early December I attended the United States Eventing Association's
annual meeting and since then have listened to a variety of
trainers discuss their programs with prospective students. Questions
related to how to start a young horse, how to solve various
training problems, how to handle problem horses, and how to
rehab a horse from the track were all answered with training
tips, types of equipment, free lunging, gimicks, bringing a
horse "through" onto the bit, changing the striding into jumps,
and on and on.
I was very disappointed and somewhat surprised that not one
expert mentioned the horse's central nervous system, the control
center for all of the horse's systems, as the starting point
to addressing any issue with a horse. All of the answers from
the experts kept coming from what was on the outside and how
to physically affect change through training.
It was hard to keep quiet when I felt everyone in the room was
missing the whole point, and I was sitting in a huge ballroom
full of riders and trainers, many of whom I believe are very
conscientious and want to give the best to their horses.
But quiet I stayed, the can of worms was too big, and discussed
it over lunch with my close friend whom I knew would understand.
She has encouraged me to talk with the convention organizers
to speak about this subject at next year's meeting, which I
Please do not think I am singling out one group of horse people.
It applies to all uses of horses and is common in every discipline,
every breed and with every type of horse person. I will say
the awareness is getting better, but we are still a long way
away from universally approaching the horse from the inside
I saw one example recently of a very talented upper level horse
that was in his stall for a year recovering from an injury.
Once given the okay to start exercising the horse again from
the veterinarian, the owner brought the horse out of the stall,
put him in the cross ties and tacked him up. She took him into
the arena and walked him for a little while then began working
him! Not to my surprise, the horse started rearing, bucking,
and leaping into the air with the rider laughing and saying
how bad he was. I did not think this was funny or that the horse
was misbehaving in any way. The whole situation was just wrong.
This horse needed weeks and weeks of hand walking, hand grazing,
and slow physical and mental work to help him recover his long
jail term and lack of mobility. It is a wonder neither the horse
or rider was hurt that day. She was also a rider that refused
to wear a helmet.
Whether a horse is coming off the racetrack, just being started
as a youngster, has chronic problems and issues, coming back
from an injury, starting over after a long lay off, has a mystery
lameness or is a made horse that all of the sudden changes in
behavior, we have to look at his or her internal systems first.
This is usually the last place a trainer, an instructor, or
sometimes even a vet, will look!
Each horse is born, just like any mammal with a nervous system,
with his or her temperament handed down from their parents,
and from then on learns responses and reactions for self-preservation.
It is the rare horse who is lucky and treated fairly and with
respect and with consideration in development for who they are
innately for their entire life. Considering that he or she is
well taken care of physically too, this rare horse is able to
maintain a healthy "even" level of chemicals in the nervous
system. Being appropriately reactive or non-reactive when life
presents danger at various levels and in their interaction with
Many horses are mishandled or misunderstood and they become
over reactive or under reactive and develop problems early on.
Before any training or education takes place the horse's nervous
system must be functioning at a level where he/she can handle
input from us and from his/her environment. All of the horses
I have been asked to work with are approached in this way. For
many young horses the world needs to be slowed down for them
to comprehend lessons. Older horses need maintenance and support
from all of their systems, maximizing what they have to keep
them moving happily. For all horses their world needs to be
comfortable and pain-free for them to perform.
There are horses that decide early on they cannot handle what
is being asked of them and they check out mentally and become
very nervous or high strung, spooky, bolting, dangerous mounts.
Others handle stress, fear and miscommunication by shutting
down, becoming dull, lifeless, too quiet, unsensitive, "not
at home" mentally. All of these defense mechanisms are interpreted
as a bad horse, a bad actor, unresponsive, not on the aids,
crazy, won't move, rears, doesn't listen to my leg, difficult,
a runaway, and the list goes on. I'm sure you've heard them
My opinion is always to go back to ground zero, back to nature,
back to the origin of the horse's being and stabilize the nervous
system. Of course, as a good horseperson you are always going
to also check the condition of his mouth, jaw and teeth; whether
or not his feet are balanced; the saddle fit; his alignment;
take his temperature; check his feed, etc. These are subjects
for future newsletters.
This all starts with a deep breath on your part and on the part
of the trainer and instructor. It may take a year, it may take
only a few months but you have to go back and recover the horse's
internal systems that for one reason or another have evolved
At this same meeting I met a holistic horse therapist with whom
I was sharing my views/frustrations and he told me not many
people look into the horse's immune system either. He felt the
immune system had a great deal to contribute to problems beyond
the nervous system. I would have to agree with him on that point
After you have made the decision to help your horse resolve
his/her problems you must start educating yourself and find
a good team of horse healthcare experts. To affect the nervous
system you must affect the chemicals in the body, how the body
flows and functions and how the horse "thinks" about everything
around him and in his work.
I like to start by going over the entire horse with my hands,
even carefully up into his mouth and cheeks. Feel for knots,
muscle bulge, hot spots, spasms and tension. Make a note of
all that you find. Watch the horse's reaction to your touch
as you go. Their ears and eyes will tell all.
Stand back from your horse and notice how he or she looks overall.
Is it a picture of health and relaxation, flowing muscles from
head to tail, or is their compression, tension, what I call
"pieces of different horses stuck together" or does it look
like all the parts of the horse match and blend. Does he or
she hold their head comfortably with a relaxed long neck (even
if they are short necked, the neck should extend outward and
forward from the shoulders comfortably)with a peaceful (not
sleepy) expression on their face? Does he or she have a good
bone to muscle ratio or are their deficits with the back looking
hollow and the muscles built up in spots but not uniformly distributed?
