Some Difficult Truths

This entry is going to be a little off on a tangent, so I hope you don’t mind not getting any riding tips this time. Instead I feel compelled to share the mixed thoughts I have had for quite some time about the whole riding thing, and which have been at the forefront of my brain for the last week.

Last week I had the privilege to attend 3 days of horse dissections with the inspiration that is Sharon May-Davis. My reasons for attending were several: I had heard Sharon speak before and found her a real fount of knowledge; I thought an in depth review of anatomy would be a great idea as I hadn’t done any since I trained and coming at it with fresh eyes and relating it to what I deal with in practice would be hugely beneficial; although it wasn’t cheap, it was just down the road so I didn’t have travel or accommodation costs! I know the last point might seem trivial, but it really isn’t when planning CPD (Continuing Professional Development) which is an essential part of my life.

Most of us on the course were professionals involved in treating horses in some capacity, but there was also one lady who was just there out of interest. Huge credit to her, and disappointing that there were no vets present!

You might think the sound of dissecting a horse is gruesome or even wrong. I can understand that, but it is also an amazing experience and the only way you can truly see the inner workings of the animal that so willingly (most of the time anyway) takes our weight. When the person doing the dissecting is as full of knowledge and experience as Sharon then the learning is enhanced 100 fold. I have come away with page upon page of notes and gems that I will pass on to my clients and use myself to enhance the wellbeing of my own horses.

So why have I used the word ‘difficult’ in the title of this blog entry? Because over the last few years I have started to think that maybe riding – and competing in particular – isn’t the best thing to be doing to our horses. I have started to wonder how it can be right that we have so many horses with joint disease, gastric ulcers and back pain from poorly fitting saddles and wonky riders. You may be aware of the existence of Young Horse Classes; in the UK we have these for Dressage, Show Jumping and Eventing, and in Europe there are international classes for young horses too. Yet if you look at how many of those horses that do well in these classes, depressingly few continue on to have long, successful careers. So many of the horses I see, even those that don’t compete, have problems that are due to our influence.

We learnt ever more about the negative influence of humans on the horse whilst admiring nature’s wonderful ability to design a body that is able to function the way the horse’s does. Things like the fact that we have bred horses to have an incomplete nuchal ligament; this is the major stabiliser of the neck, and yet our horses – ALL our horses – have the lower lamellae (fibres that extend down to the vertebrae) missing. This means that the lower part of the neck can move more, which increases the load on the joints and therefore the likelihood of degenerative changes in these joints.

When we sit back in the saddle – as opposed to a forward seat that is – this reduces the ability of the pelvis to flex and the hind quarters to side flex. Thus the horse cannot step under with its hind quarters because it is blocked by the rider’s weight.

The connections that run through from the mouth and head through to the hind limb are inhibited by the actions of the bit on the jaw; the snaffle being the worst due to the nutcracker action.

Horses are by nature grazers – you know that of course – yet we confine them for hours on end to the stable, which is detrimental to joints. Joints by nature need to move as this stimulates the production and function of the fluid within them; this nourishes and lubricates but needs movement to do so. Stabling is then the worst thing you can do for horses with joint disease. Box rest is possibly also one of the worst things to do for many injuries (of course fractures and severe soft tissue lesions are good examples of where it is essential), where movement is beneficial to good quality healing and scar tissue formation. Stabling also inhibits a lot of natural horse behaviours.

It is widely accepted that horses in the wild are 100% grazers, so we have tried to mimic that with feeding from the floor, but actually they are 80% grazers and 20% browsers. By restricting their browsing opportunities we once again have a negative impact on their physical wellbeing, especially when considering the absence of the nuchal ligament lamellae.

Stress, as we know, results in raised cortisol levels; this is the stress hormone, and the affects of long term elevation are well known, such as an increased risk of gastric ulcers. It also can have a negative impact after short term but extreme levels of stress. The results can be as alarming as triggering changes in the joint surfaces of young, developing horses. Yet with the backing, training, travelling, selling and competing of young horses we may well be putting many of them into this risk zone.

In wild/primitive horse breeds there is no incidence of limb joint disease or conditions such as kissing spines, even in the older population. We have selectively bred these into our horses.

The suspensory ligament has a small proportion of muscle tissue within it, and this reduces with age. Except in wild/primitive horses. What is it we are doing to cause such a different ageing process? One theory is that the reduction in muscle tissue is not sue to it changing to ligamentous tissue as widely thought, but that actually it becomes scar tissue, and of course, wild horses are not put under the same stresses as domesticated horses.

Not all of the above is totally new to me, but my understanding of the situation is much deeper now. And this makes it very difficult for me to reconcile what I am doing every day. It also makes it very depressing to think that I can only ever ‘patch up’ the horses that I treat, because they are already so compromised by the very fact that we have bred them the way we have. And then sit on them. I still love riding – nothing beats the open moor, away from all signs of humanity, just me and the horse – and the satisfaction of training and competing and the continual progression achieved. I think all my horses in a way have felt the same – and certainly those that I have had the pleasure to compete seem to love it in their own way. But, I do it with an increasing feeling of guilt that really this is all just for me.

Tidy and Lizzie chilling in the field; Tidy was definitely Lizzie’s surrogate mother when she came to us as a 10 month old!

All I can do, until the day I stop, is make sure that I do the very best by my horses – that is my own and my ‘patients’. I need to not only manage them as true to their natural needs as possible, but ensure that when I am riding I am doing it in a way that causes no harm or stress to any part of their body. I need to be braver too about speaking out about practises I encounter that are wrong. Ultimately, we have a responsibility to our wonderful horses and ponies to do our very best and be ever more aware of our impact on their long term wellbeing.


PS Sharon is Australian, but travel all over the world if you are interested in attending any teaching she does.