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horse health

Do horses want a job?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of living among horses in the wild, free as they were to do as I pleased. I figured that unfettered lifestyle would make me happy. Of course, I also imagined I could talk to horses like Dr. Doolittle. It was just me and that herd bonding, sharing and taking care of each other with a rapport and blissful existence of unencumbered pleasure.

I learned a lot when day dreams gave way to reality. Observing horses in what I expected to find euphoria in that freedom to roam taught me something else.    

Even a therapy job helping the elderly have a special day is happy work for horses.
The Halcyon Acres herd greets a bus and the people in it from an assisted living center. Redford, the yearling ready to enter the bus, had special permission (an a personality that allowed for this) to run free.

After decades of running a farm with big acreage pastures, I discovered most domesticated horses would prefer to have job than run free. I learned this lesson on 117 acres with more than 30 of those fenced as pasture. Here, I witnessed the behavior of horses ranging from new born foals and formerly active broodmare competitors to client horses bred for racing or intended for a particular amateur career such as competitive trail riding or the shows.

Granted, they’re not always fit to do what we intend for them, but if you can find their passion, they’ll bolster yours. 

Admittedly, I had a pretty good work ethic starting at a young age. I served as a vet assistant when I was six; my duties were scaled back after I passed out during a surgery assistant role. By age ten, I had a paper route with 60 houses. That took some doing as a girl in the 70s, but I wore down the powers that be with my pestering to finally get them to give me a chance. I was a waitress and bank teller during high school as soon as I was legally old enough for salaried work.

It took me another couple of decades to realize the animals we’ve bred to be our companions and servants for millenniums want a fulfilling job too. Not all of them, of course. Just like people, there are the lazy, unmotivated and takers in the bunch. But my earlier belief that a domesticated horse’s dream life was to be free was shattered after I spent time witnessing horses who loved their job put to pasture.

Some horses get too old or too crippled to continue in a job they seemed to be born for. This includes racers, high level eventers & jumpers, rodeo performers and even some amateur mounts. Even with these aged steeds, they tend to relish an opportunity to find a new career that provides purpose. This could include broodmare, child protector, trail trekker, therapy horse and a whole bunch of other possibilities that allow for less strenuous tasks that fit their nature.

Morrie reminded me of how important it can be to find the right job for an animal we care for. He’s a wiry mutt of the canine variety, but, funny enough, he’s found agility to be his game. It seems the higher the jump or the faster the course the more he enjoys it. Of course, we’re still working on that control thing – funny I’ve had a lot of horses with that issue too – but, his joy for the game turns heads everywhere he goes.

Finding that joy activity with horses is key. If your horse truly relishes what you’re asking him to do, he’ll amaze you with his try.

Young Horse Training Tip #3: Ride every other day

Trial and error is always a big teacher when it comes to young horse training. Sometimes, what you discover will surprise you.

For many years at Halcyon Acres®, young horses were lucky to get a day off each week once training started. Probably a big part of this thinking came from the racetrack, where young horses ship in, get pumped up with grain & supplements and are denied turnout time to release the energy their youth and diets are struggling to contain. Many owners are afraid to pasture Thoroughbreds even on the farm, concerned about injuries.

Imagine how much fun it is trying ride out the exuberance that explodes after a day or two off with this combination of high energy feed and confinement. It’s more fun to watch than do – at least once you get out of your 20s, learn you break where you used to bend and lose that thrill for the challenge no one else can master.

On the trial and error front, fortunately, when you’re working with your own horse, you can experiment with him in ways that might be difficult to justify with a paid assignment.

Buster provided one of these learning moments, more due to neglect than intent.

Better young horse training approach discovered by accident

Young Horse Training Tip #3
Good young horse training requires you remember he’s still a baby.

About the time we were ready to start Buster under saddle, a large number of client horses shipped in. So, when time ran out in the day, Buster was the one who lost his turn.

Curiously, he progressed much faster when not ridden daily. With Buster, three days off to one day on proved to be the best approach for his pleasing personality and somewhat simple mind.

Given the chance to process lessons longer, Buster was able retain everything from prior days (instead of getting frustrated with poor progress). When we switched to two training days a week, he eagerly tackled each next training session ready to understand and enjoy a new challenge.

That experience held the key to new thinking contrary to precepts held by a majority of young horse trainers.

We started trying a day off for every day of training with dozens of young client horses. As we tested daily and less frequent under saddle training, we found most learned faster and enjoyed training time more with an every-other-day approach. Of course, these horses had ample time to frolic in the pastures between riding sessions.

While each horse is different (yes, this is an important consideration with everything you do to bring a youngster along), it’s worth experimenting to see if daily or a less frequent training schedule works best for your horse.

Remember, he’s still a baby

Young horses don’t have the attention span, nor the mental and physical capacity to train like an older equine. They can only process a little bit at a time. If you are able to teach your horse one new lesson with each training session, great! Quit and congratulate both of you for the achievement. You won’t get lasting success, nor a happy horse, if you try to cover too many things in too long a time period. Your horse will start to push back or shut down and resent training time.

In most cases horses are started long before their bones are done growing. Giving them a day or more in between riding trips gives their young bodies time to recover. Going slow keeps them comfortable enough to get excited about the next ride.

Are you wondering how you can you achieve that bonding experience promised from chasing a foal around the perimeter of a round pen and not risk soundness (of mind and body)?

You can’t.

Young horse’s soft tissue in particular, but bones too, are at risk anyway. This circular, prolonged pounding speed is not natural. There’s a better way to encourage your horse to do what you want – by helping him discover it’s what he wants.

