Author: janinegow@icloud.com

Two vital things for FDO and good posture

I find it pleasing that to have our horses in a forward, down and out (FDO) position to lengthen and stretch the neck and develop good posture, we need to work with our horse, and have a conversation. We are unable to pull their head into this position whilst we are riding. Yes the head can be physically pulled down low, but then the nose comes in, which is not useful for good posture development and causes problems of its own. In-hand work is very useful in developing FDO in our horses, and is the best way to start the process. Yet our horse will need to have a reasonable level of two things for FDO; relaxation and balance.

Our horse needs to be reasonably relaxed, mentally and physically. If the horse is worried, or tense, he or she will generally not assume the FDO position. Rather it is likely their head will be higher, the poll and lower neck tense, and the back hollow. So we need to pay attention to our horse, we need to ensure we do not unwittingly develop fear or trepidation or anger in our horse, and we need to allow and encourage our horse to manage their emotions. We absolutely do not want to get into a fight with our horse, or to be thinking of punishment, or be thinking with annoyance or impatience. We are schooling ourselves and our horse, always! For our horse to be relaxed physically, we need to ensure we do not develop tension or resistance through the way in which we ride and use our aids, and through our attitude. We want our horse to be mentally attentive, emotionally stable and physically prepared with muscles that can easily contract and relax (rather than being held in constant contraction, or tension) so he or she can learn to move in unaccustomed ways, which to begin with takes our horse a considerable amount of physical and mental effort.

Our horse also needs to have a sufficient degree of balance. If a horse does not feel balanced, it will not be able to relax, it will not be able to adopt an FDO position, it will not be able to lift through the wither and back using the correct muscles. If a horse feels unbalanced it may turn the head outside of the arc or circle, may push through a shoulder, may drop a shoulder and fall in, may stiffen through the neck and/or torso and more. All of these things are not done by the horse to annoy us, but to maintain its balance in a way that it can physically and mentally cope with, and in a way to which it is accustomed. When a horse is in balance and is relaxed it will often ask to lower its head and neck into the FDO position. Then all we need to do is give with our hands and rein and say ‘yes thank you, well done’.

Our horse will need to be given the time to discover how to balance itself in different ways to what he or she is accustomed. The first time I asked my mare to step back whilst in an FDO position (and this was in-hand not under saddle), I waited while she thought about it. Then she tried shifting her weight in several different ways. She started to move, then would stop. She had to really think about how to take one step back, without raising her head and hollowing her back. It took her time to think about it, to experiment with it, and finally to have a go at doing it. It was a bit like me when my physiotherapist asked me to do a certain exercise for the first time which used my core muscles. I didn’t know how to do it. I had to think about it, move my weight around a bit, then to have a go at it, and honestly to then do it rather poorly. It felt uncomfortable, unnatural and difficult. When we have empathy for our horse and we realise that this work can be difficult, we are gentler with them; we give them more time, and more encouragement. Some people think that because a horse is so big and strong and fast, that simple physical things are not hard for it. This is simply not correct.

What is often forgotten is that horses will need to learn how to best carry the weight of the rider, making the most efficient use of their skeletal and muscular structures. Normally, without a rider, horses move in ways that are not helpful for them when under saddle. In order to have a horse carry itself well and healthily under saddle or in harness, it needs to move differently to that way of going. We need the horse to learn to be upright, to have a continuous line through its centre from back to front, to use its core muscles to maintain its balance, to lift through the wither and back. That lift through the wither and back is perhaps the most important thing in the long term of developing good posture in a horse, as it lifts the back in an arc much like a bridge. The spine of the horse in the area of its back is often called a vertebral bridge, and if we do not train the horse to lift that bridge into an arc, it will sag downwards, interfering with correct movement, creating pain and in the longer term creating damage.

