Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Horse Show Fishbowl

Why do horses do what they do and people do what they do? And why does the show ring seem to magnify those emotions and reactions? Brainfreezes, butterflies and blow-ups…all part of the competitive experience.

When we, as riders, understanding the science of how horses view their world, it helps to nip mishaps in the bud. As a prey animal a horse feels vulnerable in unfamiliar territory. As a social creature, his instinct tells him there’s safety in numbers. On course, without his buddies, the in- gate beckons powerfully!

And as social beings, we feel vulnerable when people are watching!

Fear, shame and anger are quick to rise to the surface. Emotions can muddle the signals we send to our horses and prevent us from thinking through a training set back logically.

Turn your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding… and look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure…Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you. Proverbs 2, the Bible.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Is the Grass Really Greener?

“If only”…

I was asked to speak to a women’s group this week in Toronto on the topic of marriage and singleness.

Big topic…but the potholes on either road are the “if onlys”. Fall in, and we’ll miss the scenery along road.

In the show ring, in the workplace or in our relationships we can get stuck in discontentment .

“If only I didn’t blow that lead in the class”…

“If only I didn’t forget my pattern”…

“If only I was married”…

“If only I wasn’t married”…

“If only we could have children”…

“If only I wasn’t pregnant…”

And so it goes…

Andy Stanley challenges young singles to focus on “becoming the person, the person you’re looking for is looking for.”

Becoming vs. achieving. Good advice for all of us. Focusing on the process, not just the result.

Paul, a wise a mentor to a young pastor, Timothy, gave him this advice…

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it….But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. 1 Timothy 6:6,
The Bible

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Is My Horse in Pain? Part 2

Humans show pain through facial expressions which have been coded and used to assess the discomfort of patients who cannot communicate their suffering in other ways, such as babies.

Scientist have done the same for laboratory animal (for example the “Mouse Grimace” scale).
And now the Horse Grimace Scale has been developed.

I read a recent article from Horse Journal’s John Strassburger with interest about a study done by European researchers to quantify horse facial expressions in order to determine degrees of pain.

They’re calling their new tool the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS), and the researchers hope that its application will help guide trainers, owners and veterinarians in the determination of equine pain and its care….

They conducted the study after castration of 46 males, with one group receiving Banamine prior to the procedure and one group receiving it both before surgery and six hours after surgery. High-definition video of the horses’ faces were then taken for five days after their procedures, and then they analyzed the footage.

Things which were delineated as being expressions of pain in horses included: stiffly backward ears, orbital tightening, tension visible above the eyes, strained chewing muscles, mouth strained with pronounced chin, strained nostrils, and what is described as “flattening of the profile,” which (I’ll be honest) I don’t really understand.

I was interested in this study because we spend countless hours trying to discern the meaning of every change in behavior, of an odd twitch of a tail or ear, looking for the Rosetta stone of movement, sound and behavior. And when something about them changes, you start running down the laundry list of possibilities.

“Do they hurt?” If yes, is it a new injury? An old injury? An issue with tack fit? With their teeth? With their feet or shoeing? Is it curable? Is it progressive? If so, how fast?

“Is it a training issue?” If yes, then, is it a hole in their basics? A question they don’t understand? A mismatch between horse and rider? A mismatch between horse and job?

“Is it a lifestyle issue?” Do they need more turn-out? Less turn-out? A different stall? A different neighbor or pasture mate? More schooling? More hacking? Different feed? Some kind of supplement? Removal of a supplement?

Working with horses, our gut feelings can lead us in the right direction or down the wrong path. The more we learn about the science of how horses think, the better we can communicate with them – don’t you think?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Is My Horse in Pain? Part 1

You hit a roadblock at a horse show and, because youre a thinking rider, you don’t jump to the “he’s just being a jerk” or “his saddle doesn’t fit” or “she must be in heat” conclusion, with a sigh and a wave of your hand. You look deeper. A common thread. Go through your mental files of personal experience, and the proven facts about horse physiology and behaviour you’ve learned.