Protect your horse’s mind and body with restraint

Spending daily hours in the saddle will undermine proper physical development of the young horse as well. Bones are still soft, the horse is still struggling to balance himself while carrying your weight and soft tissue is fragile. Keep lessons short and give his young body and mind time to recover and process his experiences between rides.

There’s no reason you should need to spend more than 20-30 minutes at a time riding in the first couple or few months of training, even if you’ve adopted an every-other-day or less frequent approach that suits your horse’s learning style.

Unless, of course, you’re dealing with a true alpha (most are mislabeled and misunderstood) where it’s critical to finish what you start. It’s best to choose your battles carefully with these types.

On those days where you wind up in an unexpected battle of wills, do plan to schedule time the following day for a (hopefully) short ride. If you can get past the prior day’s challenge without incident, quit quickly and give her a couple of days off to reward her “understanding.”

If you’re starting a horse under saddle that’s less than 5 years old, realize his mind is going to take longer to absorb what you’re trying to teach him than a more mature horse. Also know, his body is still growing (some breeds mature more quickly, others, like the Irish Draught, take longer). That means you can do a lot of damage to his long-term soundness if you push too hard. An every-other-day approach with short rides can help his body heal and mind catch up.

Be happy and he will too

Test your horse to see if he learns best with daily training time, every other day, or more days off before you tack up again.

You can still do training on the ground in between. This doesn’t have to be formal training time. You should be thinking about helping your horse understand how you’d like him to behave with everything you do. He’ll retain learning from leading to grooming to how you respond to his behavior at feeding time with your next lesson under saddle.

Give your young horse short lessons, time to process between training sessions, praise the moment he does what you want and a chance to be included in the training conversation and you’ll find him nickering when he sees you, running to the gate and excited to tackle new challenges come riding time.

Keeping your horse cool during the summer

Periodically we offer horse care tips on the Horse Sense and Cents® blog. Paisley presented some good tips to get thinking about now it seems like winter might actually leave this year and summer may appear. Chin up – no more chopping ice, climbing through drifts and skating to the barn – get ready for heat, flies and stagnant air but also warmth, good footing and beautiful sunshine. below Paisley offers her suggestions for keeping your horse comfortable and healthy as we move toward summer.

This article is a guest post by Paisley Hansen.

Anyone who has spent time around horses in the summer knows they get just as uncomfortable and miserable in the heat as their human counterparts do. More seriously, though, are the health risks associated with extreme heat. Dehydration and stress-induced diarrhea can lead to colic, perhaps one of the most serious health conditions in a horse. There are steps horse owners can take to alleviate the misery that comes along with the heat of summer.

Alter turn out times

horse care during summer months at
Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

Turn your horse out during the cooler hours of the day. Overnight is the most ideal as the temperatures are either much cooler or more tolerable. It also provides sufficient grazing time, allowing horses to maintain proper digestive health and also providing them with water in a time they may not be taking enough water in.

Provide shade

If your horse is permanently pastured, it’s essential to ensure she has proper access to shade. A run-in shed is the most ideal as it provides shade that doesn’t shift throughout the day, like shade thrown from a tree. If you have older, weaker, or less dominant herd members, make sure they aren’t being pushed away from the shade and being forced to stand in the hot sun.

Avoid using water buckets

Unless you can refresh the water in a bucket throughout the day, avoid using them. Bucket water easily becomes warm and stagnant, making it unappealing to a horse no matter how hot and thirsty they are. Investing in a fresh water system that circulates the water regularly or only fills when the horse triggers it is a wise investment if you live in especially hot climates.

Good horse care includes providing clean water. Find out more at
Photo Credit: gravity_grave via Compfight cc


If it’s unavoidable to keep your horse in a stall than it’s incredibly important to provide him with circulating air. Stable fans are large enough to circulate enough air to keep the barn from becoming stagnant. Keep doors/windows open if possible to keep a breeze flowing through. Install barn door hardware to keep windows and doors open and prevent them from slamming shut with gusts of wind. If you can, install misting fans near each stall; a combination of moving air and moisture offers a quick cool off.

Always have feed available

Grass is the best feed of choice during hot weather as it has a higher water content than hay or grain. Horses’ bodies are designed to eat constantly and it’s this constant eating that provides their body with the energy to properly regulate their body temperature and help to naturally cool them off.

Proper grooming

Summer coats are relatively thin, but like humans, some horses have thicker hair than others. If your horse gets worked regularly, then clipping their coat can help cool them off more quickly after a ride and help keep them cool when they’re turned out. Keep their mane and tail trimmed to reduce heat build up (every woman knows how miserable it is to have a heavy head of hair when it’s 90 degrees!). If your horse has pink skin, there are shampoos on the market with added sunscreen to help protect against sunburn. Apply sunscreen to the delicate skin on the nose, ears, and around the eyes if your horse is pink or light skinned.

Fly control

Don't let your horse be bothered by flies
Photo Credit: Tatinauk via Compfight cc

If a horse is constantly fighting the battle of the flies, they can waste precious energy they should otherwise be using to stay cool. Keep paddocks, stalls and run ins free of manure and install fly traps around the stable and around paddocks. Fly masks go a long ways towards protecting against flies while fly sheets are dual purposed in that they protect the body from insects and from the sun. Rotate fly sprays to be the most effective at warding off gnats, mosquitoes, and flies.

It may seem like a lot of work to keep your horse cool but most of these horse care tips are already in place in a proper care routine of your equine. Regular vet care, high quality feed, electrolytes, and proper grooming go a long way towards ensuring your horse stays cool and comfortable and most importantly, healthy.

Paisley Hansen is a freelance writer and expert in health, wellness, and animal care. When she isn’t writing she can usually be found reading a good book or playing with her Australian Shepard.


Will your horse drink the water you give him?

Horse owners tend to be most concerned about water during the summer months. Some forget the importance of keeping it clean.

