One day, not too long ago, I walked into our feed room and fell back in shock from the chemical odor. I turned to my assistant, Anna, and asked, “What is that smell?”Anna turned her shark look (cool, calculating and in control) on me and said, “All those supplements.”
I sat down and went through our list of “extras”‘ and it was somewhat frightening. Anna watched, arms folded. In the end, she had but one pragmatic comment: “And none of them are simple vitamins and minerals.”
True, it was everything else, in exactly measured quantities and at great expense, relentlessly going in the feed every day. But what really made me think was the smell.
One of our older horses is “high-maintenance,” and suddenly he wouldn’t eat at all’because his food was loaded with supplements, medications and strange potions, and it stunk. As his fat melted away, we tried to tempt him with molasses and other “cover-ups,” to no avail. Finally we removed the majority of his supplements and all but the most necessary medications. He was served clean oats and a pellet mixture, and instantly his appetite revived. Miraculously, he stayed sound, sane and allergy free with a minimum of additives. And he didn’t starve to death.
Here’s another unconventional wisdom: Whenever the veterinarian turns to me and ordains “stall rest,” I just nod and keep walking the horse, preferably under saddle. Unless he has a broken leg and literally cannot move, there is no way I believe in stall rest for any reason.
Come to think of it, I don’t believe in stalls. I suspect that keeping horses locked up for the better part of every day the way we tend to is the reason for a large percentage of their physical and mental problems. This is done for human convenience, and it’s the direct opposite of what nature intended.
Horses were meant to roam, to be almost constantly in motion. The human concept of working a horse, sometimes intensively, for less than one hour and then keeping him in virtual immobility for 23 is bizarre. No wonder we have cribbers, weavers, stall kickers, colic and mysterious lameness.
Believe it or not, though, we Americans are a lot more tuned in to the need for freedom, even in the trained horse, than some other nationalities. While in Germany for training at a renowned barn, which, because of the weather, gets its doors and windows closed in October and not reopened until April or May, I observed interesting behavior in some of the horses.
In particular, one mare caught my attention. She repeatedly tried to climb up toward the window situated high on the wall in her stall, pawing with her hooves toward the light. Once she tried this project in the indoor arena, with a rider on, no less. That was the end of her stay, and they called her crazy.
I now believe that she was only trying to signal to us a need to get out in the open.
One day it snowed about 18 inches, so my student and I pushed the barn door open and turned our horses out to play. As they were frolicking in the white powder, people came running out of the barn, half-frantic. They were incre- dibly concerned about the safety of our horses and the fact that the wind had sneaked into the barn without permission.
I realize there is a risk in turning your horse out, and it increases if he’s not accustomed to being free every day. An FEI-level dressage horse is a valuable commodity, and a fragile one, and it takes guts to slip off his halter and leave him to his own devices. In the long run, though, it makes for a better mind, a sounder body, and a happier companion.
And haven’t we all seen how horses determined to get hurt can commit suicide right in their stalls, given the right, or rather wrong, circumstances?
Fat is a big national health problem in people, but in horses some people seem to think it’s a bonus. At least half of our horse population is overweight, and many a leg and wind problem is related to overfed, under-conditioned horses being asked to work beyond their capacity.
A dressage test is only eight to 10 minutes long, but the warm-up at a show can take an hour. The FEI-level tests are demanding, and by the time the horse goes to Grand Prix he really needs to be fit to be able to perform this athletic feat in all sorts of weather and footing.
As we slowly learn more about our equines, we realize that there are signs other than lameness, coughs and fever to signal distress in the horse. Just because he doesn’t limp doesn’t mean he feels good.
And who says horses do not have headaches? (Why else would mine look like they have a migraine coming on when I show up in the morning?) I am sure they do, just as I am convinced they can suffer from depression when they feel the demands we humans make are more than they can live up to.
Enhancers, such as steroids and hormones to “body build” the horse, can be very harmful, as I saw in a recent example in a horse imported from Europe. The animal, a young FEI-level horse, had an enormous neck, unusual in its exaggerated crest for a gelding. He was a very good mover and had the whole Grand Prix program “installed.” He just couldn’t bend his neck to the side for any length of time without panicking and running wildly to the wall.
After a year of extensive research and experimenting, it appears the large amount of steroids this horse had pumped into him over many years backfired and settled in his lymph glands. The glands on the side of his throat were so enlarged that his wind was cut off when he turned his head. Obviously he wasn’t interested in doing anything beyond breathing.
Ulcers are another fairly recent discovery in horses, and the manifestations are not always the same. For years the sensitive Thoroughbred belonging to one of our trainers responded to the tightening of his girth by violent bucking and pitching. We called him “girth gall” and dealt with him very carefully and gradually to get the saddle on.
For reasons unrelated to his bucking, we gave this horse ulcer medicine, and a few days later the circus at tack-up time evaporated. All the new saddles and pads and girths and girth covers had no effect on his behavior. The discomfort was in his belly, and when the ulcer healed, he was totally civilized about saddling.
Yes, we’ve found many clever ways both to deal with and prevent disease in our horses, as well as some miracle cures and procedures (such as colic surgery), but we need to stay on the sensible side of management. Too much of even a “good” thing can harm a horse, and new fads ought to be viewed with at least a healthy dose of skepticism and common sense.
Every new product is not going to create or maintain the perfect horse, and some “sports medicine” needs to be practiced with caution and an eye on the laws of the universe. If you stray too far from those boundaries, don’t be surprised when nature strikes back.