A horseman learns to look for signs that a horse is not physically well or, perhaps, is even suffering mentally. Check on a horse at least three times a day, looking for any signs that might indicate his discomfort or unhappiness. Circling in his stall, pawing the ground, listlessness, or any behavior that seems out of character for this horse indicates that something is wrong. It is your job to find the cause. In circumstances such as these, I have discovered everything from colic to a rattlesnake in the stall.
The most basic element of horse care is proper feeding and clean water. Horses are most comfortable with a routine, so I like to feed at the same time every day. Determining what a horse should be fed depends on many factors such as how hard he is worked and whether he is expected to perform as an athlete. In general, though, in addition to grain, I like to provide alfalfa twice daily and grass hay or grazing at noon. I prefer to feed horses from ground troughs because it is the most natural position. For horses that are athletes I often add protein and joint supplements, and I also give them electrolytes because they sweat more than a horse typically would.
I am also very particular about the facility my horses are kept in. In my stalls, which are cleaned daily, I like to use rubber mats covered with clean pine shavings. Just as the dust from grindings or sawdust is an irritant to you, I believe it is bad for horses breathing as well. For show horses, artificial lighting in the stalls sixteen hours each day will keep the hair coat short.
Keeping a horse stalled gives it better protection, but each horse must be allowed to leave the stall for some period during the day. When taking a horse from his stall, walk in with your back to the gate. Always lead the horse in and out. Not only is it safer ““ horses allowed to go in alone sometimes hit their hips ““ it also helps reinforce you leadership.
At a training facility, we don’t keep horses in a backyard-type situation in which “buddies” are stalled next to each other, turned out together, and ridden together. Horses can bond so much with another horse that all they want to do is socialize with their friend, which means they won’t want to work. If the bonding is allowed to go too far and you take the “buddy” away, it can cause severe behavior problems.
The Right Approach – When approaching a horse, never be loud or quick in you movements. Remember that when you meet a horse for the first time, the horse is sizing you up also. Don’t position your body in a threatening position, but approach him calmly and with confidence and gain his respect from the get-go. If you can, it’s best to let the horse first come to you out of his own curiosity rather than approaching him at all.
When you are evaluating a horse, first consider his physical attributes. What do these tell you about that horse’s capabilities? Do his physical characteristics remind you of other horses you have observed? Then you want to evaluate his mental capabilities. How does he react to your presence? Is he sensitive? You will especially get a feel for a horse once you handle him. Does he resist a little when you pull? Does he seem to be saying ” Hey! What are you doing?” If, instead, he’s not very animated ““ if he’s only two years old but acts like an old soul – he may have the boldness or the strength of spirit required of a champion.
Remember that every contact the horse has with humans counts ““ not just those he has with you. Monitor these other contacts carefully. If the guy who cleans the stall pokes him with the handle of his pitchfork, if the vet twists his ear, of the shoer gets mad when the horse steps on his foot, these reactions can undo what you are trying to communicate to the horse ““ that he is not going to be hurt. Like you, other people who handle your horse should think first before resorting to harsh tactics.
Of course, discipline is necessary at times, but a good horseman is aware that some horses are more sensitive than others and require much less correction. In fact, the best horses are frequently more sensitive. A more spirited animal, especially a younger one, generally pays closer attention to you because he’s not all that sure how he feels about people yet. Many trainers see this as a good attribute.
Care and Handling – To make a horse a champion, he must first be happy and healthy. A person may be an inspired rider and have a great deal of training knowledge, but to be successful, he must take care of the horse that carries him. I don’t like to leave any stone unturned. I make sure that a horse is fed properly, that he is well-groomed, that his feet are cared for, and that his stall and trailer are right.
With today’s high-pressure performance expectations, one of the problems that is growing ever more common in horses is stress. If you have been working with a horse that has been doing fine but suddenly can’t do things he’s already mastered, this can be and indication of stress.
We are finding today that the performance pressures put on horses are causing them to develop gastric ulcers. This can come from a combination of the feed they are receiving, the stress of competition, and undue pressure put on the horse by the trainer.
Other physical symptoms that a horse is under too much stress are changes in their hair coat (the hair may stand up, become dull, or show discoloration), lethargy, loss of appetite, and signs of nervousness or irritation such as swishing the tail. If you determine no other cause for any of these symptoms, back off of the pressure you are putting on the horse to perform. Put him on medication if needed, and give him a rest. Before you get back to training, step back and try to remember what may have caused the stress.
Unlike performance, which is arguably a team effort, care is entirely our responsibility. The horse can’t say to us, ” I haven’t really felt very well since I woke up this morning. I’m tired and I’m achy and I just don’t feel like working.” Since the horse can’t tell us these things, a good horseman must be able to feel when that horse is on and when he’s off. Many times, I’ve ridden a horse I know well and felt a little shortness in his step that isn’t usually there, and I knew that horse wasn’t sound. If you’re working with a horse that has always been a try-er and suddenly he quits trying, it is an indication that something is wrong, and you must explore all possibilities.
In his natural state, a horse is free to graze and find water, to get away from stressful situation and dirty conditions, and to avoid overtaxing himself. Since he can no longer do those things freely, he must rely on us. He can’t choose his own food and water, clean his own stall, of establish his own workload: therefore, it is entirely up to us to see that he is well fed, clean, and well cared for.
It’s up to you!
[This article was published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 4, Issue 7.]