Body Posture

I’ve become more aware recently of horse’s posture and what clues this gives to how they’re feeling and their way of going.

Stand back and take a good, critical look at your horse as they stand quietly on the yard. Do they stand square? Do they look like their weight is evenly distributed?

A horse with a good posture will stand fairly square, weight balanced evenly on all four feet, and look comfortable. It sounds silly, but it should look like they’re holding this stance easily. Their head and neck shouldn’t be held too high or tense, and you shouldn’t see tension along the back. It depends on conformation, but the back wants to be basically horizontal. The top of the horse, from their poll to their dock, wants to look longer than from their neck to their tail. Below is a photo of Phoenix showing a good posture: she’s standing evenly, albeit not square, and whilst she needs to work on relaxing her brachiocephalic muscle, you can see she has a good length of topline.

So what posture problems are there?

An inverted posture, a term I learnt recently, is when the back and top line muscles are tight and tensed. This causes the neck to draw back and up, the back to hollow. It’s a bit like looking at a “u” shape. This could be caused by a problem in the back, such as kissing spines, or purely sore back muscles and a badly fitting saddle. Some horses who are weak over the back, perhaps due to age or level of training, may adopt this posture after being ridden if their muscles have become overtired. A horse lacking topline muscles may appear to have an inverted posture, and they can look to have a pot belly. Which will disappear as they start to use their abdominals properly as it will lift and shrink. Phoenix developed this posture just before she had her first physio session and it was due to tight muscles in her back. However, the change in her posture afterwards was instantaneous. For those horses who have adopted this position for a long time, to compensate or protect other areas of their body, it can take a long time to improve their stance.

Another horse I work with, who I actually suggested saw a physio, had a posture which always concerned me, he always rested his left fore and right hind, and held his nose pointing out, as if sore in the atlas area of his neck. He tended to hold his legs slightly out from under his body – hind legs camped out, and forelegs almost pointing. He just generally looked uncomfortable. I was really pleased this week when I rode him after two physio sessions; partly because he felt so much looser and more comfortable under saddle, as well as able to adopt the long and low posture, but he was also standing much more squarely, with his legs under him, and his head isn’t stuck out quite so much. Of course, he still needs some work from both the physio and his riders, to undo all the tightness and to rebuild the correct muscles, but I felt that we were heading in the right direction with him.

Another horse I’ve been working with, who is long and lanky in build, and always struggles to have a topline, has really improved since Christmas. He was working well for me, but wasn’t working consistently through the week and his posture was still very much inverted and I was really starting to get concerned that we’d have massive problems in the future, but thankfully after boot camp, and his owner increasing his workload, as well as his routine changing for the better, he’s starting to work more consistently for both of us. We’ve introduced a Pessoa session once a week to encourage him to work long and low without a rider’s weight, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve notice him standing more square both before and after exercise. His farrier noticed that he was much straighter since his last visit, and you can see the muscle in the top of his neck improving. After exercise he is also letting his fifth leg hang out, which whilst it grosses many people out, is a gospel sign that he’s used his abdominals. And as his abdominals tone up, his back will lift, and his topline will become engaged and improve. I’m really pleased with his progress and the improvement to his posture and muscle tone.

Each week I’m now trying to critique all the horses I work with, to assess their posture to see if they’re holding a limb awkwardly, or look uncomfortable in any area of their body, and we can then get them treated if necessary. I’m also becoming more aware of the small changes in their muscle development. Once you train your eye you can hone in on all the small details, such as the hindlegs being too far under their body or left out behind in the halt which suggests tightness in either the flexor or extensor set of muscles.

It’s worth trying to take a step back each week and assess your own horse’s posture as well as their body condition, and you’ll hopefully pick up on any problems nice and early and can get treatment or adjust your training plan accordingly.

Equine Flu

Last week the UK Equestrian population was thrown into panic. British racing was shut down due to three cases of equine influenza in racehorses. A particularly nasty strain of flu too. It’s a subject that we need to take seriously, but we need to be careful not to create a mass hysteria.

Flu in horses is a highly contagious serious respiratory virus, which whilst not usually fatal itself, can lead to potentially life threatening secondary infections such as pneumonia. Flu, along with tetanus, is recommended by vets that horses be vaccinated against, and many competition bodies insist on it.

