Solving The Myth of Washing Down Horses

Whilst the UK is in the midst of a heatwave, a discussion is going on about the best ways to cool horses down. Usually we don’t have this problem and almost any method is sufficient.

It makes me wonder how equestrians cope in hot climates. Would any readers from those countries care to enlighten me? I think I was told when I was in Dubai that the polo horses had air conditioned stables and were exercised very early in the morning. Horses from those climates also tend to be fine coated and thin skinned, unlike our hairy natives who are all struggling as the thermometer nudges thirty degrees Celsius.

Some people advocate hosing and scraping, others say to hose and let evaporation do the cooling down.

In fact, the best answer is to do a bit of both. Imagine you are standing next to a very sweaty horse. Quickly run the hose over him. Touch his side; the water is warm isn’t it?

Now comes the pseudo science part. By which I just mean I’m haphazarding a guess at the science but. Heat from the horse’s body transfers immediately to the water, so the water becomes the same temperature as the horse. The water then acts like an insulator (although scientists will say that water isn’t a particularly good insulator, some would say it’s enough of one in this case) so preventing the horse’s body from losing any more heat. At this point the horse can’t cool down until the water has evaporated.

Now, scrape the excess water off the horse and hose him again. Keep removing the warmed water until the water runs off cool. Now the horse’s surface temperature is returning to normal, but he still needs to continue cooling down. This happens when the cooler blood leaves the skin and goes to the hot muscles, so removing some heat from there.

It’s at this point that leaving cool water on the body to evaporate, mimicking the sweating process, is effective.
I found this explanation of why sweating cools you down:

Beads of sweat on your skin are in liquid form. When the water temperature rises, the molecules become more active and gain energy. When a molecule gains enough energy, it can break free from the bonds that hold the liquid together and transform into water vapor. This is evaporation. As the molecule evaporates, its energy — or heat — is removed from the sweat that remains on your body. This loss of energy cools the surface of your skin.

In the same way, water and sweat evaporating from the horse’s skin will cool them down. 

A friend told me that endurance riders advocate washing and scraping until the water runs cool off their backs and then leave the rest to evaporate. Which makes me feel better in my hosing the horses until the water feels cool against my hand, then scraping off excess and then turning them out to roll and dry out naturally. 


I found the following article about the cooling process followed at the Beijing Olympics – Read it here – which makes the valid point that if you continue to apply water to the horse’s body then warmed water will be displaced so cold water is always next to the skin and heat will displace to the water. So scraping excess water away can be replaced by just continuous hosing. This article also points out that to maximise the cooling effect of washing down it’s important to cover as much of their body as possible to increase the area that is being cooled, so don’t just wash the sweaty shoulders, wash all the neck and hindquarters too. 

A Neurectomy

A neurectomy, or de-nerving operation, was offered to Otis a few months ago. Since then, it has been on my list of blog subjects, but has never made it to the top. But now here it is.

Neurectomies are sensitive subjects for a number of reasons. The procedure involves severing the problematic nerve leaving the horse pain free. This sounds great, but it`s solving the symptom of the problem, and not the root cause. I remember learning about different psychological treatments in psychology A-level and there was always a big debate about which methods simply covered up the problem and which got to the root cause. Similarly, with physical problems there are true symptoms, such as a broken leg, but also additional symptoms caused by walking with a limp, If you only solve the additional symptoms they`re just going to reoccur because the leg is still broken.

I`m going off on a tangent. Neurectomies are most commonly performed on horses suffering from navicular.

To me, a neurectomy is just stopping the horse feeling pain in the foot, and if they can`t feel the pain will continue to walk or use the limb incorrectly, which will cause problems in other areas of their body. Which will surely cause soundness issues down the line.

Horses can usually return to their normal workload after the surgery… but is it ethical to keep working a horse who has a numb foot? And like I said earlier, if they can`t feel that foot are they more likely to injure it by knocking it against jumps or in the field, and what other strains does it put on their body? I think it`s different if you are going to retire them, and just want them to live out their days pain free.

