Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Language of Horses

It takes time to build a language both you and your horse understand. But by rewarding small steps in the right direction, you will advance your goal, and pretty soon you’ll be having a great conversation.


Have you ever been awestruck by the sight of horses running together, galloping, synchronized side by side and turning together as one? For me, communication between a rider and horse should have that unity; it is all about becoming a herd of two.

My first impressions about how horses communicate with each other in the herd began on the ranch when I was a teenager. I didn’t know or understand it then, but the “cavvy” (the cowboy’s herd of riding horses) and its interactions would set the groundwork for my lessons in intent and change the way I saw horse training forever. Back then, I didn’t get the subtle communication happening be-tween the horses right in front of me, let alone apply their valuable lessons when I tried to communicate with a horse. However, what I saw then influences how I play with horses today, now that I can interpret what the cavvy was saying.

As a working cowboy, one of the most memorable and exciting things I did each day was to “jingle” horses. Jingling the horses simply means to go round up the cavvy before sunrise to get them ready for the day’s work, and it is a job often given to the newest member of the crew. Our cavvy was a herd of 40 horses pastured on 200 acres. Morn-ings at a ranch come early, with breakfast at 4 a.m. The rule was that horses were always fed before people. So that meant whoever was jingling went out even earlier to make sure the horses were at camp ready to be saddled before breakfast. On many occasions, that cowboy was me.

I can still clearly remember riding out those mornings on the one horse left at camp, the “jingle horse,” who was used to help round up the cavvy. When I was there, the jingle horse was often an older one named Illahee. He was always keen to find the herd after a night alone at camp. Illahee and I would walk along quietly, trying to listen for the jingling bells that were tied to a few of the horses’ necks to signal the herd’s location. It always seemed like the herd stayed extra still then be-cause they knew if they were found, they were going to work.

When we would finally track down the cavvy horses, I would let out a few hollers to get them all moving in the direction of the camp. In a very short time, it would turn into an exhilarating, eye-watering run down the side of the mountain. There was one left-hand turn that I knew I had to get the herd to make. If I could get on the herd’s right side and create enough energy, I could get the lead horse to flick her ear left. Then, all of them, at that very second, would flick their ears left and move as one toward the corrals. If I couldn’t get it done, they would slip off to the right and beat me to the turn. Then, it would be another 20 minutes to catch up and turn them back to camp. And, all the cowboys waiting for their mounts---having breakfast---would know the horses beat you.

Looking back at the unbelievable interaction between all those horses running down a steep hill, dodging the trees, jumping the ditches, they operated as one using only intent. It was amazing to be a part of that each morning. Loving the rush of it, I wish I could have seen what was right in front of me. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to look left and have my horse go left just because of my intent to turn that way? Horses can clearly be that sensitive.

Yet I would mount my horse for the day and pull on the reins with tens of pounds, like a plow, and think nothing of it. I thought that was just the way horses were---dull.

It was years before I could see what was right in front of me: that the horse I was on was just as sensitive as that herd of horses and had the potential to listen that closely to me if I could be that sensitive to him. He was already so good at communication that while galloping down a hill in the dark, early morning hours, he could read a subtle ear flick of another. Horses learn this subtle communication right after they are born and use it with each other their whole lives. Yet, many have to put up with an ignorant person on their back who never realizes how sensitive they are.

However, I like to think of horses as “Masters in Waiting.” The amazing part about a horse is, if his human gets better, he gets sharper. So, the horse you are on---even if he is seemingly thick, disconnected and dull at that moment---is actually a master just under the surface. It is up to you to access that sensitivity that every horse was born with. Liberty training can help you take that next step, enabling your horse to go from waiting on you to communicating efficiently with you.

Leadership: For enjoyment and safety

The way to true enjoyment with horses is leadership. It’s not just for increasing entertain-ment value; it’s also a safety issue. It’s great to have fun with a horse, but along the way we can get kicked in the head, bucked off, run over and put in the hospital. So it pays to be safe by learning to lead the conversation with your horse.

Long-term equestrians will likely know what I’m talking about. We have all had our fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Dealing with horses is a dangerous sport and no trainer or person can say that, with this technique or that technique, safety is guaranteed. But we can take steps to set ourselves up for success, including learning how to commu-nicate and how to be the leader.

The risk with prey animals, like horses, exponentially increases when they don’t have the security of a good leader: When taken away from their home environment or away from their herdmates, it takes good horsemanship to help them become trusting and con-fident. A horse is not looking at the outfit you wear but what you can offer him to curb the prey-animal survival instincts. He is looking for someone to reassure him that he is safe and take care of him, leading him through any danger.

Leadership is the most essential ingredient to successfully playing with horses in close proximity: on the ground, under saddle or at liberty. Without structure and respect between you and your horse, any horse activity has heightened danger, including liberty. Leadership is the path to a strong relationship and communication.

There are no equal peers in the horse world. Horses naturally look for a leader. As prey animals, they survive by forming a herd and quickly determining the hierarchy. Through position, speed and sometimes force, they find their place among all the other horses.

This hierarchy serves them well when trouble arises. With radar antennas for ears, and eyes on the side of their head to see almost every angle around them, each horse begins to zero in on his herdmates, to make constantly changing decisions that keep him up with the herd and away from danger, “Where is the leader in the herd? How fast are we going? When do I eat, rest and get a scratch?”

Every cue comes from the lead horse down the chain, with all the horses finding comfort in knowing whom to follow, and whom to cue next. It is quite a remarkable interaction between individuals---and among the whole herd. Even more incredible is that the lead horse can be a different one depending on the circumstance. When these split-second decisions happen, it gives the horse a focus, the same kind of focus a rider needs.

In the wild or at pasture, every daily event revolves around the herd: each horse paying attention to the little cues, so as a herd they can sync. That is when things are at peace in the herd. The premise of human leadership is that I want my horse to look at me in the same way he looks at and keeps track of his herdmates. My goal is to win his trust in me to make the right decisions.

Basic survival instincts

Horses don’t just prefer a strong leader and a herd dynamic; they crave and need them. Without them, they are frightened and lost. Imagine a herd of horses out in the wild. If you take one away from the others to a different side of the mountain, that horse doesn’t remark on the tall green grass and the nice “alone time.” Instead, he uses his first set of basic survival instincts to get back to his herd.

The first set of basic survival instincts, in order, are:

1. Perception. He looks for the missing horses and becomes sensitive to anything that could hurt him while he’s alone.

2. Flight. While he’s in this heightened state of sensitivity, he will spook at anything that rustles or represents a danger to him.

3. Herd bound. Finding his herdmates, he will run back to the comfort of the group.

You know your horse is without leadership when you take him away from the safety of his barn or yard or a herdmate, and those ears go out like radar antennas. Suddenly, some-thing your horse may have seen even a 100 times is scary and spooky. He begins to whinny and magnetically pulls back to the barn or jigs toward the horse trailer.

This is a horse who is screaming for leadership. When he is in this state, he is at his most dangerous, because now he’ll go to a second set of survival instincts:

1. Fight. The horse pushes into pressure and resists.

2. Flight. Again, this instinct appears: He runs away. He uses full strength to leave, charging off with his rider and possibly running over bystanders in his panic.