The time it takes for our horse to develop appropriate postural strength and balance is continuously underestimated. Yet while the process is time consuming, it is not exceptionally difficult to teach. What is difficult is to remain patient and to give our horse time to develop the strength to allow it to move and to balance itself in healthy ways. What can also be difficult is recognising in what way our horse is out of balance. But that we can learn. We need to not ask for things which our horse is not yet strong enough to do, while in good balance.  Our circles or arcs are large and gentle, and few in number. When the horse loses its balance or becomes resistant, we ask for less, not more. We would widen the circle, not make the circle smaller. We ask for less, not more. Each time we ask for a movement, we want our horse to be in balance throughout the movement. If they cannot manage this, they need to be asked for a little less, so that they can manage, even if just for a few steps. If our horse loses its balance during a movement, it will also lose relaxation and it will be unable to maintain FDO. If our horse cannot manage an eight metre circle in balance, we do not insist on a five metre circle to ‘supple’ them. To do so will encourage resistance, tension and soreness, and will induce a loss of balance, relaxation and FDO. Rather we remain patient and empathic, and we keep listening to what our horse is really saying. This is the difficult part for us humans. It is amazingly easy to think the horse is being a bit of a shit and needs to work harder, and to just ignore their difficulty. For goodness sake, the fault is ours: we have not given the horse the time, support and the appropriate training for them to be where we expect them to be, or would like them to be. If we think our horse is being a little shit and not listening, it is much more likely it is us who is doing exactly that.

We horse people are always training ourselves to be patient, forgiving, calm and sensible and to maintain enthusiasm. Our biggest and best teacher is always the horse. Knowledge is of little use if we do not listen to and converse with our horse, and if we have no humility and are not willing to admit to our mistakes and to learn from them. For we will keep making them. We are only human and our horses speak a different language.

 

 

A simple first step to good posture!

One of the very first things I asked my mare to learn to do was lower her head. While lowering the head is always very useful for haltering and bridling, and for decreasing adrenaline levels in the body, the main reason I ask her for this is that it is the first step in the development of good posture.

But lowering the head is not done in a straight down motion. Rather it is forward and downward; we ask for the nose to come forward and the head and neck to lower. We want the neck to telescope, to lengthen. We want the nose to be out, not tucked in behind the vertical and not even vertical. We want the throat latch open so that the horse can breathe well, the vertebrae will sit easily in a gentle curve without being ‘squashed’ and damaged and the muscles can function well. This position of the head and neck is called Forward Down and Out, or FDO. It is well known that Manolo Mendez uses this term, and Manolo likes the eye of the horse to be between the line of the point of hip and the line of the stifle. A very useful point.

But why is this important? In order to be able to carry a rider healthily and with longevity, the horse needs to learn to lift through the wither (or at the base of the neck), and to lift the back. (The wither is not lifted by lifting the hands! Doing this will have the horse use its body in a very unhealthy way, and undo any previous good work.) One of the most common problems I see in horses is a hollowing of the back along with a forward tilting of the pelvis which has become permanently held in place by tight muscles, especially the psoas. This hollow back, tilting of the pelvis and tight psoas adversely affects the entire horse; causing pain, poor movement, damage to joints in the long term, lack of engagement of the hindquarter, being on the forehand, loss of correct spinal movement and much more, including unhappy horses.

So again, why FDO? Our horse needs to develop strength in order to lift through the back and withers and to hold that lift for any length of time in the different gaits and throughout various movements (and I am talking simple movements that we all do). The first and simplest way to develop this strength is by having the horse in an FDO position for gradually longer and longer periods of time, and throughout different gaits and movements. The fact that the head and neck of the horse are very heavy means that just through having to support the head and neck in that position, the horse’s muscles which are best used for lifting the back and wither are developing and strengthening.

Other major benefits of this position are that the horse likes it. I often see horses asking to lower their head and neck into this position. Also, it stretches the spine, creating good space between the spinous processes, which is definitely important (think of the terrible effects of kissing spine). It encourages the horse to use its core muscles and hindquarters. The muscles along the upper neck become more developed while the lower neck muscles become smaller – and if you have ridden a horse that carries its head high, even dangerously so, you will appreciate this. Oh, and your horse will become more and more beautiful. Just as an added bonus!

