Why I train my horse with the principles of equitation science

The horse I bought six months ago has challenged me more that any of the horses I have had in the last ten years.  I have never competed at high levels and am firmly in the amateur rider category.  However, I push myself to be able to do the best with my horse. I also, because of my role with my clients, am asked questions on training.  I feel I have a responsibility to be able to provide answers to their questions but within my scope of evidence-based practice.

Equitation Science (ES) is the name given for an approach to horse training and management that uses information gained from research into how horses learn and how their behaviour impacts the horse/human relationship to inform.  It is not linked to any ‘brand’ of training but is part of all ‘brands’ training.

ES suits my bias as it is logical, there is clarity, it prioritises horses’ welfare and is evidence based.

To read more about the principles of learning theory in equitation, go to https://equitationscience.com/about/ises-training-principles

And a video here: https://youtu.be/yaiWX47FMKs

I first came across ES seven years ago and although it made sense to me I wasn’t on the lookout for any help a that time, in my mind I had it all sorted and was progressing well with the horse I had.  He was obedient, he didn’t present me with any training challenges and all was going well.  However, I was interested to learn about how horse’s learn, how their internal instruction manual influences them and also how the main famous handling approaches work.  I learnt to evaluate these methods and I used a fusion of the best bits without any issues.

Then along came a Lusitano who is quick, prone to tension and reactions based on fear and very, very clever!

I needed to up my game to match his training needs.  And so far so good!  We are following a training plan, starting with re-education of simple but essential responses to my cues (aids) such as his stop and go response.  I started training these inhand and then under saddle.  This has progressed to being able to change tempo and stride length whilst staying relaxed and it is very easy to tell when we are not relaxed!  We have proved our training at a few low-key events, to start with from the ground (I was not about to get on a stressed and horse influenced by fear) and at the last dressage, I let my 8 year old girl hack him back to the horsebox – how about that for confidence in his learning!

We use training of direct and in-direct turns as well as yields to progress his training and strength.  The goal I’m working towards at the moment is the Royal Cornwall Show. Six months ago I could never have conceived that my young, green, stressy horse would be able to cope in such an environment.  Thanks to an ES approach, we are shaping his training to get to that point and for us both to be happy.

I believe a horse trained with consideration of his mental wellbeing as well as his physical wellbeing will be a healthier horse.  Suits me – I would rather be involved in routine care of happy comfortable horses then horses struggling with their musculoskeletal system due to their training approach.

For more information see Equicoach.life and also Equitation Science International

I am more than just the ‘back lady’!

As an equine physio I am more than just the back lady!

Did you know that:

Each time I assess a horse I look at its movement. In-hand walk, trot, circles and rein back tell me about how their musculoskeletal system is working and highlights any areas of concern that need more closer inspection. Seeing your horse lunged is preferred too as this changes the way your horse has to move and allows assessment of bend, transitions and canter.

I am looking for asymmetrical movement and therefore lameness. But it is often the subtle differences between left and right that show is where to look when moving on to the next stage of the assessment.

It also gives me a chance to see how your horse moves his body dynamically. This can include visualisation of core stability, muscle strength, power and their training

And did you know that;

Every time I see a horse I use a consistent and structured palpation assessment. My palpation assessment is the process of checking over the parts of your horse that I can get my hands on. I generally start at the front and work head to tail. If the horse will allow I start at the poll, the upper neck and across the jaw, and the front of the head. I can always come back to this region if a horse takes a little while to become confident which my touch. I then work through each of the superficial muscles which are the ones closest to the surface. Whilst I can’t get my hands onto the deep muscles, the ones above them, often give signs of issues in deeper structures.  But it’s not just muscles I can feel, there is the connecting tissues such as the fascia, ligaments, tendons and I can feel across the joint lines.

I am looking for the most obvious reaction which would be due to pain but also differences from one area to the next, from one side to the next, and differences to what I would expect, based on the horse in front of me. These differences might be in muscle tone, reaction to touch, size or signs of heat or swelling.