Colic can become a big problem in the winter if a horse does not have constant access to water. Just because there’s no concern for algae, doesn’t mean your trough, bucket or automatic systems stay inviting. Ice forms, critters can fall in and die and, of course, there’s always that pasture pet that delights in the sound of manure splashing into a water source.

We consider ways to ensure a horse will drink new water while on the road, but don’t always pay attention to ensure safe water intake at home. There are so many problems that can arise from contaminated water being ingested or, sometimes worse, not.

good horse care requires fresh water alwaysOne of the benefits of being involved in an equine community on Google+ is the scores of people sharing useful resources. +Anita Lequoia pointed to this video from the Gluck Equine Research Center in Kentucky.

It’s a bit long at 7 minutes, but Dr. Roberta Dwyer does a good job of reminding even seasoned horse handlers about things to think about when making water containers safe.


Do you check your horse’s water throughout the day? Do you pay attention to where you dump disinfected tubs (guilty here of not always thinking that one through)? Do you have tips that have worked well for you in keeping horse water clean? Please share in the comments below.

Seven tips to help your horse weather a brutal winter

horse barn with melting snow
Enough of winter already! The snow even wants to hang on to the barn roof.

It’s snowing again – pelting and stinging missiles brought forth from another day (actually night at this point) of 30 mph winds. The horses here are suffering from this extended brutal winter, as am I. Last year, I was busy harvesting some of the vegetable produce from the garden by now, with (very unusual) temperatures in the 80s beginning March 15th. The horses were grazing on lush grass, dappled, completely shed out, robust and happy. This year, those remaining at Halcyon Acres® (the ones who have trucked out to anywhere else in the country had hair coming out in clouds almost immediately) are hanging onto their winter coats with zeal. It’s probably a good thing.

In the twenty years I’ve been at this Upstate New York farm, I can’t recall a more punishing winter. I can take the snow – and often relish it. We didn’t have much of that this year, but the frigid temperatures, non-stop whipping wind and high humidity (something new, yet seemingly all-season lately in this corner of the word) has made this the most challenging winter I’ve ever had in my more than 40 years of owning horses. Add last year’s horrid hay season (major drought conditions) and the transport of most quality forage out-of-state to the mix and it’s no wonder the horses here are struggling to maintain their weight. I’ve never seen anything like it (other horse owners in the area are expressing similar challenges).

horse barn at halcyon arcres with ice sliding off roof
It’s hard to capture the intensity and wonder of this sight in a photo, but this is the back side of that snow hanging on to the roof of the tack room at Halcyon Acres pictured from another angle above.

Perhaps locking a horse in stall for the season could mitigate some of these effects, but there’s a price to be paid for such an approach (well beyond monetary). Even with 24/7 hay, the horses are already shunning shelter to try to graze the 30 acres they’re confined to. Those coming in at night for manufactured feed and special hay (most of the time they might saunter over, but aren’t particularly interested) are galloping to the gate when called. I’m so ready for spring. These poor horses need it more than I do.

It’s probably going to be another year without a spring (my favorite season). Even so, I’ll welcome summer if it means and end to this punishing winter.

Seven tips for helping your horses weather a brutal winter

  1. Even if you’re against blanketing, when weather is severe, some need help. Older horses, those with sensitive or compromised systems and others who are struggling getting through a harsher or longer season than normal might need some help with warmth. While constant access to hay can help here, some need more. Just make sure you check every day by removing blankets to ensure no sores, rubbing or issues with bad fit. Take them off when the weather warms or you may risk pneumonia cases due to sweating.
  2. Rain sheets are a relatively inexpensive way (about $60) to give extra protection or help when precipitation is heavy, winds are brutal or for horses with heat loss signs. The issue is usually deeper when you see snow melting on a horse’s coat (it’s normal to see this in close to freezing temperatures or after a good frolic in the field), but at least you can offer some short-term relief by offering to help keep coats dry.
  3. Ensure water is always and easily available. Dehydration in winter is a common cause for colic.
  4. Provide shelter always. Your horse may not use it but at least offer the option.
  5. Give constant access to hay to help your horse generate body heat.
  6. Check your horse daily for injuries, issues and comfort. If she’s shivering, she’s burning off a lot more calories to stay warm and might require more help from you than usual. Run your hand across his back, shoulder, hips and barrel to ensure you don’t feel bone. Winter coats (and blankets) can hide weight loss before you see it.
  7. Pray, hope, dance or do whatever it is you do to call for spring.

P.S. I wrote this post yesterday. Today was a beautiful day (forgot what it felt like to be out in the sun) and it looks like we’re on easy street for the next week or so with lows forecast in the 20s and 30s. We’ll see if it lasts.



Special horses can make you cry

Sweet, little Redford

This past month has been heart-wrenching. Days have been marred with a constant struggle treating symptoms without a known cause to try to help dear, sweet Redford recover. This takes its toll – on both you and the horse. The time and angst involved in playing the guessing the game without uncovering an answer can be all-consuming – and devastating.

Redford, a 14.2hh, three-year-old Thoroughbred gelding has served as my buddy, a source of inspiration and on-the-ready helper for so many different farm tasks. He began this ordeal with what is commonly called colitis, but can mean just about anything once you get past the outward signs and discover what’s really going on inside. Sadly, in many cases, this isn’t discovered until after a necropsy (or autopsy) is performed.

Redford’s always been one of these really special horses with personality, an intuitive cooperative spirit and a helpful cleverness that makes you smile. Everyone introduced to this horse wants to bring him home. He’s just always been a character with a kind, gentle approach that’s tuned in to whatever the person he encounters needs to feel comfortable.

