Horse Canada is an all-breed, multi-discipline magazine with emphasis on equine health and well-being. It is a family-friendly horse magazine for western and English riding enthusiasts, providing essential advice and practical tips on health, care, behaviour and training, plus news of interest, industry trends and inspirational stories from the Canadian horse community.
The body of a horse can move in ways that promote soundness or in ways that increase the risk of lameness and injury. This is why I believe in developing horses from a platform of self-carriage, as it is only in a state of self-carriage that a horse can use himself correctly. If a horse is not moving in self-carriage, the rider will need to hold the horse in whatever “frame” the rider is aiming for. Attempting to hold a horse in a certain position will always be problematic to some degree, for as I have discussed in previous articles, self-carriage is something that has to come from the horse, starting in the mind and manifesting throughout the entire body. One of the best ways to test whether you are holding your horse in a forced frame is to ask yourself the following three simple questions:
1. Do you use your reins to try to change your horse’s head position? The way I see it, the first rule of good riding is that the reins are not to be pulled on. Your goal is to make a contact with the reins that allows you to feel your horse, and for him to feel you, but that is all. Feel does not make your horse defensive, causing him to overbend or brace against your hands.
2. Do you feel a continual pull or weight in your reins? If you have weight in your reins, there is some degree of forehandedness and brace in your horse, which is his only possible response to being held in a frame.
3. Do you find that your horse bounces from light to heavy, light to heavy in your hands? The horse responds to rein pressure by tucking his chin to relieve the pressure (the “light” phase the rider feels), but remains inverted. The back is still hollow, the base of the neck is still low, and the hind end is still trailing. This unbalanced posture causes the weight of your horse to fall forward, he then catches his balance on the reins, and this creates the heaviness again. He then tries to relieve that pressure by once again tucking his chin, and the whole thing becomes a perpetual cycle.
In my last article, I explained some preliminary groundwork exercises to get you started, and, in this one, we’re going to continue that work by talking about how you can encourage correct lateral rotation of the poll.
The importance of being able to softly rotate or flex the poll laterally cannot be overstated. The poll is where the cervical spine connects with the skull and is thus the gateway to the hindquarters. If the poll is braced or twisting, you will often find that your horse is stiff through his whole body. True rotation of the poll allows your horse to use and balance his head and neck, essentially getting the weight of those parts “out of the way” so that the hind end can activate and come under your horse’s centerline with ease. Engaging the hind end is the key factor in establishing balance because when the hind end steps under your horse’s centre, he is able to hold up his own shoulders, as well as support your weight in the saddle – both critical aspects of self-carriage.
When the poll is rotating correctly, the jaw turns slightly into the neck as the skull softly gives in the direction of the bend you are asking for, and the plane of the jowl remains perpendicular to the ground, allowing the ears to stay level. If the poll is twisting instead of flexing correctly – a common problem – the ears will not stay level. Another common problem is that you may interpret bending of the neck for flexion of the poll. You need to be aware that your horse can bring his nose to your boot and still be braced in the poll, so it is important to recognize the difference between bending the neck and rotating the poll.
Groundwork Equipment for Flexing the Poll
Before attempting to ask your horse to flex at the poll under saddle, it is extremely useful to teach this exercise from the ground first. This is best done using a traditional lunging cavesson with your lead clipped to the ring at the top of the noseband, as having your pressure coming from the bridge of the nose encourages the poll to articulate correctly. If you use a halter with the rope tied or clipped to the bottom, the halter tends to twist, creating pressure that promotes counterflexion and/or twisting of the poll, neither of which is what you want. Clipping to the side of a halter that has side rings works better than clipping to the bottom, but it still doesn’t give the same clarity of effect as having the pressure come from the top of the nose, especially when the horse is just learning.
If you don’t have a lunging cavesson, but do have a rope halter, I have come up with a simple rope halter modification that works well for this exercise, which I call the “cowboy cavesson.” To create one, all you have to do is wrap your lead around the noseband so that the pressure the halter exerts comes from the bridge of the nose (see page 32). You want to start with a rope halter that fits well, as a loose halter will twist, even with the wrapped lead on it, while one that is too tight will not give you room to wrap the lead.