So the very simple act of asking your horse to stretch its neck in a forward, down and out position for longer and longer periods during movement, whether in hand and/or under saddle, will begin to build a strong foundation for a healthy and beautiful posture. Just a gentle reminder: this will be difficult for the horse to begin with as building stronger muscles is tiring, especially if those muscles haven’t previously been used much at all (much like me doing my core strengthening exercises…..very painful and exhausting to begin with!). You might be thinking ‘my horse lowers his head anyway, that should be enough’. I suggest you check just where your horse’s eye is when it does, is it between point of hip and stifle? Because that is very important. Higher or lower will use different muscles, ones we don’t want the horse to develop. And remember, our goal is to have healthy horses that have minimal pain levels, not who suffer from pain just because we enjoy riding them. All the best! If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. Happy riding for you and your horses.  

Why Bother with Good Posture?

Some of you know I have a new horse. I have been working her on the ground for a month as I have hurt my back (and been unable to ride), and naturally I have been doing some work on developing her posture. It is an ongoing progress that sometimes has been very difficult as walking or running with her has been painful for me in my back and pelvis.

A few days ago I had a thought: why even bother? I could just work her and ride her and not worry about developing a healthy posture. It would be much easier on me. I wouldn’t have to think as much, problem solve as much, do as much research and learning. I wouldn’t have to focus as much, help her and support her to know how to move herself in certain ways. I wouldn’t have as much work to do. I could make my life easier and not have to exert as much physical and mental effort.

Well, that thinking lasted way less than the time it just took you to read that paragraph. I dismissed that thought as unworthy, lazy and downright unethical. Because if I don’t work at helping my mare develop good posture under saddle, I know that I will cause her pain. Short term pain and long term pain. Just as an aside, when I buy new tyres for my car, I then forget about getting a wheel balance and alignment until the next set of tyres is due. I just let my car develop bad “car posture” that means the tyres wear unevenly, and I end up having to replace them earlier than I if I had put the effort in to getting the necessary work done. I do this repeatedly over the years, and cop some flak when I do it, from myself and other people. But I don’t really care. Because I know my car doesn’t feel pain. I do know my horse feels pain. And I know just what my back pain feels like, and how debilitating it is. How it spreads through the entire body and makes everything much more difficult, or even impossible.

Because I have had poor posture for pretty much my whole life. I now have a worn spine, a pelvis that is prone to torsion, or twisting, and dodgy knees. Some of those things were caused by lifting lots and lots of bales of hay and bags of feed. But lifting with unhealthy posture and a lack of rest time. I experience pain every day, it’s just the intensity that changes. Probably pretty much like many of you out there.

Recently I started going to a really, really good physiotherapist. She is now teaching me and supporting me with exercises to strengthen my core and my pelvic floor, with being straighter through my body, with using different muscles and ways of moving, and overall with having much better posture. Because she knows, and I am beginning to believe through the changes in my body, that better posture will mean I function better with less pain, and with much fewer and less debilitating episodes of “a bad back”. And when I can’t be bothered to make an effort to correctly do my exercises, I remember what it feels like to have a bad back episode. I have interesting sessions with my physiotherapist as I am constantly looking at the work she does with me from the perspective of an equine bodyworker. Thinking about things from the point of view of a horse makes it easy to understand. My own road to better posture is giving me an enormous personal appreciation of equine posture, pain and functioning, and how a horse feels.

I want my mare to be healthy and happy, and to be comfortable not only when I ride her but when she is cruising or playing in the paddock. I want her to use her body in ways that are biomechanically helpful for her in our horse-human partnership. Because she is stuck in this partnership so I want her to be happily stuck. For many years. She is six now, and I would really like her to be healthily rideable into her late twenties. Just as I want to be healthily riding for many decades, which is why I keep doing the darned posture exercises. Oh, and may I say, however much effort I as a human puts into asking and teaching and supporting my dear horse to have good posture, it is even harder for her. Because she is the one doing the real work.

AND…… Just in case you aren’t really all that worried about your horse’s pain levels, or don’t really believe the pain is there, or that it bothers your horse unduly, or that it is a problem, here are some other downsides of bad posture and benefits of good posture that might even affect you, or your wallet, or your riding time.

