry and less likely to trigger some issues. But I want a rider who can listen to the horse and work with me on the behaviour, helping the horse and changing the emotional state to a positive one.
What do you think? Who do you rate as a rider and why?
How can we start to reward the kind of riders that listen to their horses? There are many excellent and successful professionals out there who do exactly that and are at the top of their games. But right from grass roots up, in the riding schools, at Pony Club, and out at shows, we need to be rewarding the riders that are truly ‘good’ and not just the ones that know how to get results.
If you would like to improve your understanding of learning and behaviour, body language and recognising emotional state, you can sign up for some of my online courses at http://www.helenspence.podia.com or subscribe to my blog at http://www.spencehorsesense.com and you’ll be kept up to date with upcoming webinars, workshops and courses!
How many of us actually know what a happy horse looks like?
I like to think that I do, after all I’ve spent twenty years in business as a Behaviourist and have spent long hours studying body language and learning about normal and abnormal behaviour. However, we can only recognise happiness if we’ve seen it before.
In my earlier years, I was mostly exposed to riding horses that had been trained and handled using traditional approaches that rely on the use of aversive stimuli. Many of these horses spent a good portion of their time stabled.
Some of them were certainly ‘happier’, or less stressed, than others.
But I don’t think it was until I began to work with horses that were living a more natural life style, in stable herds, with minimal aversive intervention, that I really began to see ‘happy’ horses.
When I bred and backed my lovely Rosie, I felt that she was the first truly ‘happy’ horse that I’d ever ridden. Her attitude was so different to the other horses, including my own other riding horses.
I began to feel that everywhere I looked, I was seeing unhappy horses, stressed horses.
Then suddenly, one day, my happy horse became an unhappy one. I went to get her ready for riding and she had a funny look on her face. I was fairly sure she was in pain, but couldn’t identify anything that looked like it could be the source of the pain.
Luckily, by coincidence, I had routine dentals booked for the following day, with my good friend, EDT and vet, Carolyn. I explained that I was a bit concerned about her, but she seemed to be eating okay and there was nothing obviously wrong, she just wasn’t her normal, happy self. Carolyn took one look in her mouth and said ‘Oh my goodness’. She had a buccal slab fracture of one of her molars.
There followed a difficult few months while we waited to see how she would do. However, I could see that she still wasn’t happy. Not only did she still have the unhappy expression, she had become grumpy with the other horses, she was very clingy to her mum, which was unusual because she had always been very independent right from birth, and her sweet itch flared up badly.
So we went to the clinic for x rays and Carolyn said the tooth root was infected and we’d have to extract the tooth.
Post extraction, more drama was to follow. Poor Rosie had delayed granulation (otherwise known as dry socket). I spoke to a neighbour who had experienced this himself, a tough old farmer, and he told me it was excruciatingly painful, just the worst thing that had ever happened to him.
Rosie never really returned to her original sunny self. Around six months after the extraction we started riding again, but she quickly but very gently told me that she wasn’t happy. Another vet visit diagnosed joint effusions in hocks , stifles and front pasterns.
Eventually she was fully retired with arthritis and as you know from this blog, we said goodbye to her just recently.
It got me thinking about how you only know what’s abnormal, if you’ve already seen normal, and vice versa. I knew Rosie wasn’t happy, because I knew what she was like when she was happy. But how many people would have recognised the signs that she gave? They were so subtle, just a slight change in expression, a slight hesitance or reluctance to do things that she had previously done with enthusiasm.
I am fairly sure that in other circumstances, Rosie would have been pushed on, and depending on her personality, she would either have ‘put up and shut up’, in other words shut down and done what she was told, enduring the discomfort, or she would have complained more and more vociferously, eventually developing severe ‘behaviour problems’ because she was screaming her discomfort to the world and no one was listening.
I am thankful that I was able to do the right thing for my beautiful girl, but it saddens me that in day to day life I see so many horses that are unhappy. It saddens me even more that the humans around them seem oblivious to their physical and mental pain.