Be sure you are not applying too much pressure on the lead rope. If you are pulling on your horse, he will brace against it. Flexion of the poll is a subtle question that should only be asked with feel and clarity, not force. Try not to set your horse up to be defensive by attempting to make him respond, as his mind needs to stay present, calm and willing, and the muscles in the neck must be relaxed in order for him to release his poll. If you want your horse to follow a feel softly, the request you put into the lead should match the response you are seeking, and will, therefore, be equally soft.
The Poll Flexion Exercise
Assuming that your horse knows how to relax his head and neck upon request while standing and walking (see May/June Horse Canada), you are ready to start teaching rotation of the poll. I like to begin this work without the halter on, but it can be done in the halter or cavesson as well. I start by laying my hands on the horse’s head, one over the bridge of the nose and the other on the side of the cheek. I then use gentle pressure directly from my hands to ask the horse to turn his head just slightly. Keep in mind as you do so, you are only asking your horse to flex laterally at the first joint of the neck, so you are not looking for a big bend or movement.
If your horse is rotating the poll laterally, the ears will stay level. If one ear gets higher than the other, the poll is twisting rather than flexing correctly. The nostrils should also stay level, and the muzzle should not come in too much or tuck downward. If the muzzle does either of these things, you are getting bend in the neck, and you only want flexion in the poll at this point.
When you can get an easy flow of flexion to either side with just your hands, try it with the cowboy cavesson or a true cavesson, and you can also try it with a snaffle bridle or sidepull. You can always go back to helping your horse answer your request with your hands again if he is struggling. Once you can do the exercise standing, you are ready to try it in motion from the ground. Ask your horse to soften his head and neck, carry that into a walk, then ask for rotation of the poll. Don’t expect your horse to hold it for more than a step or two at first – this is something you build over time.
Another important note: at any stage of this exercise, don’t do a lot of repetitions all at once. Only ask two or three times before you give the horse a break, as working with his head is a sensitive request. I believe it is important to understand that while the yield you are asking for in this exercise is small, it has great meaning to the horse, for releasing at the poll opens the door to the entire body, and your horse knows this. We must never underestimate the fact that when a horse truly gives his body over to our request, he is no longer using it to protect himself, and this makes him extremely vulnerable. His willingness to do this shows that he is placing great trust in you, so you must make it your highest priority to honour that trust and prove that you are worthy of it.
You spot a couple of ticks on your horse while you’re grooming. “Oh no,” you worry. “Could he get Lyme disease?”
Thankfully, that’s most likely not the case. Not all ticks carry the Lyme-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and an estimated 90-95% of infected horses don’t actually get sick. But when horses do develop clinical illness, Lyme disease is usually a mysterious and frustrating beast. It presents with a wide range of vague symptoms that mimic many other conditions. “It’s a hard disease to diagnose, very, very difficult,” said Dr. Carla Francheville, owner of Sunny Coast Veterinary, a practice based in Nova Scotia, Florida and soon New York as well.
As the bacterium travels through the bloodstream, it can cause localized inflammation affecting various tissues in the body such as joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, organs and the brain. Symptoms may appear immediately, within weeks, or even years down the road. Often, they’re extremely subtle, said Dr. Francheville. “You might have a horse that’s just lame in the right front and that’s it. Or the horse has a travelling-limb lameness where its one leg one time, another leg a different time.” General stiffness, weight loss, a low-grade fever, increased sensitivity to touch, grumpiness or lethargy are also signs.
When left to run amok, Lyme disease can lead to serious long-term complications including damage to the joints, skin, eyes and nervous system, which said Dr. Francheville, “are really hard to treat and get rid of.”
Early treatment of Lyme disease is key. And therein lies the conundrum. With such non-specific symptoms, often by the time a definitive diagnosis is made – if ever – Borrelia burgdorferi is well established in the horse’s body.
The female blacklegged (or deer) tick transmits the disease. In eastern North America the offending species is Ixodes scapularis and on the west coast, Ixodes pacificus. The tick has a two-year life-cycle and goes through four stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. After hatching, the tick needs blood meal from a host to mature to the next stage. A tick can’t fly or jump, instead it sits atop long grass or vegetation waiting to climb onto its next host, be it mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian. And there’s more ticks than ever lurking in Canadian woodlands, pastures and farm environments hoping your horse (or your dog or you) will accommodate their need for blood.
