There are many ways into a horse's mind and heart, these are some of my ideas ...

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Learning the Bit

One day your horse is going to need to wear a bit. If you are raising a foal, in the first few days it is useful to start putting your fingers into its mouth across its bars. When it is weaned a little string can be put across the bars to get it used to the idea of having something there. I don't recommend anything stronger at these ages, because the bars are really quite sensitive.

Once the horse is a late yearling, or an early two year old, you can tie the string to the halter and lead it around pulling lightly on the bars. Just to get the horse used to the idea. String doesn't taste the best, but it is not repulsive. If it is chewed it wont harm the horse, either.

Then about two and a half, a sweet iron bit can be introduced. If the weather is cool, it is good to hold the bit in your hand for a few minutes to warm it. If it is too cold there will be resistence. We have been trying to avoid resistence, and since this part of the horse's education is so important, it is worthwhile just going really slowly.

Just slip it in, but be careful not to bang the teeth. If the horse wants to just spit it out, let him, at first. This gets him used to unbitting without hitting his teeth. Next time you put the bit in, leave it there for a minute or two before allowing him to spit it out. Make sure you praise and scratch him for being good. This is really important as you want the horse to know it has done well. Most young horses want to please you, and if they know they have done well, will be willing to repeat the positive actions. After a few in and out, it will be time to put a bridle on. If you have taken time to halter train the horse, getting the bridle on should be no problem.

The bridle should not have reins attached to it at this stage, just the cheek straps, the troat latch and the poll straps. You could put a forehead band if you really wanted to, but as you are just getting the horse used to the idea at present, it isn't necessary.

Make sure the bit is sitting where it should be in front of the first back teeth and on the bars.

Leave the bridle on for about 10 minutes or even if you wanted to, for a feed; however, just grazing with the bit on at first is better. The undo the straps and let him spit it out again.

After two or three days, repeat this until he accepts the bit in this way without fussing or trying to scrape it off/out. Some horses accept it faster than others. Once you are both happy with the bit, tie a piece of string on each side of the rings of the bit. Pull softly one one string till he gives his head in that direction and then the other. Keep doing this softly over a few days until he gives his head almost to his shoulder on each side. It just gets him used to the idea of the bit being a guide for direction. You can also pull down on both strings together so that he puts his head down and in towards his chest. If you had taught him the word stop, now is a good time to use the word as you pull softly.

After each session make sure you tell the horse how good it is and scratch it in its favourite place. Some sort of non food reward food is appropriate, because the horse is learning to give to your commands.

Once you are happy the horse is responding kindly to your pulling on the bit, you can replace the string with reins. Then you are ready to do leading and other ground breaking with your horse. Take it easy and slowly, building his confidence and not letting resistence happen. In no time you will find your horse ready to respond to aids from the saddle.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Get otta my space ...

There is nothing more annoying than a horse that gets in your face, wants to stand all over your feet, push its way through, even become aggressive and moves into your space. Disrespect is not an option for good human/horse relationships.

If your horse is a little over enthusiastic, usually just a 'shoo' and flicking motion with your hand will get it to get back down and behave itself. And this is the level of behaviour that you want.

A horse that is full of itself and deliberately gets all over you needs repremanding strongly and firmly. No excuses. You need to put yourself as aggressively in front of it as you can safely do. You might even need to slap it. Whatever you do, don't reward the behaviour with food or other petting that it might like. That just reinforces what it has done and will encourage repeat performances.

I will clap my hands and completely shoo a horse away from me and make it wait until I am ready for it to come to me. It isn't a case of "rights" or "feeling sorry for it", it is a case that this sort of behaviour can favour the horse, it will seek reinforcements for the behaviour and will rachet up the level of aggression while doing it. It is not a safe situation to be in and needs to be cut as soon as it happens. Which is why you have to be just as aggressive or even a bit more aggressive in deterring it every single time it happens.

I will even crack a whip if I have to, not to hit the horse, but to gain their attention and get them focussing on the fact bad behaviour is going down that will not be tolerated. Horses are sound sensitive like dogs and will promptly stop and assess the situation. You need to let them know that is as far as it goes. Even a shout will do it if necessary.