Signs of equine flu

  • A very high temperature of 39-41C (103-106F) which lasts for one to three days

  • A frequent harsh, dry cough that can last for several weeks

  • A clear, watery nasal discharge that may become thick and yellow or green

  • Enlarged glands under the lower jaw

  • Clear discharge from the eyes and redness around eyes

  • Depression and loss of appetite

  • Filling of the lower limbs

Equine flu is endemic, which means that there is always the odd case somewhere. Our problem at the moment is two fold. Firstly, the horses who were first identified to be suffering from flu were vaccinated. Which means that this strain of the virus is new, and particularly vigorous. Secondly, the fact that it was racehorses who first contracted the virus means there is a massive risk of the disease spreading nationally due to the number of horses attending each race meet and the distance of which they travelled, the number of humans and horses in which a racehorse comes into contact with on a daily basis.

British Racing did completely the right thing by shutting racing down, taking swabs of all horses who were at risk fixtures, quarantining yards and risk horses, and getting the virus under control. It is necessary to inform the wider equine community too, because the flu virus is airborne so there is a risk to local equines. The fact that racing was halted made national news, and unfortunately I did hear some misinformed newsreaders, who could have potentially caused panic amongst the general public. Really, they should have just warned the general public not to touch horses they meet out walking to help reduce the risk of the disease spreading – there was talk about equine flu being contagious to humans!

Now the virus strain has been identified as the Florida Clane 1 H3N8 strain, vets can begin to research whether horses have been vaccinated against this strain. Vaccination doesn’t mean that they are immune to all types of flu, but it does mean that they will have reduced symptoms if they do contract it. From my reading, it appears that this strain of flu has only been used in vaccines since September 2018. Together with the fact that vaccinations become less effective after six months, it is recommended that all vaccinated horses have a booster vaccination now. Unvaccinated horses are advised to have the initial vaccination course.

So as well as some vaccinated thoroughbreds contracting flu, there has been some isolated and seemingly random cases in non-thoroughbreds across the country. Part of me is curious: if the racehorses hadn’t had flu or meets been cancelled because of it, would the general equestrian public have heard about the stand-alone cases so soon? Perhaps locally, but I don’t think it would have been such big news until now, when there are more cases.

So what does this mean for us?

As horse owners, you need to stay abreast with the news, and be aware if there are any cases near to you. It is worth booking your horse in to have a booster vaccination. I’m lucky: Phoenix is due her booster anyway so was booked in for this week. I have brought Otis’s forward by a couple of months too, for peace of mind. Plus I can’t possibly forget their boosters next year if they and Matt (Mum’s brought his jabs forward a couple of weeks too) are due on the same day!

In terms of competing, or leaving the yard, advice varies. As far as I can see, if there is a case of flu in your county, or local area, than a total lockdown is advisable to reduce the risk of your horse contracting the disease. Otherwise, most vets are advising that you continue with your normal routine, albeit with care. Don’t share equipment between horses, don’t let horses touch noses out hacking or at competitions. Learn the symptoms of equine flu, and be vigilant. I guess I just think that if I don’t need to go out, then I won’t. However, if there’s something I really want to do (such as a clinic or competition) then I will risk assess it to decide if it’s worth going.

I think it’s also important to speak to any visitors to your yard: farrier, dentist, instructor, physio, etc. Check that they are following basic bio security steps, haven’t come into contact with infected horses or worked in a risk area. From a work perspective, I’m lucky that I work in quite a small area, so don’t have the worry of venturing near to any danger zones (yet!). I need to keep an eye on the news and hope it doesn’t spead any closer. I will continue with my usual hand sanitising procedure between yards, and add a boot dip as well as have a couple of changes of clothes in my car. Then if I do come into contact with a suspicious horse, I can completely change upon leaving that yard.

I think this flu outbreak will give everyone a bit of a kick up the bum with regards to bio security. Competitions and venues open for hire are now requesting to see passports and proof of vaccination within the last six months before allowing horses on site. To me, it’s always seemed silly that you arrive at a competition, unload, tack up, chat to the competitor next to you, and then go and present your passport. Surely, as with an airport, you should have to show your passport before entering.

With competitions getting more vigilant, hopefully more owners will vaccinate their horses if they’ve allowed them to lapse. I read that a shocking 60% of the equine population are unvaccinated. Below is an image which sums up why it is important that the majority of horses are vaccinated to protect them all from disease.

