Thursday, 20 December 2012

What can a horse carry?

The last blog post this year will be about the horse's back. The purpose of the blog entries on hoof, mouth and back is to make us, who spend part of our time with horses and make use of their abilities, more aware that we are asking for something that the horse certainly can perform (and with honor!) but at the same time is contrary to its nature as an animal called horse.

When one gets involved in a thoughts it often happens several things simultaneously that really sets the own thoughts on spin. One student told me the following. During a visit to a friend in a barn, a horse was standing in the aisle. My student stroked the horse over the back and the horse lowerd its back - Don't tuch him over the back, the owner said, he is in pain. And that was obvious, but when the box was cleaned out the owner saddled the sore horse and took it for a ride. Where is the logic in this? One would expect a back that touchy would hurt bad when ridden.

Later that week I got a tip on an article written by Stormy May that added a few more sticks on the fire light going on in my head. The article is about what happens to the horse when we place our weight on its back. My post is a mixture of extracts from the article and my own words.

In "Journal of Veterinary Science" Volume (Vol14 (11), 1994)  the well-known veterinarian and saddle fitter Dr. Joyce Harman published an outcome of a study.

"For the purposes of this study, saddles with pressure up to 1.93 psi (pound force per square inch)  were assessed to have good fit, between 2.0 and 3.38 psi, but persistent pressure points, to have moderate fit and saddles that exceeded 3,4 psi or had persistent pressure points throughout the session was considered poor fit. These figures come from preliminary data showing that it was difficult to find an English saddle with a lower pressure than 0.75 psi, which is the highest pressure in the capillary bed, pressure exceeding 0.75 psi shuts off the blood flow in the arterial capillary bed. "

It is important to note that Saddle Tech preassure measuring tool, used in these studies, had sensors that have been developed to evaluate the risks of pressure sores in bedridden people and only measures pressure up to 4 psi. Modern sensors, such as the FSA (Force Sensing Array) developed by Vision Engineering Resaerch group (verg Inc) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada can read a lot more pressure. In a test with Western saddles with good padding, measured normal "pressure spikes" between 8.25 and 14 psi. (Wesley, ED, McCullough, E, Eckels, S, Davis, E, Article # 9329, 2007, "The Horse" magazine).

The pressure that occurs on the tissues under the saddle is propagated down through the muscles to the bone structures found underneath. Research on pressure ulcers in humans have shown that tissue death begins near the bone long before redness and skin lesion is present.What have happened with the horses that have visible wounds or scars in the saddle area?

The muscles longissimus dorsi and trapezius, which the rider sits on, the horse has developed since Eohippus (between 60 million and 45 million years ago) to facilitate mobility. This structure was never designed to carry weight in the form of a pressure from above. In many horses, you can see a marked muscular atrophy just behind the scapula up at the withers. Nevertheless, I have heard a coach say that he did not want to have horses with muscular backs because they become so difficult to saddle.

Pressure from the saddle and rider on the horse's back occurs independent of use. When blood is pushed out of the tissue and comes back, it feels like a thousand needles sticking in the body part. We have embedded sensors that ensure that we change position from time to time, when the pressure on a single point has been too high for too long. For a horse that is ridden, it is difficult to stow the weight on his body that way. It can try to attract your attention by taking shorter steps, swishing tail, scratching himselves against the fence /riding school wall, nip at the leg, have ears back or even bolt or buck.

What is emphasized in the article is that it is all too common with today's horsemanship, to dismiss the horse only possible way of communicating, body language,  as disobedience and as such it should be corrected - often with "stronger pain in the mouth, on the head, ribs and flanks, probably in combination with a longer session under saddle" writes Stormy May.

Now neither the author nor I are proposing to forbid riding but I share the conclusion that increased knowledge of the horse's movement mechanics would be a fantastic Christmas gift that would please both rider and horse.

I have searched both articles Stormy May refer to online but without success. It seems like an interesting task for 2013 to gain more knowledge on the issue. I would like to know more about how each study has been done.

As always, when it comes to our relationship with the horse, it is we who must strive to interpret the horse's signals/language - the horse already has full notion of us, as the true humanist it is.
Now I take Christmas holiday and will return after Twelfth Night. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Bitting, episode 3

We who choose to engage in horses, be it pleasure riding, competative riding, driving, harnessed horses or racing must at all times be aware that we choose to do something that the horse was not originally intended to make.