3. Freeze. This is a way that a horse will use pent-up energy and explode all at once. It is probably the most common way horses gain control and the one that is most over-looked and misunderstood by people.

A horse’s desire to be with the herd, you’ll note, is a major difference between him and us. He never wants “alone time.”

Horses use flight, fight or freeze in an attempt to keep safe. They are not trying to be naughty or teach someone a lesson or embarrass people. It is instinctual, and they do it in order to survive. It is important to understand that horses in this mode are looking for help, looking for a good leader with the right attitude.

What sticks out to me the most about the best horsemen and -women I know is their similar attitude about horses. They don’t take things personally. The horses they handle and train don’t dictate their emotions. They remain in control, even optimistic and friendly, when things are not going their way. They are also able to be surprisingly firm but not mean, and their horses can tell the difference.

Learning to be sensitive and caring to a horse in one moment, then firm to establish a boundary in the next, can be really hard for some people. It feels to them like it is going against their nature. Some don’t want to be kind to a horse because they think they’re going to be looked at as weaklings. Others don’t want to be firm because they think their horse will hate them.

I can tell you from my own experience that if we are to get anywhere with a horse we must find that balance in ourselves. And I know that each person with enough desire to truly excel with horses can do it.

I also know with absolute certainty that no great horseman I’ve met was ever born with all of these qualities in perfect balance. They worked at it, studied horsemanship and took responsibility for each session, and the next time they walked into the pen with a horse, they tried to be better.

Comfort Zone— The “Sweet Spot”

Once a hierarchy is established within the herd, the herd operates as a single unit. They seem to move together by intuition, flawlessly changing direction and speed as a group. You can view a similar phenomenon in a flock of birds or a school of fish.

The herd unit is comfortable to the horse. He wants to know where he fits inside it. That way, he knows how to react to each individual: whom he needs to listen to and who will listen to him.

Of course, people do not naturally operate as a single unit like a herd of horses, flock of birds or school of fish. We must teach ourselves to communicate like a horse and to always have a sweet spot in mind for the horse to find. If he cannot find a sweet spot, the horse will revert to his base survival instincts, becoming either oversensitive or dull in self-defense.

Imagine a rider pulling on the bit, kicking with his legs, and pump-ing with his body to tell his horse to go. But when the horse moves, the rider doesn’t let up. To the horse, this means he hasn’t done the right thing. So he tries going sideways and backward; but no matter what he tries, he gets no relief or reward---there’s no sweet spot offered. Eventually, he gets upset because he cannot find any comfort at all. The rider thinks the horse is being bad, when really he is just confused and miserable.

Unable to find a sweet spot, the relief, a sensitive horse will get spooky and nervous, often bolting, rearing, prancing or generally seeming unable to stand still. A quieter horse is the opposite: He becomes unresponsive and disconnected, balky, even bucking when you ask him to move forward. If quiet horses are presented with enough pressure to get through their dullness, they often overreact and explode.

But with good leadership and a sweet spot for your horse to get to, you and your horse will come into sync---into unity---just like in the herd. It’s a truly “wow” moment the first time a horse connects with you in unity. You move effortlessly together like the herd or the flock of birds.

The more moments of unity you get with your horse, and the longer they become, the more your horse will trust you and come to find you as a place of comfort. He will learn that you are the source of his comfort and his sweet spot, and that people can supply him the unity of the herd---that things are being done with him instead of to him. Best of all, when he is faced with a scary or uncertain situation, he will look to you for guidance instead of reverting to his survival instincts.

There are a number of things that can take a horse out of unity:

Poor leadership. Without leadership, the horse will operate on his own plan and instincts.

Bad timing of the aids. This can be confusing to the horse and make him frustrated.

Ill-fitting tack or pain. If the horse is in pain, he won’t be able to find comfort.

Micromanaging the horse. If you are always applying pressure to the horse, he will never get comfort.

To achieve unity, you must offer comfort the moment a horse is doing what you want, so he senses the relief of being in sync. Then those moments of unity can grow. This applies to every moment you are with your horse, whether on the ground or riding.

Feel: An invisible connection

“Feel” is a word that comes up often around horses. It’s notoriously difficult to teach and it can also be difficult to understand. Teaching it to students I liken it to holding a bird: If you grip too tightly, the bird suffocates; if you don’t hold tightly enough, the bird flies away.

I think feel is in every person, but it can be elusive to find---sometimes very hard to dig out! I haven’t been able to teach it to everyone I’ve met, but it must be present to get anywhere with a horse. Feel is the single most important ingredient when communicating with your horse, and it binds everything together: For the person, the horse will never fully connect without you knowing feel. For the horse, he is born with feel in every cell, and he is just waiting for you to catch up.

So what is feel? In short, it is an invisible connection. Feel gives you a subconscious understanding of what your horse is telling you at each moment and how to best commu-nicate with him. With feel, you know what aid to give, how strong it needs to be, the precise time to give it, and exactly when to release to reward the horse. Feel helps you know when you need to approach something differently and when your horse is ready to move to a different exercise or to a new challenge.

The amazing thing about feel is you can give two people the exact same exercise with the same horse. With one person the horse softens, connects and gets the lesson. And, with the other, the horse gets tense, disconnected and thinks about the barn.

I believe feel can be taught, or I wouldn’t teach my methods. It took me years to learn true feel, even after I had been riding and interacting with horses for decades. I had to dedicate myself to truly understand the horse and what he needed from me. Like communication, feel goes both ways. We need to learn to feel for him, and only then can we teach him to have a feel for us.

For humans, though, feel can be difficult because we are dealing with a different species with a different energy and nature from our own. Also, many people won’t adjust, or don’t know how to adjust, to tailor what they’re doing to offer an individual horse better com-munication. They think there’s one way to give a command, and the horse will have to put up with it.

If you are a dancer, you’ve experienced “good feel” and “bad feel” on a night out. Some dancing partners make you feel like you’re dancing on a cloud, and time flies by, while others make you feel as if you have cement shoes, and the end of the song can’t come quickly enough!

Horses sense and have an opinion about the feel they are being offered at all times. Some-times it might be too heavy, dull and behind their movement. Other times it can actually be too light, not giving them enough to connect to. With sensitive horses, either way, poor feel drives them crazy: Whether too heavy or too light, they will become overreactive and frustrated with everything, including the brush you pick to groom them.

Moving in harmony

When playing at liberty, I think of feel as a “string” running between my horse and me---it’s a connection without any rope. With good feel, we can move in harmony, keeping the string connection slightly taut and communicating easily. But if either my horse is or I am lacking feel, the string will either go slack or get too tight and break, and neither of us will understand what the other means. I believe that horses get irritated if we are always breaking the string of communication.

To advance your feel, you must focus on becoming a master of communicating using in-tent. Remember, intent is the subtlest of aids, as if the horse is reading your mind. In reality, the horse is reading the slightest changes in your body language, right down to how you shift your focus---the same way a horse reads his dam as a foal or reads the other horses in his herd.