Refusing to go over a jump or into the ring. Lameness on the right hind. Head shaking. A canter that just feels “flat”. Is it me or my horse? Here are some of the questions I ask when I’m faced with a horse puzzle…

Has there been a history of this problem? This week? Last month? Is it seasonal? Intermittent or constant?

Am I riding differently? Have I changed my technique? Are my aids clear, or possibly muddied with emotion, distraction or time pressure?

Anything new? New tack? Shoeing change? Feed increase? New crop of hay? Weather change?

Am I reading my horse correctly? Can I distinguish between fear, resistance, fatigue, pain?

Horses can’t communicate the source of the problem. And despite speaking a common language, sometimes neither can the people in our lives. How often have we dismissed someone as a snob when they’re just distracted? Or a wimp without knowing their history? Or lazy when they’re in physical pain?

Next blog, we’ll take a look at an interesting study to help determine if the source of a horse’s issue is pain, and if so to help quantify the degree of that pain…

Wise words from the Bible …

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 
1 Peter 3:8

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Do Horses Enjoy Work?

People often tell me that their horse loves to work, loves to jump, loves to show…From what I know about horses, I’m not so sure. Equitation scientists looked into the matter…

Imagine a conversation between you and your horse, if horses could talk.

You: Good morning Spunky. Ready for a ride?
Spunky: Not really.
You: Oh come on. Don’t you want to go out and work some dressage patterns? How about some trail riding, or maybe some jumping?
Spunky: Nope. Pretty happy right here with my buddies, but thanks for offering!

No, we’re not about to tell you that researchers have found a way to make horses talk. But if they could, this is the kind of thing horses might say. European equitation scientists recently concluded that, when given the choice, horses prefer not to work at all; in fact, it appears they'd rather be back in their resting place with their food and equine pals.

“For a social, prey animal, it’s not surprising that horses will generally choose feeding and social contact over locomotion,” said Uta König von Borstel, PhD, researcher at the University of Göttingen in Germany where they created a study in which horses were given the choice of more or less work….

“Results from the study suggest that horses prefer exiting the riding arena rather than being ridden at all,” she said.

Previous research has also suggested that horses will avoid any extra physical exercise and jumping when given the choice, she added. In fact, one study showed that they would rather be in the stall than in the paddock for turnout…

Incidental behavioral observations during the study also revealed that the horses in the study perceived riding—and especially mounting—as uncomfortable, she added.

Even so, good riding (which takes into consideration the horse’s physical health) should not be considered a threat to equine welfare, König von Borstel said. Even if asking a horse to do something it doesn’t want to might seem contrary to its welfare, being a riding horse is good for its welfare in the long term, she said.

“The very vast majority of humans won’t keep horses only to keep them as a pet on pasture,” she said. “So the decision, then, is between having: (1) horses whose welfare might be slightly compromised for an hour or so per day by us riding them, or (2) having, in the long run, very few or no horses altogether, as we will have no ‘use’ for them and they are too expensive (for most people) to be kept as pets.”

The study, "Horses' behavior and heart rate in a preference test for shorter and longer riding bouts," was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Five Top Reasons for the Horse and Rider Communication Gaps

I make my living observing horses and riders. And I’ve done my own personal survey over 25 years of training and teaching. I’ve had my share of roadblocks with horses, coached riders step by step through others and, as a show judge, winced from a distance at horse and human meltdowns.

So here’s the most common things that get us stuck, according to the science and from my experience:

1. The horse doesn’t understand the cue and the rider assumes he does.

2. Noisy signals and conflicting aids from the rider

3. Vagueness. The horse person can’t clearly articulate their specific cue for a specific response.

4. Emotions block comprehension or clear signaling in horse or human (fear, anger)

5. The rider doesn’t understand (or care) about the horse’s viewpont - how horses think and learn.

What do you think? Can you add to the list?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Horse Behaviour Problems Evaluated

A recent study in the UK found 91% of leisure riding horses had behavioral issues as reported by their owners.

Researcher J Hockenhull PhD said that of the 1,326 horses, 78% were ridden with artificial aids—such as martingales, whips, or flash nosebands—to control their behavior, she said.

According to Hockenhull, this could be reason for concern.

