In training horses, there are three parts to the puzzle that any instructor, trainer or coach must address to achieve success. First, and most importantly, is the horse'sphysical state, and how that impacts on his ability to do the job that's being asked of him. Secondly there's the part ofthe rider, who must be physically, mentally and emotionally able to deliver the proper cues to the horse. And lastly, you apply practice, repetition and consistency.
One of the challenges to sharing training techniques online, essentially giving lessons to people and horses that I can't evaluate in person, is being able to assess first-hand the primary piece of the puzzle…. a horse's physical state. If I were meeting a horse and rider pair for the first time in 'real life' I would immediately begin to evaluate if all the horse's needs are being met, and if it is in pain - or even just uncomfortable - anywhere. I’d be able to watch its body language as it was being worked by its handler, and I’d be able to see if the horse fits the rider, and is capable of doing the job it’s being asked to do. I could also assess tack, and the horse's habits around the barn that inevitably affect its work under saddle. By evaluating these areas, I can find and remove potential roadblocks of resistance which will make for a happier horse and rider going forward. If I can get all this stuff out of the way before I begin, I can save the horse, the rider, and even myself, some frustration.
It’s imperative that we start out with the understanding that you should never work a horse that’s in pain. A horse that’s in pain cannot give its whole attention to the job it’s being asked to do. Pain is not only a distraction; it’s a deterrent that will add to a horse's confusion, and thus, resistance. Obviously, a horse can’t articulate its discomfort verbally, and often when it tries to convey its confusion and resistance, those signals are misinterpreted as stubbornness, or any number of negative characteristics. It’s the more evolved rider/handler's job to not only react to the horse's resistance with sensitivity, but to always remain proactive and vigilant to physical changes. Horses change constantly, just as we do, and in many of the same ways. They age, they get flabby, they gain weight, they get fit and lose weight, they have foals, they can slip and pull something, and they can play too rough with their buddies. And their teeth are continually erupting too. Sometimes these changes are sudden and obvious, sometimes subtle and harder to pin-point.
Some readers will no doubt be on top of these topics and see them as pretty elementary, but I find that often people get busy and lose track of when their horse's last dental treatment was, or don't notice that their horse's body is changing slowly. It’s good to stop and re-evaluate occasionally if the horse is a partner we’ve had for any length of time. When a horse's attitude or performance changes suddenly, the first thing to do is to go over all the basic needs of the horse to eliminate them as possible sources of the change. If the horse is new to the rider, it should be the first part of the horse that you get to know when building your partnership. Here is my checklist that I use when evaluating both new horses and when I am assessing horses that I know well....
Check 1: Regular dental care from qualified professionals
The first thing that everyone should do before starting a training program, or renewing one, is to have the horse's teeth checked and if necessary, floated (rasped). This is the most often ignored part of the horse's well being, and by far, eliminates more possible problems than anything else for the money and time involved. Equines have unique dental structures in that their teeth are always erupting from their gums, until their twenties, when the horse's teeth reach the end of their enamel stores below the gum line. As the horse's teeth continually erupt, they are worn down by the opposing tooth when the horse eats and grinds down roughage. Horses move their jaws up and down and side to side in chewing their food, and in the process, their teeth can become quite uneven. Sharp points develop that cause irritation to the soft tissues of the mouth, and when the pressure of a bridle and bit is applied, the irritation turns to pain. Having uneven teeth can also cause jaw pain in the muscle and soft tissue of the head, like TMJ (temporomandibular joint) issues would to a human. And when a horse's teeth need attention, the horse probably isn't getting maximum benefit from his diet, which can lead to weight issues, and lack of vigour and energy.
So there are a lot of reasons to stay on top of your horse's dental check-ups, but it's often forgotten or put off. I keep a calendar that makes it very easy to look up when a horse was last worked on, and also on which I can put reminders for myself when I need to make an appointment with the vet or qualified equine dentist. I consider the charge I pay for dental care reasonable since my horse will get more from its feed, so I use less, will not require new bits in trying to find a solution to a head-tossing problem, and will be happy and pain free, which is priceless.
I'm a strong supporter of power dentistry versus the traditional float (rasp). With a traditional float, a veterinarian uses a tooth rasp to roughly file down the outer edges of the horse's molars. In a power float, the veterinarian or equine dentist uses a dremel tool with special burrs that he or she can use to shape each tooth, on both the inside and outside edges. They also have the ability to shape 'bit seats' on the first molars, to further enhance the horse's comfort. The process takes a bit longer, but in my opinion the results are often much more satisfactory.
A way to do a quick check of the horse's teeth without looking in its mouth is to run your fingers down the horse's cheek on the outside, applying light pressure where the teeth are under the thin flesh of the cheek. If the horse pulls its head up, you've probably reached a sharp or sore tooth that needs to be checked. This method only accounts for the outer edge of the molars, and also doesn't address the incisors, so again, always refer to a professional.
