What equipment do you you use for inhand, groundwork or lunge work with your horse?

You may train at liberty of course but there are different options if you are looking to use some equipment

The headcollar is our standard bit of kit for leading horses, certainly in the UK. However for inhand, groundwork or lunge work is provides less precise control, as the broad straps are often loose, which can challenge you when trying to give clear signals to your horse.

The attachment of the lead rope is under the chin, which doesn’t create a turning effect on the nose when bending or on a circle. If the horse follows the rope it will come in the direction from the cheek first, thus a slightly outside flexion, rather than a more correct inside upper cervical flexion.

Not ideal for groundwork but better to use a headcollar than no groundwork if it’s the only bit of kit you have!

A rope halter provides clearer signals, than a headcollar, from you to the horse due through the thinner rope. You can give a clear pressure on and off, and quickly for leading and handling. But with it being looser it can slide around.

However due to the narrow ropes, too much pulling from either the handler or the horse can create high pressure in small areas. Also some have extra knots and metal clamped around specifically to add extra pressure. Training to respond to lighter pressures should be carried out if you are finding you need to use high force to control your horse.

The direction of pull from the lead rope is the same as using a headcollar because the attachment of the lead rope is under the chin which doesn’t create a turning effect on the nose when bending or on a circle. If the horse follows the rope it will come in the direction from the cheek first, thus a slightly outside flexion, rather than a more correct inside upper cervical flexion.

Often used for natural horsemanship and handling training, these are also used for more technical inhand work. The challenge with a rope halter is the lack of clarity to direct the turn of the head and potential high pressure if you or your horse pulls. You also need to be careful if there is a clunky metal clip to the led rope u Der the chin.

A bridle can be used if your horse was bitted before you started this training or rehab. If you are bitless then it is not appropriate of course nor is rehab the time to teach inhand work and rein-aids. If you have time to ‘bit’ your horse before surgery or before you start rehab, then this would be a better time.

A bit can provide very clear signals to the horse for stop, turn and no pressure during movement, but can be abused if the pressure is not released. Being a bit uncoordinated with timing of aids can happen, so take care not to be pulling hard on their mouth.

If your horse is not safe in a headcollar or rope halter, using a bridle for leading might be a better option, in the short term although retraining is the ultimate best option.

During inhand work, using two reins gives outside rein which can help with controlling straightness and the outside shoulder. However having more reins to control can be tricky!

And remember the fit of the bridle and bit are as important as the fit of a saddle!

The cavesson is my preferred choice for inhand, ground and lunge work. It provides clear direction to the horse for the correct turn of the head and the neck to the inside. It also does confuse any aids to the bit or mouth.  The cavesson has to fit snuggly to avoid it twisting and the cheek pieces rubbing across the eyes. The best styles are the European leather covered metal links rather than the heavier, traditional English ones.

However a headcollar, rope halter or bridle used for inhand, ground or lunge work is better than not doing any inhand, groundwork or lunge work!

Why every owner should massage their horse!

I absolutely love a massage! It feels so, so good. And I especially like them if they have got hot stones involved!

I have a lot of clients that have their horse massaged, and I think it complements physiotherapy really well and by physiotherapy, I mean more targeted treatment that has been linked to specific functional difficulties in one or more areas or the whole of the horse’s body.  And treatment is then supported by some form of exercise rehabilitation. So the massage between physio visits or alongside the physio visits or actually delivered by the physiotherapist is really, really sensible to complement that plan.

My point that I’d like to make is that I believe that horse owners should be doing some form of massage to their horse themselves. The massage therapists that I work with are very skilled. They’re very professional. They’re trained very well and no doubt are very good at what they do. And I don’t want to make anybody cancel their massage therapists appointments!

But I think on a daily basis owners, and by owners I also include myself, should massage that horse.

You don’t need to know anatomy. You don’t need to know the physiological responses underneath your hands. What you need to know is – what is the response when you put your hands on your horse? This can be really useful information for any therapists that you have come to see your horse.