Usually at this time it is good to put on the lead and remind your horse of some basic manners. Stop, go, left, right and lift your legs up. Stand tied up for a few minutes. Then start again. It will sink in very quickly having to work as a "reward" for all that aggression.

You might have to reinforce it a few more times, particularly with a new horse, and one that has been able to get away with it for a previous owner. Most horses, when they learn the new rules, are happy to abide by them, as long as they know. As long as they also know that it will never be tolerated (because a really smart horse may test you again after a while).

Food aggression needs to be handled in the same way. Then perhaps some anti spooking lessons as outlined previously in desensitising horses.


There comes a time when we must say goodbye to our beloved friend. I had this heart wrenching experience this past February when I had to have my best buddy put down. He had injured himself very badly and when the vet came he said that the colt could have an expensive operation which would fix him, but he would have poor quality of life, often being in pain or he could euthanase him humanely and the pain would be gone. I had him euthanased, as poor quality of life for an animal such as my boy was just not an option.

It is a hard call to make when one sincerely loves an animal and would like to spend a good number of years with that animal only to have fate take it away. I had plans and goals for my buddy and he was only four years old and just ready to begin life as an adult horse. It was a huge blow to me to have so much emotionally bound up in him for him to go that way. I could have opted for the operation, but he was a horse that was full of life and full of mischief and so very full of himself. Living on a special diet, being in pain on and off and really just a miserable existence and not a real life was just not an option. It is very hard, and there were many tears shed afterwards. To complicate things, because we live in a water catchment area, we are not allowed to bury large animals on our property. Finding someone to haul his body away was not easy, no one seemed to know who did it, whose responsibility it was or anything. The City Council, who should have known, had no idea, the vets had no idea and it was only on the recommendation of the Vetinary Hospital at Camden that we eventually found a person from out near Penrith who would come. And at a cost.

Doing it all while grieving a loss is not easy. It would be a nightmare to have to do it again.

Quality of life is very important. No one who really loves animals of any sort would deny this, yet often I hear of people who let their horses suffer the pain of colic without calling the vet. They sit with a very old horse while it dies rather than call the vet to do the right thing and ease it out painlessly. They also use the excuse that having a "stranger" euthanase their horse isn't an option, because it is bad enough it is dying without having a stranger administer a pain killer to do it.

My partner and myself were with my buddy when he died. We were the two humans who dealt with him every day, fed him, groomed him, played with him, trained him. I believe that as much as an animal can, he loved us as much as we loved him. He had certain neighs and nickering noises that were only ever used for us. We held him as he went down. Yet neither of us could have administered the drugs that the vet did. He certainly never liked vets, but he seemed to know that this vet was helping him, relieving his pain into a sleep. He would never have known he would not wake up, only that the pain was gone, his beloved humans were with him and he was asleep.

The important words here: THE PAIN WAS GONE.

It is hard enough for any creature to die. To die in pain when it can be relieved is just not on. If we can relieve the pain, I believe it is our humane duty to do so. Yeah, okay, the vet needs his bill paid and that can be a bitch. But humaneness is more important at the time. Maybe it is time you went and had a talk to your vet and got to know her/him and herhis accounting practices - will s/he allow you time to pay off bills. If s/he wont, is there another, competent vet in your district who will?

But if you have difficulty paying vet bills, maybe you should reconsider the need to keep animals. You wouldn't deny your children, who are also dependent on you, medical care. Why should you deny your animals? I know this is harsh, but you have to be realistic - for their sake.

If you "love" your animals, and find it hard to part with them, maybe you also need to re-examine your definition of love.

Animal welfare is critical to good animal husbandry.

If you look in my sidebar there is a link to my other blog where I have dealt in more detail with issues of animal welfare.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Feeding horses ...

Feeding horses properly and well is almost an art form. I am not going to dictate to you on this blog what exactly to feed your horses because it is different for each horse what they like to eat and what they can eat. What I will do is tell you how to go about feeding your horses so that they are able to do whatever work it is you want them to do.