It’s important to understand that intent is not your energy level. Communicating “louder” or “bigger” does not make you easier to understand. If someone spoke to you in an alien language, would his jumping up and down and screaming the same words make you un-derstand their meaning any better?

Clear communication with a horse starts in your mind. That thought be-comes a certainty through your body that the horse will read. Certainty is a feeling that comes out of you. It is a sureness that you are going in that direction and are going to do what you intend. It is backed up by your aids. Eventually your thoughts get to the horse sooner because you become easier to read and more believable. That is when your intent is starting to work. Now you are communicating like a horse.

An intention is different from a hope. It is something that is going to happen. You may need to adjust and help the horse in another way, but in the end, you are going to arrive where you intended.

It will take time for you and your horse to build up a language that you both understand. Remember that you never go from complete darkness to complete light immediately; there are plenty of degrees of brightness in between. Keep your eyes open for the slightest change on the horizon and you are sure to get there.

Many times, especially early on, we miss opportunities to advance because we are waiting for a big change and we don’t notice our horse has already made a small step in the right direction. Because we don’t notice and don’t release, our horse concludes we must not have asked for what he tried to do; he may become confused and agitated because of it.

If you can advance your feel to where you can recognize a mental “try” in your horse and see those small changes, you will find you can advance at a much quicker pace. When you reward sooner, you will see enormous changes ---more than you would have thought---and pretty soon you will be having a great conversation.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Equus Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Pest Control

Riders offer advice on how to rid your farm of unwanted guests without the use of harmful chemicals.


Where there are horses, there’s sure to be pests: Ants—including the dreaded fire ants—and other insects and wildlife can run amok in a barn. They are annoying at best, dangerous at worst, and almost always an unhealthy contribution to the stable environment for horses and humans.

Dressage Today polled professional and amateur riders and longtime farm owners for successful strategies on managing unwelcome visitors without the use of harmful chemicals. The tips they offered include all-natural remedies to rid farms of pests, including fire ants, flies and mice.

Ants: Amateur rider Nan Meek keeps her 20-year-old schoolmaster at a private stable near her home in Moss Beach, California. Like many riders, she often keeps sugar cubes on hand as a treat for her horse. “Sugar in the tack room attracts ants as reliably as sugar in the kitchen,” Meek says. “But a friend who is allergic to chemical products gave me a great tip: scatter a line of ground cloves across the path where the ants are entering, and they will go elsewhere. It doesn’t kill them, and they may try to go after the sugar from another entry point, but a few applications seem to send them elsewhere. An airtight container for the sugar removes their goal. Now, if I could only find a coyote deterrent! We are seeing more of them this winter than ever before.”

Flies: Ellie Jensen, who owned and managed Checkered Flag Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, before retiring to a smaller farm, learned key strategies for maintaining a healthy environment for her trainers and horses. One found her switching to natural pest control tactics many years ago after a fly-spray scare with a beautiful filly.
As the weather warmed up in the yearling’s first summer, Jensen applied a conventional fly spray of the time. “Within 20 seconds, she started to shake all over, then she went down,” Jensen recounts. “I knew it was a reaction to the fly spray. I hosed her down with water and was able to save her. And that made me more determined to look into natural products.”
Jensen is a big fan of cedar-oil spray, which was dispensed through an automatic misting system at Checkered Flag. “It has a water base and works just as well as the toxic stuff,” she notes. Cedar also has antifungal properties that can help heal hot spots on the skin and it has a woody scent.
Not all cedar-based pest-control products are equal, Jensen cautions. Like many natural ingredients, they, too, can be irritating and/or harmful if used in too-highly concentrated forms.
Fly strips are another tool often used to trap and kill flies in and around farms. While not the most attractive decor, they can serve a purpose. To ensure your strips are safe and nontoxic, try making your own sticky traps by mixing a one-quarter cup of corn syrup, one tablespoon of granulated sugar and one tablespoon of brown sugar in a small bowl. Next, cut strips of brown kraft paper and soak them in the sugar mixture. Give them 12 hours to dry and then poke a small hole at the top of each strip. Run a piece of string through the hole and the strip will be ready to hang.

Fire ants: These pests are a nightmare for Florida’s horse keepers. The ants love open, sunny spaces, like pastures, where they typically colonize in dirt mounds under the reign of one or more queens. A bite from a fire ant stings and can cause blisters on the skin of horses and people. “Enough bites can kill an animal, and a lot of people and animals are allergic to them,” Jensen says.
The most effective strategy she found was spreading nontoxic pellets that target the ant queen. “They sterilizes the queen ant so that within six weeks, you have no more ants,” she reports. They actually worked faster at Checkered Flag. “A week after we first had the pellets in our pasture, I noticed that the ants were staying out of a station where I fed four feral cats.” The pellets don’t harm other critters, including grazing horses and birds.
Relative to other treatments she tried, the pellets were cost-effective at $100 for the first acre, then $30 an acre after that for a treatment that Jensen’s property needed just twice a year.

Mice: Grand Prix riders Shannon Peters and Sharon McCusker happily report that their barns have very few problematic pests. Mice are the biggest menace at the Peter’s San Diego, California, stable and at McCusker’s property in Ashby, Massachusetts. In both cases, barn cats are an effective defense force.
In eradicating rodents, cats do a great service for their equine stablemates. However, because mice and rats can carry diseases, insects and parasites, their predators need regular veterinary care to prevent them from becoming conduits for those health risks. A strict deworming and vaccination regimen for the cats is important; so is spaying and neutering to keep their population under control.
Feeding cats in the barn will keep them on the job. If they have to rely only on their hunting skills for food, they may wander off to areas where mice haven’t been so well controlled.
Pest problems vary greatly across the country, but early action and consistent preventive practices and maintenance treatments will help to minimize the insects and animals that threaten to bug your horse. Old-fashioned, low-tech tactics always help: Keep the manure pile far from the stable, keep nooks and crannies clean, use tightly sealed containers in the feed room and eliminate pooled water whenever possible. A ship-shape stable is your best defense.

Credit: Cat: © Brenda Carson - Fotolia.com and Fire Ants: © seagames50 - Fotolia.com Cats might just be your best defense against pesky rodents.



This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.




Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Beezie Madden: Gymnasticize Your Horse


Part 2: Beezie Madden develops athleticism and rideability at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

“My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work,” said Beezie Madden. After jumping the liverpool with Esprit 373, Eve Jobs and the other riders returned to gymnastic work to get the horses’ shape and rideability back. | Amy K. Dragoo

New Year’s Day dawned unseasonably hot and humid at the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds as two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden perched a George Morris action figure aboard a golf cart to preside over the second day of the 10th annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Day 1 had featured Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig’s schooling of the clinic’s 12 riders in dressage in Wellington, Florida. Beezie’s plan was to work on gymnasticizing the horses with the goal of building on Christine’s lessons.

“George’s passion for teaching, his system for teaching and his passing it on to the rest of us has been a driving force in this training session for all these years,” Beezie said. “My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work. We’ll introduce the water jump and feed off what Christine said yesterday and try to keep balance and rhythm while we do everything.”

