In The Horse’s Best Interest

Jan 25, 2016 - 10:58 AM

Our new columnist questions whether most trainers really understand how a horse thinks and whether they use that information to benefit the partnership and the animal.

My dad was a saddle bronc rider, and my mom was raised around polo ponies and race horses. They met in college where my dad was on the rodeo team and my mom rode the team mascot (trick horse) during half time at the football games. They married at age 19, and I was born shortly thereafter.

My three siblings and I were raised on ranches with lots of horses always around. I loved horses! We grew up learning about how to take care of horses, how to train them, how they think, react, learn and respond to human interaction as well as to each other.

At a young age I was infatuated with jumping. I wanted to be a professional trainer. I learned everything I could from reading, riding and experimenting on as many horses and students as I could find. We didn’t have the financial means for me to take professional lessons or go to big horse shows.

Our common household term for people who weren’t real horsemen was “dudes.” This referred to people who didn’t know anything about horses or misunderstood horses.

As a young professional, I struggled to fit into the horse show world. I had a rude awakening as to how little some of the big-name trainers cared about the horses. It seemed they were simply vehicles to win blue ribbons or to make a financial gain. And the majority of them were “dudes”!

Thinking Beyond Injections

Fast forward 40 years later. Same sad situation—only worse.

There is much talk about the welfare of the horse. Everyone talks about taking care of the horse in terms of physical health and soundness. We need to inject all the joints (due to overwork on artificial footing), have the chiropractor come on a regular basis (because they can’t lay down and roll to realign their spine or never get to lower their head and graze), give them ulcer medication (because they have no social life), drug them to calm them down, longe them to death (because they never get turned out), etc.

Unfortunately, most of this maintenance routine becomes necessary because our horses live such unnatural lives in such an unnatural environment.

Do we ever consider the horse’s mental health and wellbeing?

The more we learn about horses, the better we can understand them, care for them, train them and enjoy them. That, to me, is the true meaning of being cognizant of the horse’s welfare.

Horses are individuals with personalities and intelligence. They learn who their person is and look to him or her for comfort and leadership.

Horses are herd animals. They are intended to live and breathe in groups, with a distinct set of rules and pecking order. They were born to graze 16-plus hours and travel an average of 15 miles per day. They are designed as flight animals, to be aware of predators and be able to flee in order to escape from danger. They think, see, react, learn and respond very differently than we do.

As advocates of this sport, we have to be involved in the horses because we love horses. Not because they are vehicles to gain prestige and notoriety or make millions of dollars at their expense. At the end of the day I feel if you always do what is in the best interest of the horse, the blue ribbons and money will come, if that’s what is important to you.

An Unnatural Environment

I believe horse sense is simply common sense. But unfortunately that isn’t so common nowadays.

Horses need companionship. Show horses are usually sequestered in individual stalls, often dark, small and windowless. With little or no turnout, they become lonely, withdrawn, and often develop bad habits such as cribbing and weaving. When they do get ridden or exercised they are so exuberant they are feared, so they get longed or drugged to solve that issue. Depression is not a recognized problem with horses, but I believe it’s real. Often colic is the result.

In this unnatural environment we need to make it as natural as possible. The more time horses can spend outside the better. When horses are young they should grow up in fields turned out together. There they learn manners and social skills, and they build strong bones and immune systems. Research shows that horses raised in this environment are easier to handle, train and transition into happy, healthy and successful careers.

Because they are show horses we are afraid of them getting injured, but they still desperately need to be turned out. Turnout alone is OK, as long as they can see other horses.

I like stalls that have grills between them so the horses can interact with their neighbors, but I don’t advocate turning them out with a common fence line. Often stallions are kept caged away so they won’t hurt anyone, when in fact that just makes them more aggressive. Even some of my stallions at home have neighbors that are other stallions. Treated like horses, they are happy, respectful and easy to work around.

If turnout areas are limited, consider turning out all night during good weather, even if it’s in an arena. Lots of hand walking at horse shows should also be part of the horse’s routine.

Because horses are flight animals, punishing a horse for spooking or shying is never right. That is a natural instinct, which, nurtured in the right way, will only bring out great qualities in a horse’s performance. Because a horse’s instinct is to escape, draw reins, tie downs and strong bits are counter productive. Learn how to train, not restrain the horse! Anytime a horse feels trapped, his instinct is to panic and to escape. It’s very important not to put them in that situation, whether it be training, handling, grooming, clipping, trailer loading or anything else. If we can learn to think like a horse, we can better understand how to get them to do what we are asking.