Onto the cons … although surgery has a higher success rate now due to technological and scientific advances, the nerve will regrow within a couple of years, leaving you in exactly the same position as before. And you can`t repeat the procedure.

Careful management and shoeing routines are needed to prevent further problems as the horse can`t feel his leg, so if he has a foot imbalance it will stress other connective tissue within the hoof capsule. Also, with a de-nerved foot they cannot feel the pain of a foot abscess, which could lead to you not treating it in time and them getting a bone infection.

Neurectomies aren`t traceable, which means that if the horse changes hands their new vet will not be able to identify that they’ve had this procedure, which can lead to mismanagement, or competing illegally.

This procedure seems complicated and has numerous potential complications, with varying success rates. I found an article in Dressage Today that explained it in a fairly non-biased way – check it out here.

I also found a video – watch it here – which was interesting, and augmented my view that it is a last-ditch resort.

In my personal view, I`d want to try every other viable option before a neurectomy because I don’t think it`s fair to expect a horse to be an athlete without the feeling in his foot, and the risk of complications or it being unsuccessful are a heavy weight to balance.

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Hydrotherapy

Last month I did some practice teaching at a yard which is also a rehab yard, and they have a water treadmill. The seed was sown, but I didn`t get any further than thinking it would be interesting to see a horse using the treadmill. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that she had been with another friend to use one at a new rehab centre, very locally to us. The types of horses the treadmill helps sounded similar to Otis, so she thought she`d share the knowledge with me.

As this rehab centre was a lot closer to me, and they had an introduction offer, I thought it would be interesting to take Otis along. It wouldn`t do him any harm, and it would be very interesting from my point of view. So I gave them a ring and booked him in.

I was telling my physio guru about the water treadmill, and she thought it was an excellent idea. She also told me that there had been a study that showed no difference between the effects of the treadmill between horses who travelled to use it, and those who were on a rehab livery programme. i.e. travelling to and from hydrotherapy didn`t reduce its positive effect. Which, to be honest, hadn`t even crossed my mind. But always good to know.

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Otis travelled as well as ever, and waited patiently whilst I filled out the relevant forms. Then he was introduced to the treadmill.

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Always the sceptic, and possibly because I was behind him, not leading him towards it, Otis had a good look at the strange contraption. However, as with most males, the way to his heart is through his stomach so a few pony nuts did the trick. I was really impressed with the quiet, patient approach. Otis was given as much time as he needed to take in the machine. Once he had stepped onto it, he was walked straight through the tunnel and around to go onto it again. The second time he was much more confident, and walked straight on.

This time, because he stood quite contentedly on the treadmill, the front door was shut. And then the back door.

I think by then Otis was more interested in delving into the lady`s pocket. He was effectively cross tied, with me holding a rope on his right, and an assistant holding the rope to his left. This is to help keep him straight because apparently a lot of horses practically bounce from wall to wall the first time they use the treadmill.

The treadmill was turned on, and with a look of surprise Otis started walking. It moved at quite a pace so it took him a few minutes to find his rhythm and to stay in sync with it. But the nice thing was, there was no rush. The treadmill was noisy, but everyone was calm and reassuring him.

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There were two cameras to look at; one was above Otis, so you could see how straight he was walking, and see if there was any asymmetry in his back movement. The second was at hoof-level, and showed his stride pattern – the length and cadence. While he was getting into the swing of it, I had a good look at both cameras.

Next, the water was gradually let in. He didn`t change his pace and didn’t seem overly worried about the splashing around. The water rose until it was just above his fetlocks. I think you can adjust the depth of the water according to horse fitness as deeper water creates more drag so means they have to work harder. A couple of times Otis slacked off a bit, and ended up closer to the back of the treadmill, but a little encouragement and he caught up again.