Some Downsides of bad posture:

Your horse is uncomfortable to ride

Your horse is on the forehand

Your horse doesn’t step through from behind, or is strung out

Your horse gets annoyed easily because it is sore

Your horse resists when you ask it things because it is sore

Your horse doesn’t pick up canter leads very well

Your horse develops kissing spine, where the bones of the spinal processes rub together

Your horse’s pelvis is tilted forward

As your horse’s pelvis is tilted forward, it cannot engage its hind legs

Your horses psoas muscle is very tight, which means it cannot engage its hind legs

Your horse bucks as it has a very sore back

Your horse becomes cold backed

Your horse develops topline syndrome

Your horse is a leg mover

Your horse develops lameness because it is using its body poorly

Your horses back is hollowed

Your horse isn’t always too happy about being ridden, so isn’t always real cooperative

Your horses working life is dramatically reduced

And lots more….

 

Some Benefits of good posture

Your horse looks more beautiful, even in the paddock

Your horse doesn’t get sore just by carrying your weight

Your horse is useable for many more years

Your horse has fewer lameness events

Your horse has a beautiful topline

Your horse is able to engage the hindquarters

Your horse is a back mover

Your horse feels wonderful to ride

Your horse enjoys being ridden and is very cooperative

Your horse lifts its withers and back easily

Your horse can do many things with ease and comfort for both of you

Your horse has the best movement its conformation allows

People envy you

People want your horse

 

Please, please, please; at least think about all this. Then start doing something different. For your horses sake. Or for your sake. Just do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The horse’s back: basic and simplified

While horses have an amazingly designed back, I will only attempt here to give a brief picture of how they work, in very simplified form. My aim is not to give an understanding of the function of each muscle, bone and joint, (not to mention fascia, nerves etc) but rather to provide a basic and simplified illustration of some of what is important in relation to riding a horse and maintaining its health, particularly in relation to the back.

The head and neck of the horse acts a bit like a pendulum, to help to balance the horse. The vertebrae in the neck of the horse are the cervical vertebrae and form a bit of a gentle S shape. The cervical vertebrae do not all run along the top of the neck.  The junction between the cervical and thoracic vertebrae is hidden behind the scapula, or shoulder blade.

The hindquarter of the horse is the powerhouse, the motor, and this is where propulsion is created. Power generated through the action of the hindquarters is transferred through the pelvic structure, then through the spine and its surrounding structures to the front end of the horse.

The forequarter of the horse is responsible for carrying weight, absorbing impact and balancing and supporting the body. Most of the weight of the horse is carried by the forequarters, so there is where injury is most likely to occur when the horse is overworked.

The back of the horse is the bridge that connects the horses back end with the front end. This might sound very basic, but it is often ignored. Please remember that the back of a horse is like a bridge.

Some of the ribs are attached to the breastbone and help to support the chest, and the ribs further back are involved with breathing. Each rib connects to a thoracic vertebra. There is very little movement that can occur through the thoracic vertebrae as they are connected to the ribs.

The loins of the horse correspond to our lower back, and are formed by the lumbar vertebrae. These vertebrae are not connected to the ribs so they have more movement, but they cannot bear weight. The weakest point of the back is the thoracic lumbar junction, or TL joint, where the thoracic vertebrae meet the lumbar vertebrae. Yet it is often here that weight is placed via the saddle.

The sacral vertebrae are fused together to form the sacrum, and are connected to the pelvis structure through the sacro-iliac joints. The lumbo-sacral junction is the hinge joint between the lumbar and sacral vertebrae that allows the pelvis to tilt. The vertebrae that continue on into the tail are the caudal vertebrae.

The sacrum (the fused sacral vertebrae) transfers the thrust created by the hindquarter from the rump right along the back, creating forward movement. The back muscles are highly enervated; one of the back muscles has one nerve fibre for each muscle fibre! The energy produced by the hindquarter fires the nerves in sequence along the back, from the sacrum towards the head, much like running one’s fingers along the keys of a piano in sequence. The energy is thus transformed into movement. This movement travels from the sacrum right along the length of the back, through the base of the neck and up through the cervical vertebrae of the neck to the poll.