“Poor riding may lead to the development of behavioral problems or learned helplessness in ridden horses, and these problems may be exacerbated as the owner attempts to address the problem by increasing the intensity of the aids or the complexity of the tack used to control the horse,” she said. Horses with ongoing or increasing ridden behavior problems are at greater risk of changing hands or euthanasia

Not many of us would suggest that employer/employee communication issues are best solved with a megaphone. Carefully explaining my viewpoint, listening to the response and finding clearer ways to express myself is bound to yield better results!

Now if the hearer doesn’t speak english, and comes from an entirely different worldview, the challenge is greater. Makes me wonder how many of those behavioral issues are really communication issues….

Next post, I’ll list Lindsay’s top 5 reasons for the horse and rider communication gap!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Applause Meter

It can be daunting, speaking at horse expos. Will there be 200 or 20 or 2 people in the audience? Presenting at 3 equine events this spring – the Can Am Expo, the Atlantic Horse Fair and the Centre Wellington Equine Trade show, I realized that the numbers of behinds in the seats can go up and down like a posting trot.

And we can’t let public opinion get to us either way, can we? I can’t bask in the favour of standing room only and a line-up of questions afterward or get down on myself if people leave to get a hot dog just before I’m about to make my main point!

This helps me gain perspective in the cycle of public opinion:
  • Don’t let the applause get to my head.
  • Be grateful for the many: when the hearers connect with what I say, and thankful when they tell me so.
  • Deliver my material with enthusiasm and excellence for the few. Notice and value every hearer
  • Remember I ultimately have an audience of one. I know God sees and appreciates when I do my  best and remain teachable.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. Wise words inspired by Jesus, who was well acquainted with riding the roller coaster of applause.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Equine Behaviour term of the week: Stereotypies

My students thought I made a typo on my power point – odd word, stereotypy. These are things we know as cribbing, weaving stall walking, etc. Defined as an action that’s practised out of its original context/ environment until it becomes repetitive, mechanical and compulsive.

• Triggered by stress or pain, initially.

• Brings relief, pleasure, releases dopamine (pleasure brain chemical)

• Once habit formed (compulsive), will occur when horse is not under stress

• Purposeless: It doesn’t get the horse anywhere except a temporary “feel good.”

Looks crazy perhaps, to see a horse wavering back and forth, or grabbing any edge and sucking in air. But what do we humans do to normalize life, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere? Buy more stuff, have another drink, rebound into another relationship…is it wise to take stock from time to time to check if anything in life is becoming repetitive, mechanical, purposeless?

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Do horses watch and learn?

While nearly three-quarters of owners, when asked, believe that horses can learn negative behaviors from each other (such as cribbing), Evelyn Hanggi, MS PhD, president of the Equine Research Foundation, said as yet there is no research supporting this theory. "In reality, the appearance of stereotypies (vices such as cribbing) in horses living near each other is more likely caused by genetic relatedness or to the stress of existing in the same, inappropriate environment," she said.

While researchers continue to study this, it’s safe to say at this point, you need not fret about your horse’s cribbing neighbor at the boarding stable, or hope that your reining horse will learn to stop by watching your trainer’s horse slide.

Interestingly, stereotypies are unknown in non domestic horses: another reason to naturalize our horse’s lives as much as it’s possible to fit in with our chosen discipline and situation, don’t you think?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Horse Shows: Exam Time

Students in the Equine Behaviour class I teach wrote their final exams today. Remember reading a test question and the thrill of “Yes! I studied that!”? Conversely, “Rats, I meant to go in for extra help with that…I hoped it wouldn’t be on the test.”

Schooling shows, provincial shows, national shows – quizzes, tests and exams. With the first spring show around the corner, now’s the time to be acquiring the skills from your coach and working them out in your practice ring so you can have a ready answer when the question presents itself in the show ring.

Be it a rollback turn in equitation over fences, counter-canter in a horsemanship pattern or a water obstacle filled with the real stuff in competitive trail, there’s nothing like the confidence of having a ready answer!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What’s good about Good Friday?