That’s because climate change is expanding the blacklegged tick’s geographical range. In the early 1990s, blacklegged tick populations were detected only in specific areas of southern Ontario. Today the species is in every province and territory and is currently considered endemic in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the number of reported Lyme disease cases in humans has risen steadily from 144 cases in 2009 (when it became a federally notifiable disease) to 2,025 in 2017. Increased identification and reporting of Lyme disease by health care professionals accounts for a portion of that upswing, yet it remains an under-diagnosed condition, so the actual number of people affected may well be much higher.
Research shows that in areas where humans are getting Lyme disease, so too are the horses.
When Nova Scotia native Dr. Francheville started her practice in Florida 15 years ago, she saw four or five cases of Lyme disease a year. She estimates that number has at least tripled. And, as global temperatures continue to rise, ticks will move further northward, meaning an ever-increasing risk of exposure.
Lyme Disease Diagnosis: A Process of Elimination
Diagnosis of Lyme disease is based on a number of factors, blood tests being one. However, results aren’t necessarily definitive and may only indicate the horse was previously exposed to Borrelia burgdorferi and the body has produced antibodies (blood proteins that battle infection) against the bacterium. Laboratory tests include the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) and the Western blot, while the SNAP 4Dx, offers quick on-farm screening.
A newer, more specific test, the Lyme multiplex assay, by Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, can detect and measure separate antibodies at different stages of infection through blood or cerebrospinal fluid. This allows vets to detect Lyme disease earlier than other tests; determine whether a positive result is from vaccination, acute or chronic infections; and measure the level of antibodies, which can also aid in evaluating effectiveness of treatments.
Veterinarians rely on a process of elimination, first ruling out other possible causes for the horse’s symptoms, which can be varied and many. Considering the clinical signs, they then look at the horse’s history and exposure risk. (i.e. does it live or has it travelled in an endemic area?)
Dr. Francheville and her associates use a blend of both Eastern and conventional Western medicine to diagnose and treat all their patients. To start or end nearly every physical exam, they use what’s called a diagnostic acupuncture point scan. Based on the theory that energy is constantly flowing through 12 channels in the horse, “there are certain acupuncture points that when you scan them and the horse is reactive on those points, it means different things,” she explained. To perform the scan, Dr. Francheville runs a 22-gauge needle’s hub on the skin “very much like the strokes you use with the dandy brush.”
In a horse with Lyme, the scan will invariably find body soreness everywhere, she said adding, “and they’re usually ulcery.” When she gets to a particular acupuncture point on the hind end and the horse reacts, she automatically tests for Lyme disease. “The horse does this weird thing where they almost collapse when you scan that point and it’s pretty shocking to most clients. They’ll buckle their stifle and catch themselves or they’ll fire out and kick, so you have to be careful. Or they’ll do this thing where their whole back end will go off to the side and they’ll almost lose their balance away from you.”
Lyme Disease Treatment: Sooner is Better
Promptness is the name of the game when it comes to treating this tricky ailment. “If you catch it early and you’re diligent when you treat [Lyme disease], you should have much greater success sooner,” said Dr. Francheville.
Treatment usually consists of an antibiotic regimen and supportive care. Dr. Francheville uses the antibiotic doxycycline, Chinese herbs, an immune system booster and acupuncture to reduce inflammation, help the body fight the disease and generally make the horse feel better. “I try to convince people to let me do the first acupuncture treatment immediately. Often the horse has a pretty dramatic improvement in their clinical signs, sometimes in hours, sometimes it’s a couple of days, but invariably the client says the horse changes, their eyes change, the way they move changes. You can tell when your horse is feeling better.”
Dr. Francheville will also do allo-injections, which involves taking the horse’s own blood and reinjecting it into several acupuncture points. “A lot of time, Lyme disease flies under the immune system’s radar. It just hangs out and the immune system forgets about it or doesn’t recognize it. So, when you pull the blood and inject it back into the horse, the immune system says, ‘Oh my gosh! There’s something here to fight. I’d better do something about it.’ It’s kind of the same principle as vaccinating.”