Palpation is just one part of the assessment, alongside assessing how your horse moves both actively during gait assessment and when I move the joints through their range of movement when your horse is stood still

And did you know that:

At each assessment I will check through joint range of motion. Range of motion is how much a joint can move, as well as how easily that movement occurs. We can measure the actual degrees of movement with a tool called a goniometer but this is pretty tricky on a horse. So when I am with a horse I compare the amount of bend in the joints of the legs from left to right for example. I can also compare the lateral flexion of the neck to each side. I can also test how much flexion and extension (lifting and lowering) the main region of the back has.

It is not only the amount of movement but quality of movement both when I move the joints and if I ask the horse to. I am looking to see if there is any stiffness, any restriction or any pain associated with the movement.

I then combine this information with the findings from the gait assessment and palpation assessment to build a picture about your horse

And did you know that:

I have studied and continue to learn more about the principles of horse behaviour. I understand that the instincts of a horse are as a prey species, and this affects the human-horse interaction and training. They have evolved to be survivalists and the potential for behaviour as a consequence of this will be intensified if the horse is in pain or stressed. The horse’s first response to a potentially threatening situation is to attempt to flee. Moving their feet quickly to run away from danger is likely to be limited by the handler and that may mean the next option is the fight response. Flight and fight can be combined and the horse can ‘walk over’ the handler, push them, knock them or mouth and bite them, progressing to kicking or rearing to escape the pressure they are feeling.

A horse in this state will have a raised heart rate, chemicals flooding their body in response to the stress (for instance; adrenaline and cortisol) and an increased circulation to the muscles, ready to flee. The horse’s posture will be altered so that the head and neck are raised and the muscles along the topline will be tense, ready for the movement to escape.

This behaviour, in response to fear or stress, may be the only cause of issues when being ridden or handled, but when in combination with pain, there is a huge overlap between how the signs and symptoms are presented. This is why, during the assessment, I will ask a whole series of questions about the nature of the issue, the history and the behavioural signs shown by your horse.

No matter what I want to, or need to do to your horse, the environment and their handling needs to be calm. Understanding how a horse may react to my presence and intervention influences my approach and choice of treatment. Saying that, I very rarely have a horse react to the extremes as mentioned above. However, even the behaviour of a slightly reactive horse needs to be noticed, acknowledged and managed so we get the best outcome for your horse.


And did you know that:

I have studied the principles of how horses learn.  It is important that I know about learning so that I can use techniques to help me carry out my assessment and the person handling the horse, perform the gait assessment I need to see.  Horses have a different brain to us but the theories about how they learn and respond to signals or cues are well explored.  They can learn by association, for example, the sight (and smell!) of the vet can result in some interesting behaviours but some of my horsey clients have a much more positive response when they recognize what I might be doing with them! They also learn as a result of the consequence to their behaviour.  If they flee, without stopping to think about it, from a monster and they survive, they will run next time they think they’ve heard or seen a monster.  They learn from positive consequences as well for instance the good feelings from mutual grooming is a nice outcome when being social in a herd situation.

The behaviours that the owner/rider describes to me, about their horse, can be due to learned behaviour.  This can be in response to pain, for example the horse learns to avoid a particular activity as this means less pain, this may cause the horse to avoid the activity with an even stronger reaction.  This activity could be jumping, or going from trot to canter, or anything that requires you to ask your horse to do anything that may make it hurt. However, this behaviour can continue when the pain has gone, so we have to understand your horse, work out what is driving the behaviour and have a plan about how to modify the behaviour once we are confident there is no pain.

One approach I consider when treating horses is habituation. This is where the response to certain stimuli is reduced or de-sensitised. I may have to de-sensitize the horse to my approach, the techniques or equipment I use.  Sometimes I need to stand on a step on the right hand side of the horse.  This is often a new situation for the horse, so I need to break the process of my appearing up above the horse on the ‘wrong’ side.  Accepting the step, accepting me standing on the step, accepting seeing me above their back, out of their left eye, and accepting me standing in different places to where you would mount or plait the mane, are all markers I need to be sure the horse is comfortable with.