Incredible horse helper

Redford becoming a handsome little boy

It amazed me to watch what I came to regard as ‘my little helper’ in action. We have a group of farm-owned horses at Halcyon Acres® that spend most of their time on about 26 acres of pasture spattered with run-in sheds where hay and minerals are provided as necessary. During much of the year, about half the horses get culled out daily to go into the barn for grain and/or treatment or training. We keep a routine, and that helps, but Redford somehow figured out how to jump in with influence to save me tons of time while adding a huge grin to my face.

Redford wih the herd

What struck me as so odd about all this is Redford certainly isn’t a herd leader. In fact, he ranks pretty much at the bottom of the hierarchy. Yet, I discovered if I called his name first when it was time to bring horses into the barn, he’d take notice immediately and start heading toward the gate. As I called others’ names he’d check to see if they were following. If not, he’d go round the ones indicated up one at a time as names were called and head them toward the barn. Every horse he approached would then fall in line and head down the hill as instructed. He only culled out those called.

When Ferris Hills came out for the first time (they do this annually now), we called on Redford to make the trip more fun knowing he’d stay safe. All other horses are behind a fence. Redford was a yearling colt (in-tact) at the time (he’s the one saying hello to those still on the bus).

One in the group was the lead mare and I couldn’t trust her to take the herd to the barn unfettered as she would occasionally delight in heading everyone off to the corn field. My first approach was to halter her prior to opening the gate, but this need stopped when Redford became the guide. All I’d have to do is open the gate and ask Redford to ‘take them to the barn’ if Midge decided she was going to pull one of her excursion exploits, and he’d get back on track down the hill with other horses taking notice and following. He’d go with the herd initially and naturally, but the moment I requested his assistance, he’d jump in to fill the role.

Sick but still happy

We started treatment with stall restriction but soon it became apparent he needed grass. For a week or so, he was confined to small paddocks for limited time to ensure the exposure didn’t lead to a laminitis issue. After that, he couldn’t be turned out with the farm herd because it was important to limit his exertion and this crew can get pretty vicious with a sick horse that’s been out of the mix for a time. The paddocks didn’t offer shelter or safe socialization opportunities.

So I decided to turn him loose, ultimately for about twelve hours a day (on those days when I was at the farm continuously). Redford, in true fashion, appreciated the privilege and kept me smiling with his wise and accommodating approach to this offering. He’d graze along the fence line to be close to the other horses when they were near the barn, travel down the cherry laneway, nap in the tree line or in his stall and return to the barn when he wanted shelter from the wind, bugs, rain or sun. Sometimes he’d sample hay from the stack, but never made a mess, nor did he get into the grain (besides the complete feed bag set out for him). He developed a routine that usually had him grazing all morning and late afternoon, hanging out in the barn in the early afternoon and returning to his stall in the evening just before last chores to be closed in for the night.

The one – the horse of my dreams

My plan was to interact with Redford at liberty for everything we did to prepare him for a riding career. He was going to be the first horse I started without any tack. I imagined the two of us riding out sans bridle and saddle tackling whatever challenge appeared with an understanding and connection that didn’t require restrictions, but was instead, drawn from a trusting and intuitive connection that had us both in sync in uncanny ways. We were already there on the ground so it wasn’t a stretch to see this during riding time.

Some dreams don’t happen

Something wasn’t quite right with Redford on April 15, 2012. We later learned things were very wrong.

Redford was born on my birthday three years ago. He died yesterday.

In Redford’s case, we did all the tests – blood work, fecals, belly tap, etc., etc., etc. There wasn’t anything that came back indicating an issue. When we opened him up we discovered cancer.

He spent the last month of his life spewing liquid manure, sporting a high temperature we often had trouble controlling, tolerating needles, dosing syringes, thermometers, baths to prevent scalding on his backside (he hated these but stood like a trouper when asked), losing tons of weight and demonstrating a positive and resilient attitude in the face of pain far greater than we realized. On Tuesday, he gave me ‘that look.’ I listened.

I’m going to miss this little guy so much. Every day he enriched my life. It’s sad we weren’t able to save his. I get things happen for a reason, but I haven’t yet figured out what I’m supposed to take away from all this. In fact, there are going to be a lot of tomorrows that will seem empty without him.

Maybe the lesson comes from the extreme kindness and generosity that poured forth through the horse community as we struggled to find an answer that provided a cure – or at least some relief for Redford. There were many, but I should make special note of Kay Aubrey-Chimene (in Arizona), Karen Miller (a referral from Lisa Derby Oden in New Hampshire – I didn’t know Karen prior to this challenge) and of course, my wonderful vet, Dr. Janet Wilson (in New York). It’s comforting to see time and again how genuine and truly caring the people in our industry are. Thanks to everyone for the outpouring of support through this ordeal. Each of you helped to make a very tough month a little easier for both Redford and me.


Forevever horse homes – kind or cruel?

Sunday’s Opinion

It’s amazing how quickly people grab popular concepts associated with “saving” a horse and call them golden. Bandwagon convictions get embraced in a one-sided fashion by people who have no first-hand experience with the remedies prescribed. Unfortunately, while most of these ideals start with good intentions, few people bother to explore the downside in the clamor to influence the behavior of others. It’s the horses that often wind up suffering.

The big emotional campaign of late seems to be pushing for forever homes for horses – even better if this means a pastoral setting where they’re virtually untouched by human hands. At the same time, these prognosticators (many have never had the opportunity spend an extended period of time with any horses, let alone one) admonish those who would be so cruel to sell or place a horse with another. Is a forever home really the kindest decision for a horse’s happiness and welfare? Sometimes. Sadly, putting this mandate on horse and human partnerships doesn’t always work as planned.

Do rescues provide the best life for a horse?