Manolo Mendez likes to compare the spine to a train, which is easy to picture as we know that each train carriage is solid and fixed, and just the joints in between can allow a little movement that flows along the whole train. At the canter the spine undulates up and down while at the trot it undulates side to side.

The spine and muscles in the back need to be allowed to, and encouraged to, undulate and swing in their natural movement so that the horse can develop good natural rhythm, impulsion and overall movement. The term back mover means a horse which has a relaxed and swinging back; a horse which has been taught to carry and balance the weight of tack and rider with a relaxed back.

You have probably quickly seen that for energy to be converted to movement through the back, the back must be allowed to move under the saddle. This then, that the back muscles are movement muscles and not weight carrying muscles, is one of the most important things we need to know as horse people. The back must be allowed to move freely for the horse to move freely. The strength of the back muscles is of much less importance than the activity of the back muscles; they must be used for movement, not for weight carrying.

So now we think of a young horse being ridden. The horse is not designed to carry the weight of the tack and the rider, and will instinctively tense its back muscles in an effort to carry and balance the unfamiliar weight. As this tensing of the back is tiring and causes pain, the young horse may then drop the back in an effort to relieve the strain and pain. A cycle can quickly develop of tensing the back to carry the weight and find balance, followed by dropping the back to relieve the pain. Neither is beneficial.

Once the back has become tensed, the propulsive energy from the hindquarter is not able to be correctly transferred through the back, as the long back muscles are too tight, maybe even locked. Yet the back muscles are also connected to the rump muscles through the fascia, to the ribs, and to the forequarters. So a tense back means that the muscles in the hindquarter cannot function properly and the hindleg stride is adversely affected; breathing is affected; and the muscles in the forehand are also unable to function properly so there is restriction through the shoulder and the front stride is affected. Not to forget, the pelvis is negatively affected. Tension in the back also exerts additional strain on ligaments and tendons throughout the trunk of the horse which then stiffens, thus increasing the load on the legs, which can then cause damage in the legs.

So if a young horse under saddle naturally uses its back and thus its body in an incorrect way that leads to pain and poor function and movement, we must teach the horse to use itself differently, yes? It is generally assumed that as a horse is a big strong fast and powerful animal, it can carry us no worries, and we certainly don’t need to teach it how to do that. However, the truth is that if we leave it all up to the horse to battle its way through this unnatural situation, it will suffer tension, discomfort and pain, and will suffer damage that will affect it in the long term. It is very rare that I work on a horse that is not suffering from basic postural and movement problems caused by the horse trying unsuccessfully on its own, without assistance, to manage having a rider aboard.

Yet with some effort on our behalf combined with some simple training techniques we can help our horses to carry and balance our weight in healthy ways that take into account how the horses body works. Next time I will briefly discuss how the posture of the head and neck can have a profound impact on the health of the back, and thus the whole horse.

Good training for anyone.

Training, working and riding horses in ways that are bio-mechanically sound means our horses have less pain, less injuries, better movement and are able to work with us productively for many more years. It doesn’t matter what we love to do with our horses, whether it is Grand Prix level dressage, eventing, trail riding or reining. Neither does it matter whether we are beginners or advanced horse people. Good and bio-mechanically sound training methods simply are good for us and our horses.

We don’t need to know how to obtain true collection in our horses and we don’t need to know how to do piaffe. We are all capable of working with our horses in healthier ways. The classical training path to true collection is one that keeps horses sound, even if we only go a short way along that path. Even if we never aspire to learn or do more than move our horse forwards, backwards and occasionally sideways, we can train it well in what we do. For it is how we train our horses that is important, not what we want to do with the end result. Keeping our horses healthy and happy requires good training, working and riding methods, so that is what we should do, as responsible and loving horse owners.

I like to school horses so that I have a healthy, relaxed and responsive horse that is capable of doing what I ask without ending up in pain. I don’t compete, I may or may not want to do piaffe one day, but I do care immensely about how my horse feels physically, mentally and emotionally. So I use training methods that are helpful for my horse to feel good, to be able to carry me easily, to stay fit and sound, and to be well and happy into at least its late twenties.