The response to certain behaviours can be conditioned by the consequence that occurs.  The traditional manner of training is by pressure and release, whereby the removal of the pressure is the release, and this is termed negative reinforcement.  Think about how we lead our horses as well as how we apply leg and also rein aids.  These examples use negative reinforcement, which is then how the horse learns.  When the pressure is removed ie the leg taken away as soon as the desired movement response occurs, or the ‘pull’ of the rope is reduced, then to the horse it seems that ‘if I do that then this happens’.

I know during treatment that if the horse is standing as asked, it is a good to reward the horse and this I can do with positive reinforcement. A simple scratch at the withers is a nice option or piece of food.  Carrot stretches are a great example of positive reinforcement, so long as the choice of treat is favoured!

When prescribing exercises I am experienced, with a number of different horses, ages, breeds and levels of training. This means it is good for me to know how to teach a horse so I can provide practical advice.  I am always happy to work with you and teach both you and your horse how best to do the exercises and what a good version of the exercises looks like.

So there you are, the many aspects of a Vet Physio!

I’m more than just a back lady!

If you would like to have a chat about how I can help you and your horse, please do get in touch

A new website and a new chapter for Gillian Tabor Physiotherapist!

I am really excited to launch my new website.  It’s basic right now but the great news is that I can update it more easily.  It will be the place for my thoughts on how you can achieve, not just the physical wellbeing but the mental wellbeing for your horse too.  I am keen to support you and your horses, with their musculoskeletal health as I always have, but I’m looking forward to adding a new dimension to my ability to help you.

For many years I have sought to combine competing my own horse, alongside my business and my family.  I have dreamt of tails and top hats but in reality my goals have been much more aligned with achieving the best I can with the knowledge, skills, time and support (and money!) I have.

I had a plan about 5 years ago and started putting the pieces in place to achieve them and that was to own a lusitano.  And now I have two! That wasn’t the plan but the journey so far has changed my outlook on what I want to achieve.   Bear with me as this evolution affects my physio too!

So here it is, this is what I want:

I want a great relationship with my horse.

I want my horse to be the best he can be physically and mentally.

I want to compete and achieve success but only if the above two are in place.

Are these similar to your goals or vision of you and your horse?

I needed to learn more about training, so I have be collecting information and experiences from  talented trainers. My influences started with straightness training (Marijke de Jong) during the time I had my daughter as a new baby gave me free time, ironically!  I had training with my old horse, Neo, and one of the straightness training instructors as well as being a member of the home study course.   I then felt a need to find out more, so I followed Manolo Mendez and was able to see him in action, alongside Dr Kerry Ridgeway and Cnl Christian Carde, a few years ago.

I have had amazing chances to observe and be trained in Portugal, learning more in a few hours with great teachers than ever before.  More recently I have been interested in the work of Bent Brenderup. I have even been reading the original texts of the old masters, Xenophon, Pluvinel, de la Gueriniere.

My background and knowledge of equine biomechanics allows me to select the perfect exercise to work with your horses problem, if they have one.  I know which can be used to work towards your performance goal even if you don’t have any problems.  I also have an understanding of how horses learn (equine learning theory) and plan to follow this up with further study of equitation science in 2018.

I have seen that physical and often called ‘Classical’ exercises can be the physiotherapy that a horse needs.  I am planning a way of adding these to how I treat your horses.  I will often leave a client with a list of suggested exercises, but whether I’ve explained them clearly or with enough detail, depends so much on how I communicate the instructions.

So coming in 2018:

Horse movement therapy – classical exercises blended with equine biomechanics to improve posture, strength, balance, coordination and partnership.

Now its over to you – how would you like me to share this information with you?  Online? Video? Audio? A book? Let me know!!