Although the clinic’s namesake was unable to be at the training session, Olympic gold medalist Beezie ensured that a George Morris action figure presided over the lesson, placing him in the golf cart to oversee the young riders. | Amy K. Dragoo


Beezie introduced the concepts of her teaching method to them first in a demonstration ride. The day’s theme was developing a horse’s adjustability and how that helps when jumping a course. She worked on getting the horse “in front of the rider’s leg” by engaging his hind end because, she said, the horse can’t accept hands on the reins until he is in front of the leg. “I like the horse’s hind legs to feel like they’re stepping underneath my seat.” 
Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Beezie also stressed getting the horse to work from his hind end into and through transitions. She often uses transitions that require leg to school this concept, like a shoulder-in. “In this lateral movement, I have to keep the hind end underneath me to do the transition,” she explained. “If the horse tries to raise his head up, I correct him so that he is underneath my seat.” 


As an example, Beezie said riders could ride a shoulder-in at the sitting trot, then transition to the shoulder-in at the walk for a few steps before returning to a shoulder-in at the sitting trot. Or each could ride a half-pass at the sitting trot, then ride a transition to a half-pass at the walk for a few steps back to a half-pass at the sitting trot while making sure the horse’s hind end is underneath the rider’s seat. Then riders could change it up: ride a half-pass, change direction, walk, trot, walk. Horses could memorize a pattern, so finding the correct balance between repetition and overdoing an exercise is key. 

Variety is the Key To Training 


Tori Colvin uses her inside leg coming out of the turn to put Whisper Z onto the outside rein while shaping the turn and keeping the balance so she can ride straight to the pole. | Amy K. Dragoo


Still riding, Beezie introduced a series of three rails, each placed 48 feet apart, to test the horse’s rideability with frequent gait changes over various patterns while regulating his rhythm and tempo. She rode transitions from canter to walk, then walked over a rail, then picked up a trot to go back and forth through the straight line of rails. At the canter, she rode the rails in a straight line and changed the number of strides between them, going from three strides to a rail to four strides to the next one. Then she mixed it up by asking for five strides to the second rail and three strides to the first rail. “My concern is that the horse’s balance and his frame stay the way I want it all the way down the gymnastic line. When you are at the level of grand prix, your horse should be able to do that like an accordion. You need to be able to do the open water to the double of verticals combination. It’s a test every time. You have to be able to make the adjustment and keep the horse’s brain together so he is able to do something bold and then move to something very short.” 



Before Beezie added jumping to the gymnastic exercises, she moved her stirrups up a hole. “You should have a little longer stirrup for the flat than jumping,” she advised. “Don’t take your foot out of your stirrup to adjust it since you’re never going to know what will spook your horse. If you’re ever on a young horse, you have to have that skill.” Then it was back to the business of adding variety to the workout by introducing three vertical jumps set on a line 20 feet apart with ground rails placed midway between each. She also set takeoff and landing poles 10 feet before and after the line. She rode the line and had the horse halt after it.



“The landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence so it is important to be critical of your horse’s schooling,” Beezie said. “He should halt on the bit, not flying backward or rooting. He’s got to be disciplined enough to halt in the contact.” 



Again to add variety, she would sometimes ride the line and then ride through the corner. She emphasized working on making tidy turns to prepare for the tight time allowed on many courses and the speed often required in jump-offs. To sharpen the turns, she used her inside leg to put the horse onto the outside rein, which keeps him from cutting in. “If the horse is on the outside rein through the turn, the turn becomes much simpler,” she explained. “If the horse is cutting and not on my outside rein, it becomes a battle into the turn. Not only does it distract the horse, it slows him down, too.


“Jumping is a sport of concentration,” she continued. “Every horse we put in a class could jump over the fences or we would be idiots to put them there. The real test is can the horse concentrate and be schooled enough to jump those fences in a strange environment with the trickiness the course designers like. We always think about the riders, but the horse has to concentrate, too. His concentration has to be mainly on the fence. Responding to the rider and the rider’s aids has to become a force of habit.”

Put the Jump in the Middle of the Arc


Beezie began Day 2 of the 10th George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session with a demonstration to introduce the day’s lesson: developing adjustability of the equine athlete and how that translates to jumping. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie said training the horse to jump so that his arc is over the middle of the jump is important. A rider does this by keeping the horse’s hind end engaged and maintaining an even rhythm so the takeoff spot is accurate. “A horse that jumps too early will have the back rail. I want enough rideability that I can keep my horse together in rhythm.” As long as a rider keeps the rhythm and the connection, the horse can jump well from a variety of spots.

As Beezie cooled down her horse before bringing the young riders into the ring, she encouraged him to stretch and relax his topline. “It’s a nice exercise physically and mentally,” she said. “Even though he’s in a long frame, I’m still stretching out the muscles in his back” while keeping him in front of the leg with light contact. There is “still connection between leg and hand even though I am letting him rest and relax,” she added.
When riding the final downward transition to the walk, Beezie pointed out that riders should not just plop down on the horse’s back and let him fall behind. Everything you do on a horse is training him, she said. “When I’ve done this nice flatwork and I end with a bad transition, I’ve pretty much ruined the session. Details, details, all the time. Even in the barn you are training your horse.” 

First Training Session 


“I learned to think about every part of the course and not take any part for granted,” said 20-year-old Dani Roskens. She also learned to use her whole body as a unit to affect the weight of the horse. | Amy K. Dragoo
As the first six riders entered the ring, Beezie instructed them to warm up by walking in a lively rhythm with the horses in front of the riders’ legs. She asked them to establish contact with the horses’ mouths by pushing them into the bit, not by pulling on the reins.

Throughout the session, Beezie insisted the horses react to the aids. Not a fan of digging the horse with a spur at every stride, she explained that the horse needs to be respectful of the aids and ready to respond to them, but he can’t be afraid of them. “It’s got to make sense to him,” she said. “There’s a progression. You don’t want to go from no leg and then attack the horse.” You start with the amount of pressure you want the horse to respond to and if he doesn’t, “he gets a little reprimand” with a stronger leg or a kick. 

Beezie asked the riders to move into the posting trot, reminding them that their first goal was to make sure the horses had enough impulsion for self-carriage. The horses should be trotting in a nice forward rhythm with a light contact. If the horses evaded the bit by pulling or getting behind it, she instructed the riders to raise their hands to put a little pressure on the corners of the horses’ mouths. When the horses changed the head position by accepting the bit, she explained that the riders needed to immediately soften the contact while maintaining the leg. 

As Vivian Yowan’s horse became fussy with his mouth, Beezie suggested she try to keep her hands as steady as possible while using her legs to push him up to the bit. When he put his head down and relaxed his jaw, Beezie told her to relax her hands. 

Once again, Beezie stressed transitions: walk to trot, sitting trot, collect a little, shoulder-in in a walk to a sitting trot, shoulder-in in a sitting trot to a walk. She explained that to achieve the shoulder-in, a rider adds pressure with the inside leg at the girth to push the horse into the outside rein. The horse’s neck stays bent to the inside but not overbent. The hind legs should feel as if they are stepping up underneath the seat without going faster. She added that a rider should always work the horse in both directions. The riders were often asked to sit the trot so that they could use their seats and backs to influence the transitions. 