When I say ‘classical training’, I don’t mean some high falutin’ training method that will take you a million dollars to learn on some amazing European bred horse in some wealthy persons covered arena.  Classical training includes simple and quite ordinary methods for working and playing with your horse that can be done in the paddock and can fit around and with whatever you like to do with your horse. Yes you will likely need to learn some new ways of doing things, but they are not impossible or even terribly difficult, they are just probably different to what you already know.

While classical training includes developing good rhythmic, forward and relaxed movement, vertical, horizontal and lateral balance (often called straightness), lift through the wither and back, telescoping the neck and strengthening the topline and the underline, these things are broken down into small and simple steps that anyone can do.  And suddenly we are helping our horse to use its muscles and skeleton in ways which make the most of their anatomical structure and how they move; which allows our horses to move with strength, balance, flexibility and freedom with a relaxed mind and body.

The classical training path is a slow and steady one that allows and encourages our horses to develop bio-mechanically correct physical strength and balance, and also mental and emotional willingness, trust, calmness and cooperation. The rewards in the improved health, soundness and capabilities of your horse, not to mention its beauty, can be astounding. The rewards for both you and your horse are well worth the efforts of learning and using some simple new techniques in your usual daily practices and horsemanship.

Over the next few weeks I will briefly discuss some of the aspects of this training that can be so rewarding for you and your horses and which helps your horse be healthier physically, mentally and emotionally, which is what I am passionate about.

Lead your horse to partnership.

The simple act of placing a halter on your horse and leading it may be taking you both closer to or further away from partnership. Do you know where you are taking the two of you?

Placing a halter on a horse’s head and leading a horse is such a simple thing that we often do every day. But it is perhaps a little like chess; it appears simple, but is an art form in disguise. To do it well takes time and effort, focus and good attitude. From us, not the horse. It is perhaps one of the most neglected parts of horsemanship. I regularly see it done poorly, rarely is it done beautifully. The majority of us are leading our horses away from partnership, rather than towards it.

That word partnership. What does that mean? Just doing it together? Or doing it as partners, like in a dance? Where both you and the horse want to be there, doing precisely that together in that moment of time, and feeling some small joy glowing within you in the process. Imagine getting some small joy together just by using a halter and lead rope. Imagine your horse wanting to do that dance with you, rather than submitting to it, or putting up with it, or resisting it, or not understanding it. Imagine it being a dance rather than something that gets you from A to B, is a drag, or a fight, or which simply has no connection in it. Something which leaves you and the horse both yearning for a connection you know is there but somehow are missing.

So, how do you go about putting a halter on a horse? Is it a play between you of communication both spoken and non-verbal, of desire to be together, to go do something together, of affection and loving respect? If it isn’t, wow, you are really missing out! You and your horse both could be getting so much more out of this simple thing.

And then the process of walking with your horse is another bucketful of opportunities for play and dance together. Oh, hang on, you say you don’t walk with your horse? What do you do then? Are you one who walks off and expects a horse to follow, and maybe gets a wee bit annoyed if it doesn’t? Ah, one of those “the horse must do what I tell it, when I tell it, and it must always be paying attention to me”. Wow, your life and the life of your horse could be so much more joyful! For why on earth would we be a parade colonel when we can dance and play with fun and love?

Your horse knows how to dance, or it once did. You could help it to learn that dancing is not just allowed, it is encouraged. And you could learn that too. Because what do you want to lead your horse and you to? Parade commands, or a loving and joyful dance?

Three Golden Rules when buying a Horse.

 

We all know that buying a horse can be a long, difficult, time consuming and expensive process. We can be emotional, leave our brains at home, make mistakes. I have been undertaking this process for two months and have driven thousands of kilometres, had disappointments, become exhausted and discouraged, and finally have found a lovely horse. She is not perfect. She is not a unicorn. She is quite unlike the horse I had in mind for myself. But I believe that she will enjoy me as much as I will enjoy her.

And she has the softest mind I have encountered in a horse.

We each have certain criteria that we look for in a horse to purchase, and they will depend upon our horse activities, size, experience and many other factors. But in addition to those criteria, to help me during the buying process, I developed three golden rules. They have been a big help in these last months, and definitely prevented me from making a regretful decision numerous times. I will use them again in the future, without a doubt.