Let’s break it down to something very simple and excuse me if I’m sounding like I’m dumbing down massage but start with grooming your horse with your hands from the head to the tail. Start off with some stroking and the key is to work in the direction of the hair. Use a pressure the same as you would with a grooming brush and see if your horse responds to positively and always keep an eye on how your horse responds. You’ll get to learn the lumps and bumps, what’s normal, and if then if you find anything you think is abnormal, make a note of it. You’ll get to feel when the soft tissues underneath your hands change. So if you poke somewhere too hard and it goes hard underneath your fingers and the horse swishes its tail and turns and looks at you, you know that that was uncomfortable. If the horse shivers and tries to brush you off, like you’re a fly, then perhaps you need to be a little bit firmer with your pressure.

Massage is very simple or very cheap,  and a few minutes of something that you can do with your horse on a daily basis.

Tip 1: Don’t be afraid that you could be doing something wrong. It’s very unlikely that that’s going to be possible so long as you are positioning yourself safely and you are looking at how your horse responds to your touch. You’re very, very unlikely to cause any harm.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid that you’re not doing it properly. To be honest, touch is touch and all the different types of bodywork therapists out there are also all working with touch. There is no definitive one method that outranks them all. If you’ve got your hands on your horse and your horse is displaying signs that they are happy and they like it, then that is good enough.

Tip 3: Enjoy it! Be present with your horse spend time with them. Get to know what they like what they don’t like. And be confident that in us in a small way you are really helping your horse to feel good in that particular moment.

Just to finish, I will mention a a little bit about the research on massage. To be honest, it’s very mixed, as with all the equine therapy studies, so we have to take a look at the massage research on humans.  Some of the ‘sales’ speak and techniques used in massage and bodywork are not supported by any research evidence, for instance, breaking down of adhesions or flushing away toxins. These are suggestions that are not shown to be true. What we do know is that when we put our hands on, we effect the neurological system. We stimulate receptors in the skin and in the superficial tissues which has an effect on the sensation. So that’s why you shouldn’t be feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing. Because you do. You can tell your horse can tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t like and that can be a really positive time that you spend with your horse.

If you are interested to learn more about the physical well-being of your horse whilst on box rest, or during periods of increased stabling, please check out my webinar – Thinking Inside the Box www.gilliantaborphysio.thinkific.com

A Stable Base to Horse Training and Exercise

The fun with horses is often comes with the faster stuff – the jumping, the galloping across the fields, going for longer rides with our friends, going to competitions

All these type of events we dream of doing with our horses are very special. However, if compare human athletes training programmes to horse training programmes, the fun stuff would be the peak of the training cycle. Human athletes with big goals, train with coaches planning in macro, meso and micro cycles. All the physiological attributes that are needed to succeed all come together at a single time.

From my experience with horses, this is a little bit hit and miss! People tend to go along doing much of the same thing and then see an event they want to go to. And it could be in two days it could be in three months.  Often there’s little actual structural planning towards it.

We need to have consistency and a strategy. By consistency I do not mean doing the same thing again and again and again. You could have a consistent increase in the intensity or a consistent phase of low intensity or we could have a consistently various training programme.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we can’t do all of this fun stuff; I’m saying that we need to prepare the horse’s body for it.

One great method of training is to have a strong base layer of training to build this more intense training on.  The basic training for a human runner is just getting in those slow, steady miles or for a swimmer, just going to the pool and getting the lengths in. In fact, there’s one system of training with 80% of the training amount as low level endurance training, and only 20% the intensity that would equate to jumping or going for fast work on a horse.

If your horse has an overall lower intensity training programme or they are recovering from an injury, or surgery, or maybe our goal isn’t to go round badminton, the following is just as important.

Your horse needs a base layer of exercise low intensity and regular exercises, some of which can be done in a stable. I’m sure everybody is familiar with caret stretches, but they’re not the only exercise stable based exercise to activate the stability muscular system. We want to activate the core muscles and we should be doing this every single day. This low intensity work should be the bread and butter of any training programme. We should be switching on those muscles, activating the supporting muscular systems to allow those bigger faster stronger muscles to work and not put added strain on to the horse’s musculoskeletal system.

So carrot stretches are amazing. I am the number one fan of carrot stretches but there are a few caveats

Firstly, they need to be done with careful positioning of the horse, they need to be done safely so that you don’t get eaten or knocked over. And secondly, they don’t need to be as complex as they are repeated in the research. We can just do them reaching for food between the front fetlocks and then out to each side low and wide. These are the positions that have the most effect on the spine, range of motion and where visibly you can see the most activation of the abdominal muscles and the lift of the back.