Tori Colvin, 18, was reminded to lean back when doing transitions instead of forward. She said she’d remember what Beezie said about carrying the hands, making sure she’s not pulling on the reins and legging the horse for impulsion. 

Just when the jumpers thought they might be finished with dressage, Beezie introduced a half-pass. A half-pass is performed with the horse parallel to the side of the ring and slightly bent in the direction in which he is moving forward. Beezie reminded the riders that looking at the horses’ heads will not put them into the right position, but looking where they wanted to go will help create the roundness of the horse. 

Then riders tackled the ground rails, using transitions to increase rideability and adjustability. “Working with the horse’s rhythm and balance, the horse’s hind leg has to come underneath you,” Beezie said. “Think of the rails as references where you make the transitions. The horse should feel like an accordion. He should feel short in his neck and then lengthen a little.”


Kelli Cruciotti liked changing the number of strides between three ground poles in a line. “That was a great exercise for me to think about and take home to my other horses. I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling.” | Amy K. Dragoo
Beezie chided the riders for sloppy halts. In the downward transitions, the seat and back need to remain fixed with the shoulders slightly behind the hips. She instructed Eve Jobs, 17, to brace her heel a little so her leg could slide a bit forward in the halt and to give a little with her arms. Then Beezie told Vivian, 18, to think of a halt more like waterskiing with her shoulders behind her hips. “If you get your shoulders in front of your hips, the horse has a big advantage,” she cautioned. “He’s much stronger than you. Our only method of riding is by having leverage. You get the leverage by having the correct position and style.” 

Riders then start incorporating verticals and oxers with turns in between. Beezie told them to put their horses on the outside rein to shape the turn and keep the balance while looking to finish the turn. “Once you have the horse on the outside rein, you don’t have to keep fading, fading, fading to the outside standard of the next fence,” she explained. “You’ve got to put the horse on the outside rein to put him into a position to come in on the turn. If you don’t look to come in, you’ll have to make time up.” As more jumps, including oxers and a water jump, were added throughout the session, riders were urged to supple their elbows to increase connection with the horse. “When they react to the hand, we reward them by becoming more and more supple ourselves.” 

Beezie told 17-year-old TJ O’Mara to keep his elbows bent and elastic, causing him to note afterward that “it really made the course so much easier because sometimes I stiffen my arms and the horse will sometimes resist it. It made my horse listen to my aids and she felt amazing.”

Mitch Endicott, 17, learned he needs to focus on staying square in the saddle. “Around the turns, I don’t stay square with my body,” he said. “I tend to lean in. That’s something I need to work on.”

Second Session


Lucy Deslauriers rides a line of three vertical jumps, each set 20 feet apart, with ground rails set midway between each fence. This helped emphasize that the landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence. | Amy K. Dragoo
The second group of riders had the same warm-up. Beezie urged them to create energy in the walk on a long rein. She instructed them to liven their horses to the leg but not by increasing and holding the spur into the horse’s side. “What that does is create the horse being duller to your leg,” she said. “What you do is you ask with the pressure you would like for him to react from, and if he doesn’t answer to that, attack him a little with the spur. Try to surprise him a little so he starts to anticipate when you do put a little pressure on his side. He’s got to be ready to react to that. If the horse is reactive enough to the leg, I shouldn’t see what I talked about in my demonstration of people spurring the horse every stride and slapping the saddle with their seat to try to create the impulsion. I want to see the horse light enough to the leg that I don’t even see that you’re doing anything.” 

When 20-year-old Dani Rosken’s horse began jigging in the trot, Beezie told her to be more sympathetic with her leg. When horses are reactive enough, don’t keep trying to get more and more horse. In addition, Dani said, “I learned to use my whole body as a unit instead of just trying to use one part to affect the entire weight of the horse.”

Daisy Farish’s horse was a little too reactive to the leg, so Beezie coached her to apply a half-halt with her outside hand to recycle the horse’s energy back into the hind legs. Afterward Daisy, 15, said she learned how her position could strengthen the rideability of the hot horse. “Beezie helped me with the way I sit and with keeping my shoulders back to make it easier to control him.”

Beezie told Ransome Rombauer, 17, to bring her hands above her horse’s withers because when she carried her hands too low, she risked pulling the horse’s head down and creating resistance than suppleness. Instead, Beezie told her to raise the hand, keeping the bit in the corners of the horse’s mouth until he sought a different position and gave in the jaw by lowering his head. When that happens, the rider can reward him by relaxing the contact though not allowing a slack in the reins. 

As riders moved on to riding over the ground rails and jumping, Kelli Cruciotti, 18, said she liked using different stride lengths over the set of three ground poles. “I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling,” she said.

At the water jump, Beezie had more advice. “You don’t want to ride the water like you would a tall vertical. You don’t want to get there having to compress the stride a lot.” Many of the riders were aboard borrowed horses for the training session so the coaching often involved how to navigate a horse whose quirks weren’t known. “When you know you have a sophisticated water jumper, that’s a good time to compress a little and let the horse jump bigger. When you don’t know your horse, you want to be able to build a little for the water the first time.” 

After the riders schooled over the water jump, Beezie had them return to the gymnastic exercises. “Schooling the water creates kind of an aggressive horse. Any time you do a water school or you’re schooling natural jumps getting ready for a derby-type show, remember you probably need to do something after that to get a little more gymnastic and get the horse’s shape and rideability back together. Even if they’re good about that stuff, it still creates a bold, long, kind of aggressive horse.”


Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session watch and listen to Beezie Madden describe what Day 2 holds (from left): TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Kelli Cruciotti, Mitch Endicott, Lucy Deslauriers, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Ailish Cunniffe, Daisy Farish, Vivian Yowan, Victoria Colvin and Danielle Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the day wound down, Beezie again praised George while acknowledging his tiny action figure set in the golf cart overlooking the training session.

“He’s the driving force behind this training session and, thanks to him, we have a good program here,” she said.


Katherine Strauss, 17, found that working on fundamentals such as smoothly extending and collecting, basic flatwork, lateral work and making sure the horse is responsive to the aids was helpful. | Amy K. Dragoo


Re-published article from Practical Horseman.



Friday, May 12, 2017

Does your feeding program measure up?

Take a moment to consider whether your feeding routine still provides the right amount of nutrients and calories for your horse.


Routines can be comforting. When balancing the demands of career, family and barn, it feels good to simply work your way through familiar chores---first the water, then the hay. Then a trip to the feed room, and with a can of this and a scoop of that, you’re done. Your reward, of course, is the sweet sound of munching in every stall. 




But routines can be a liability if they keep you from updating your horse’s feeding regimen as his needs change over time. Advancing age, training schedules, turnout times, health and dental issues, injuries, even the seasons and weather can alter a horse’s nutritional requirements. And making small adjustments sooner can save you from having to cope with bigger problems later---after a horse has gained or lost a significant amount of weight or developed other nutritional or metabolic-related issues.

