As always, there must be something to come between planning and reality. This article should of course been published about a fortnight ago; however, personal family circumstances intervened and took precedence.
Here – at last – is the second of three promised articles. In it, we discuss the general reasoning behind many of the activities we still consider as “normal” in the equine world. And we look at why these things no longer apply and how they should no longer be considered normal.
This subject has been covered in various forms in the past but it is always worthwhile revisiting subject matter now and again, both to see whether there have been changes or new insights, to review what was written previously, possibly to reach a new audience, and of course reawaken the interest and curiosity of those already aware but for whom, the subject has receded into the background with the mists of time. Only recently, someone asked me ‘the obvious question’ because she could not clearly relate the reasoning to somebody else…
What I shall attempt is to look at the various aspects of military doctrine that, for no other reason than ‘we have always done it that way’, are still part and parcel of daily equestrian activities. Some aspects may have been perpetuated or copied in spheres other than military but we can be almost certain that their origins are, nevertheless, military.
1. Discipline and control
There is a reasoning that states that if you are not strict with the horse, he will exploit you. This supposedly manifests itself in the ‘naughty horse’ that will always try to do what he is not supposed to do. Therefore the horse must be dominated and comply exactly with the rider’s wishes. We learn that we should not fuss our horse, that he should not be allowed to rub against us when we remove his bridle – a sure sign of disrespect!
We learn to tie our horse when saddling up and to make sure that when exchanging halter for bridle and vice versa, that he cannot escape.
But the horse’s ‘exploitation’ is very seldom exploitation, but rather the response to confusing or poor communication – something also discussed in the next section.
Communication between horses is very finely tuned; it requires just the smallest of signals to make the clearest of intentions. These signals can be with ears, eyes, posturing or simply position. As humans, we are poorly equipped; with ears that are too small and don’t move very well, minute eyes that may or may not give off signals readable to the horse, a posture that is often a slouch or at ‘best’ a military gait, and a sense of position that leaves much to be desired in the horse’s mind’s eye.
As for reading the signals the horse is giving, many people like to believe they know what is going on but most have not a clue. A simple example is the ‘ears back’ signal; without a doubt, most people will associate this with displeasure and a horse that is about to get aggressive. But this is simply wrong. Ears back is often a fairly relaxed position with little or no intention – relaxing from straining forward, for example – and is often a general unidirectional listening stance. With the ears in this position, audio is set at 360º ready to pick up on any specific sound in any particular direction. When a new sound is heard, the ears will prick up and turn —independently— t0 localize it.
The truly displeased horse will not just lay back his ears, he will lay them almost flat and exaggerate this position further by thrusting his head forwards with muzzle raised.
One of the places we regularly see a lack of understanding is on exterior rides; the rider is constantly battling with a horse that has no desire to walk where the rider wants the horse to walk (oft a major source of frustration for those who have taken the plunge and their horse is now barefoot…). But this is not the horse exploiting the rider, this is the horse exploiting the terrain. For him, ease of passage takes priority over the rider – nevertheless, a rider that appreciates and understands this behaviour will be able to profit from the horse’s willingness to avoid low branches and change sides of the road as and when the rider asks. No battles, just reciprocal respect.
This outdoor respect transfers itself to the indoor ring with ease.
2. Mounting and leading from the left.
This has become so ingrained that most riders and a great many instructors adhere religiously to this rule without any idea of its origins. Even the majority of more modern military riders had little or no reason to adhere to this edict, except in ceremony.
The reasoning was simple. The cavalry used to be equipped with swords that hung at the left hip (left-handed did not exist in military circles…); mounting from the right with the sword on the left hip was impossible and, although not impossible, leading with the sword between hip and horse was cumbersome and not without risk.
When equipped with revolvers, the cavalry had much less reason to enforce this rule but nevertheless it continued to be applied. It should be noted that cowboys also generally followed this rule, again out of habit rather than necessity – if carrying a rifle, it was usually housed in a holster mounted ahead of the right leg thus impinging neither left nor right leg, when mounting from whichever side. The carriage of a revolver should be of little importance to the manner of mounting. On the other hand, when leading the horse whilst carrying a gun, common sense should dictate that the horse walks on the side away from the gun – usually the left of the leader.