We can also do weight shifting exercises in the stable -gentle slow rock of the body from one side to the other, from front to back or on a diagonal pattern. The horse uses their core control to stabilise, but with care and with the level of movement that is appropriate for the individual horse in front of us.

We can also do balance exercises and we can do exercises that involve positive reinforcement to actually mentally challenge the horse as well as physically.

What is your training programme for 2022 with your horse?

Have you got a structure to it?

Do you know how often you want to do those higher intensity activities such as competitions or meeting up with friends for a fun ride?

Is your horse going to be prepared for it?

Are you going to be consistent in your training to get to that point in a healthy way?

My tip is to do daily stable based exercises and then build the other forms of exercises on top of this stable base.

If you are interested to learn more about the physical well-being of your horse whilst on box rest, or during periods of increased stabling, please check out my webinar – Thinking Inside the Box www.gilliantaborphysio.thinkific.com

Feeding positions

What position does your horse eat from? 

Knowledge of the horse’s evolution has shown that horses, as predominantly grazing animals, spend a large time with their head down on the ground eating grass. Wild horses needed to eat for many hours is due to digestion of large volumes of low quality forage. This is slightly different from the modern feed sources for our modern horse – but that’s a whole other topic!  

Horses have evolved to have the most mobile part of their spine involved in feeding – their a flexible neck. In the wild they would spend time with their head down eating, but also need to be able to raise it up to check for predators. They would also be able to use this large range of motion to reach for different sources of forage.

Have you ever watched your horse pick blackberries out of a hedge or select the sweetest shoots of a bush from a shrub? It’s approximated that the horse in the wild would spend 80% with their head down grazing and 20% of the time grazing from about head height or above.

So how do we replicate that in the stable? I think we have to be a bit inventive. I have seen some wonderful pictures of people bringing in branches with leaves on and hanging them up. But I have also seen some frustrated horses trying to get hold of a carrot in a swinging plastic toy that keeps popping them on the nose each time it gets pushed away and comes back at them.

There are valid concerns about the use of hay nets and the effect on the horse’s spine, focussing on back posture and strain on the head and neck area. But allowing ad lib hay on the ground or haylage on the ground can create issues in terms of excess food intake.

So how can we manage that?

As with the friends, forage and freedom thought process for mental well-being, with these three very simplified areas of horse care we have to be pragmatic. If you are restricting food amount or slowing eating speeds, you do need to use some kind of device but you need to choose the one that is successful for your horse. Options are haybags but make sure they don’t swing, hay bars set at the right right or slow feeders that look like dustbins with a grid over the top. Anything that is stuffed too tightly with hay will need a horse to pull with some force to tug the hay out. Watching your horse to see how they manage to eat is critical.

And if you are not restricting food, then having forage on the ground, but also providing a small amount at a higher level is more similar to how a horse would feed in the wild.

As with everything variety is the way forward, it has got to be better for your horse to arrange for different feeding positions, on the ratio of 80% ground, 20% higher, than stay in any one fixed feeding position.

If you are interested to learn more about the physical well-being of your horse whilst on box rest, or during periods of increased stabling, please check out my webinar – Thinking Inside the Box www.gilliantaborphysio.thinkific.com

Mental AND Physical Well-being

My role as an equine physiotherapist is to think about a horse’s musculoskeletal health. I consider the body holistically and how it relates to the whole physicality of the horse.  This includes soft tissues which are the muscles, ligaments, fascia, tendons, and the joints between the bones. We cannot consider the physical health without looking to a horse’s mental well-being as well. When I assess a horse, I consider its behaviour and the environment to make a broad judgement on the happiness of that horse. We, as horse owners and lovers, have an ethical duty to keep our horses happy. It is even listed in the FEI rules!

Physical health can’t come at the restriction of the mental health like keeping a horse in a stable to reduce its chance of field related injuries. But in balance some become stressed and anxious when turned out and resorts to fence walking or pawing at the gate.

We know that keeping a horse in a stable 100% of the time may impact their mental well-being. But, as with all aspects of horse ownership, there is no perfect right or wrong answer. It’s a spectrum and we have to be pragmatic about our horse’s care and the effects on their physical and mental health.