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Watching the cameras now, I could see his stride had gotten longer and he was flexing his joints more to lift his legs higher out of the water. The water splashing on his belly also caused him to use his abdominal muscles too.

Water treadmills are increasingly popular with horses on rehab programmes because it allows you to increase their workload without stressing their joints or jarring their limbs.

I`m not sure how long Otis was walking in water for, probably about fifteen minutes. When it came to finishing, the water was drained out and the treadmill slowed until it stopped. After some treats for Otis, the front door was opened and he was led out. You could see his walk had improved already, and he almost looked a little run up from where he had been using his abdominals – a bit like me after a Pilates class!

His legs were washed off with the hose and then disinfectant sprayed over his legs. Just as a preventative measure as other horses use the treadmill. Of course, Otis stood perfectly still while he was being washed … none of the dancing around that he does with me!

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I haven`t booked to take him back yet as we`re having a hiccough with his rehab … I`ll tell you more when I’m emotionally strong enough. But once he`s back on track I will definitely be booking him in for some more as you could see an immediate benefit. Plus, I was eyeing up the vibrating weighbridge-looking thingy which is supposed to be good for healing collateral ligament damage.

Here is a video of Otis on the treadmill

My Introduction To Parelli

Some people advocate Parelli, others resent it. It’s had good press, it’s had bad press. Whatever. Each to their own. I’m not going to go into depth here – do some reading and develop your own opinion.

Anyway, I’ve never really had anything to do with Parelli, nor have I had a need to try it with my horses.  But when I went to do a practice lunge lesson with a riding club member last week I was horrified, embarrassed, whatever you want to say, that I couldn’t get the horse to lunge when I warmed her up.

“Oh, she’s Parelli trained” announced her owner as an explanation. That still didn’t help me, so she gave me a quick lesson on lunging the Parelli way.

Firstly, she explained that my belly button should be pointing in the direction I want the horse to go. So to send a horse forwards, turn to look (and point your belly button) in that direction. When you face the horse, they think you are wanting them to reverse. Which was the problem I was having. 

You can also fling your rein arm in the direction you want them to go, thus giving a clearer instruction. Once I’d got the hang of this then it did make a bit of sense and the mare responded well.

To slow a horse the Parelli way, you either put the whip out in front of their body, or waggle the lunge line. I found this part trickier, until I accidentally said the word “Good” at which point the mare stopped dead! Apparently that’s a cue word for the end of the session and tit bit time.

Parelli people also don’t use many words, as this lady told me. They expect to say go, and then say nothing until they want the horse to do something different. Which when we’re riding is something we should aim for so our aids remain subtle and clear, but most of us use a dialogue when lunging to either settle the horse, or to regulate their gait. 

The whip is also often used instead of the voice to get a horse to move off. Smack it on the ground behind the horse twice, and they should move forwards until told otherwise. This is more to do with the obedience aspect of Parelli, so apart from being told about it I didn’t use this technique.

Regardless of my views on Parelli, it was actually an interesting learning experience because it means I have another trick up my sleeve if I ever come across a horse who “won’t” lunge – I may just be talking the wrong language to them. 

Tack Fitting

Two horses I ride had saddles fitted earlier this week. It always amazes me how changing tack or rebalancing it can have such a drastic effect on a horse’s way of going.

The saddle on the first horse has dropped so I felt like I was tipping forwards. We thought the flocking had settled, which it had, particularly on the left, but when we put the other horse’s saddle on her it actually sat better. I rode in it and couldn’t believe the difference. Where her shoulders were now freer she settled immediately and felt softer over her back and more forwards in the trot. Her canter is always uphill, but the real difference I noticed was in the trot. When she gave one of her humongous spooks the saddle didn’t move either, which is always a good sign. The saddler told me at the time that sometimes a badly fitting saddle can cause a horse to spook again because of it moving as they do the original spook. 