Today, the rule is still drilled into young riders, and almost invariably without explanation. Quite frequently too, the saddle is required to be placed upon the horse, and cinched, from the left side – a complete aberration, logistically. True, Western saddles have a particularity with strap and billet meaning that once attached, the choice is restricted…although there is absolutely no reason their positions cannot be reversed (although some saddles do have ‘tidy’ loops to store the cinch and strap when not in use which will then be located on the wrong side). Since the traditional English saddle has buckles on both sides, there is nothing stopping the rider from cinching on the side of his choice.
And the logistic aberration? If we place the saddle tradition-wise from the left side, we must pass the cinch over the horse, often allowing it to fall the other side, if it has not got wedged between horse and saddle; then we must pass to the right side of the horse to ensure the numnah or saddle-cloth has not doubled up under the saddle and the cinch is not twisted; we then return to the left side and continue to cinch up… Logistically, it is better to approach the horse from the right side with the cinch already hanging. The saddle is placed on the horse’s back, the numnah and cinch checked, then we go to the left side where all that remains is to check the numnah and buckle up the cinch.
Instructors and traditionalists will call to attention the fact that the horse is not used to being approached, saddled, led nor mounted from the right. In reality, the horse generally could not care less. He might react surprised the first couple of times, certainly being mounted and maybe saddled (in fact, in my extensive experience, it has never caused a problem), but he will very quickly adapt. Far quicker than the establishment!
What we also see in leading, taught in all the best schools!, is to lead at the shoulder of the horse. Yet again, the horse that does not accept being led so is considered impudent, rude, uneducated, trying… In actual fact, the horse is only displaying his natural instinct. It is not he that is in the wrong, it is we. There are essentially three zones around the horse:
- in front of the shoulder
- behind the shoulder
- at the shoulder
When we are in front of the shoulder, we emulate the position of a leading horse (leading mare 1) essentially ‘drawing’ our horse along. The horse will naturally follow – given the right signals.
When we are behind the shoulder, we take the position of the stallion 2 who will keep his group in order and ‘push’ the stragglers.
When we place ourselves at the shoulder of the horse, we are assuming the position of the foal. For this reason, the horse will often try to dominate for lack of clear leadership from the cavalier. The horse must learn to realize that the cavalier is in charge but even then, a lapse in concentration by the cavalier can easily lead to a state of uncertainty in the horse – who will then feel obliged to take over the leadership.
1: the concept of a leading Alpha mare is rather outdated. In general, it is indeed a mare that leads the group since normally a group would consist of a harem of mares, including daughters, and a number of young males that, as they get older and potentially challenge the position of the sole stallion, are expelled from the group. The mare leading the group often does so depending upon function: searching for new pasture, searching for water, ‘transhumance’. Sometimes the same mare leads for all functions, at other times there is a change of watch. This fashion of leading is often visible in groups of equestrian centre horses: in the ring, one mare may dominate another but once outside, the rôles are reversed…
2: it will sometimes be argued that the stallion ‘…does not act like a sheepdog…’ and it is true that he is not chasing from left to right all the time like a sheepdog, however, the stallion does keep guard over his group by surveilling the area for intruders and keeping the stragglers moving with the group. The latter is not sheepdog style but simply by dint of being behind…
3. Feeding concentrates
Somehow a misconception has grown up that the horse requires concentrated (grain or cereal) feeds, although there is actually a very obvious source for this misconception. In a similar way to mounting and leading, the military demands leading to this diet are very logical, and again, they have no reasonable application nor justification in modern day equestrian life.