If your horse has been placed on box rest because of injury then obviously that’s the priority. If you have wet land or small areas you need to protect for the longer term, then restricting turnout is obviously sensible. The one non-negotiable is that your horse needs to at least be able to see another horse. The even better option is to be able to have physical contact with another horse – nose over fences, doors or shared fields or barns. Touch is critical for human wellbeing and is for horses too!

The optimum is a horse having access to moving, being with other horses and eating a high fibre diet. Simply known as friends, forage and freedom. Above all, despite individual need to compromise, ‘friends, forage and freedom’ should drive the decisions that we make about the care of our horse.  We can hopefully optimise their mental well-being whilst looking after their physical health.

If you want to learn more about the physical well-being of your horse whilst on box rest, or during periods of increased stabling, please check out my webinar – Thinking Inside the Box: Click here – www.gilliantaborphysio.thinkific.com

My Injured Horse – Part 5

Part 5 of an honest reflection coping with injury and rehab

Everything was under control, so just to risk it all, he needed to come home. A change of ponies at home meant it was time. I had to be away teaching in the middle of the next month and my family usually look after the animals. We decided that it would be too challenging initially for them, so coming home was back on hold. I’m not very patient so this waiting was a trial for me, despite the sound reasoning! However it gave time to create four little paddocks within my flattest field. I’m grateful to my husband, his friend and my son as they were fence post donking whilst I was at Hartpury teaching horse behaviour… how ironic!

As soon as I could after that, with nerves and trepidation, I brought him home. On the same day my daughter’s 13.2 pony went to his new home. A seriously emotional day, I don’t do things by halves! Sadness from saying goodbye to one but the joy of seeing his handsome face (I’m biased!) in his stable was amazing.

Electric fence plugged into the mains and boots on, he went out. The first area was about 10m square and new 14.2 was next to him. This pony was the one we thought had caused the injury in the first place, however they had been out together before his diagnosis with no problems. One hour of turnout on the first day, then two and then up to four. A week later the grass was running a bit low and perhaps a bit of boredom or confidence set in. The external electric tape was powered just fine but the strip between the two horses was possibly not working because I looked at the camera (yes I know, I’m lucky to be able to watch them when I’m not there) and the tape between them was down! Immediate panic set in and I expected to find them both trying to kill each other. However it turns out that they were far more settled and were eating next to each other quite happily. He’d made his own decision to join her – potentially not the best way for it to happen but he’d taken that next step and decision from me.

Hand walking and longreining continued daily and the vet had said that I could ride him. No schooling and mostly walking hacks but nevertheless I was allowed on his back. I have limited time due to family commitments and work so the time and day to ride arrived. Couldn’t be helped that it was a wet, wild and windy September day though. He’d worn his full tack already and I’d checked the saddle fitted but as for getting back on, well I’m definitely not as confident as I used to be.

Body protector on and with a few deep breaths, and a handful of pony nuts in my pocket, I actually got on in the stable. Mine are large with no roof and he’d been backed in there so I thought this was a good option. I wasn’t allowed in the arena and getting on for the first time in the driveway way slightly concerning for me!

I needn’t have worried. He remembered how to approach the mounting block then stood still waiting for his reward. I got on walked a circle and got off, no worries, what a relief. By this time it was torrential rain but it was then or the next weekend so we braved it. I thought we would be nannyed by my daughter on her pony but it turned out she was left behind as we stride off down the driveway!

It was almost as if he was saying, thank goodness, we are finally doing something proper! Ears forward and with his usual upbeat bounce we were off. It was such a great feeling, I was not in a dressage arena or jumping a course but the feeling was just as great. I didn’t even know if he would ever do any more than go out at walk but it finally felt like there was progress. It was 14 weeks since the operation and no where near the end of rehab but it felt like a massive step in the right direction.

I think the short terms goals and mini achievements have been the reason I have been able to manage this whole situation emotionally. I do like a good to-do list so getting it down on paper has really helped me. Does anyone else write down goals and a plan?