Along with competitions bucking their ideas up with bio security, yards should also be more conscientious over bringing new horses onto the property. Most yards I’ve been to have an isolation procedure on paper, which is used if a horse comes from a suspect area, but in general are very lax about integrating new animals. Vets recommend an isolation period of 21 days, which seems an awful long time! But at least after 21 days your horse is fit and healthy. Hopefully from now on yards will be stricter with their isolation procedure and take more caution with imported horses or those who have been in contact with those.

I do think that it’s important to maintain transparency. Strangles comes with a stigma, and we should be careful that equine flu doesn’t get the same taint. After all, no one holds a flu party, like parents hold chicken pox parties. It’s bad luck if your horse picks up the virus. So far I’ve seen that yards and businesses are being very honest when they have a case of Equine Flu. Which will hopefully help reduce the spread of the virus in the local area. Unfortunately though, the dreaded keyboard warriors have been at it again, and written many an unkind word on social media. Come on equestrians, we need to work together and support each other to stop the spread of Florida Clane 1!

Below are some useful websites to get all the latest updates on the flu outbreak:

https://www.aht.org.uk/disease-surveillance/equiflunet

https://www.horseandhound.co.uk/

https://m.facebook.com/Stranglessupport/

https://bef.co.uk/News-Detail.aspx?news=more-cases-of-equine-flu

Clippers One, Phoenix Nil

A month ago I blogged about how I was desensitising Phoenix to the trimmers in preparation for clipping her. Which you can read here.

Well, here’s a little update.

A couple of Mondays ago, I got out the real thing. Phoenix jumped as I turned them on, but let me put them on her shoulder. “Stuff it” I thought, let’s give it a go.

Let’s just say it didn’t go to plan. I managed to do half a bib clip, only getting halfway up her neck before she got increasingly upset. I admitted defeat. For the moment, anyway, and I went off to come up with Plan B.

I decided to try Sedalin to take the edge off Phoenix, so that Saturday morning I brought her in and gave her the Sedalin. Have you seen the carrot trick to disguise a wormer? Well you need a carrot with a very large diameter … and a horse who is not as clever as Phoenix! I think I got enough down her, as I factored in spittage.

What I didn’t foresee, however, was the yard getting busier and Phoenix furiously fighting the sedative effects. After forty minutes, with a fully awake horse, I decided I might as well use it as a further desensitising exercise.

Once I’d got the clippers against her shoulder again, I realised that Phoenix didn’t actually mind the clippers at all behind her shoulders. With nothing to lose, I started clipping her shoulder and body.

She actually stood very well for me to clip her barrel and hindquarters, and by casually sweeping up her neck with the clippers I managed to remove the bulk of the coat on her neck.

But there was no way I could tidy up her neck without risking hogging her, or take off her beard. I had three choices; style it out as a new clip, get the vet to properly sedate her, or try twitching her.

Once the twitch was on, it was like magic. Well, once I’d turned the clippers on and my friend managed to hold both lead rope and twitch as Phoenix jumped at the noise, that is. She stood calmly while I finished clipping her neck and then, because she was being so good, I took half her face off quickly as well.

It’s not my best clip, but I certainly took more hair off than I expected, and overall I think it was a positive experience for her. Hopefully she’s feeling the benefit when being ridden now. In a month’s time I’ll reclip her, hopefully neaten up my lines and get right inside her armpits, and she’ll accept the process more. I’m not a huge fan of using the twitch for long periods, but if it distracts her enough for ten minutes that I can safely finish her clip, then I’ll use it. Hopefully next time I clip her, she’ll tolerate the clippers going slightly further up her neck.

Desensitisation

We can’t all be perfect, so I wasn’t surprised when I found Phoenix’s flaw the other week. I mean, she’s so good, and tries her heart out at everything I ask of her.

She’s getting a very hairy coat so I set a date in my diary to clip her.

I decided to check how Phoenix behaved with the clippers so I’d know how much help or time I’d need to put aside to clipping her. So I took my battery powered trimmers up to gauge her response.

As I introduced her to the silent trimmers she snorted suspiciously, but with some bribery she let me place them on both shoulders and move them over her neck and shoulders whilst still turned off.