The military on manoeuvres had to carry all its rations. Time was also a limiting factor – the cavalry had to be ready to depart on the word – and therefore horses did not have grazing time. The logistic nightmare that carrying bales of hay would have presented is barely imaginable; sacks of grain, on the other hand, contain more energy in smaller bundles and have the added advantage of often being available, en route, at farms passed during the campaign. These supplies of grain could simply be commandeered; as could any horses needed to replace those that were injured and destined for – or already in – the lasagne.
Similarly, working horses on farms had little down-time in the working day. Following military example, they would be fed concentrated energy in the form of cereal – often in a muzzle bag.
The current uses of the horse preclude entirely the necessity to give any concentrated type of feed. We often see the ‘requirements’ for the horse at rest, light work, heavy work, stallions, gestating mares etc. Knowing that recommendations state that the horse requires at least 50% raw fodder (grass, hay etc.) in its diet, this gives the impression that, particularly for the working horse, there is a clear need for concentrates to complement the fodder.
In fact, this is completely untrue – provided the horse is not fed concentrates when at rest or only in light work. Feeding concentrate at any work level has a direct effect upon the acid levels in the cæcum – the large digestive sac in the horse’s hind gut containing the bacteria responsible for breaking down cellulose and liberating energy. In its natural state, the cæcum content has a pH (acidity) value of about 7, neutral. By feeding concentrates, which contain high levels of easily liberated starch-sugars, the pH level of the cæcum is drastically altered, reaching acidity levels of 3. The pH scale is logarithmic which means that pH 3 is 10,000 times more acidic than pH 7, although it must be pointed out that stomach acid is about 500,000 more acidic than the cæcum. This enormous acidity differential is sufficient to decimate, if not almost completely eliminate, the normally resident bacteria rendering their function totally inadequate. By rendering the cæcum almost completely incapable of breaking down cellulose, the horse is no longer able to metabolize raw fodder correctly and is almost completely reliant upon concentrates; the only ‘working’ effects of raw fodder being to satiate appetite and protect the delicate stomach lining. This latter point is also frequently drawn into question when examining the general management of the horse – see further.
The sugars provided by the breakdown of starch are known as rapid sugars and their effect is to give the horse a ‘sugar high’ endowing him with a burst of energy in much the way an energy drink or dextrose tablets do. But just like with energy drinks, this energy burst is short-lived and, as such, the stamina of the horse is seriously affected. Therefore, a horse that is being a pure raw fodder diet, will have a much greater and much longer lasting energy reserve than one being fed even a small amount of concentrates. This energy reserve allows the horse to work longer and harder than when a horse is fed any amount of concentrates but it does come at a ‘cost’: the horse no longer has fixed feeding times but needs permanent access to raw fodder (grasses wherever possible, hay when not). In many cases this demands a radical – but advantageous to the horse – change in management; see also stabling.
Another enormous shortcoming of concentrates is their addictive nature. Sugars are highly addictive – 98% more so than cocaine according to a study by the University of Bordeaux – and this addiction clearly affects the horse’s behaviour with regard to food and feeding times.
Fixed feeding times are also something that a horse should not have. The horse should follow its own natural feeding patterns which follow a cycle of approximately 1½ hours, generally giving between 12 and 15 feeding moments in any 24 hours. This obliges permanent access to (non-concentrated) feed.
‘Horses have been shod without problem for hundreds of years…’
But horses existed some 50 million years before man’s intervention; and even after, it was several thousand years more before man developed the idea that they needed shoes…
So where did this idea come from and, moreover, why does it still persist?
If we go back to around 400BCE, a Greek philosopher, historian and soldier by the name of Xenophon proposed various pointers in the selection of horses with hoofs adapted to hard ground, and how to maintain those hoofs. We need to fast-forward almost 1000 years before there is any real evidence of horseshoes being used systematically. Some will point to the Romans but history has little proof. There is some suggestion they may have experimented with some sort of leather hipposandal but when we study the entirety of Roman art, not a single horse appears shod in some form or another.