In my childhood, I never knew what Good Friday was all about. Overshadowed by Easter Bunny anticipation, I knew it had something to do with Jesus dying, but I sure didn’t know why He died. Now, the death of Jesus Christ has become more significant to me. Speaking to a group of teens at Teen Ranch’s horse camp last summer, I used this analogy… As competitors, we’ve got to play by the rules. Let’s say I got caught breaking the prohibited drug rules – whether by accident or intentionally, no doubt about it, I was guilty. What if the president of the association gave me a pardon, going so far as to pay my fine and take my suspension for me? Mercy! Good Friday is a remembrance that Jesus Christ died, paying the penalty of my imperfections, which separate me from a perfect holy God, so that I can have a relationship with Him.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Horse Training Traditions

That’s the way we’ve always done it… Sometimes it takes that non-horsey person in our lives to cause us to question the root of an equestrian tradition. (“Why do you mount on the left side?”) Other times, a training road block inspires us to look for a better way. (Is a nose band really the best answer to bit evasion? Is a fat snaffle always milder than a curb it? )

At the Can Am Equine Expo next weekend, Training horses: When Evidence and Traditions Collide is one of the seminars I’ll be sharing. Reminds me of a story…

I heard a lady tell of the time one of her kids asked why she always cut a ham in half and cooked it in 2 separate pans. “That’s just how you cook ham” sounded like such a lame reason that the lady called her own Mom, who was a wonderful cook. “Honey”, she answered, “I never owned a pan large enough to cook it whole, so I had to fit it into separate pans.”

Equine behaviourists are increasingly testing what we believe about horses through the lense of equitation science. Sounds clinical, but Equitation science is defined as "the application of scientific methods to assess objectively the welfare of horses undergoing training.” We now have technology to explore what’s really going on in there when we do what we do to horses. We can measure heart rate and stress hormone levels. We can take a look inside the equine mouth, measure our aids or digitally record every phase of a stride. We can set aside our human emotions and industry fashion for a bit and consider what traditions are best to hold on to and which might be better to drop.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Faults on the horse show judge’s score card

Minor, major, severe. Most faults carry a numeric penalty.

Trotting through a lead change, breaking gait, late transition, horse behind the bit.

When Things go Wrong in the Show Ring is the topic of one of my clinics at the Can Am Expo Mar 29, 30. Insight into the judge’s score sheet but also into the horse psychology of why mishaps occur and how to prevent them.

Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently. Henry Ford

Looking at the bigger picture, every “fault” is learning opportunity. Back to the schooling ring with a specific focus. And back to life knowing that we made a mistake and lived through it!

Other Can Am clinics: Training horses: when evidence and traditions collide. A closer look at some popular tack and techniques we use, based on the science of how horses think and learn.

Stuck in Schooling? 5 keys to get through to your horse when he’s not getting it!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

What motivates horses?

What’s the payoff? A happy horse is trained based mostly on motivation. Relief from pressure (negative reinforcement), or receiving a specific reward (positive reinforcement).

Saying yes and saying no. Skilled trainers use a balance of both and that balance shifts with each individual horse. The emotional horse needs more encouragement. The dominant and dull need firm boundaries. Riders who motivate mostly by punishment produce tense horses. Those who mostly pat and talk to their horses make them inattentive and pushy.

And what motivates people to change? Do you think it’s when we realize the payoff of what we gain in giving something up is more than the payoff of holding on to it?

Sunday, 24 February 2013


In riding or in life, a change of pace or a change of place.

Transitions between gaits. Trot to canter. Canter to halt. Halt to walk. The unique “beat of the feet” changes from one gait to another.

Transitions within a gait. The drumbeat of the gait remains the same, but the stride lengthens or shortens. Practicing this develops longitudinal suppleness – your horse becomes as adjustable as an elastic band.

Tips for top transitions: Aim for …
  1. No flee. The horse doesn’t rush into the next gait and out the “front of the box”. We want to avoid any sign of flight response in a prey animal.
  2. No brace. No resistance to your aids –leaning on your hands, sticking on your leg aids.

In life, timely transitions are essential, don’t you think?

We may be inclined to rush into the next opportunity or confrontation with someone. Or sometimes we get stuck – paralyzed to change careers, location or our traditions.