If you haven’t done so in a while, take the time to scrutinize your feeding routines. A little adjustment might be beneficial or even necessary to keep your horse as healthy as he can be. Of course, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before making any drastic changes in your horse’s diet. But here are some factors to consider as you start the conversation.

Body condition


When you see your horse every day, slow, subtle fluctuations in weight can be easy to miss, especially under a winter coat or blanket. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your horse’s body condition so you can catch developing changes earlier. 

One of the most objective ways to evaluate a horse’s weight, short of walking him onto a scale in a veterinary hospital, is to learn to determine his body condition score (BCS), a method of ranking body fat on a scale from 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat) developed in 1983 by Don Henneke, PhD. When horses develop fat, they tend to store it in distinct places just under the skin where it can be easily seen and felt. And they lay fat in certain parts of the body in a particular order---first over the heart and the ribs, then over the rump and back, forward to the withers, and last over the neck. As a result, the specific location of stored fat can tell you how overweight the horse is. 

If your horse has a “weight problem”---whether he needs to lose or gain---his feed ration will obviously be central to the solution. An overweight horse needs to consume fewer calories and/or exercise more. But simply cutting back on your horse’s regular feed is not a good idea if it means you’ll be shortchanging his nutrition. Instead, consider switching to a lower-calorie feed meant for easy keepers. Ration balancer products can help ensure your horse gets all of the vitamins and minerals he needs if you need to reduce or eliminate his concentrates. In addition, a grazing muzzle can reduce a horse’s consumption of pasture grass even as he enjoys the benefits of turnout.

Conversely, you may find that your horse is underweight. Weight loss may result from the need to burn extra calories to stay warm in cold weather, but if your horse begins dropping pounds for no obvious reason, ask your veterinarian to conduct an examination to look for underlying health issues. Gastric ulcers, pituitary0 pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) and a number of other diseases or conditions may be preventing him from deriving adequate nutrition from his feed and will need to be addressed. 


To put weight back on a healthy but thin horse, you need to increase his calories without incurring a risky overload of starch or sugar, which can cause a number of problems, including laminitis. You can achieve that goal in a number of ways, such as increasing his hay ration or pouring up to a cup of corn oil over his feed each day. If you want to increase the portion of his existing concentrates, consider adding a third meal to his day rather than offering bigger servings all at once---this increases his overall caloric intake with less risk of a dangerous starch overload. Another safe option is to switch to a higher calorie, fat-based feed. 

His activity level


Even when he’s just standing around, your horse is burning calories. The basic work of life---breathing, pumping blood, digesting food, etc.---requires energy. Of course, any significant exercise a horse gets burns energy beyond that baseline level, and one who works hard enough may need to consume more calories---in the form of grains, fats or concentrates---than he can take in from hay alone. That said, however, the average pleasure horse probably isn’t burning as many calories from exercise as you might think. The 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses, published by the National Research Council, classifies the weekly workloads of horses into four categories:

Light work is one to three hours of riding per week, including about 50 percent at the trot and 10 percent at the canter, with a mean heart rate of about 80 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes recreational pleasure horses, even with some showing, as well as those just beginning in training. These horses burn only about 1.2 times their baseline calorie requirements. Horses like these may still be able to meet all of their 
nutritional needs from forage alone. They may need more---up to 3 to 3.5 
percent of their body weight---but increased appetite will enable them to make up the difference. 

Moderate work is three to five hours of riding per week, including 
55 percent at the trot, 10 percent at the canter, and 5 percent of jumping, 
cutting or other skill work, with a mean heart rate of about 90 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes some recreational and show horses as well as those engaged in polo or ranch work. These horses burn about 1.4 times their baseline calorie requirements. They ought to get no more than 25 percent of their feed ration (by weight) from concentrates. 

Heavy work is four to five hours per week, including 50 percent at the trot, 15 percent at the canter, and 15 percent galloping, jumping or performing other intense skills, with a mean heart rate of about 110 beats per minute. This category includes horses engaged in more intense showing, ranch or polo work as well as those in low to moderate race training and low- to mid-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.6 times their baseline calorie requirements. They may need to get up to 40 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates.

Very heavy work can include one hour per week of high-speed work combined with six to 12 hours of slower work, with a mean heart rate of about 110 to 150 beats per minute. Most of the horses in this category are engaged in racing, endurance or high-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.9 times their baseline calorie requirements and may need to get up to 50 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates. 

These are general categories, meant to be used only as a guideline. Your own riding schedule may vary or fall “in between” these divisions, and many factors---including climate, breed, general fitness level and the weight of the rider---can influence an individual horse’s energy requirements.

That said, if your horse looks good and performs well, chances are he is already getting the right amount of feed. But if his exercise levels are on the increase---because you’re entering a higher level of training, perhaps, or because you’re now sharing him with another rider---it might be a good time to reassess his needs. If you do not want him to lose weight, you might need to add a small portion of a concentrate formulated for active adult horses---but be sure to choose a product suited to his level of activity. Feeds formulated for high-performance athletes may provide too much protein and other nutrients for horses in light or moderate work.

Conversely, if your active horse is going to be taking some time off from training, you’ll want to scale back on his concentrates so that he doesn’t gain weight.


His dental health


The first step in good digestion is chewing feed thoroughly. When a horse has problems with his teeth that interfere with chewing, he is vulnerable to a number of problems, including colic, malnutrition and choke. 

Aging horses, in particular, often develop uneven tooth wear, including sharp points and hooks, that can cause pain or otherwise interfere with the ability to eat properly. But don’t overlook the possibility that younger horses, too, may injure their teeth or develop infections or abnormalities that inhibit chewing and swallowing. Signs of trouble include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, swelling or pain in the cheek or jaw, weight loss, bad breath, long stems of hay or poorly digested feed in the manure, resistance to bridling or fussiness with the bit. Schedule a dental examination with your veterinarian right away if you have any reason to suspect a problem with your horse. Otherwise, routine examinations conducted at least every year, or every six months in aging horses or those who’ve had problems in the past, will help to make sure your horse’s teeth remain healthy and strong.

A horse with significant dental issues, including aged horses whose teeth have worn almost completely away, may require a change to softer rations. You may need to choose softer hays, or soak the forage to make it easier to chew. Another option is switching to pelleted or cubed forages, a complete senior feed or other foods that provide both roughage and nutrition in an easy-to-chew form. 

The quality of your hay and pasture

Good-quality hay or pasture, water and access to a salt lick are the foundation of a horse’s diet. However, the nutritional content of hays and grasses can vary throughout the growing season and under different climatic conditions, such as drought. 

Keep an eye on your pastures throughout the seasons. If you start seeing that the grass has been cropped short over wide areas and bare patches are starting to appear, your horses are overgrazing and will benefit from supplemental hay. When weeds and bare patches become chronic, it may be time to talk to an expert about reseeding for healthy growth.

Hay, too, can vary in nutritional content depending on when it was cut and what the climate conditions were when it was grown. When you purchase a new batch of hay, the only way to be absolutely certain of the nutritional content is to send a sample off to a laboratory for testing. But unless you have a horse with extremely strict dietary requirements, you probably don’t need that much accuracy for day-to-day feeding.