My Injured Horse – Part 4

Part 4 of an honest reflection coping with injury and reha

bOnce we were at 8 weeks post op, there were no signs of anything wrong happening with two 5 minute inhand walks a day. If you know me and my research area you’ll know how frustrating I was finding the lack of knowledge about progress of the healing. I knew it wouldn’t really change anything but if I’d had my own imaging equipment, I’d have been rescanning and x-raying weekly!

As my horse’s behaviour was good and all feet were either on the ground or stepping as required and not launching around it was time to think about more movement. Controlled exercise was required. Fortunately the decision to have him on rehab livery @devonequinehydrotherapyspa was working out better than I could have hoped for. Because I am away from home for long periods there’s no way I could have been able to build up the exercise gradually, or certainly more than once a day. The irony of needing to work to afford to pay for rehab for my own horse was not lost on me!

When my horse was younger he was taken on lots of hacks inhand. He had previously been very comfortable long-reining so it was decided that was the way forward now. So his programme outside of box rest was increased to include longer duration walking on the long-reins. Once this was going well the next step was to plan his return home. How to transition from the safety of the rehab yard, back to my care, was something that kept me awake at night. I knew I wanted him home but what if I wasn’t able to keep up the good work? The only way I could cope with him home and for him to cope without causing him stress was for him to be able to be turned out.

We had to bite the bullet and give him his freedom. But what if he injured himself in the field? What if the ‘frayed’ suspensory or the bone healing was damaged even more? All these questions and risks needing consideration. If I didn’t consider his mental well-being or had the knowledge that graduated increased loading was needed, I would have stuck with the box rest forever! However, frustratingly, I know that bed rest doesn’t help humans and immobility has its own longer term consequences.

After the decision was made it actually turned out that turning out was a non-event! The trick it appears is to put them in a small area, with a stable neighbour in the next paddock, and with lots of buckets containing a little bit of food. Such a simple but effective idea. I awaited photos of him out and could have cried when I saw him head down mouching about. Finally a bit of freedom for him.

I’m not sure if decision fatigue by proxy is a thing but by this stage I was definitely exhausted from lying awake at night worrying. I am not sure which is worse, worrying about children or your horses? Being told that the outcome of all of this is likely to be ok, not 100% of course but probable it’ll be fine, didn’t stop me being really fretting about the future for him.

As I’m writing this I still don’t know if he will be ok. I wish I had a crystal ball. But at this stage you can’t do anything else but stick to the process and be brave.

My Injured Horse – Part 3

My injured horse: Part 3 of an honest reflection coping with the injury and rehab.

The box rest went well, except for the occasional eating of therapy equipment, boots and bandages, he seemed to be managing. He put on weight because it is a real struggle trying to balance keeping them eating and not getting stomach ulcers. I would rather he had ad-lib hay and was able to keep up his foraging behaviour and fibre intake than start any stereotypical behaviour. The change of environment and amount of movement was already a risk factor in the development of behaviours such as cribbing and weaving. However the benefit of the yard he went to was that there was activity enough to ‘enrich’ his view but not too much to be considered manic and stressful. There was an air of calm there and all the horses seemed relaxed and settled or well managed if not. Where horses can’t have their friends, forage and freedom we have a responsibility to try and meet their needs as maximally as we can.

After one month of complete box rest, I took my horse back to the surgeon at Western Counties Equine Hospital for a re-scan. I am not sure at this point what I was anticipating as the result. My logical professional brain knew what was realistic but I admit I was disappointed when the results were ‘as good as can be expected for this stage of healing’. In my heart I wanted it to be that everything was fixed and we could skip all the next phases of rehab. Unrealistic I know though.

The good news was that he was allowed to start walking, just for 5 minutes twice a day though. This did cement my choice of the yard because they were there and had the driveway and tracks available to walk him. I dreaded the start of walking though. I feared he would not be able to stay calm and that would put the staff at Devon Equine Hydrotherapy spa at risk. I knew they were capable but what if their handling methods differed from my own, and my horse would get confused. He is bred to have a fun foreleg action and has been known to wave his legs in the air. He did stay calm but what if the healing would be damaged by walking. I know all the theory of the healing process, I know that graduated loading is essential to optimise the tissue repair but I also know that too much too soon would be risky.

I think my dilemmas often come from overthinking and the background knowledge I have. But I appreciate knowledge is power so it’s a fine line! Do you think it’s better to know too much or not enough? Have you had to manage a horse that’s starting work after box rest?

