“In short: I love my vet but I am happiest when I see very little of him and I do think he agrees.”
How Horse Wellness = Optimized Performance
Horse Wellness is my passion, understanding what makes a happy and able horse is at the core of my work. Of course, there are a lot of factors to consider when we think about Horse Wellness and what would bring that ‘state of being’ about for our horses. Many of those factors do not have anything directly to do with veterinary care.
As horse owners, we all need good, knowledgeable, trustworthy, and expert veterinary services. In case of acute injury, colic, serious or infectious disease, dental problems, foaling, and many more we depend on the knowledge and experience of our veterinarian to restore our horse to health.
My vet is the best. I hope you can say the same about yours! He advises me well, promotes wellness and prevention and points out alternatives. During the past years (quietly knocking on wood’), I have only spent little ‘vet money’ outside of routine care (shots, dental). However, when it comes to Horse Wellness, other factors to consider in our daily maintenance of and interaction with our horses.
In short: I love my vet but I am happiest when I see very little of him and I do think he agrees.
About this article: I am not a vet, I am a horse wellness specialist. If you are in doubt about the health of your horse, please contact your vet. This article will highlight 5 areas that pertain to wellness as it relates to structure and movement of the horse’s body.
When it comes to spending on vet care, I tend to be frugal and apply the motto “as little as possible, as much as necessary”. Therefore, I chose to put my money where my mouth is: into Wellness!
Below some (simplified) general key elements that will help any horse owner keep the vet bills on the lowest possible side, when it comes to preventable issues:
The 5 Pillars of Muscoloskeletal* Horse Wellness
*(all that pertains to structure and movement)
1. The muscle connection—unexplained lameness
Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are connected.
REPEAT: Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are connected.
–> Tight muscles result in strain on ligaments and tendons.
Unexplained front leg lameness is one of the major reasons why horses wind up in equine rehabilitation centers or are unable to perform their jobs for long periods of time. These lameness issues recur and often result in spiraling vet care expenses and mounting frustration with seemingly no way out.
Tight muscles result in strain on ligaments and tendons.
Prevention: Some of these issues can be prevented by enabling muscles to release tension and therefore provide enough elasticity to prevent strain on tendons and ligaments. Bodywork helps and you can learn some of the basic techniques yourself! Jim Masterson’s Book Beyond Horse Massage is an excellent resource.
NOTE: The only person, who can make a reliable lameness diagnosis is your vet. For guidelines of equine lameness exams see here.
“Horses are born to move. Their entire anatomy screams: walk, trot, canter and graze… .”
2. A new phenomenon:
The Equine Couch Potato
Or: Why less can be more when it comes to Horse Wellness
Horses are born to move. Their entire anatomy screams: walk, trot, canter and graze… Up until recently (a few decades versus thousands of years of equine development), this is exactly what horses have been doing.
With the advent of our ‘convenience society’, we also strive to make our horses lives as ‘comfortable’ as possible. This often results in well-intentioned pampering. We now have a large population of horses living in stalls or small paddocks for most of the day, then exercising sporadically, sometimes inefficiently or inappropriately, meaning not in tune with their true abilities.
Lack of muscle tone and stiffness lead to an inefficient self-carriage and strain on weak, inflexible muscles. (See pt. 1!)
Problems of obese horses:
- shortened hamstrings,
- weak backs,
- lack of flexibility,
- less than optimal proprioception (Where am I in space?),
- weakened stifles,
- all with the potential to lead to unexplained lameness, injury, stumbling, and other performance problems.
SOLUTION: Assess the current fitness level of your horse and come up with a structured gymnastication plan. This can be quite simple and doable enough to fit into your busy schedule! If you need help, please contact me.
3. Gadgets & Co.—not the solution, but the problem!
There is one simple rule: Every type of equipment used on a living, moving body creates some form of resistance.
Simple experiment: Ask a friend to tie a piece of bailing twine or another light line around the back part of your belt. Now walk about and perform your usual activities while the other person is trying to keep the twine on very slight tension, just enough not to slack.
After about 10 minutes, remove the twine and move about in the same constellation as before for just a minute or so, just imagining the twine. How does it feel differently? Did you notice any resistance in your body when using the twine? This illustrate the power of even the slightest connection and resistance.
Beware of side-reins*, running reins, running martingales, tie-downs and other ‘helpers’. They may soon be the cause of a new problem while you are trying to use them to fix the old problem.
(When longing, use a padded longe-caveson or tie the longe line to the inside ring of a snug-fitting, adjustable padded halter. Using rope-halters or slack halters for longing introduces the wrong movement habits.)
SOLUTION: Investigate WHY your horse is doing what he is doing (holding head high, not stepping under) and really work on improving on whatever is lacking. Don’t simply put a ‘bandage on the boil’ and put those auxiliary reins away…
*(correctly used and adjusted, side reins can be part of schooling along the principles of the Classical Art of Riding. However, only those educated in this type of schooling should use such aids.)
4. Saddle-Fit: The No. 1 reason for back problems
The horse’s back is the center of movement, the interface between rider and horse, and also responsible for balance in movement. Saddle Fit is therefore at the center of Horse Wellness!
Back problems in horses – often caused by ill-fitting saddles – translate into all sorts of physical and mental problems in the horse. For example, they range from muscle atrophy and shortened stride to unexplained behavior problems such as sudden shying and spooking or bucking.
The ideal saddle stays out of the horse’s way by conforming to his anatomy, ‘translates’ the rider’s aids into recognizable signals, and enables the rider to eventually align the horse’s and the rider’s center of gravity.
In my estimation, only about 25% of saddles I see on horses in my work actually fulfill these requirements, maybe even less. The result: Seemingly unexplained soundness, behavior, and performance problems.
SOLUTION: Educate yourself around saddle fit. Then—when you then engage a saddle-fitting professional—you have a good idea of whether the presented solutions are actually sound and beneficial. In the US, there is no licensing requirement for ‘saddle fitters’. Beware and arm yourself with some basic knowledge around saddle-fitting that will enable you to ask the right questions.
5. Last not least: Where the brain goes, the body follows
Horse Wellness equals Mental Wellness.
When it comes to horses, mental wellness is not yet a commonly used term. In future, so I hope, it will be a household term for any horse person.
“A sore horse is a worried horse.” (Walter Zettl)
One may also want to say: “A worried horse is a sore horse.” (Stefanie Reinhold ;-).
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our nervous system that enables us to fight or flight, just like our ancestors. The same thing applies to horses, who also—and even more so—have the fight or flight response.
An overactive sympathetic nervous system, however, blocks the parasympathetic nervous system that we need in order to regenerate, to be creative, and to recognize our own needs. In the horse, this is similar. Attention to the handler, trust in the process, actively trying to find solutions—all that is the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive (stress response), your horse CAN NOT pay attention to you or be relaxed.
Any stress response is reflected in muscle contractions in the body. This is a simple rule for all mammals. How do you react when something suddenly frightens you? How does your body feel after a stressful day at work? Where is the tension? Now imagine your horse after spotting a cougar in the bushes. What does his body look and feel like?
SOLUTION: Don’t be ‘the cougar in the bush’. Before interacting with your horse, take a few minutes to calm down, leave the daily grind behind you and take a few deep breaths. Put your ‘agenda’ aside for a few minutes and simply BE with your horse before starting your work together.
This is a vast topic and this article could be several thousand words longer… ;-). I do hope that it encouraged you to look deeper into one or several of these aspects and I look forward to hearing from you with any questions or suggestions.
Be well and enjoy your horse!