How Well Are We Doing? Why Some Horses Thrive While Others Just Get By

Opportunities Header  Look at the horses around you. Do you believe that they’re thriving? Are their lives the healthiest, richest and most fulfilling they could be – from a horse’s point of view?

OK – so how would you know?

Recently, I heard something that shook up my notions of how we look after our horses – in a good way. It confirmed my thoughts on why some ideas around horse care are good, and equally strengthened my convictions about why some others are wrong.

To cut to the chase, I found myself at an animal behavior conference, listening to a remarkable talk. In just 12 short minutes, I experienced my own work and that of many others dedicated to improving horses’ lives placed in a strong and meaningful context.

The speaker identified just why the ‘5 Animal Freedoms’, commonly used in animal welfare advocacy, are no longer enough to guide us in how we treat our fellow creatures.

Being fundamental and broad, the freedoms – from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury or disease, to express normal behaviour, and from fear and distress – are today more associated with outright cruelty cases, rather than animals that are doing not so badly, but could maybe do better in our care.

Instead, this speaker offered a further 5 points to help us ensure that our animals – including our horses – not only avoid cruelty, but have the opportunity to positively thrive under our care.

Original article (c) Jane Clothier, Sept 2015. No reproduction without permission. 


The 5 Opportunities to Thrive

The talk, From Prevention of Cruelty to Optimizing Welfare, was presented by Greg Vicino, Head of Welfare at San Diego Zoo. More on Greg soon, but first, here are the five Opportunities to Thrive that he outlined.

1. Opportunity for a well-balanced diet Fresh water and a suitable, species specific diet will be provided in a way that ensures full health and vigor, both behaviorally and physically.

2. Opportunity to self-maintain An appropriate environment including shelter and species specific substrates that encourage opportunities to self-maintain.

3. Opportunity for optimal health Rapid diagnosis and treatment of injury or disease while providing supportive environments that increase the likelihood of healthy individuals.

4. Opportunity to express species-specific behavior Quality spaces and appropriate social groupings will be provided that encourage species specific behaviors at natural frequencies and of appropriate diversity while meeting social and developmental needs.

5. Opportunities for choice and control Providing conditions in which animals can exercise control and make choices to avoid suffering and distress, and make behavior meaningful.

 Vicino, G.A. and Miller, L.J. (In Prep).
From prevention of cruelty to optimizing welfare. 



How well are we doing with our horses?

Do those make you think at all? They do me… thoughts have flooded in and continue to do so, especially when I talk to other equine care professionals.

In some ways, our horses share more with captive animals than the agricultural livestock they live closely with. Retaining many powerful characteristics of the wild, our horses are kept in areas many times smaller than their previous wild habitats (in evolutionary terms), with the subsequent lack of behavioral freedoms that come with that.

“We use these guiding principles for assessment….   The Opportunities are a lens we look through when evaluating an animal group for optimal welfare.” Greg Vicino

OK. so let’s take a closer look.



The Horse’s Opportunity for a Well Balanced Diet

How about feeding in a way that ensures full heath and vigor, both behaviorally and physically? So many owners associate feeding with showing love, rather than respect for the needs of another species. We have feed that looks like muesli and makes us go ‘yummy’. We have baled forage that the horses gobble up, yet contributes to laminitis, because it’s so full of carbs.

"It's how you eat it... " Photo: J Clothier

“It’s how you eat it… “ Photo: J Clothier

And as Greg said, in a statement that made me sit right up, “It’s not just what you eat, but how you eat it”

Yes, we can take it still further. Small hole haynets moderate intake, while keeping the hind gut busy. What’s more, the weekend after the conference, I found myself listening again to Sharon May-Davis, as she described her ‘hay high’ practice of using haynet height to restore physical balance to the horse’s lower neck and forelimbs.



The Horse’s Opportunity to Self Maintain


Maintaining hooves. Photo: J Clothier

Some correlations are more obvious. You see, Greg Vicino’s full position is Associate Curator of Elephants and Welfare at San Diego Zoo. One example he gave is that of providing varied sub-strata (ground surfaces) for elephants, so that they can maintain the soles and nails of their feet.

I know so many horses owners who are doing just that for their horses in their paddocks, so that unshod hooves can develop strength and balance.

And what about over-rugging?




The Horse’s Opportunity for Optimal Health

As a bodyworker and researcher into equine development problems, my feelings are probably predictable, and they may well be similar to your own. We all want our horses healthy and in fine form.