I stood back, and turned them on. Then waited while she danced around nervously. I talked to her, and just waited for her to get used to the sound.

She didn’t, and was so suspicious of me while they were running that she wouldn’t even let me touch her with an outstretched left hand while the trimmers were in my outstretched right hand. So I turned them off, reassured her and then showed her them again whilst they were turned off.

I had some work to do!

In the grand scheme of things, having to sedate once or twice a year is no big deal. A slight inconvenience in the sense I have to plan a clip. There are worse traits. Like not loading in the torrential rain at a competition – I felt very smug when Phoenix walked straight on last weekend whilst our neighbours tried all sorts of tactics while it was stair-rodding. However, I want to try to desensitise Phoenix to them a little bit so we don’t require major sedation, just Sedalin or Domosedan, and so that she isn’t troubled when horses nearby are being clipped.

I’ve given her a month. At the beginning of November she needs to be clipped, whether that’s a sedation job and it all comes off, or she lets me do a chaser with no medication.

Every couple of days we’ve been having “trimmer time”, when I run the trimmers around her. Over the last fortnight we’ve progressed to not leaping out of our skin when the trimmers are turned on, and standing still while I run the running trimmers all over her neck, chest, shoulders, barrel, belly and stifle. She still doesn’t like them running to the top of her neck. Trimmer time is then followed by lots of praise, pats and a couple of treats before having her dinner.

Although Phoenix is more accepting of the trimmers, she still finds the procedure stressful. You can see her short, shallow breaths and by her body language. I’m hoping that as we do it more frequently she will find it less stressful. I also want to have her standing near a quiet horse when they are being clipped so she can hopefully learn by observation as well as just getting used to the noise. Her stress levels are also why I don’t do trimmer time daily, and why I do it when she’s had a groom, is relaxed and calm, and will have something nice afterwards – such as dinner or being hand grazed.

The one day I did trimmer time with a couple of other horses near her on the yard, who didn’t bat an eye, Phoenix did seem less stressed so I will bear that in mind when it comes to clipping her. Perhaps have her best friend (who likes clippers!) tied near her.

The biggest factor in deciding on whether I’ll sedate her to clip is safety. Do I think she’s accepted the clippers enough to remain level headed, or is the adrenaline going to be pumping and her be in flight mode, which risks me being kicked or hurt. I don’t want her to learn a bad habit or bad associations with clipping, so I’d much rather she is put to sleep, has a positive experience, and then we continue with desensitisation over the winter and through the summer.

We shall see how the next couple of weeks goes. I think given time she’ll learn to accept clipping because it’s her nature to try to please, and so I’ll give her all the time she needs.

Choke

Let’s talk about choke.

On Thursday the Chauffeur/Unpaid groom/Video man/Babysitter went to catch Phoenix. When they came in he commented how easy she was to catch. Not that she’s difficult, but she sometimes wants to know what’s in it for her and needs a treat.

She seemed fine as I tied her up and started grooming. As I began brushing her neck I heard a gurgle coming from her gullet. Then I looked more closely, and just behind her jaw was swollen and very tender when I touched it. She gurgled again, before contracting her neck and retching.

I knew it was choke, but haven’t had to deal with it for a few years. The cases I’ve seen have been ponies gorging dry pony nuts and getting a bolus stuck in their gullet. We used to massage their throat to help break up the blockage, but occasionally they needed tubing.

For those who don’t know, choke is when a horse gets a blockage in their oesophagus. Horses can’t be sick, so despite their retching the blockage can only go one way. My first concern was what the blockage could be. After grilling the chauffeur, we concluded that she had the blockage before she was caught. She’d been standing, not eating, and had only taken the treat from him because he put it under her nose, rather than her usual investigative air. There’s no apples, conkers or anything like that in her field, and she does like to browse the hedgerow, so my primary concern was that she had a stick lodged in her throat.

After a couple of violent spasms in quick succession, and high sensitivity in her neck, I rang the vet. I wanted to check I was doing the correct thing, and also to get Phoenix on their radar in case they needed to come out.

As Phoenix didn’t have anything coming out her nose, the vet told me to wait for fifteen to twenty minutes to see if she resolved it herself. Obviously with no food within her reach. I could massage her neck to soften the bolus to help it clear, so long as she The spasms should become less intense and further apart. Once I think she’s cleared the blockage I should offer her a small sloppy feet – a warm mash – or take her to some grass and see if she starts grazing.