As the ability to forge and work more durable metals emerged, more consideration was given to the problems associated with management of the military horse. As we have already seen, the demands of the military proscribed real grazing time and the horse was condemned to life in a stall when not working. This resulted in the horse spending a lot of time standing in its own excrement to the detriment of hoof health; sadly today this situation is little changed with a great number of horses still spending nights, and often days too, incarcerated in a stable. The resulting lameness could be avoided, or at least reduced, by preventing the now damaged and sensitive part of the hoof from contacting the ground. For the (military) rider, this was the solution to his problems, then horse now able to cross any terrain at any pace so desired. For the horse, however, it was a real curate’s egg. Devoid of any real sensation of the terrain over which it was travelling, it could now be considered as ‘unhindered’, but at a price; this lack of sensation meant that the horse no longer moderated its pace in accordance with the terrain exposing it to greater danger of injury. Furthermore, the additional weight of the horseshoe, combined with a greater inertia and the violent concussion caused by the metal’s lack of impact absorption, was capable of rendering the horse lame through exertion and, in the long term, through arthritis resulting from concussive joint damage.
In modern equitation, there is absolutely no justifiable reason for shoeing the horse in any of the disciplines. No longer the equivalent of a machine, charged with performing at all costs, the welfare of the horse is now the determining factor in our activities – or at least, it should be. Consideration should be given to the negative effects of shoeing, already mentioned above, and the fact that if the horse needs to be shod to avoid excessive wear of the hoof wall, then the demands upon the horse are clearly themselves excessive.
Often riders will cite problems such as ‘footy’ or ‘walking on eggs’; maybe a horse’s reluctance to cross certain terrain or general insistence that is walks on the verge rather than the road itself. But these are far from problems; there are the horse protecting itself and seeking comfort. If we are honest, we too prefer to walk on even surfaces without stones or gravel, so why should we deny our horse such little pleasures. Riders will also complain of being forced to duck low branches…but is more an excuse for a middling relationship with the horse. If we do not ensure that our horse is a willing companion on our forays into the great outdoors, then out horse is not going to willingly avoid low branches, when we ask; for the horse, a short departure from the comfortable to avoid rider discomfort is all part of the game, if the rider accedes to the horses preferences where possible. A rider who is constantly tugging the horse from right to left and insisting on an uncomfortable progression is not going to make a lot of headway in the relationship with his mount.
Already mentioned in the two previous sections, stabling is the culmination of all that is wrong with modern horse management. Historically, stabling had its place, despite the problems that it brought with it. The military horse needed to be ready for action at any moment; the coach horse was often kept overnight at inns and, very much like its military counterpart, could be little afforded grazing time. Similarly the agricultural horse was needed six days a week for work roster. And certainly the latter two were particularly valuable – not in the simple monetary sense of the modern horse, but economically. Both were serious revenue earners and the loss of such an animal, either through escape or theft, would be a serious setback for coachman and farmer alike (the military was always in a position to commandeer a horse if needs be). Thus it was that the horse was stabled not just for readiness, but also for security.
The modern day horse is no longer a part of such activities; the 4×4, the motor coach and the tractor have long supplanted the horse. Despite still being categorized in most jurisdictions as livestock, these days the horse is a purely leisure animal; it no longer works six days a week from dawn till dusk – even the riding school horse or competition horse is spared that arduous life and fits the bill as a leisure animal. And we, as owners, keepers, riders, do not have the same urgency to put the horse to work. If we wish to ride, fetching the horse from the field, fettling and saddling up are all part of the activity and the pleasure – or at least, they should be – and not be seen as a chore; if they are, buy a motorbike. It is therefore no longer necessary to stable a horse. The aberration of stabling is compounded particularly when we realize that the horse is a crepuscular animal. With the coming of twilight, the horse becomes more active. This is frequently interpreted by owners as ‘wanting to come in’ but observation of horses that have never been stabled shows identical behaviour. And as a riposte to those owners that claim their horses rush in when the stable door is opened, it is only because his daily fix of sugars3 is awaiting him…leave the door open and he will soon be out again. Only in very rare cases, usually where the horse is so irritated by insect bites, do we truly see voluntary incarceration.