When to move, when to wait – I need to remember to ask One who has the helicopter view!
Psalm 25:5 Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.

Monday, 11 February 2013

What makes a good coach? Part 2.

Now let’s get practical. Here are some pointers from a coaching expert…
  • Analytical eye. Ability to zero in on the issue and the source of it. Developed from watching hundreds of horses and riders and thinking about what we see
  • Proven corrections. And a plan B or C if correction A doesn’t solve the problem
  • Ask questions. Involve the riders.
  • Provide rationale for the corrections we suggest
  • Plan a balance of practice sessions to competitions. It’s proven that rider burn out is the result of too much showing without soaking in enough practice in between
  • Foster independent thought. Decision making. The goal is not to have a riding lesson at horse show.
Practice that requires some form of problem solving, known as “decision training,” may not produce as rapid a result early on but leads to superior learning and retention of skills as well as superior transfer of skill into the competitive environment. 1

Taken from: Vickers, J.N. (2002). Decision-training: A New Approach to Practice.

Monday, 4 February 2013

What makes a good coach? Part 1

A good coach knows It’s more than horse shows. Our students may take away a ribbon, year end title and “Congratulations!” from peers as they exit the ring. But if they don’t take away life lessons learned from the pressure cooker of competition, we’ve failed as coaches. In 25 years of coaching, I smile as I look back at the clients who’ve been transformed through riding and showing. Negative qualities bubble up and are skimmed off, leaving the good stuff that was hiding underneath…
  • The selfish teen girl learns to pick up a broom to help out in the barn, empathize with her horse, fellow riders and even her parents (truly a miracle!)
  • The timid middle age woman develops confidence to risk failing in the fishbowl of the show ring. (Even the pluck to wear “nowhere to hide” riding pants!)
  • The macho man sheds his cowboy image to learn to work smoothly and sympathetically with his horse (and take instruction from a woman!)
  • Creative problem solving, humility, humour, perspective (“this too shall pass”). Lessons coaches teach alongside with riding without stirrups, Because its’ more than horse shows.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Coaching vs.Teaching

As a younger rider, my coach failed to take the training wheels off. I was taught some valuable skills, but never learned to think by myself until I became a professional and had sink or swim.

Now, as a certified coach, I’m always asking how I can be a better communicator and mentor.

I think Equine Canada says it well in a recent “Coaches Corner”…
The goal of teaching is to transmit knowledge: facts, steps, processes.
The goal of coaching is to facilitate the participant’s learning process.

The coach helps a rider to-
  • combine skills, and facts making decisions appropriate to the moment,
  • to make judgement calls without waiting for precise direction from their instructor
  • learn from multiple sources: the horse, the situation, their own mistakes, and observation of others.
As coaches it’s tempting to want riders (or our own kids) to be dependant on us, but don’t you think the best gift is to give them wings and release them?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Using Spurs

A spur is really just a reaching assist (a term taken from my lifeguard days – not equine related!).

As a woodworker might choose some smaller chisels to refine the details of his project, so spurs give a rider precision and reach in delivering his cues.

Timing and intensity of the aids we use is a popular topic on my blog. Skilled riders are intentional about their communication – they’ve learned to avoid cues that are too little, too much, too late, or too early – sometimes the hard way!

As long as a rider has good control over her lower leg and heel, so that she won’t touch the horse by accident, spurs can help her to reach just the right spot in just the right amount.

I know by wearing spurs that I won’t miss a training opportunity – if a horse is unresponsive to my leg, I can lift my spur to deliver just the right amount of motivation and follow through on my request. I have it available if I need it. Remember, our goal is error free horse training.

Any tool can be misused by an inexperienced or careless operator. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

At the in-gate of a New Year

Walking up the chute, through the in gate, into the ring and into the unknown at an important show? Who doesn’t have butterflies ??

What about at the gate of the New Year? These words give me perspective and still my butterflies as I consider the unknowns of 2013 – the economy, health, family…you name it.

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."

He replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way."

In a war time speech by King George – not knowing Britain if would ultimately win the war.