Phoenix stopped retching fairly quickly so when she’d been calm and quiet for ten minutes we offered her some grass. She tucked in happily so after grazing for a few minutes I took her back to the yard to check nothing was amiss.

She was fine, so I turned her out, trying to ignore her disgruntled face at the fact she wasn’t having any dinner!

Choke is seen as a medical emergency because whilst many cases resolve themselves without veterinary attention, there is a risk of dehydration and further complications if the oesophagus has been obstructed for a long time. Instructions range from a large, dry bolus of food (caused by gorging), carrots sliced into discs instead of lengthways (I see a surprising number of people feed carrots this way), to foreign objects like conkers or twigs (why it’s important walkers don’t feed horses over the fence).

The vet’s procedure is to tube the horse to ensure there is a blockage, and then to sedate the horse to help them clear the blockage. In more serious cases, they are tubed and fluids gently sent up to soften and clear the blockage. On rare occasions, surgery is required to remove the blockage.

So whilst it’s very unpleasant to watch your horse spasming with choke, don’t panic. Remove any food, make a note of the frequency of the episodes and then ring your vet who can advise.

New Passport Regulations

The Welsh Pony and Cob Society have been ahead of the game for years in terms of having a record of equines. Years ago you used to get stud books published every few years which were an index of all registered animals. I remember the glee of us girls when we found a horse we knew if the stud books. Now of course, it’s all online. I’ve also always like the fact the genealogy is usually fairly complete. Together with the stud prefixes you could easily identify your pony’s relations. Which is very exciting!

Of course years ago, the WPCS relied on owners registering their animal for the status it brought, the ability to show at county level, and the advertising it did for their breeding. Then, from 2004 all owned horses were required to have a passport, which resulted in many older horses receiving blue passports from The Donkey Sanctuary – which was a bit of a knock to their ego, I’m sure.

However, many breeders who (and I’m going to make a sweeping statement here) bred from mares with questionable breeding/temperament/soundness because they had no other use for the mare did not bother to passport foals until they were sold as yearlings, two, three or four year olds (I can only assume that is because there is a risk of a horse dying before it reaching adulthood and if that happens then time and money has not been wasted on passporting them). So the concept of all equines having passports and reducing the overbreeding of horses didn’t really work, and was difficult to monitor.

Then in 2009 this law was strengthened in that all foals born after 1st July 2009 had to have a microchip and passport within 6 months of birth or by 31st December of that year, whichever was soonest. Any horses applying for new passports (those who had slipped through the previous net) had to be given a microchip too.

This makes passporting horses more expensive, which I think deters responsible horse owners from breeding with their mare, but it still didn’t stop those who breed casually. Even the £1000 fine per unpassported animal didn’t deter many, as the UK still has a massive overpopulation of equines.

Now, as a proud owner of a mare, I find myself wondering would I ever breed from Phoenix. I highly doubt it, although I don’t think she’d make a bad brood mare as her conformation, movement and manners are all great. I just don’t think I’d want to risk putting her through it (because there’s always a risk) for an unknown result. When I could just go to the Brightwells sale in October at Builth Wells and view hundreds of weanlings and take my pick there. If I so desired to have one so young. Anyway, for now she has to concentrate on her ridden career.

As the passport and microchipping laws haven’t really had the desired effect, and with all the different passport issuing bodies (each breed society issues passports for their breed, plus the cross breed passports you also have) it’s very difficult to regulate. At competitions you can monitor passports, but given the number of equines stood in fields, you are only seeing a small, and very biased, sample of the equine population.

From 1st October 2018, it has become compulsory for all equines to have a microchip, as well as a passport. Owners have until October 2020 to ensure this is done. In addition to the microchip, all equine details will be stored on the Central Equine Database (CED).

Luckily for most of us, the passport issuing bodies are still the main point of contact for change in ownership, change or address, or death. They will update the CED.

We can only hope that having all equine details in one area will mean that disease outbreaks can be controlled and reduced, and stolen animals found and identified quicker as hopefully the middle man has been sacked.

Thankfully, DEFRA does admit that in order for this new law to be effective, it does require owners to be responsible and play their part.