Still, you can tell a lot about the quality of the hay just by examining it. Poor-quality hay contains a higher proportion of indigestible woody stems and fewer leaves. Horses will tend to pick through it for the choicer bits and leave much of it behind as waste. Good hay has a softer texture, with finer, more pliable stems and more leaves. Here are some other basic indicators of highly nutritious hay:

Lift the bale above your knees and drop it onto a solid floor. Good hay will make a muffled sound and bounce. If it doesn’t, the hay may have gotten wet and developed mold.

Cut the twine open. Good hay will “spring” open. Moldy or poorer hay holds its shape.

Check the aroma. Good hay smells fresh and sweet. Any acrid or musty odors can indicate mold. 

Squeeze and twist a handful. Good hay is soft and flexible. Poorer hay feels harder, and the stems will stab your palm. 

High-quality hay that is stored properly---not exposed to the sun, rain or other moisture---will retain its nutritional levels almost indefinitely. Any losses of dry matter---including nutritional content---will be limited to the first month or two. After that, the nutritional content will remain largely unchanged, although the field-fresh smell may dissipate. One exception is carotene, the precursor for vitamin A. Carotene levels will continue to decline in stored hays. If you are relying on hay that has been in storage for more than a year, you may need to add a carotene supplement. 

If you’re concerned about whether hay and pasture alone is meeting 
your horse’s needs, talk to your veterinarian about adding a vitamin/mineral supplement or a ration balancer product, which adds balanced nutrients, including amino acids, without a lot of extra calories. 

New feeding options


New feed products and supplements are being introduced to the market all the time, and manufacturers are also modifying their existing formulas as new research yields insights into equine nutritional needs. If it’s been a while since you took a wider look at what’s currently available, you might find something that offers a better fit for your horse.

Although all horses require the same basic nutrients, those in different occupations or stages of life may need higher or lower amounts of many proteins, vitamins and minerals. High-performance athletes, for example, benefit from high-calorie feeds with added nutrients, such as vitamin E, that help muscles recover from intense work, while weanlings need more amino acids to help their bodies grow healthy and strong. A number of products are available for all stages of a horse’s life---from youngsters to seniors, with specialized formulas for broodmares, high-performance athletes, easy keepers and others with special needs. You’ll also find the feeds offered in a variety of formats, with different ingredients for palatability, or different forms. Some horses love pellets, for example, while others prefer textured feeds.

As you look around, be sure to keep the big picture in mind. If you need a low-sugar feed, for example, zeroing in on the bag with the smallest amount of sugar may not be the best idea if the rest of the formula does not meet your horse’s needs. If you have questions about a particular feed, look on the bag for a toll-free telephone number for a consumer information line; ask to speak to a nutritionist who can provide you with information. And, of course, your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist can help guide your choices. 

For an animal who eats mainly grass, horses can require complicated feeding regimens. The good news, though, is that feed companies have already done the hardest work of developing formulas that provide appropriately balanced nutrition. Once you’ve chosen the right product and determined the correct amount to provide at each meal, you can slip back into your comfortable routines, confident that your horse is getting the best you can offer at every meal.




This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.



Monday, April 24, 2017

Does your feeding program measure up?

Take a moment to consider whether your feeding routine still provides the right amount of nutrients and calories for your horse.

Routines can be comforting. When balancing the demands of career, family and barn, it feels good to simply work your way through familiar chores---first the water, then the hay. Then a trip to the feed room, and with a can of this and a scoop of that, you’re done. Your reward, of course, is the sweet sound of munching in every stall.


But routines can be a liability if they keep you from updating your horse’s feeding regimen as his needs change over time. Advancing age, training schedules, turnout times, health and dental issues, injuries, even the seasons and weather can alter a horse’s nutritional requirements. And making small adjustments sooner can save you from having to cope with bigger problems later---after a horse has gained or lost a significant amount of weight or developed other nutritional or metabolic-related issues.

If you haven’t done so in a while, take the time to scrutinize your feeding routines. A little adjustment might be beneficial or even necessary to keep your horse as healthy as he can be. Of course, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist before making any drastic changes in your horse’s diet. But here are some factors to consider as you start
the conversation.

Body condition

When you see your horse every day, slow, subtle fluctuations in weight can be easy to miss, especially under a winter coat or blanket. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your horse’s body condition so you can catch developing changes earlier.

One of the most objective ways to evaluate a horse’s weight, short of walking him onto a scale in a veterinary hospital, is to learn to determine his body condition score (BCS), a method of ranking body fat on a scale from 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat) developed in 1983 by Don Henneke, PhD. When horses develop fat, they tend to store it in distinct places just under the skin where it can be easily seen and felt. And they lay fat in certain parts of the body in a particular order---first over the heart and the ribs, then over the rump and back, forward to the withers, and last over the neck. As a result, the specific location of stored fat can tell you how overweight the horse is.

If your horse has a “weight problem”---whether he needs to lose or gain---his feed ration will obviously be central to the solution. An overweight horse needs to consume fewer calories and/or exercise more. But simply cutting back on your horse’s regular feed is not a good idea if it means you’ll be shortchanging his nutrition. Instead, consider switching to a lower-calorie feed meant for easy keepers. Ration balancer products can help ensure your horse gets all of the vitamins and minerals he needs if you need to reduce or eliminate his concentrates. In addition, a grazing muzzle can reduce a horse’s consumption of pasture grass even as he enjoys the benefits of turnout.

Conversely, you may find that your horse is underweight. Weight loss may result from the need to burn extra calories to stay warm in cold weather, but if your horse begins dropping pounds for no obvious reason, ask your veterinarian to conduct an examination to look for underlying health issues. Gastric ulcers, pituitary0 pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) and a number of other diseases or conditions may be preventing him from deriving adequate nutrition from his feed and will need to be addressed.

To put weight back on a healthy but thin horse, you need to increase his calories without incurring a risky overload of starch or sugar, which can cause a number of problems, including laminitis. You can achieve that goal in a number of ways, such as increasing his hay ration or pouring up to a cup of corn oil over his feed each day. If you want to increase the portion of his existing concentrates, consider adding a third meal to his day rather than offering bigger servings all at once---this increases his overall caloric intake with less risk of a dangerous starch overload. Another safe option is to switch to a higher calorie, fat-based feed.

His activity level

Even when he’s just standing around, your horse is burning calories. The basic work of life---breathing, pumping blood, digesting food, etc.---requires energy. Of course, any significant exercise a horse gets burns energy beyond that baseline level, and one who works hard enough may need to consume more calories---in the form of grains, fats or concentrates---than he can take in from hay alone. That said, however, the average pleasure horse probably isn’t burning as many calories from exercise as you might think. The 2007 Nutrient Requirements of Horses, published by the National Research Council, classifies the weekly workloads of horses into four categories:

Light work is one to three hours of riding per week, including about 50 percent at the trot and 10 percent at the canter, with a mean heart rate of about 80 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes recreational pleasure horses, even with some showing, as well as those just beginning in training. These horses burn only about 1.2 times their baseline calorie requirements. Horses like these may still be able to meet all of their
nutritional needs from forage alone. They may need more---up to 3 to 3.5
percent of their body weight---but increased appetite will enable them to make up the difference.