Free movement.  Photo: J Clothier

But where we have a problem is not with what we do think about, so much as what so often is not thought about. Training methods, inappropriate riding style, too much exercise too soon… and I’m not talking about dressage, but everyday riders and owners here.

Thankfully, these subject areas that are so culturally entrenched are starting to open up more, particularly in areas such as saddle fit, head/neck position, and the ability of the horse to move in biomechanically sound ways.




The Horse’s Opportunity for Choice and Control

This I find quite moving… particularly the notion of making behavior meaningful. Think about it: what behavior may be meaningful to your horse? We are all curators of single or small groups of equines. It’s easy for us to over-manage and micro-manage our horses’ lives, to the point where are few decisions left to make. We have many institutionalized animals that are denied individual expression.


Acting on curiosity. Photo: J Clothier 

It goes without saying that we have to make decisions for our animals, and there are geographical, physical and financial limitations as to where and how they can be kept.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to make their lives interesting. In zoology, the term used is ‘enrichment’. It’s improving quality of life, beyond providing the essentials.

It’s about actively getting the most from life, not just avoiding negative states. So that’s different places to eat, finding different ways to eat. Having varied experiences. To express and act upon curiosity, Scope for play, scope for company. Places to scratch, places to roll. Other horses to touch.



The Horse’s Opportunity to Express Species-Specific Behavior

The preferred system of a boarding establishment may make for easy management, but your horse may be being denied this opportunity.

Herd bonding

Herd bonding. Photo: J Clothier

The horse kept in a small individual paddock is being denied self-expression, even when there’s an equine neighbor over the fence.

The constantly rugged horse is unable to roll and feel the texture of dirt in its coat. And what about ‘keep-em-clean’ hoods that hide the subtle facial expressions horses use to communicate with one another?




So, is your horse thriving?

We are all on a learning curve with this one. It’s true that many horses have it worse than our beloved animals at home, but that doesn’t mean that all our horses are getting enough of what they need for optimal quality of physical, mental and – yes – emotional life.

Physical, mental and - yes - emotional health. Photo: J Clothier

Thriving physically, mentally and – yes – emotionally. Photo: J Clothier

Likewise, the fact that other people are in a position to do it better than us – higher income and land ownership do open up more choices for animal management – doesn’t mean that we’re not getting a lot of it right (and, sometimes, better than those other owners).

So, let’s take this as encouragement to keep going and to keep striving, making improvements as we develop our understanding
of what it takes for our horses to thrive.


With thanks to Greg Vicino for allowing me to reproduce content from the forthcoming paper.

Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

The Opportunities to Thrive were created as part of a welfare management system at San Diego Zoo Global by Vicino and Miller, with the latter now at the Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo.

Greg A. Vicino, Associate Curator of Elephants and Animal Welfare, studied Biological Anthropology at UC Davis where he focused on non-human primate, husbandry, behavior, welfare, and socialization.   Previously, he held positions as an Animal Care Supervisor of Primates for the San Diego Zoo, and interim Animal Services Manager Al AIn Zoo.

Mr. Vicino focuses on integrated management strategies, in which all animals receive the benefit of every specialty at each facility. With a heavy emphasis on feeding strategies, behavioral diversity, and species specific social behavior, he has championed the idea that every animal in our care should be given an Opportunity to Thrive.

Lance J. Miller, Ph.D., Senior Director of Animal Welfare Research, received his graduate training in Experimental Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi.  Previously, he held positions as a Research Manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Scientist for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Dr. Miller focuses on animal welfare to help ensure that each individual animal within zoological facilities is thriving. He is currently a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Research and Technology Committee, Vice Chair of the AZA Animal Welfare Committee, and a steering committee member for the AZA Behavioral Scientific Advisory Group.

What This Pony’s Tail Tells Us About Owners Who Abandon Their Horses


I’ve been thinking about horses and abandonment recently. By abandonment, I mean a situation where a treasured or most favored horse has suffered an irreparable  injury and has suddenly been dropped by the humans who previously lavished attention upon it. It happens quite a bit.

Do the horses know they’ve been abandoned?  Yes, I believe so.

Bob-againTake this pony, who currently goes by the name of Bob. His conformation speaks of Quarter Horse crossed with Welsh, with the Quarter Horse mainly walking behind the Welsh. Paddock condition doesn’t help on the looks front, as he’s obviously a ‘fat on fresh air’ type. But I’m putting that to one side, as it’s Bob himself that I’m interested in.