Horses don’t resist or fight us because that’s not their nature. They simply don’t understand what we are asking. So try to be more clear in your communication or try a different method.

Horses are creatures of habit. They like routine. They learn from repetition. However, they never learn from being drilled. Shame on anyone who allows horses to compete in countless classes at a show, every division they are eligible for, every show they can get to, with little or no down time. Is this in the best interest of the horse?

Take Responsibility

We have a duty to these wonderful creatures to be their guardians. Whether you are a trainer, owner, rider, judge, course designer, steward, show manager, groom, parent of a rider, stall cleaner, stable owner, braider, chiropractor, veterinarian, farrier, shipper or breeder, I hope you will always ask yourself when making day-to-day decisions: “Is this in the best interest of the horse?”

As judges, we set the bar for exhibitors in training and preparing horses for the show ring. We need to reward expression and enthusiasm in our hunter competitions. We need to penalize sour, stale, zombie-like rounds. Lame horses in any division should be eliminated! Make a statement in your placings: Do what is in the best interest of the horse.

As course designers we need to build simple tracks that encourage confidence in the young hunter and jumper divisions as well as the green rider divisions. Challenge, but do not destroy the confidence at the higher levels. Review the courses and ask yourself: Is this in the best interest of the horse?

If you are a groom, employ a groom, or your horses are handled by grooms, the interaction between groom and horse is very important. I’m sick to my stomach when I see the longeing arena at horse shows with horses frantically running in small circles on the forehand, oftentimes on the wrong lead, in a lather, with an uneducated groom at the end of the longe line cracking the whip.

Even worse is the wash rack scene, with horses snubbed down tightly to the tie rails, being sprayed in the face and handled roughly. I wonder and often ask who these people work for. This certainly isn’t in the best interest of any horse, and seeing horses flip over and break their necks in these uneducated hands is heart wrenching.

Horse welfare carries forward to daily handling, stall cleaning, turning horses out and clipping. Horses are extremely sensitive to having their ears clipped, and earring them down is the worst thing you can do.

And temper should never be part of working with horses. Anybody who is frustrated working around horses needs to figure out a better way to communicate with them, because losing your cool is counterproductive.

If you are a horse owner looking for a boarding stable or training facility, don’t be fooled by the fancy set-up and posh facade. Walk down the barn aisle and look at the horses. Do they look happy, relaxed, content? Or do they look like prisoners of war, expressionless in a penitentiary environment?

As horse show managers and leaders in our sport, are we making rules, divisions, awards and circuits in the best interest of the horse? Or is business more important?

My mom still competes in barrel racing; my dad still team ropes competitively. They are still married, almost 80 years old, and they are the best horsemen I’ve yet to meet. Their horses are cared for like horses and live into their 30s. They love their horses and always seek to do what’s right for the horse.

For this new year I hope we can all continue to learn more and to better appreciate and understand these wonderful creatures that give us all such an amazing life. And I hope we can always make decisions that are in the best interest of the horse.

Julie Winkel has been a licensed hunter, equitation, hunter breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon (Pa.), the Pennsylvania National, Washington International (D.C.), Capital Challenge (Md.), the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Upperville (Va.). She has designed the courses and judged the equitation finals.

She has trained and shown hunters and jumpers to the top level and was a winner of multiple grand prix competitions and many hunter championships during her career.

Winkel serves as co-chair of the USEF Licensed Officials Committee and chairman of the USEF Continuing Education Committee, chairman of the USHJA Judges Task Force and the USHJA Officials Education Committee. She serves on the USHJA Emerging Athlete Program committee, Trainer Certification and Zone 10 Jumper Committee. She also sits on the Young Jumper Championship board of directors.

Winkel owns and operates Maplewood Inc., a 150-acre training, sales and breeding facility, standing her two Grand Prix jumpers Osilvis and Cartouche Z. in Reno, Nev. Maplewood Inc. also offers a year-round internship program for aspiring horse industry professionals.

She writes a monthly column for Practical Horseman’s “Conformation Clinic” and is a contributing columnist to Warmbloods Today magazine and an EquestrianCoach blogger.


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