Unfortunately though, I think there are too many numerous-horse owners (even at riding schools) where the paperwork and cost involved in microchipping all their older animals makes it very unlikely that they will follow through with it unless necessity requires it. Perhaps there is a window here for passport issuing bodies and vets to provide discounted microchipping and passporting rates to encourage multiple horse owners to step into line.

I’m still not sure how it’s going to be regulated, because so many horses stay in their field or are only ridden at home. Competition horses, particularly affiliated ones, will be fine, but the geriatric companions will go under the radar.

It is a positive that vets can check the microchip and positively identify a horse and treat accordingly, even if the passport isn’t present. Where do you keep yours? Technically, it should be at the yard but I for one am not keen on giving the yard owner my actual physical passport. I’d prefer to give them a photocopy. I don’t take my passports to the yard daily either, so getting there and having to call the vet for an emergency means that either I’ve got to leave my horse and go and get the passport, or send someone to dig around the office to find where I’ve secreted them away. The CED is a definite positive from this angle.

I like to think that being able to trace horses to owners makes them accountable for welfare issues or abandonment, but in order for that to happen they need to have chipped their horse in the first place. And if you’re a candidate for neglecting your animal, are you going to bother getting them chipped, and updating existing passports? I’m yet to be convinced.

In the meantime, go to The Equine Register and enter your horse’s microchip number to check that they are on the CED. Phoenix’s is as she was born after 2009, but Otis’s isn’t on there. He had a microchip inserted five years ago, and was registered with an animal microchip database as recommended by the vet, but the CED only takes information from passport issuing bodies, and Otis’s chip has not been linked to his passport. I’m sure this has happened to numerous others who tried to get ahead of the game years ago. So it’s definitely worth checking out. You can guess what my job tomorrow morning is!

Coping With The Heat

How is everyone managing during Britain’s 2018 heatwave? We’ve been doing horses and any outdoor jobs in the morning and evening; hiding from the heat during the day because it’s too hot for anyone, let alone babies.

In general, horses in the UK seem to find it difficult to adapt to the heat. Partly because it’s so infrequent and comes along suddenly, and partly because a lot of horses are colder blooded, native types with thick, dense fur.

So with the hot weather, comes a few routine changes. I for one have been riding later in the evening. In my pre-baby life, I’d have been up with the larks riding in the cool. Schooling sessions become shorter or non existent. I did a lesson yesterday morning which consisted of about fifteen minutes in trot, split over the lesson, and the rest in walk. It was a good opportunity to practice lateral work without stirrups and nit pick on my rider’s aids. Hacks become much more appealing, don’t they? Any woods provide some shade and there’s usually more of a cool breeze. I read last week that horses feel the heat more than we do so it’s important to consider them when deciding to ride.

Some people prefer to have their horses stabled during the day in summer, and turned out overnight when it’s cooler and there are less flies about. For me, it depends on the horse and their field. People underestimate the shade that trees provide. I found this out a couple of weeks ago at a wake. The back garden of the house we were at had several large trees on one side and a sunny patio on the other. Sitting on the grass under the trees I was lovely and cool while those sat at the patio table with a parasol up were still boiling hot. So if your horse’s field has trees to provide shade and they aren’t bothered by the flies I would personally prefer them to stay out where they can move around and benefit from any breeze (which also deters the flying pests) that’s about. It’s also worth considering your stables. Wooden ones can become ovens whilst stone barns stay lovely and cool.

Wash them off liberally. Yes they may not have worked up a sweat walking around the woods, but they’ll still be grateful for a shower. There is the age old argument about how to cool off horses properly. The way I see it, the majority of the time horse owners aren’t dealing with a horse on the verge of hyperthermia and heat exhaustion (this week excepted) so hosing them and allowing the cooling process of evaporation to cool them down is sufficient. This week though, you may want to opt for continuous hosing and sweat scraping to bring down their core body temperature quicker.

Then of course is ensuring they’re hydrated. Horses will drink more in hot weather, much like us humans, so making sure they have plenty of clean water available is paramount. Ideally the water wants to be cool so that it is more appealing to the horse and refreshing. Standing water buckets need to be in the shade, but be aware of flies congregating around them. Self filling troughs are very often cooler despite being in the full sun because they’re continuously topped up with cold water from the underground pipes as the horses drink.