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Rule no. 1.  Always sleep on the decision.

On a number of occasions I decided at the viewing that I really wanted this horse, and yet still abided by my rule, which I told the owner of, and said I would contact them in a couple of days. If one night sleeping on it is best, two nights is even better. This gives our mind time to process all the little things that we noticed during the viewing that we were too entranced, or too polite, to consider or question at the time. And once we are away from the beautiful animal which we would love to have taken home on the spot, our mind has the space to review all these little things, and often, the result is that we realise that the horse isn’t suitable at all.

The other bonus of this rule is that it means we don’t take a horse float with us to the viewing. Something I always used to do when I was younger! Two problems with taking a horse float: 1).. we don’t like to take the float home empty as it feels like we have failed in some way (yes we know that doesn’t make sense), and  2).. taking a float means that on some level we have already decided that the horse will be great for us. Before we have met it. Taking this attitude to a horse viewing means we tend to look more for good points and less for bad points. And we make a big decision that can affect us, our family and the horse (not to mention our bank account) in so many ways, really fast. Which is not a good idea.

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Rule no. 2.  Don’t trust the seller.

They are trying to sell us their horse. Even when they say that finding the best home is more important than the money, they are still trying to sell us their horse (and the money is very rarely unimportant). They won’t tell us all the bad stuff about the horse. They may not deliberately lie, but they will paint the horse with its best attributes, not its worst (naturally enough, we would do the same). Or they might give us a brief glimpse of the worst stuff, but not the whole picture. They may tell us the best way to handle the horse, without revealing the real reason why. And sometimes, unfortunately, they will deliberately lie to us. They will deliberately tell us little fibs, lies by omission, and sometimes big fat whopping lies.

But trusting the seller has another aspect, and that is how well the seller really knows the horse. And I find that it is not uncommon that they don’t know their horse very well. So what we are told on the phone or in an email or on Messenger, can be very different from what the horse will tell us in person. Another reason for not taking that horse float with us! The seller’s training techniques may have been a problem for that horse, rather than a solution. The seller’s outlook, skill level, experience, whether they know how to connect with a horse and how well they read a horse, will all impact on what they say about the horse, and whether it is accurate.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sellers out there who are both extremely honest and also know the horse they are selling very well. They do exist. But as they are very rare, my golden rule of ‘don’t trust the seller’ remains.

So who do we trust? The horse. The horse will give us the information we need, as long as we are adept at reading horses. If not, take someone with you who is. Get a video of the horse moving before you drive 200km to a viewing. A video can show what the movement is like, how the horse acts, how it is ridden/handled, and can also reveal unsoundness. We can ask around and try to speak with people who have seen the horse out and about, and can tell you something of what it has done, how it has been treated and how it has behaved. If we do our homework, don’t assume the information provided by the seller is correct, and listen to the horse, we can save ourselves considerable time, travel, expense and even heartbreak.

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Rule no. 3. The horse must be sound.

 Just knowing what is and isn’t unsound is itself a big question. By the time a horse is obviously lame, there can be permanent changes in a joint, so it helps if we can detect problems before there is obvious lameness. If you have trouble picking when a horse is unsound by looking at it move, find someone who can and take them with you. If you don’t know how to feel for signs of unsoundness in various body areas, again find someone who can. Remember a horse can be on an anti-inflammatory such as Bute for several days before we see it, which can help to mask unsoundness. A lot of owners won’t know their horse is unsound, or they might think it is a very minor issue that will go away (remember Rule no. 2). Some owners think that we should be able to detect the unsoundness ourselves. And some will deliberately withhold information about their horse which reveals it as unsound or highly likely to become so.

A vet check can be helpful, but unless we get x-rays and scans, can also be limited. I know people who have sold horses with joint problems which passed veterinary flexion tests after a decent spell. If you get a vet check, use a specialist horse vet. Most vets will do a soundness check, or pre-purchase exam, on a horse. I’m not saying they won’t do a good job. But if they don’t specialise in horses, or don’t do pre-purchase exams frequently, they are outside of their area of daily expertise.