What strategies did you use? Safety is paramount, so hats/gloves and bridle and or the use of medication for sedation. There are lots of options and one that is right for your horse.

My Injured Horse – Part 2

My injured horse: Part 2 of an honest reflection coping with the injury and rehab.

After surgery and 2 nights at hospital, an intense period of rehab loomed. I would like to say I was able to take this in my stride but I have a job, a family and other ponies at home and it wasn’t that easy. I had to make some tough and quick decisions. How would I be able to manage a horse on box rest whilst turning out the others as that was their normal routine. How would my horse feel with the others being out and him not going out? Would I have the time to muck him out? What about boredom when I was out all day, would that lead to new behaviours such as cribbing or box walking? Also, I go away for work occasionally and would I be able to ask my family to look after him. Would he be safe in the stable? So, so many questions?

If I kept him a home, we would all be compromised, the other ponies, the family and I as well as him. But what were the alternatives? I tried to be as objective and weigh up the cost v benefits. So I came to a decision, I needed a professional yard. Luckily I knew of one and after speaking Izzie who runs it my mind was made up. My horse went to Devon Equine Hydrotherapy Spa. I drove my horse from the hospital to there and literally took a large in breadth when it came to unloading him.

My precious cargo walked down the ramp, into the yard and straight into the stable where he was to stay for a long while. I took off his headcollar in the stable, he walked around once and then tucked into the hay there for him. The reasons for my decision were based on the yard set up. All the stables allow visibility of the horses in the six block he was in. I knew there were small paddocks for turnout when we got to that point but I figured that my horse wouldn’t know they were there so no expectations of being allowed out.

I think that makes sense, but how was I to know how my horse felt. It was the right decision in hindsight, Izzie let me know he took a day or two to fully settle and that they kept a friend near him at all times, they also were around all day to check on him and change his dressings and replace his bandages when he ate them!! He initially only walked out of his box for the vet to see him and then straight back in again. He was on full box rest for the first month.

It took a lot of weeks to start to emotionally get over him going to the yard. I felt I was letting him down, surely I was the one to look after him? I was professionally capable after all. What if he was stressed and upset by the change of yards, it would have been my fault. I also felt guilty for sending him away but in a way it was like I was putting him out of sight. We were to go eventing this summer, I was definitely grieving for the loss of these fun plans.

Trying to decide on the best course of action is tough. How do you know what is right before you know what is right because you have been though it?

My Injured Horse

Part 1 of an honest reflection coping with injury and rehab.

I am a physio who specialises in the treatment and rehabilitation of horses with twenty years of practice. I have worked with hundreds, maybe thousands, of horses and owners who have needed my help to progress back to ‘normal’. I am not writing about these horses, I am now writing about my own.

In May my horse, my baby – the one – the horse of a lifetime, showed up at the field gate with a fat leg. I am not one to panic so I brought him in, had a good feel and decided to see what would happen with it. There was heat and swelling above the fetlock but he wasn’t lame. Over the next few days the swelling went down and I resumed ridden work. The swelling stuck around on the outside of his cannon but didn’t get worse with exercise so we carried on. He still was not lame and was his usual self for a couple of weeks but then got a bit grumpy in the arena. I had kept my eye on the leg and a small wound over the swelling opened up so I called the vet.

Although, not being allowed to diagnose because of the Vet Act, I asked the vet to bring their xray equipment as I had a nagging and worrying feeling.

Sadly I was right, what initially looked like a little knock when it didn’t get better I suspected a splint fracture. This was clearly visible on xray. Immediate box rest and referral to an orthopaedic surgeon led to a plan for surgery to remove the fragments as soon as possible. Not only was there a fracture the edge of the suspensory was also a bit ruffled.

I have been through this before but not with this horse. Looking back, at this stage my feelings were mainly of guilt because the injury was due to a kick from a new horse in the field. It was my fault because it was my choice to put them in the field together. I have always put my horses in together without any issues but not that day.

The guilt was painful, it makes me choke thinking of it. Have you ever felt this guilt and blamed yourself for something that has happened to your horse? I would be interested to know because it’s not a component of rehab that is within my scope of physio practice when I work with clients, except to be there to listen and discuss with empathy.