A power-packed pocket rocket, he’s one of those lovely straightforward guys that makes you smile almost as soon as you meet him. He gives every appearance of having been a true sports pony and, whatever his sport was (barrel racing?), he did it fast. The lad finds it hard to stand still in the paddock – he is wired to move.

And yet, with a damaged knee that tells of an unpleasant accident, he subsequently found himself at the sales.

At some point during this process, his tail was cut off. I somehow doubt that the person responsible did it to make memento jewelry. We have to assume that the hair was sold, as the owner at that time knew the pony was advancing on a one-way trip to the meat man (or to ‘the doggers’, to use Australia’s typically direct term).

How to get a few more bucks out of a horse

How to get a few more bucks out of a horse

In economic terms, this action could be called ‘asset stripping’ – ie, getting every last cent possible by breaking a possession down and selling the parts. There’s obviously no regard for preservation of the whole or what’s left at the end.

Now, I do realize that once a horse is slaughtered, its remains are subject to asset stripping. Indeed, there’s a company near here that collects tendons for use in research. I also realize that by the time a horse hits the slaughter house floor, its tail will be somewhat less than clean, for a variety of reasons. There are obvious practicalities involved. But what I’m concerned about here is what’s happening to a living horse. So, let’s return to Bob…

Clearly, he hit a remarkable upswing when he was bought from the sales by a good man with plenty of land. Thankfully, the new owner wasn’t concerned about lack of ridability due to the knee injury, and was happy just to watch Bob being a pony in the paddock. If the pony demonstrated that he could carry a toddler along on the lead rein, then that would be great. But if he couldn’t, that was fine too. He wouldn’t be required to earn his keep – he could just be Bob.

At this point, I was asked to come out and give the pony some bodywork, just to see whether it would help make him more comfortable.


Bob's knee

Advanced DJD due to injury

Now, during a bodywork session, it’s always apparent to me when a horse has lost its trust in people. I don’t mean a horse with so-called behavioral issues, although there are plenty of those, but a horse that knows its people have given up on it.

Such horses maintain a distance – not necessarily detaching themselves from what is happening, as they can be very physically cooperative. But they don’t come forward in an emotional sense. There’s a reserve that is incongruous to everything else that is going on.

It’s like being with a partner whose mind is partly on the football. Their presence is missing by, ooh let’s say 5-25%, depending on how much they support that team. No way can you  not be aware of it! (I’m trying desperately to think of the female partner equivalent and failing at the moment.)

I spent an hour working with this pony and yet he still maintained his not-quite-there reserve. That was the choice that felt best to him at the time, and that was OK with me. So I left, expecting that to be that.

Driving away, I thought more about that crudely chopped tail. The tail that somebody’s hands had once carefully groomed had, ultimately, been roughly removed. I had to wonder whether it was by the same or another pair of hands.

The next day, earlier than expected, I received a phone call from Bob’s owner.

“I went to the paddock today,” he said, “and that pony walked straight up to me for the first time, looking for a fuss. He’s not done that before.”

Now, this is the kind of thing I like to hear. It might sound a small thing, but as the owner recognized, the small thing was significant precisely because it had been absent before. Something important had changed for Bob during the intervening hours.

He felt physically better and had decided that it was OK to trust a person again.

Bob and a new friend

Bob and a new friend

I am so pleased that this outcome transpired for this particular pony. And I am grateful for meeting horses like this, for it’s their beautiful forgiving souls that prevent my anger from rising.

For the truth is that I quietly despise owners who will use such a willing horse or pony up, and then dump their injured animal at the sales, in full knowledge that it is only ever going to be slaughtered at the end of a few stress-inducing weeks or days. Very few share Bob’s luck at this stage.

I am certainly not misguided into thinking that there is a home for every broken and injured horse, or even that all horses can find a home, injured or not. Those who make it to companion or paddock ornament status are incredibly fortunate. And I recognize that not all horses are treated as I treat mine. People own horses for different reasons.

bob rollingBut I have to ask, what price a dignified end? It seems that the attraction of a couple of hundred bucks, symbolized by Bob’s severed tail, is simply too much for their owners to turn away.







Why Too Much Hot Air Can Burst The Bodywork Balloon

hot-air-featureExaggeration and overselling – it’s really nothing new.