When I rode her a couple of days later I found her much better: the direct transitions were more forwards, and shoulder in seemed to click, with the inside hind really coming under and her inside hip lowering as she put the weight into it whereas usually she tries to just turn her neck and load her shoulder. Her trot to halt transitions were also less on the forehand as she seemed to find it easier to step under. 

Back to the saddle fit. With the second horse, who no longer had his saddle, I tried three different saddles on (including the reflocked one from the mare) and his reactions were very interesting. He has been a bit tight recently on the left rein, blocking in his back and resisting the bend, especially in left canter. When I asked him to trot in the first saddle he humped his back and resisted. I did manage to have a trot and canter, but he didn’t feel happy. Then I tried the second saddle on, and he trotted off immediately into this easy trot in a long and low frame, something which usually takes a while to achieve. Left canter felt easier, and he felt freer in the shoulders. He even gave me a flying change. Granted, I hadn’t asked for it, but the fact that he felt able to showed to me that he liked this saddle. 

Finally, I tried the reflocked saddle. From the first transition into trot I knew he didn’t like this saddle as much as the previous one. He was a bit tight and resistant, but far better than the first saddle. So we opted for saddle number two, and so far I’ve felt that he’s far more rideable and comfortable in it.

This week really drove home to me the importance of having saddles fitted correctly to your horse. But what about fitting tack to the rider? 

Just as horses have different conformations, so do humans. And riding is an inclusive sport, which means people of all heights and shapes can participate. So tack needs to be available to suit everyone.

I’m blessed with average proportions, which means that I am comfortable in the majority of saddles. But I have some long legged friends, who find it uncomfortable to jump in a GP saddle because the saddle flaps don’t accommodate their long thighs. Which means they either need jump saddles or specially made saddles with long flaps that fit the rider as much as the horse.

If you think of a 16.2hh horse, perhaps an eventer, they could be ridden by either someone of William Fox-Pitt’s stature, or me. Now I’ve stood next to William F-P and I barely reach his elbow. So a saddle can be found to fit the horse, but you can guarantee it won’t suit me and William. Which is why it’s always important that the person riding the horse for a saddle fit is the main rider. 

My Mum told me of her friend’s daughter who wasn’t doing that well out competing, but was told that her saddle didn’t fit her very well. A new saddle later, and they’re winning everything! 

I know you can say that a bad workman blames his tools, but when things aren’t going so well or there’s been a drop in performance, it’s definitely worth getting the saddle checked so that it doesn’t inhibit the horse’s way of going, or hinder the rider’s position and balance. I’ve been really pleased with how both horses this week have felt after have their saddles adjusted – much freer in their shoulders and softer over their backs and necks. 

Tickling Their Bellies

Whilst chatting to someone this week, they told me that one of the benefits of a water treadmill (more on this another day) is that the water splashes up onto a horse’s belly, which causes them to tense and engage their abdominals.

Thinking about it, when I’ve been waist deep in the sea, or another cold body of water, and tried walking around splashes invariably land on my torso, and I’ve felt my stomach clench in anticipation or dislike. It must be the same for horses.

Then today I was hacking one of the big horses. He can sometimes be a bit lazy in his posture, and I find him very big to correct, or support him. We were going around the mown edge of a field and it suddenly occurred to me that I had heard a long time ago that long grass tickling a horse’s belly can be useful in engaging their abdominals.

So I gave it a go; we ventured off the path and did some walk and trot in the long grass, that came up to my stirrup irons. He definitely seemed to float more, and I could feel his body working harder. He was exhausted by the time we had trotted halfway up the hill, and I was surprised by just how much of a workout it was for him, whilst being comparatively easy for me.


We can’t always use long grass to do our training for us because of the time of year, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind when I’m hacking at the moment. Plus we saw so much wildlife around – the swallows swooping around as we walked, and the deer that challenged us to a stare off, and the fox hiding in the woods, as well as the bird of prey that flapped frantically to hover over us in the middle of a vortex when I turned him out.