These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself
and discussing with the healthcare people you work with. Your
horse should possess a peaceful, happy countenance no matter
what breed, how they are used or how fit they are. They should
look well balanced and relaxed and feel good within their bodies.
They should have good physical fitness and condition, shine
to their coat and suppleness in their skin. All of this comes
from inner wellness and chemical balance.
If you have holistic horse people you can work with please do.
You will need to learn how to perform acupressure and massage
on your horse so that you can always be the deliverer of good
feelings and release endorphins for your horse, and be aware
of when your horse needs professional help beyond your knowledge.
Your horse will need a chiropractic exam, a dental exam (a great
deal more than just a simple float), a masseuse, a rolfer or
integrated fascial release therapist, an excellent farrier,
good healthy protein-adjusted food in the correct amount for
your horse's work and weight and type, daily turn out, salt
minerals readily available, regular exercise and plenty of good
light, air and water. Additionally, I find that magnet therapy
is a big help in relaxation and aiding the circulatory system
plus aromatherapy can help with focus.
The initial exams are usually the most extensive and expensive
and from then on they are only needed occasionally to help your
horse maintain a healthy nervous and strong immune system. Talk
to a holistic veterinarin about any supplements or herbs that
can further support these systems.
Once you get all of this started you will also be working with
your horse in the stall and in hand with various exercises encouraging
the horse to release his tension through his back and neck,
extending his poll and head downward and allowing you to touch
him all over without a flinch. Ultimately your horse should
feel comfortable with you touching him all over, pulling his
tail, lifting his legs and rotating his feet through the ankle
joint. All of this manipulation should be fine with your horse.
If your horse is the nervous, flighty type then whenever he
reacts to something bring everything back down to a quiet level.
Some trainers believe in pushing a horse through these events
and making them work harder. I don't believe that does anyone
any good and it only releases more adrenaline into the horse's
chemical make-up which is counter productive to all of his systems
and does not change his mind or behavior. I believe you should
not react equally with him. You are his rock and should always
be quieting and relaxing to him. Bring him down to a level he
can handle then ask him to go back to work again. Let him get
his "wits" about him again. Always slow the environment down
to where he can handle it and use acupressure and/or mouth massage
whenever you can.
I am a big supporter of using your voice as an aid as often
as you need to. Some trainers discourage this but I think you
need to bring every element you have to communicate effectively
with your horse. You can slowly take the voice aspect away over
time and show and compete without the voice successfully. But
my horses listen very keenly to me and I use it in various tones
and with various words to get a message across. I even whistle
to my horse when I want him to drop his head and relax. (I also
use it to encourage him to urinate in his stall and that works
too!) I use the whistle in the saddle too and he relates it
to relaxation and release.
I ask my horse with my voice to "wait" when I want him to stand
and wait for me to do something, like take his halter off when
I turn him out. Occasionally I will tack my horse up in the
middle of the arena without being tied and I ask him to "wait"
for me as I work around him. These are wonderful mental lessons
for anxious horses. I ask him to "stand" when I mount him and
ask him to "come" when I want him to walk with me. Just like
I train my dog. It is so much better than pulling or jerking
on them to get them to mind.
You will see these horses let down day by day, week by week
until they are manageable and trainable and sound. By placing
this much trust in you, it is your responsibility now to maintain
this peaceful, happy presence throughout his or her lifetime.
With the checked out/dull horse that is unresponsive you will
be doing similar lessons but you will need to wake him up a
bit and get him excited about moving. This means you will need
to move a lot yourself. When you have your horse in hand encourage
him to trot with you like a dog on a leash out for a walk. Go
out into a field or on a dirt road and jog with your horse.
He will love it and start feeling good about himself again.
Put the horse on the lunge and while you are standing in the
center move your legs according to the gait you are asking for.
In the trot, you will trot or march up and down with your legs
while encouraging him to move forward on the circle. When you
ask for the canter, you canter in place or go with him a bit
and keep talking to him to canter and tell him how good he is.
These horses need a lot of encouragement because their self-esteem
is so low. They need literally to feel again, buck with joy
again and learn to enjoy their partnership with a human. Take
them in the round pen and literally play with them. Allow them
to express themselves. Bucking and rearing and kicking out is
okay as long as you are safe. Send them away from you and let
them play and run. Then slow them down and wait until they come
to you and praise and pet them all over. Take a horse ball with
you and start rolling it toward him and picking it up and tossing
it around him.
Only after you make this kind of a start with a horse can you
go into "training" work with him and asking him to learn a lesson.
He is now ready for round pen work, work in hand, work on the
lunge or with lines, and I'm not only talking about young horses
here. The made horse needs the same experience. After the ground
work go ahead and saddle the horse and take him out for a trail
ride or just do some light riding in the arena. Make it fun,
positive and easy and throw in a little education at a time.
Each horse will come around to being happy and comfortable in
training in his or her own time according to their individual
chemistry. You are recovering the nervous system and the horse's
mind no matter what the situation.
I hope this information will serve to send you and your horse
to a happpy and safe partnership for the new year and many years
I am off to the Kentucky Horse Park this month to film another
week's worth of equine educational tips for RFD-TV. If you have
RFD-TV I hope you will enjoy them. I will be putting some of
the tips on my website so stay tuned.