Blowing a bit of hot air has always been a good way to attract attention and, hopefully, some cash in its wake.

Ever since the first alchemist claimed to be able to turn base metal into gold, practitioners, inventors and hawkers have been inflating their abilities in this way. Doing so earns them a high profile and can really make a practice take off.

balloon_horse-300x216Sometimes, literally. An early London balloonist, Charles Green, claimed that in May 1828, he had taken his riding horse on a flight with him. The idea took flight in the popular imagination, particularly with illustrators… until it was noticed that nobody had actually witnessed this incredible event. (In 1850, he ascended briefly with a small – and reluctant – pony. Not quite the same thing.)

A little hot air is fine. Too much hot air isn’t. Blow too much hot air into a metaphorical balloon – a grand, buoyant illusion of remarkable results – and it will burst.

And the more hot air that’s blown, the louder the bang that follows.

Over-inflating the equine bodywork balloon

Which brings me to bodywork for horses. Or, more specifically, to hands-on complementary therapies for horses.

For many horse owners, ‘body care’ for horses falls into just three categories: massage, chiropractic and all the other stuff. It’s very broad, that third category, as it contains not just the more recognized approaches, but every offbeat or sheer whacko method that anyone has ever thought to come up with.

But I think it’s quite understandable that this clumping together happens. For example, I’ve heard horse owners ask if Bowen is the same as Reiki. That’s a very OK question from someone who isn’t involved with therapies, but who has seen their horse responding deeply to a practitioner’s minimal hand movements.

balloon_yellow-225x300Now, I practice a couple of complementary approaches myself, so I’m obviously not against complementary practitioners. But what I am against is the excess hot air that’s spouted when it comes to promoting some people’s work.

The problem is that some therapists claim to be able to do so much more than they can possibly be able to do. And people who make over-inflated claims about their work, which simply cannot be borne out, can succeed in bringing doubt down around the rest of us.

Now, I’m used to having my kind of work questioned by people who aren’t into alternative stuff and never will be. That’s fine – there are enough types of bodywork out there to suit everyone.

The reason the hot-air blowing bugs me is that the ‘great undecided’, the owners who aren’t sure yet, who make up the watchers and listeners of forums and boards and Facebook and Twitter, may be influenced by the online scorn poured, sometimes rightfully, on the exaggerators.

Who’s blowing hot air, then?

I’m not going to name names, but certain bodywork people spout a lot of stuff about their approaches that ensures confusion reigns. It’s just one claim after another about what they can achieve.

Right now, I could point you to a website where someone who teaches an approach is claiming that their method can do everything that every other approach can do, and achieve the same outcomes as chiropractic besides. Eh? It’s almost embarrassing to read it.

balloon_smokeMaybe they have a lot of student places to sell.

But then maybe that’s being a bit harsh. (Maybe.) Although I’m sure there are people out there who are exaggerating benefits as a misguided sales technique, rather like the unfortunate Mr Green in 1828.

I imagine, though, that a lot of hot-air blowers really buy into what they’re saying. And I think that what they’re coming out with is a blend of received wisdom and an expression of their own amazement at the changes they see in the horses they’ve worked with.

They’re the would-be alchemists rather than the horse-flying balloonists of the bodywork world.

I don’t dispute their sincerity, but I do doubt their judgement. They’re blown away by the results they can achieve, but fail to notice all the results that they miss – and that makes me wonder about their horse assessment abilities.

To paraphrase the old Chinese saying: ‘they do not know what they do not know’.

Teamwork is essential

I believe that the dynamic forces affecting a horse’s body – rider imbalance, unhelpful riding, badly fitting tack, poor hoofcare, little-to-no dentistry, misjudged nutrition, the normal range of accidents that can befall a half-ton animal expressing itself in an open space – are so damaging and wide-ranging, that more than one approach is needed.

Individual bodywork practices will, of course, achieve some of the things that chiropractors or osteopaths can achieve, as a result of freeing up soft tissue tensions. But they won’t achieve all of the things.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of chiropractic being used as a first and only treatment option. But to my mind, a well-trained chiropractor or osteopath, with a gentle approach and a good understanding of the horse’s nature, is a very good person to work alongside in a team.

I’m very lucky, as I get to do so, with an open-minded and non-egotistical equine veterinary chiropractor. (Non-egotistical? Yes. He’s willing to admit that his work isn’t the beginning and end of physical support for the horse.)

