Monday, 27 June 2011

Really? (Part 2)

This blog is a continuation of the one titled "Really?"

An excerpt from sport horse vet, Dr Alex Emerson’s excellent blog illustrates the idea that I expressed in the blog preceding this one titled "Really?" He shares his frustration with the opinions of the “expert” practitioners of alternative medicine…

I’m not opposed to capitalism; everyone is free to make a living. And I’m always open to suggestion, if someone has noticed something I haven’t, or has an idea that is alternative to my own. But it drives me (and my colleagues, almost to the man) nuts that these people are often getting called before we are, even though they often charge more for their “therapy” than we are for our exam, which often leads to an actual diagnosis, and occasionally, more appropriate therapy. Don’t get me wrong – I strongly support acupuncture and chiro practices (I’m trained in, and practice chiro everyday), but I believe in it being practiced by veterinarians. Not lay people who learned massage or pseudo chiropractic in a couple of weekend courses from another layperson. I’m happy that those people can make a living, but it’s annoying that in some cases, we have to answer questions that they raise about a horse, that they don’t have any business raising.

In the end, calling a vet first usually saves money. …We have much better diagnostic skills and equipment on average, than we had not too many years ago, regarding these hard-to-reach areas. This has expanded our therapeutic regime in return. Many of us have learned how to apply chiropractic (the real kind, learned from chiropractors), acupuncture, ultrasound guided injections, shockwave, etc, to genuinely alter disease and dysfunction.

I’m not saying that alternative voices don’t offer something important to the mix. Indeed, my experience is that there are a few out there, who in spite of a formal education, can change something in a horse that vets and farriers were unable to.

They have special skills, and belong in the horse community as part of the management team. But they aren’t a first line of defense. The most appropriate first expert is one who spent a handful of years and many thousands of dollars learning every aspect of anatomy, physiology and pathology of the animals they are treating, and have dedicated their lives since graduating to improving their skills. They are licensed by the state as experts, and carry insurance in case things don’t go as planned. But just as importantly, they attempt to practice defensible medicine, rooted in scientific fact instead of anecdotal whim. There’s a lot of great research going on right now that is expanding our knowledge base of how horses function, and what to do when they don’t. Use someone who reads that research and can figure out how to apply it.

I have been driving cars for many years, but I barely know what it looks like under the hood. If you brought me your car and asked me why it’s making a knocking sound, I’d be happy to give you my opinion. But you probably shouldn’t pay me for it.

Dr. Emerson provides sports medicine services for Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, KY and Wellington, FL.

Monday, 20 June 2011


Recently in a discussion about bits at a Pony Club clinic, I encouraged the teen riders to think critically. There’s a lot of opinion out there that we eat up as fact. In a later blog, I’ll talk about some of the bit- myths out there in contrast with the excellent research that’s been done lately on the equine mouth.

I love to learn. But I sort through all the theories gathered in reading, on the internet and in encounters with professionals and ordinary folk by sifting it through the grid of truth. Have I considered opposing views? Is there repeatable evidence to back up this opinion? What long standing reputation is behind the opinion? (Their track record of success). What do the respected researchers say on the subject? What does common sense say? What does my own experience tell me? Do I have enough experience in this area to trust my own convictions?

Is that really true? I urged the teens to ask this about all the claims they hear every day – from music, magazines and other media.

The Bible comments on this age old issue…

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won't be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Ephesians 4:14

Monday, 13 June 2011

Taking the Lead

Thinking like a horse causes us to see that a horse’s desire for companionship stems from survival, not compassion. As a prey animal to be alone is to be vulnerable.

In people friendships, there’s a give and take – a time to serve and a time to receive. A time to take the initiative and a time to selflessly allow the other to make the decision.

In the equine world it is lead or be led. Life is good when there’s a stable hierarchy. The sentinel or Alpha horse calls the shots, deciding when it’s time to eat, time to change location and time to run from danger. If humans are going to ride, groom or transport a horse, we’re the Alpha. Nothing messes with a horse’s mind more than letting him “lead the way”.

Suggestions to take the leadership role: 
  • Be clear in your body language. Be readable in all your cues. Horse show nerves cause us to deliver mousy signals. We’re distracted and our legs and hands send mixed messages. In the absence of leadership your horse will fill the void. 
  • Guard your personal space. Periodically ask your horse to defer to you by yielding his personal space. Back your horse up from time to time when you’re leading your horse around the show grounds. Transitions and leg yielding under saddle are small ways to confirm your leadership role. I slip moments of collection or half halts into every trip in the show ring – periodically connecting the horse to me. 
  • Be the decision maker all the time – how deep are we going to ride into this corner? What length of stride to I want to trot? Where do I want my horse to face when I mount? How fast do I want to walk back to the barn? Unauthorized decisions must be methodically corrected or they’ll multiply and end up in a contest of wills. 
  • Keep emotions out of the picture. Any discipline is swift, appropriate and over within a second. Alpha horses don’t hold grudges.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Positive Reinforcement

Adding a reward for a correct response. Something the horse desires. A treat, pat or voice command, for instance. Treats are a highly motivating and are used a lot in the training of marine mammals and dogs, but not as much in horses. Something to consider: Can feeding treats to horses open up a can of worms – a whole new set of problems? Or is it the timing of the treat delivery? Do horses consider patting really rewarding? What about a vocal reward? I’ve got some thoughts on these things that I’ll cover in future blogs.

Next week – negative reinforcement – it’s not what you might think. Until then, let’s be thinking riders!

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Reinforcement: An outcome a horse receives which increases the likelihood that a response will occur again.

Following a behaviour with a reinforcer (an outcome or a payoff) will cause it to happen again. Do it again and a habit is born. Something to consider: We can intentionally or unintentionally back up a horse’s action if he receives a payoff for it. A good trainer will make sure that every correct answer results in reinforcement so it’ll happen again. Hmmm…think of the ways novice or distracted or misinformed riders can reinforce bad behaviour…

Next week I’ll talk about the types of reinforcement we use. Until then, let’s be thinking riders!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Learned Helplessness

Equine Behaviour Term of the Week: "Learned Helplessness"
Individuals learn to be helpless to avoid a negative experience.
They believe they have no control over their unpleasant or harmful conditions, and their actions are futile, so they lose motivation or their “want to"
Have you ever seen this happen to a horse being trained for the show ring?
Do you think people can experience situations where they feel helpless too?
“Let’s be thinking riders!”