Moderate work is three to five hours of riding per week, including
55 percent at the trot, 10 percent at the canter, and 5 percent of jumping,
cutting or other skill work, with a mean heart rate of about 90 beats per minute for the entire session. This category includes some recreational and show horses as well as those engaged in polo or ranch work. These horses burn about 1.4 times their baseline calorie requirements. They ought to get no more than 25 percent of their feed ration (by weight) from concentrates.

Heavy work is four to five hours per week, including 50 percent at the trot, 15 percent at the canter, and 15 percent galloping, jumping or performing other intense skills, with a mean heart rate of about 110 beats per minute. This category includes horses engaged in more intense showing, ranch or polo work as well as those in low to moderate race training and low- to mid-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.6 times their baseline calorie requirements. They may need to get up to 40 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates.

Very heavy work can include one hour per week of high-speed work combined with six to 12 hours of slower work, with a mean heart rate of about 110 to 150 beats per minute. Most of the horses in this category are engaged in racing, endurance or high-level eventing. These horses burn about 1.9 times their baseline calorie requirements and may need to get up to 50 percent of their diet (by weight) from concentrates.

These are general categories, meant to be used only as a guideline. Your own riding schedule may vary or fall “in between” these divisions, and many factors---including climate, breed, general fitness level and the weight of the rider---can influence an individual horse’s energy requirements.

That said, if your horse looks good and performs well, chances are he is already getting the right amount of feed. But if his exercise levels are on the increase---because you’re entering a higher level of training, perhaps, or because you’re now sharing him with another rider---it might be a good time to reassess his needs. If you do not want him to lose weight, you might need to add a small portion of a concentrate formulated for active adult horses---but be sure to choose a product suited to his level of activity. Feeds formulated for high-performance athletes may provide too much protein and other nutrients for horses in light or moderate work.

Conversely, if your active horse is going to be taking some time off from training, you’ll want to scale back on his concentrates so that he doesn’t gain weight.

His dental health

The first step in good digestion is chewing feed thoroughly. When a horse has problems with his teeth that interfere with chewing, he is vulnerable to a number of problems, including colic, malnutrition and choke.

Aging horses, in particular, often develop uneven tooth wear, including sharp points and hooks, that can cause pain or otherwise interfere with the ability to eat properly. But don’t overlook the possibility that younger horses, too, may injure their teeth or develop infections or abnormalities that inhibit chewing and swallowing. Signs of trouble include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, swelling or pain in the cheek or jaw, weight loss, bad breath, long stems of hay or poorly digested feed in the manure, resistance to bridling or fussiness with the bit. Schedule a dental examination with your veterinarian right away if you have any reason to suspect a problem with your horse. Otherwise, routine examinations conducted at least every year, or every six months in aging horses or those who’ve had problems in the past, will help to make sure your horse’s teeth remain healthy and strong.

A horse with significant dental issues, including aged horses whose teeth have worn almost completely away, may require a change to softer rations. You may need to choose softer hays, or soak the forage to make it easier to chew. Another option is switching to pelleted or cubed forages, a complete senior feed or other foods that provide both roughage and nutrition in an easy-to-chew form.

The quality of your hay and pasture

Good-quality hay or pasture, water and access to a salt lick are the foundation of a horse’s diet. However, the nutritional content of hays and grasses can vary throughout the growing season and under different climatic conditions, such as drought.

Keep an eye on your pastures throughout the seasons. If you start seeing that the grass has been cropped short over wide areas and bare patches are starting to appear, your horses are overgrazing and will benefit from supplemental hay. When weeds and bare patches become chronic, it may be time to talk to an expert about reseeding for healthy growth.

Hay, too, can vary in nutritional content depending on when it was cut and what the climate conditions were when it was grown. When you purchase a new batch of hay, the only way to be absolutely certain of the nutritional content is to send a sample off to a laboratory for testing. But unless you have a horse with extremely strict dietary requirements, you probably don’t need that much accuracy for day-to-day feeding.

Still, you can tell a lot about the quality of the hay just by examining it. Poor-quality hay contains a higher proportion of indigestible woody stems and fewer leaves. Horses will tend to pick through it for the choicer bits and leave much of it behind as waste. Good hay has a softer texture, with finer, more pliable stems and more leaves. Here are some other basic indicators of highly nutritious hay:

Lift the bale above your knees and drop it onto a solid floor. Good hay will make a muffled sound and bounce. If it doesn’t, the hay may have gotten wet and developed mold.

Cut the twine open. Good hay will “spring” open. Moldy or poorer hay holds its shape.

Check the aroma. Good hay smells fresh and sweet. Any acrid or musty odors can indicate mold.

Squeeze and twist a handful. Good hay is soft and flexible. Poorer hay feels harder, and the stems will stab your palm.

High-quality hay that is stored properly---not exposed to the sun, rain or other moisture---will retain its nutritional levels almost indefinitely. Any losses of dry matter---including nutritional content---will be limited to the first month or two. After that, the nutritional content will remain largely unchanged, although the field-fresh smell may dissipate. One exception is carotene, the precursor for vitamin A. Carotene levels will continue to decline in stored hays. If you are relying on hay that has been in storage for more than a year, you may need to add a carotene supplement.

If you’re concerned about whether hay and pasture alone is meeting your horse’s needs, talk to your veterinarian about adding a vitamin/mineral supplement or a ration balancer product, which adds balanced nutrients, including amino acids, without a lot of extra calories.

New feeding options

New feed products and supplements are being introduced to the market all the time, and manufacturers are also modifying their existing formulas as new research yields insights into equine nutritional needs. If it’s been a while since you took a wider look at what’s currently available, you might find something that offers a better fit for your horse.

Although all horses require the same basic nutrients, those in different occupations or stages of life may need higher or lower amounts of many proteins, vitamins and minerals. High-performance athletes, for example,
benefit from high-calorie feeds with added nutrients, such as vitamin E, that help muscles recover from intense work, while weanlings need more amino acids to help their bodies grow healthy and strong. A number of products are available for all stages of a horse’s life---from youngsters to seniors, with specialized formulas for broodmares, high-performance athletes, easy keepers and others with special needs. You’ll also find the feeds offered in a variety of formats, with different ingredients for palatability, or different forms. Some horses love pellets, for example, while others prefer textured feeds.

As you look around, be sure to keep the big picture in mind. If you need a low-sugar feed, for example, zeroing in on the bag with the smallest amount of sugar may not be the best idea if the rest of the formula does not meet your horse’s needs. If you have questions about a particular feed, look on the bag for a toll-free telephone number for a consumer information line; ask to speak to a nutritionist who can provide you with information. And, of course, your veterinarian or an equine nutritionist can help guide your choices.

For an animal who eats mainly grass, horses can require complicated feeding regimens. The good news, though, is that feed companies have already done the hardest work of developing formulas that provide appropriately balanced nutrition. Once you’ve chosen the right product and determined the correct amount to provide at each meal, you can slip back into your comfortable routines, confident that your horse is getting the best you can offer at every meal.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.