Check 2: Regular foot care
The second thing on our checklist is the horse's feet. If a horse is foot sore, or has hooves needing to be trimmed, consult with your farrier before beginning your training program. Imagine being asked to exercise with shoes that fit badly, or caused you to walk unnaturally. Now imagine having to carry someone on your back and being asked to run wearing those same shoes. Not a pretty image, is it? Keeping a horse's hooves in good condition means that they won't be a distraction from the things you want your horse to be focused on, and means less down time due to lameness. I often ask my shoer to use hoof testers to make sure the horse isn't sore in the sole too, which could indicate an abscess, stone bruise, or even rotation of the horse's coffin bone. If your horse is shod, keep track of your farrier appointments on your calendar so that you don't let your horse's feet get really long before you are trying to get squeezed into the shoer's schedule. Always make your next appointment while the shoer is there, or at least write a reminder in your calendar the week before your horse will be due again.
Check 3: Body massage
After evaluating your horse's teeth and feet, it is time to run your hands all over your horse. Start at your horse's head, and using massage-like motions with your hands, run your hands all over its body. Do this is a quiet area, at a time when your horse is his most relaxed, so that you can closely see how he is reacting to your touches and isn't distracted by his stable-mates or being fed. In each section of the horse's body, first feel lightly to detect any heat or swelling, and then press a little harder, to see if there is any tenderness. You can do this all over, always keeping an eye on your horse's head to check for reactions. If you aren't sure if your horse reacted, move away from that spot and then come back later to see if there was something about that spot that was uncomfortable. It doesn't hurt to write down the areas you suspect are giving your horse problems so that you can reference them as you proceed with training. You can, of course, have a professional equine massage therapist do this for you, and often they will map out on a diagram where your horse has stiffness or pain. I have a high regard for massage therapists, and have seen the miracles that a good one can achieve with horses that have chronic pain. But I also think that a dedicated owner that is on a budget can get a satisfactory result by taking the time to examine their horse, taking note of reactive areas, and then working stretches and rub-downs into their weekly routine (illustrated here by Judith & Skooter).
Check 4: Saddle fit
The next thing to evaluate is your saddle, and how it is currently fitting. Has your horse lost or gained significant amounts of weight? Have you had to make changes in your girth/cinch in order to get it to a length that fits? Has your horse developed any white spots in the saddle area that might indicate that it is pinching or rubbing? Have your saddle pads been worn to the point of compression? Over time, many types of pads lose their lift and springy-ness, and may not pad as adequately as they had previously. How is your saddle sitting on the horse's back? Does the saddle accommodate the horse's shoulders and withers? A properly fitted saddle should float behind and above the shoulders, and you should be able to fit your fist between the horse's wither and the pommel (front) of the saddle – even when mounted. What about the girth/cinch? Is it clean and free of irritants or worn spots that can rub? Closely examine your horse's girth area; are there rubbed areas?
Check 5: Bridle and bit
Then evaluate the bridle and bit. Horses' heads change over time too, and even with the seasons – it may be necessary to give the horse a bit more room when he has his full winter coat. Closely inspect your bit before you put it on; are there any moving parts that may be pinching? Some bits with hinges on the side can be sneaky about pinching the delicate skin on the sides of your horse's mouth. Check that curb straps (or chains) and slobber straps are free of debris and lay flat. Then put the bridle on and check that the bit is the proper width for the horse's mouth – you should be able to fit your finger (your pinkie finger if you are a man) between the side of the horse's mouth and the bit. Too-small bits will pinch and cause much discomfort. A bit that is too large will drag down on the horse's lips, won't put pressure on the proper places inside the mouth and will be much less effective. Watch your horse while bridled – if the horse is constantly trying to lift the bit up in its mouth, and in the process, causes the cheek pieces of the bridle to come away from the side of the horse's face, your bridle is adjusted too long. When fitted properly, there should be one wrinkle in the corner of the horse’s mouth.
Always remember that your tack is the interface between you and your horse, so if something seems like it isn't working, seek an alternative as soon as possible. You don't want your horse associating being tacked up with pain, and you don't want to have to work through disagreements with your horse during training that are, in fact, reactions to your tack. That's just getting in your own way!
Setting yourself up for success!
The point of all this evaluating is to remove any possible training roadblocks through a process of elimination. If you can resolve the areas that are uncomfortable to your horse, and then show the horse that riding and training feels good (see my “Flexibility and Straightness” article), you will see more profound changes in training your horse, and those changes will come faster. However, if every time you saddle up makes your horse's back hurt, or putting the bridle on gives him a headache, or if his feet are so long that his tendons hurt, every thing you teach him will only be superficial, because the horse's mind will be on the pain. It has been my observation that if you make a horse feel good, they will try to give you what it is you want and with a happy expression.