Sometimes we might decide to purchase an unsound horse anyway. If so I would hope that we have thoroughly investigated the health issue, discussed it with a specialist horse veterinarian and other equine professionals, and determined the short term and long term costs and prognosis. My new horse has a slightly undershot jaw. Technically that can be deemed unsoundness but it is a manageable problem. Problems with feet, legs, the spine and the pelvis are common and often ignored, or minimised. I walked away from a perfectly stunning horse in mind, movement and potential that unfortunately had suspect feet.

And remember, unsoundness is not just about physical aspects. A horse can also be mentally or emotionally unsound. Mostly this is fixable by someone with sufficient skill and experience who is willing to put in a year or so of work. Maybe several years. But sometimes, mental and emotional unsoundness is not fixable. Just like children, a horse can be damaged by trauma or abuse sustained during its early years, when the brain is growing and forming. The horse’s brain can be permanently changed (what we would term damaged) in ways that prevent it from being able to normally process both cognitively and emotionally.

I have seen posts on Facebook deriding people who advertise for a horse that doesn’t buck, bolt, rear, kick, bite. But these behaviours are often indicators that there is an underlying problem that will need to be addressed before that horse is safely useable. It might be a minor problem that can be fixed simply and quickly by a change in saddle and some bodywork or a treatment for ulcers, or it might be a major problem that has developed over a lengthy period and will take serious time, effort and skill to fix. If we don’t want to, or don’t really know how to do that fixing, it is certainly better to avoid a horse that displays these behaviours.

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So to everyone out there looking for a horse, I wish you all the best in your search. May you find a horse which suits you and who you suit in return, and may you give each other much joy for many years. And I hope that my experiences may be helpful for you in avoiding unnecessary heartache.

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What the breath of a horse says

I often wonder, what do horses communicate with breath?

Breath is used when they greet, reassure, communicate. So what is it they transfer through breath, and how do they do it? Is breath just a small part of the equation? Or is it even breath that transfers the information?

And have you noticed how horses look in each other’s eyes when they do it? I never did for many years, although I would often share breath with a horse, not knowing what it meant, but seeing it as a horse greeting that I could participate in. And over time I realised that they always look in my eye when they do it. And then wondered how often I, a human, had shared breath with a horse, pretending or wanting to know and not knowing at all.

These days I do still share breath with a horse, but only when they initiate it. My greeting is firstly to meet with the eyes, and then when they seem ready, to offer my open hand, palm up, to their muzzle in greeting. First the eyes, then the muzzle. And wow, I sure get communication from that greeting of hand to muzzle. I don’t know what I am communicating to them in return, or what they hear from me. But some of the things that horses tell me with their breath during our greeting helps me to firstly know them a little, and often to better help them. That greeting, and listening, helps us to bond.

Here are some examples:

Pain, huge amounts of pain (from a horse that needed a lot of bodywork, and changes to how it was being worked, and a different saddle)

Pain and confusion, in not understanding the pain (from a young horse who had been previously injured)

Betrayal, they felt betrayed by their human (they were experiencing, among other things, a lack of release from pressure, punishment like shaking the rope for no apparent reason, tight reins that insisted they hold their head in, and a belief that the horse would deliberately be a problem or nuisance when it was actually communicating it was very worried about things)

Playfulness (from a foal, which was part of its nature).

Fear, great fear and mistrust of humans (from prior bad handling).

Humour (from a horse known to bite and that could be a bit of a devil but was also a gentleman)

Sweetness (from horses that have a very sweet nature)

Sweetness and humour (from horses that are sweet and also ratbags)

Feeling better (from a mare that had difficulties post foaling, after those difficulties were resolved)

And sometimes nothing at all! When I have to listen over time to what they have to say. 

I wonder, how much of what horses say to us are we simply missing? Not hearing? It is said that horses communicate through body language. But there is much more than that. Much more that might be scoffed at, or disbelieved, or simply that we cannot understand. I do not even pretend to understand it all; how it happens, what they say, what they don’t say. I accept that I am not a horse so can never fully understand a horse. But I feel very blessed to understand a small amount of what they offer, and to feel closer to them and better able to help through that communication.