When a horse starts to get dehydrated they also stop wanting a drink, which obviously compounds the problem. What’s the evolutionary benefit to this, I wonder? It’s far better to never let them get thirsty in the first place. Adding salt to their diets, in feeds or with a lick, encourages them to drink. It may also be worth having a feed such as Allen and Page’s Fast Fibre which has very little calorific value but needs soaking for ten minutes before feeding. Adding that to their bucket feed, or even substituting that for part of their hay ration will help keep them hydrated. Some horses like their bucket feed to be sloshy so that’s a good way of giving them more water. You can add electrolytes to their feed too which aids hydration.

With this intense heat we’re having, there’s also the risk of sunburn. For both humans and equines! I heard a few weeks ago about a horse who had been clipped. I think he was a predominantly white coloured. But over the next couple of days his back got sunburnt due to the coat no longer protecting his pink skin. That’s a good reason to use a quality UV-proof fly rug, only half clip or indeed not clip at all! The UV-proof fly masks with nose nets are great at protecting white noses, and using factor 50 suncream helps prevent sunburn – don’t forget to use it on yourself too! I’d also be wary of white legs, particularly on fine coated horses as these could also suffer from sunburn.

Finally, check they aren’t overheating in any rugs. A lot of fly rugs are very breathable and thin, but sweet itch rugs tend to be of a thicker material. It might be worth using a lightweight fly rug on a sweet itch horse during the day, and sacrificing it if they start a scratching session and them staying cooler rather than them getting too hot in a sweet itch rug.

It is also worth reading up on the signs of equine heatstroke and be prepared to call the vet if you think your horse is suffering from it. Here are the symptoms:

-Weakness

-Increased temperature

-High respiratory and heart rate

-Lethargy

-Dehydration

-Dry mucous membranes in the mouth – they should be pink and have a slimy feel to them. To check the mucous membranes, press your finger on the gums and they should turn white with pressure. Once you have released your finger they should return to a normal pink colour.

Putting Their Back Up

It’s quite a common term that you’ll hear, especially around young or excitable horses – “oh they’ve got their back up today!”

It’s not a positive thing, even though a horse working correctly is lifting through their back (that engagement is a different feeling altogether). A horse who has their back up feels very tense and feels like they could buck at any moment. Some horses do this the first time that they’ve been ridden after a holiday, other’s do it in response to a badly fitting saddle. And some do it when they’re feeling fresh and excitable. Others can have the tendency to do it all the time, and this is often referred to as being cold backed. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

When you’re working with young horses, perhaps backing them, or highly strung and fit horses, you start to learn the warning signs of a horse who has their back up. When you first put the saddle on they can sometimes react by tensing, and shortening their body. You can often physically see the back lift up. Knowing the horse; whether they’ve been out of work, or if they are sensitive over the back will help you prepare them. Some horses can put their backs up in bad weather, because they’ve gotten cold and wet. The best thing here is to leave them in to warm up before you ride, and use an exercise sheet to protect their quarters, which will make them much happier and more relaxed.

Sensible safety precautions should mean that you place the saddle on, do the girth up gradually over a few minutes so that they get used to it, and then lead them round, and lunge them until they relax. When you mount, use a mounting block and have assistance so that you can put your right foot into the stirrup without sitting down onto their back and then you can gently lower yourself into the saddle over a couple of walk strides. While you’re lowering yourself into the saddle, be led, so that you don’t need to apply the leg as this could trigger an explosion of bucks; have the leader reassure the horse as you walk, while you can scratch their wither and praise them. Once you feel the horse relax you can begin to take control and the leader becomes redundant.

Let’s return to the term “cold backed”. Traditionally, this referred to a horse who was always sensitive to the saddle and mounting procedure. Usually when the saddle is put on they dip away from the pressure of the saddle, but when you mount they’re on the defensive with their back arched ready to dispose of what they perceive as a threat. Once their muscles warm up and they become accustomed to the saddle and rider they will work normally.

One of my old ponies was cold backed and we just used to put the saddle on, girth loose, for fifteen minutes before I rode, slowly tightening it a notch every couple of minutes. Then I’d just walk her across the yard before mounting and she was perfectly behaved. It was a fairly easy management accommodation to make.