The improvements in the horses speak for the effectiveness of a joint approach, especially when there’s a hoof trimmer, saddler or nutritionist involved too.

Teamwork is brilliant.

gold horseAnd so are diverse approaches. For when somebody makes inflated claims about being able to do everything, they’re usually missing something out. Something really important.

For what’s beautiful about complementary bodywork practices is that they can often achieve additional things that purely structural bodywork can’t – and those benefits can be quite amazing.

I’m talking about the subtle, the profound and the remarkable: the deeper layer of physical and systemic improvements, relief of traumatic stress, the vast array of mental and emotional improvements… There’s so much that’s beneficial that can and does happen.

There’s no need to over-inflate it. There just isn’t.

Who Has the Best Therapist – You or Your Horse?


Well? It’s not such a daft question. Many therapists double up for horse and rider and some even work on riders while they’re on their horses.

There’s a saying that holds that how we treat our animals reflects how humane we are as a society. Bringing that down to a more individual level, the nature of the care we give to our animals often mirrors the care that we arrange for ourselves.

For horses and riders, that has certainly changed over the years – and it’s still changing.

And it’s getting more complicated.

Have you heard people saying how simple it used to be keep a horse? Maybe you’ve said it yourself, while giving a wry smile. You’ll even hear some people saying that they never did ‘all these things’ for their horses and that their horses never had anything wrong. (I find there’s often an older lady at the back of a saddle fit demo who’ll come out with that line.)

Well, until around the 1980s, it was much simpler. In just the same way that many people would see a doctor and a dentist and very occasionally a specialist such as a chiropractor, most domestic horses would only ever see a vet and a farrier. Just occasionally an owner might call in the equine chiropractor, but it certainly wasn’t a routine practice.

And were the horses physically OK ?

There’s no doubt that some of them were. Some always are, no matter what life throws at them.

But I imagine a lot were running around holding it together, busily hiding their problems, as horses do. As an evolutionary food source, they’re very good at hiding their weaknesses, having no wish to be first option on the menu at the Wild Dog Diner.

When I hear people pointing out the OK-ness of horses in decades past, my response is that it’s unlikely many people were checking horses’ backs in those days. My experience is that considerable numbers of present-day owners can’t tell if their horse has a sore back, so what were the chances of the ‘average owner’ spotting it then?

Admittedly, from the saddle fit point of view, it’s a discussion that can go on and on, taking in types of riding activities and styles, breed variation, changing use of horses … there are many reasons why fitting has become more complex over the years. But I’ll still firmly refute the notion that horses didn’t have problems.

But let’s return to modern day therapists.

If you use any horse therapist at all, you’ll know that there’s a directory full of professions to choose from. This really does reflect how things are in our own world of personal physical care. Instead of just going to a doctor, many of us listen to the advice of other professionals as well. Some people take complementary practitioners’ advice ahead of their doctors’, the reasoning being that it’s specialist knowledge. Other people leave out the doctor altogether. It’s all a matter of personal choice.

And there’s a thing – we do have the luxury of such choices now.

We’re more aware of our needs – and those of our horses too. The internet has helped us to identify problem areas and solutions, although there’s a lot of inaccuracy and outright misinformation out there, too.

That’s why we ask our friends what they think and tell our friends what we think.

And when we research online, we ask our online acquaintances too (although it’s as well to be cautious of new online friends, at least until we know more about them.)

Now there are online courses for us to develop our knowledge too. We can gain qualifications without leaving our front rooms. One outcome is that many of us take more aspects of horse care upon ourselves – hoof trimming, massage or nutrition, for example. And many of us are more aware of when we need to call in a professional, because we’re becoming more accomplished at reading the signs of need in our horses.

Which brings me to the point …

I’d like to open a bigger window into the world of not just bodywork for horses, but saddle fit as well. This is not to do away with professional saddle fitters or therapists (or, heaven forbid, vets), but to help horse owners recognize when a problem is present or emerging. That really is the key to knowing when to call in a professional.

Lots of physical problems are obvious when you have an idea what to look for… it’s not that hard.

And I reckon that maybe 8 out of 10 saddle fit problems come down to a few basic issues. Again, in themselves they’re quite easy to figure out. When the basics are easy to learn, why not talk about them? I reckon that if a bunch of the most obvious problems can be addressed on pages such as this, it has to be a good thing.

What do you think?

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