Recent headlines concerning an over-zealous OTTB adoption agency have been hard to miss. Horses are starving, dying and left to languish because selected caretakers (apparently many chosen for their day rate rather than the quality of care) haven’t been paid for care costs as promised. The recues will argue the occasional shocking disgrace gets all the coverage, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Horses generally fall in the good news category when reporters seek an angle, so even questionable organizations tend to see a positive spin involving volunteer efforts and the successful placement spotlight. There are a lot of rescues doing good things for the horses and the people they place them with. Others, not so much.

Increasingly, we’re seeing situations where horses are either collected or placed in an unsuitable home with the proclamation these horses are being “saved”. Individuals claim to be rescuing horses, and some even call themselves “rescues”, yet some lack the space, time, financial resources and/or knowledge to properly care for the equine(s). Is it really saving a horse when you collect more than thirty on a small-acreage property, don’t provide shelter and feed them bread (true story)?

For the recues that guarantee a lifetime home on their dime, or require adopters to do the same, is this really the best solution for the horse?

Idyllic permanent pasture time may seem kind to a human but for a young domesticated horse that’s healthy, sound and looking for opportunities to have his brain engaged, this might be a life-sentence to boredom.

People adopting horses rarely know what they’re in for as they get swept in the emotional feel good of “saving” a horse. Many equines aren’t ready or able to do the job they’re intended for or are too much for their “savior” to handle. Often, first-time horse caretakers (most seasoned equestrians recognize the value in paying a purchase price for a suitable mount and pass on the adoption “donation” fees) are ill-equipped to handle the time and financial burden, yet get stubborn about hanging on. Even though horses are known to appreciate consistency, locking in a partnership that doesn’t work for either horse or human probably isn’t the kind of predictable scenario most horses seek. Kindness sometimes means giving the horse a different opportunity to be great. Things change, and sometimes a horse simply wants a different job challenge and living style. Contract terms that stipulate a forever home for any horse can be cruel. We’ve even had horses figured as permanent residents at Halcyon Acres® that have let us know they want a change. Being kind to the horse may mean letting go.

Does wild make a horse happy?

Last year, we heard public outcry about attempts to round up domesticated horses that had been turned loose in Florida. Anyone who’s spent a good deal of time seriously observing horses accustomed to interacting with humans realizes the “horses want to be free” rallying cry doesn’t ring true if you consider the horse in the conversation.  Yet, people reacted to the images of these horses “in the wild” (in Florida – really?) and were aghast that anyone would be so cruel as to try to help them back to a life that included human care, shelter and adequate feed.

Horses with generations of instincts and survival in the wild are wired to be free. Most equines bred by humans want to be fed, sheltered and engaged in a job. Right early handling sets the stage for wonderful and mutually enriching partnerships in the future, but even troubled horses can light up when they find a human who understands. Humans have been domesticating horses for millenniums.  Like it or not, we’ve changed their nature.

Who’s kind and who’s cruel to horses?

You really can’t assess what a horse needs from a distance (or a headline, or a rallying cry). Every horse is different. Sometimes it’s cruel to mandate a care, placement or environment solution without considering what the horse wants. That can only be gathered from direct contact with the particular equine. Often, it’s kind to give an equine a variety of opportunities for work (and horses do change with age – both in their physical abilities and psychological needs) that may mean new homes along the way. Others bond so deeply with a human or horse(s), it’s cruel to sever the partnership(s). One thing’s for sure, though, a contract, policy or mandate that’s inflexible doesn’t ensure a horse a happy life.

Know of any organizations or individuals that include the horse in the conversation as they seek out solutions for the horse’s happiness? Have ideas for encouraging others to consider individualized decisions on horse placement, care and career direction? Please share in the comments below. Let’s call out those who are making a difference with the horse’s viewpoint in mind, one horse at a time.

Horse vets can be incredible – if you know how to select the right one

Top nine qualities to look for in a horse vet

Over the years at Halcyon Acres®, we’ve struggled with finding the right vet for our needs. Part of the challenge is even though we’re a decent-sized equine facility in the Greater Rochester, NY area, our rural community is beyond the reach of most equine vets. Practices have a geographical boundary they will not cross due to emergency concerns. This initially made it difficult for us to get access to the better groups in the area unless we were willing to truck horses for care. The county facility is focused mostly on cows and their huge turn-over problem. Ultimately, we decided (long, jaw-dropping story) we were better off with no vet than this provider.

So, we set out to find independent practitioners willing to make the trip. The first was a qualified and competent reproductive specialist. Unfortunately, she was certifiable. The angst from mere phone calls, let alone the stress the entire horse population at Halcyon Acres® suffered when she entered the barn became too big a cost to justify.

Our next find was a blessing. In fact, we consult Dr. Janet Wilson on matters previously handled without a vet. The horses light up when they see this little gal because she’s so kind, calm, understanding and patient. I do too. She loves working with horses, enjoys getting to know the animals and goes out of her way to make the people clients feel heard, special and included. Continual learning is a huge focus as she’s often out-of-state attending conferences to absorb the latest discoveries (a drawback if an emergency occurs during her absence, but a risk we’re happy to bear for the benefits). Not surprisingly, she’s not taking on any more clients at this time. Through all this, I’ve learned there’s no reason to put up with a bad equine vet because if you do enough digging, you can find a great one. Here’s a short list of considerations:

  1. Is he eager to supply you with names of other providers who may be able to help your horse (chiropractors, farriers, other vets with specialty knowledge, product manufacturers, etc.) or does he seem focused on protecting his turf and critical of others who have a different perspective? Good vets tend to seek out the wisdom of others to help ensure the best possible solutions for your horse challenges.
  2. Is she a horse owner? Many vets will claim career demands preclude them from owning a horse, but the true horse lovers find a way to pursue their passion with one (or more) of their own.
  3. Does he have a good rapport with your horses? Horses shouldn’t quake when a vet walks into the barn. The right vet takes the time to be quiet about preparing a horse for whatever treatment may be necessary, isn’t afraid of horses and has a calm demeanor that helps his patient relax.
  4. Does she explain issues, treatments, concerns and examinations in a way you can easily understand? Vets too impatient with clients to ensure a clear grasp of what they’re doing and how to proceed to help the horse back to health aren’t worth keeping around. Those who are eager to help you learn, conversely, can provide an invaluable education you’ll retain for the rest of your life.
  5. Is it easy for you to call your vet? Is this something you tend to do as a matter of course when a concern arises in the barn? Or, do you spend time deliberating over the cost, angst and reception you’ll get prior to deciding to bite the bullet? If the latter is the case, no matter how much money you think you’re saving for less expensive visits, the price you’re paying for this service is too high. Quality horse vets have a way with people and horses that make them a trusted and caring resource for concerns. If you can’t rely on your vet to be in your corner when crisis comes knocking, why engage him?
  6. Is she continually learning and willing to spend non-billable time researching the answer to an issue that befuddles her? Or is she settled in a practice that gets defensive when you ask questions and justifies everything with the ‘veterinary medicine is not an exact science’ line. Good vets admit it when faced with a new challenge and welcome brainstorming with others who have the mileage to offer relevant ideas. Bad ones throw their cost of education in your face and never admit when they don’t know what they’re dealing with.
  7. Does he reduce your stress or add to it? If having your vet around is an uncomfortable experience for you, imagine what the combined energy from your nerves and his appearance do to your horse. Look for another with the ability to quell the situation vs. escalate it.
  8. Is she interested in getting to know your horse and working around his issues? We have a gelding at Halcyon Acres® that is phobic about needles (justifiably so, given his history). We told Dr. Wilson about this issue with the history of his fear basis. She spent so much time with him before an injection, his concern has virtually disappeared.

And the most important quality to look for in a vet (OK – the goal was to do this in descending order – any tips to make this so with WP formatting would be much appreciated):

Best Vet Quality: Do you and your horse like him? This might seem like a strange benchmark, but if there’s strife in the mix your money’s not well spent. There are a lot of affable vets that know their stuff.  Look around for a vet that’s a pleasure to have in your barn. More than you imagine have deep knowledge, a love of horses and an ability to make their human clients feel special too.

Potter, NY (the town where our facility is located) has a population of 1830 people with an entire county of 25,000 people. If Halcyon Acres® can find a star provider under these circumstances, you can too. Get creative about engaging your network for an exciting discovery. Your quality of life (and that of your horses’) will improve in an instant.

Horses, round pens and natural horsemanship

Friday’s Opinion

Equine behaviorists have been questioning the methods others are touting as kind or natural approaches to training a horse for a long time. This might be the year more become public and passionate with their convictions. Let’s hope so, as such credentials carry some weight and might even turn a few heads.

There’s nothing inherently natural about throwing tack and a rider on a horse, yet when brought along right, most horses seem to prefer having a job that involves partnering with humans to being left alone in a pasture with a herd.  Unfortunately, most of the celebrated methods du jour stress out the horse beyond the owner’s imagination. That’s not good for the horse, and it’s certainly not a productive approach for building a good relationship (can this really happen if one is making all the demands and the other is expected to comply?).

It’s no secret that Halcyon Acres doesn’t buy into many of the popular (and sometimes very old school) methods of trying to fit any horse into a formula training approach touted to work for all equines. All of these methods fail to include the horse in the conversation – so they’re destined to leave the humans who embrace them (not to mention the horses) frustrated and confused. The tricks are at the forefront. Few provide guidance on how to read and respond to a horse in a way he can appreciate and understand.

Horse round pen training

Round pens are way over-used (and misunderstood) in the United States, and apparently this is now becoming an even bigger problem in the UK and Germany as Pony Clubs and Universities are partnering with marketing machines to encourage methods that label terrified surrender as a bonding experience. If you think your horse learns to trust you because you run him around in a restricted circle until he’s exhausted, think again. Some practitioners boast ‘licking and chewing’ as a sign of submission and associated respect (and this is something to be proud of?), but this can also signal stress.

Do you really want your relationship with your horse to be built on escapist acquiescence? Sure, he’ll likely follow you around once he realizes that’s the only way to get some relief, but that doesn’t mean he likes or trusts you. He’s just trying to survive. You may not want to be on that same horse when you need him to help you get out of trouble. Sometimes, it’s better to have a horse that has been encouraged to think and participate in solutions than one that’s been conditioned to accept a life of mindless servitude.

The problem with round pen training (and the tool itself can be very useful with some horses – provided the training involves activities that include the horse in the conversation) is that most present it as a method for doing something to the horse, instead of with the horse. Those that implement the techniques offered as fix-alls don’t understand how to read and effectively communicate with a horse – a piece the gurus tend to forget to mention. It’s sad to see the fallout for both horses and humans as formulized precepts go very wrong.

Horse credentialed weigh in on round pen training

Since most seem to view titles with acronym suffixes as more credible (and the time and money they spend gaining these credentials should be recognized), let’s hear what they have to say. Special thanks to Stacey Sheley for pointing me to this article and Cavallo Magazine for supplying the quoted content.