The horse is not designed to bear weight on his back, pulling heavy loads, have metal shoes (or any hoof protection for that matter) on the hooves or bit in his mouth. That it allows to let us make use of it is due to the fact that the survival strategy of the horse is silence. The horse is basically a docile animal, an animal that seeks to minimize conflicts because, in the wild, that has saved lives. The horse devotes no time to unnecessary quarrel, it is pre-programmed to find their place in a hierarchy, and to be responsive.

The horse, like the dog, has proven to be a useful companion for us. Their different characteristics has improved and simplified our lives and now that we who live in developed countries no longer need them for our livelihood they enhance our leisure time.

I have no moral qualms about owning and have a horse (or dog). What I strive for is to make the life that my horses will live with me as "a little bad as possible" by learning everything I can about the well fare of horses. Keeping a horse is compromising the horse as a biological being and the better compromise the fewer degrees in hell for the horse - a little brutally expressed.

Dr. Cook has devoted much of his professional life to research and to issues that he defines as bit-related problems. Just as Lena pointed out, some of the behavioral problems he connects to bitting can occur for other reasons. To me, it means that there are more variables to consider in this multifactorial equation that horse ownership entails. Leave no stone unturned ...

In his research, Dr. Cook compared the skulls of domestic and wild horses. What he has seen in the tame horses are so called bone spurs, micro cracks in the bars and deformed teeth, damage completely absent in the wild horse. That is damage to the hard tissue, a horse dentist may see friction damage to the tongue from a bit that slid back and forth across the tongue, sores on the inside of the cheek, crushing, pressure sores on the palate, etc.

Certainly, many of the injuries are resulting from careless handling and improper fitting of the equipment, absolutely! With better educated of horse owners, many of the problems are eliminated. Note bene! Not even bitless bridle is completely without effect on the horse if they are ill fitted or handled roughly.

Dr. Cook notes"By removing the metal bit out of the horse's mouth, you can address many problems, but one can not expect that all problems are cured.

A horse that previously had recurring throat noise will not stop sounding bad, a horse who developed permanent deformities of the airways as a result of bit use will still be handicapped by deformations.

If you remove the bit it heals no lameness other than "rein lameness" nor can it replace proper training of the horse so it correctly understands rein aids (slow down, stop and turn). All horses with bit caused nerve pain does not stop shaking its head from one day to another when the bit is removed. A few never stop. " (this is a translation from a swedish translation so...this one can deviate from the original english text.)

We need as riders and drivers to understand that the horse does not automatically understand our signals, that we need to train the horse to the language of signals we choose to use. When I was with Rune Olofsson in Sollebrunn he told me that 98% of the horses he had re-educated in riding had problems because they had never been taught the signals for start and stop properly, they did not know what was expected of them. The basis for all training is that the horse understand the signal for forward, stop, back up, left and right. When the response to those signals is established, the horse is ready to perform movements that combine these directions.

But there is another aspect of bit that concern the horse's physiology. When the horse has a bit in the mouth it stimulates the digestive system, which means that the horse's body is programmed to low activity and a lowered head/neck position while you want the horse to be alert, ready to perform and with raised the head/neck.

In the horse's throat, there is a switch function which opens or closes the passage of the air ways and esophagus. The horse breathes through the nose and when breathing, the lips must be sealed so that the mouth is free of air. With a bit in the mouth the lip seal is broken and air is swirling into the oral cavity, at the same time the stimulus on the tongue results in production of saliva that needs to be handled. When the horse swallows, it can not breathe and when breathing it can not swallow. It is a physiological impact of the horse as biological beings, and it has consequences.

A short note on why I chosed Dr. Cook's bridle. Amaretto has a convex nose and thus makes a rope halter or bosal tipp forward/downward and end up being in the wrong place. The nose band on the bitless bridle can be fasten and is thus kept better in place.

The signaling system is similar to the one I have when I worked Amaretto in rope halter, the headstall also conveys the signals from the reins that the direct and indirect rein aids create. Hackamore has never been an issue and the bridle that looks like a wheel with spokes I have not tried.

I was at a lecture given by Per Larsson on bit and bitting, he showed a picture of a bit called "Liberty", he graded it to be hot, really hot actually and it could "correct" the horse inducing so much pain that the horse either surrendered or went crazy ... we have an ability to paraphrase we humans, Liberty - freedom to whom?