I appreciate that there are ‘happy athletes’ out there. But there are also many unhappy (stressed) horses and ponies. I would really love to see ALL horse people learn to recognise what a truly ‘happy’ horse looks like, and get better at recognising when the horses in their care are unhappy. Once we see, then we have to start noticing what makes them happy, what makes them unhappy. Whether this is through pain or psychological distress, perhaps we’ll then see practises change so that the vast majority of horses are kept and ridden in ways that are truly horse friendly.
Starting the young horse positively/ obstacle training at Careymill, Ballycastle.
If there is sufficient demand we may run again 😊😊 so do email me if you are interested, or if you’d like to host something similar at your yard.
Ever wondered how to create a confident, calm, curious horse? The kind that you can load up, head out with, face all kinds of new things and new situations and know that you’ll both enjoy yourselves?
The key to this is correct socialisation of young horses. This means good early handling experiences, but, more importantly, careful and positive introductions to new objects, new places and new experiences.
We can do this in a number of ways, but one is through obstacle training.
On this workshop we’ll talk about the theory behind what is sometimes called ‘desensitisation’ and we’ll do lots of practical work with a range of obstacles and objects with our workshop host’s young horses. These include a rescue pony who has gone from frightened and untouchable to willing and engaged, a rising three year old who was bought completely untouched and has been trained using these principles from the start, and a rising four year old who has just begun being started under saddle.
The workshop will run over two days, Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd April, from 10am to 4.30pm each day. Cost is £70 and includes six months access to a video recording of the training sessions.
The venue is on the beautiful Causeway Coast, just outside Ballycastle, in Northern Ireland.
Places are limited so please book soon to reserve a spot! Please contact me for a booking form and payment details email@example.com
For further information or questions you can call, text or WhatsApp me to 07773 157428
I’m in a somewhat contemplative mood. Many tears have been shed over the past few weeks. On Monday we said goodbye to my beautiful old girl, Rosie. I’ve said goodbye to many horses over the years, but this has been perhaps the hardest. I wasn’t even planning on writing about it, I could hardly talk about it. But I do want to share the joy she brought me over the years. I liked to joke that she was my eldest daughter- I was present at her conception, at her birth, by her side throughout her life, through injury and ill health. We didn’t have as many years together as I had anticipated, and circumstances meant that we never achieved the many hopes and dreams that I had when I first took her mum, Geri, to the stallion. But we did learn so much together and she was the first horse that I had that I felt truly enjoyed carrying me around the place. What we had was friendship, and because of that, I knew that when the time came I had to do the right thing for her, no matter how hard it was.
I’ve been sad every day, I still am. But yesterday Suzie and I went for a ride with Kaikoura and Juliet. Kaikoura’s journey has certainly been a long and winding one to date! We have faced quite a few challenges along the way. But it seemed fitting that yesterday was, I felt, our happiest and most relaxed outing so far. I still have to lead him for the first bit, particularly since the lambs of doom have appeared in the fields. He gets very worried by their unpredictability and tendency to ambush him from behind water troughs.
We have done so much careful work to build his confidence and calmness. It feels like maybe, just maybe, after what seems like a lifetime of laying down sheets of paper one at a time, we might actually be getting to the point where we have a substantial pile to work from.
He is such a loveable boy. I never wanted a gelding, nor a pony, nor a cob cross, nor a piebald, nor a grey (which is what he’s becoming). I loved my big flaxen haired chestnut girl. But somehow he picked me and I couldn’t let him go. He’s the childhood pony I never had, the steady rock (when he isn’t bolting!!).
Yesterday he was just the medicine I needed. I don’t know where ‘there’ is. Or if we’ll ever reach it together. But Rosie’s lesson to us is to accept the long and winding road and to love the journey for what it is.
Meanwhile, project pony club pony, also a while in the making, is developing nicely. Juliet is learning to jump with Suzie and they are enjoying getting out and about. I like to think she is a role model for all potential pony club ponies. Positively trained, no whips, no fear, no force, a team built together over time and based in trust and friendship ❤️.