Andrew McLean, Australia

Founder of the biggest Centre for Equine Behaviour in Australia, and a member of the International Society of Applied Ethology. He trains problem horses, rides in dressage and military disciplines and is completing a PhD thesis on the mental processes of the horse and its consequences for training. “It has been clearly demonstrated by researchers that unlike other behaviours, fear responses are not subject to extinction. Any fear responses that are provoked by humans (e.g.chasing it around a round pen, Cavallo editor) will indelibly etch on the horse’s memory – the horse associates fear responses with the perception of humans. The trouble is, these associations are not always evident immediately, they come back to “haunt” the relationship at a later point when stress levels are raised. All sorts of chasing horses should therefore be questioned.”

Andy Beck, New Zealand

From the “White Horse Farm Equine Ethology Project” in Northland/New Zealand studies equine behaviour and training methods on Thoroughbreds and Arabs. “The drive away in which the horse is put into ‘flight’ is potentially very frightening.  . . . Horses that have already been well socialised to people become extremely confused by being driven away. The horse has no idea why it is harried and is most likely to experience the method as unpredictable aggression – the last thing a good trainer wants a horse to experience. One of the most basic tenets of good horse management is that the handler is able to control their behaviour so that they do not trigger the response of blind flight as a predator would do.”

Dr. Natalie Waran, Scotland

Expert for Equine Behaviour at the Royal School of Veterinary Sciences of the Scottish University of Edinburgh. “In the UK we are rather getting tired of the join up method especially as this method is not new at all, but the Gyro (a round pen) was used for training horses in Roman times. If the horse is placed in isolation and in an unfamiliar environment and powerful psychological techniques such as those in the join up system are applied, you have to question the effect that has on the animal: The handler becomes an unpredictable dictator and the horse learns to become helpless, activity is reduced and the horse shows licking and chewing – all signs of stress.”

Dr. Dirk Lebelt, Germany

Specialist for Animal Behaviour at the Horse Clinic, Havelland in Brielow/Brandenburg, Germany. “I have some doubts regards the claimed naturalness of round pen training. Even though the control of the movement of a lower status horse by a high status horse is a characteristic of specific equine behaviour. But while under natural conditions the lower status horse is able to evade the aggressions of the higher status animal and may signal its submissiveness, an evasion is impossible within the round pen. In my opinion this explains partly the quick success that often can be observed during round pen training. The horse feels it is at the mercy of the trainer, which is also called “learned helplessness”. This leads to quick submission. How far such a procedure, which surely doesn’t correspond with the specific equine behavioural repertoire, is non-violent or not, depends definitely on the empathy and the experience of the trainer.”

Mary Ann Simonds, USA

Wildlife and Range Ecologist, Equine Behaviourist and Therapist who wrote the Guidelines for Managing Wild Horse Stress for the American Bureau of Land Management (BML) in 1987 She’s also the founder of the Whole Horse Institute in Vancouver/Washington. “In working with many wild horses, I have observed that at first their lips are tight and they are fearful. As they start to let go off their stress, they often will lick and chew – this is however more a sign of relief than of relaxation. But horses will lick and chew, too, when they are in a high state of stress with eyes rolling back, sweating, pawing. But in this situation it demonstrates, I believe, just a way for the horse to release some of the built up stress. . . . Good horse ethologists or trainers take into account the horse’s temperament and level of stress and then design the most appropriate method to help the horse learn with the least amount of stress and fear. Patience, kindness and being able to think like a horse, are the best traits a human educator can have to educate a horse. Join up once started out as a better way to “break” horses, and has just turned into just another way to control horses using techniques they do not all understand.”

Dr. Willa Bohnet, Germany

Biologist and Expert for Equine Behaviour at the Center for AnimalWelfare, School of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Germany “Horses that are generally ready to accept the human being of higher status and to work with him, would be completely confused if they were chased away by the trainer without knowing how they had triggered this behaviour. I once attended a Join up demonstration by a book writing trainer during which he wondered why the mare he was working with would only follow him a few steps. What did the good man do wrong? Every few steps he looked over his shoulder to control if the mare was following him. Every time the mare turned around and ran away. Why? In the horse’s language looking over the shoulder right at someone is a threatening gesture, to which the mare responded correctly.”

Dr. Marthe Kiley, United Kingdom

Eco Research & Education Centre in Devon, UK, and the Grande dame of Animal Behaviour Research. In 1959 she founded the Research Stud Druimghiga. “It is awful that Monty Roberts refers to the behaviour of a predator. I have seen some shocking results of this. It is madness to frighten a frightened horse. This daft idea of “dominance” comes from the male competitive cultural society in which we all live. The fact of the matter is that the equine societies do not need to be based on dominance or competition, their food etc. is either available for every one or no one, only at sexual times there is need for competition between males, and even that rarely occurs in the wild, as the mares rather like their own stallion and are not prepared to put up with intruders.”

Dr. Francis Burton, Scotland

Brain Researcher and Behaviourist at the Institute of Biomedical & Life Sciences of the Scottish University of Glasgow. “I think the horse is already stressed by the time he is “licking and chewing”. This action is caused by a previous adrenaline release. The simple physiological explanation goes: being made to flee – increase in circulating adrenaline – dry mouth – licking. This means a horse may lick and chew following a fright, in which situation it surely cannot mean “I’m a herbivore, and if I’m eating I can’t be afraid of you” . . . I’ve tried “join up” with three horses with whom I already had a trusting relationship. One joined up “classically” and followed me around meekly. The other two displayed signs of being irritated by the procedure, one showed increased aggressiveness towards me. I was left wondering frankly what the point of the exercise was and realized that the driving away had a detrimental effect on the trust that I already had built up.”

Dr. Sue McDonnell, USA

PhD in psychology and physiology and is Head of the Equine Behaviour Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the leading experts for Equine Behaviour in the USA. “Most behaviourists have concerns regards the naturalness of these natural horsemanship methods. Many horse owners who have been exposed to these methods contact our Institute subsequently for help. This indicates that they often encounter complications or even failure. Join up is a weird and ever growing changing combination of procedures that has very few if any practical applications beyond the “show”. Same results can be achieved in much simpler ways, though not as entertaining perhaps.”