I recommend John Konke's book "Horse Nutrition in Australia" for Australian readers. This book is very thorough and is for Australian conditions. I would also recommend you discuss with your vet whatever diet you feed your horses, so that he can recommend adjustments if necessary. Also it doesn't hurt for your vet to be aware of whatever you feed your horses so that it can be a consideration when he has to treat them.

If you live overseas, take the time to read up on what is best in your area to feed your horses.

Cheap food is not necessarily better even if it helps stretch the budget, but then again, you don't need the most expensive feed either. Seek advice from knowledgeable people around you, even if they have different breeds of horses to you.

Horses are grazing animals and their first preference is for grass and grass products such as hay. This also includes chaffs, which is grassy stubble left over from harvesting. As such if you notice your horses eat best when their heads are near the ground. So when feeding horses it is best to put a bucket with their food on the ground, tied if necessary. My boy used to pick up his bucket after tea and throw it all around everywhere and have a grand old time doing it. Needless to say we went through many buckets. Drinking should also be as close to the ground as possible.

When feeding hay, a hay net at its longest without being actually on the ground is suitable. If you put the hay on the ground directly, unless it is on grass, will mean the horse will pick up dust and dirt from the ground. Dust and dirt in the gut after a while will cause colic.

A salt lick is a terrific additive if your horse will lick it. We wet down our horses' feed as they have a tendency to choke on dry food for whatever reason. So we cannot put a salt lick into their food bin. We add a powdered vitamin and salt suppliment to their food, but this is more expensive than a salt lick. Salt is vital to horses.

Water should be fresh every day or free flowing if they drink from a stream or creek. Make sure you are aware of what is upstream from streams and creeks, as you don't want poison running off - even fertilizers from the ground are not good. Likewise if drinking from dams.

Carrots and apples are good suppliments to put in their feed. Molasses will help if food taste does not meet with your horses' approval. Carrots and apples are much better treats than sugar lumps.

Sugar will rot horses' teeth in much the same way it will rot human teeth.

Friday, July 6, 2007

A visit by the Vet or Farrier

Well, it has to happen some time, either your horse is quite ill and needs the vet, or its hooves need trimming. If you have been vigilant and have handled your horse right from the beginning this does not have to be a traumatic event. I think safety requires that you at least prepare your horse for what is going to happen to it well before the professional turns up.

You need to make sure your horse can be tied up. Go through this exercise almost every day. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes up to an hour. It might be boring and your horse may paw the ground. This is not a vice, he is telling you he is bored and it is okay for him to be bored. I find people who try to stop their horses from pawing are a bit mean. What else is there for him to do? You don't have to entertain him while tied up, but you don't have to make it harder on him either. Let him paw. He'll get sick of it soon enough.

You have to make sure you can touch every part of his body and bits without him making a fuss about it. You need to spend time making sure you can do this. Scratching along helps, because it is relaxing. Then make sure you can do it all while he is tied up.

Then you need to be able to lift up each leg, and hold it for a little while without him trying to pull away from you. We use the word "Lift" and we pick up the leg. You can either squeeze the tendon gently or pull the fetlock hairs as you say it. After a while, you will get a leg lift.

Okay, now the next thing to do is to find another person, who the horse does not know well, but is fairly confident with horses, to touch him, and to lift up his legs. This is just to get him used a strange person handling him. It needs to be done till it is not a big deal to him.

If you are able, teach him to put up with either a slap on the neck about where needles go, or if you have a needle, put it into him. But be condifident you know how to use a needle. My vet to the most extent will put the needle in, the attach the syringe and then plunge anything inside the syringe into my horse. But if you have not done it or are not confident, just slapping is the better choice. It doesn't have to be a hard slap, you aren't punishing him, just getting him used to having something going on there.

If you have a cooperative vet and/or farrier, have them come out just to visit the horse so that the horse gets to know the smell of the professional (see smell below). Then it isn't really a stranger.

My mare would go home with our vet it he would let her. She actually nickers to him whenever he comes like a long lost friend. She isn't scared of him at all, even when he walks up to her with a needle in his hand. I don't actually have to tie her up for his visits, just hold her lead. Mostly to stop her from following him when he leaves.

So practice before the vet comes and it wont be nearly as traumatic as if he just rocks up and assaults your horse (in your horse's mind).