Nowadays of course, we have more knowledge as to why a horse is cold backed. Some horses are cold backed because they have negative associations with the saddle and being ridden (perhaps a badly fitting saddle and heavy, unbalanced rider in the past, or they suffered from kissing spines) so only be building their trust and retraining them can you overcome this behaviour. Most others are cold backed because they have a degree of pain.

The cold backed response is due to very sensitive nerve endings around the back being stimulated. These nerves could be sensitive due to pressure from the saddle or damage to the muscles, perhaps an old injury which has left the muscles tight and immobile. An old wound may have affected the nerves in a particular area on the skin of the back, making them more sensitive in that area. A cold backed horse may have back pain, either from bad posture or from an underlying lameness.

Ultimately, a horse who puts their back up when you ride, or regularly exhibits cold backed behaviour, shouldn’t be ignored. If it’s due to excitability and freshness then it can be dangerous to the unsuspecting, and if it’s due to pain then that needs alleviating.

If a horse suddenly starts putting their back up when you ride then do an assessment of that day – was it windy or wet? Had the horse been off work for a significant period? Have they been on box rest or limited turn out? Are they being over fed? Any of these could contribute to poor one-off behaviour. If a horse I rode was normally perfectly behaved but one day had their back up when I mounted, I’d run through in my head what they’d done over the last week and today’s environment to see if there was a cause. It could be that they wind and rain blew under their rug and their muscles are physically cold and tight, or the fact they’ve had limited turn out because of the bad weather and their bucket feed not being reduced. In which I’d change the management (thicker rug, more turnout, less hard feed) and hope their behaviour returns to normal. If not, into step two.

Once you’ve established that there’s no problem from the management side of things, then begin searching for a physical problem. Have the saddle checked, have a vet assessment, book a physio session, and keep on top of any issues and get to learn your horse’s signals that he’s starting to feel uncomfortable so you can treat him early. They may need management techniques such as a massage pad used before working, or going in a solarium or horse walker if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.

If the horse is chronically showing cold backed symptoms and no specific cause has been found my next step would be to work to improve their posture and strengthen their muscles. Lunging and riding in a long and low frame to increase their topline muscles and improve their posture and way of going; and seeking help from an instructor to correct the rider so that they aren’t inhibiting the horse’s ability to work correctly. Then over time you’ll improve the horse’s strength and ability to carry a rider which will hopefully reduce their tendency to be defensive and put their back up when mounted.

Foal Time

Despite the lack of spring weather, foals have started to make an appearance – how cute!

Here are ten facts about foals for you to get your teeth into.

  1. The gestation period of a horse is eleven months, but they can be born up to four weeks late. Most breeders aim for foals to be born in the spring so that they benefit from the spring grass via the mare’s milk and can grow during the better weather and are strong enough to withstand the demands of winter.
  2. Foals stand, walk and trot very quickly after birth – ideally within two hours. This is because they’re prey animals so need to be able to flee predators from the beginning. Predators are attracted to the smell of the placenta so moving away from the birth site is important. Foals can gallop after twenty four hours.
  3. Foals with floppy ear tips are premature because the cartilage has not yet fully developed.
  4. Many foals are born with bowed legs, called “windswept”, particularly large foals born to smaller mares. Immature tendons and ligaments can also cause a foal’s fetlocks to touch the ground as they walk. The legs will straighten out over the first few days as they strengthen.
  5. Foals are often born at night, or in the early hours of the morning, and the birth is a quick process. Both of these factors help protect them from predators.
  6. After a week, a foal will try grass, starting to eat a little bit of hay and grass because by the time they are two months old their nutritional needs exceed the milk requirements from the mare.
  7. A foal’s legs are 90% of their final adult length when they’re born. This gives them an advantage as a prey animal, and also explains why they look so wobbly and leggy as newborns.
  8. If a foal grows to quickly, or is overweight then their joints swell with a condition called osteochondrosis. In osteochondrosis the boney foundation of joints doesn’t develop properly so the joint surface is rough and can deteriorate, causing arthritis and lameness in later life.
  9. Foals have certain juvenile characteristics which, in a similar way to human babies, elicits caregiving. The eyes are large, face is short and forehead is high.
  10. Foals are born with a deciduous hoof capsule, which is soft and rubbery to protect the birth canal from the sharp, hard hooves. The capsule wears down within minutes, enabling the foal to stand and move.