Lesley Skipper, USA

Author of the book “Inside your horse’s mind – A Study of Equine Intelligence and Human Prejudice” who owns eight Arabs, Hanoverian and Draught horses. “I have often observed chewing and licking in horses who are anxious about something as evinced by their body language. In some cases it may simply indicate that they are thirsty. This illustrates the need for caution when attributing specific meanings to particular gestures or facial expressions as these can vary according to context. . . .The problem I have with many so-called natural horsemanship methods is that it seems to be based on some very limited observations of free-ranging horses and much of it pertains to stallions rather than mares. The result is that the training methods adopted are based on very simplistic assumptions, which are not necessarily correct.”

Horse crazy or crazed – now what are going to do?

Yes, it’s a long post. Still, maybe those who took the time to read through to the end learned something today. I know I certainly did as I read through the entire article (I’ve condensed it a lot in effort to cull the most salient points for you).

Just because someone is popular, quoted, wealthy or celebrated doesn’t mean they know it all. The next time you put your horse in a round pen, consider how what you are doing may be interpreted by (or hurting) him. One of the greatest things about horses is they can help you grow in really big ways – provided you are open to hearing what they’re trying to say.

Instead of trying to make your horse fit into your program plans, why not ask him to help you learn? With a watchful eye, an open mind and a flexible attitude about what you’ll tackle with training today based on how your horse is responding, you may find your rewards are far greater than you imagined. If your aim is to build a partnership that has you awestruck by how much your horse will do to help you, get out of the round pen and start bonding with your horse through activities that give both of you the freedom of expression and input.

By the way – if your horse training guide claims to have the only answer or offers themselves as a profit, you might consider looking elsewhere. Most talented and aware equine experts are always learning and will seldom present their ideas and experiences as the only way. Seek out people who are humble enough to admit they don’t know it all – and listen to what they have to say. Such treasures will teach you more about horsemanship than any DVD or ‘proven technique.’

Novice or professional, one of the most important thing you can to do start building better relationships and realities with the horses you work with is to adopt how you approach training in a way that considers the horse’s penchants. Learn how to discover what these are through conversations with your horse and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you progress.

Ten quick tips to help with horse health during winter

If winter means cold, snow, wind and ice in your area of the world, you’re likely in for a doozy this year. Whether your horses are inside or out (or both) there are things you can do to ensure their comfort and health.

Foals especially need protection from wind

1.       Make sure there’s ample water at all times. This means checking buckets and tanks often to ensure they’re not encrusted with ice. Winter months tend to produce more colic cases. The most cited reason is lack of access to water and/or associated guzzling when it is available.

2.       Provide shelter. Whether it’s a run-in or stall, horses need protection from winter winds. While many horses aren’t bothered by snow; cold rains, rain to snow or high winds can get them shivering.

3.       Feed more hay. Hay helps horses stay warm. If your horses are outside, give them enough to heat their bodies – more than you feed in summer months. If inside (or outside) ensure it’s quality hay free of mold and dust and with sufficient nutrients (call your local cooperative extension to test your hay) to get through tough weather.

4.       Let them have their coat. Blankets may seem like a kind intervention, but if your horse will be spending time outside during the winter months, it’s cruel if you put one on before he has a chance to grow his own coat. Some horses will need a blanket no matter what, but at least try to hold off long enough so nature can provide some protection too. If you’re showing during winter months and must clip or discourage a coat, offer shelter at all times. Remove the blanket at least once a day to check for sores or rubbing.

5.       Watch closely for weight loss and adjust feed accordingly. Horses can lose weight quickly when the temperature drops. It’s a lot harder to bring them back to healthy in colder weather. Increase feed rations as soon as you see your horse getting skinnier.

6.       Back off the oats. Feeds that make the horse higher might work well in the summer, but it’s usually better to decrease energy burn food choices when it gets cold. Consider a grain choice that helps heat the horse and offers a mix of balanced nutrients designed to give the horse what he needs for maintenance. Purina now offers a number of feeds designed to provide a complete mix of horse health ingredients with about a three-pound ration per day.

7.       Ample attention can help a horse’s attitude. Sure it’s cold and miserable out a lot of days during the winter. Giving your horse some time and loving can help your horse stay happy and healthy. If you’re cold and cranky, imagine how he feels when you stay away from the barn. Sometimes a little grooming and a pet can make a horse’s day. Show you care by showing up for him.

8.       Pay special attention to the hoofs. With frozen, rutty winter ground, hoof cracks, bruises and chips can be more prevalent. Don’t wait until an issue becomes a problem to call your blacksmith or treat a sole. Early intervention can mean the difference between a quick resolution and a lengthy lay-up.

9.       Pull the shoes. If your horse is going to be turned out or ridden in snow, balling up can be a big issue. If you’re competing and need to keep shoes on, consider pads designed for snowy weather and shoes that provide more traction on ice.

10.   Discover fun things to do with your horse (for him and you) when winter keeps you inside. Even if you’re not riding, your horse will appreciate you keeping his mind engaged and his body attended to. Ground work can be an interesting challenge for both of you and a good way to keep connected. Have a riding issue that plagued you during warmer weather? Consider what you can do in-hand to try to resolve this. Do stall manners need some amending? This is a great time to work on issues that were ignored in your haste to get tacked and riding earlier in the year. Want to introduce him to a new challenge? Sometimes lessons are more easily learned when a horse can see your body language. Why not take this time to learn something new that helps both of you grow?

Do you have ideas that have worked well for you to keep your horse happy and healthy during winter months? Please share in the comments below.