She continues with acupuncture, gradually decreasing the periods between treatments until they’re at every 12 weeks for maintenance. “Once a horse has Lyme disease it’s very rare for them to ever get rid of it. I’m not going to say in every case, but in most cases, the horse will have it for life. Then it’s a matter of getting them to what I call remission – get them to a point where they’re not critically affected and keeping them there.”
Lyme Disease Prevention: Hands-On
No equine-specific vaccine is available. A canine vaccine has been used extensively by U.S. vets, especially in high-risk locations. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is effective and safe for use in horses, but research out of Cornell suggests antibody responses are low and short-lasting.
Limiting your horse’s exposure to ticks is the best way to prevent Lyme. Ticks are most active from April to September, but can also remain active in mild winters with little snow cover. Ideally, although difficult for most horse owners, avoid wooded areas, tall grass, leaf piles and shrubs. On your property, mow regularly, keep brush from fence lines, clear garden debris, tend to overgrown areas and manage rodent populations.
Applying insect repellents that specifically address ticks can help, especially applied in areas where they tend to climb on such as the legs, belly, head, neck and tail. But effectiveness wears off quickly, so regular application is necessary. Continue using even after fly season, because, as previously mentioned, ticks can remain active into cooler weather.
“The best thing I can recommend to horse owners is be really diligent about grooming,” said Dr. Francheville. “Look and run your hands through your horse’s coat – don’t just do it with brushes. Get your fingers in there, not just legs, but body, mane. It’s kind of a daunting task, but you’d be surprised at how many times you’ll find a tick if it’s there.”
Studies show it takes 16-24 hours after a tick has attached to a host for it to transmit the Lyme bacteria. Therefore, immediate removal reduces the chance of disease.
To prevent your horse from kicking out, you need a friend on another horse and that friend should be a good rider and horse person. The exercises I would do can be dangerous if you’re being helped by a nervous or unaware horse person. Also, this is a very hard problem to work at on the trail, so I recommend you start trying to fix it in an arena or a field.
Before starting, keep in mind that very seldom does a horse kick out with no warning whatsoever. Usually, a horse will lower her head and pin her ears back, then kick. There might not be much warning, but there’s usually some.
Sit on your horse at a stand still and have your friend ride their horse back and forth in front of you, staying about 10 feet or so away. This way, your friend’s horse is too far away for your horse to reach out to bite or kick. If your horse has no reaction, gradually have your friend ride closer and on either side of you, but not behind you, where they would be in kicking range.
While your friend is riding close by, you need to be focused on your horse’s head and ears. When her ears go back, she will automatically lower her head at the same time. When she lowers her head, immediately lift one rein straight up. Your timing has to be nearly perfect – as her head is going down, your rein needs to be going up at the exact same moment so she gets a bump from the bridle rein, but she will think she did it to herself. Because the lowering of the head and the pinning of the ears comes before a horse kicks out, you’re going to focus on correcting that instead of waiting for her to actually kick.
Have your friend ride away and then come back and keep repeating the exercise. Have them come closer and eventually have them ride all the way around your horse. When they ride around behind, they need to be far enough back that your horse couldn’t reach them if she did kick. Every time your horse lowers her head and/or pins her ears, immediately bump straight up with one rein as a correction.
Once your horse stops pinning her ears when doing this drill, start riding her at a walk and have your friend trot big circles around her and ride back and forth in front of her as you’re riding. Again, if her head goes down, bump straight up. You want her to ignore the other horse. Once she starts ignoring other horses out on the trail, she’s not going to want to kick at them.
If she does kick out at any point, pull one rein and yield the hindquarters very quickly in one full circle, or use one rein and pull your horse around in one very small and tight turn as a correction.
After several sessions, she will learn that any show of aggression to other horses is not allowed when you’re on her back. From then on, when you’re on the trail always take note of her expression when another horse is coming up behind her. If the ears go back, bump that one rein straight up.
The American author and academic Joseph Campbell famously said, “Follow your bliss,” meaning if you do things you’re passionate about, doors will open and you will find satisfaction and fulfillment. Here are the stories of five Canadians who have done just that and turned their passion – their “bliss” – into a career revolving around horses.
Find a Niche and Fill it
Alberta’s Patty Kramps, 60, and her husband Kelly Miller, 58, owned and operated a successful flooring company for 15 years. With Patty’s woodworking acumen and Kelly’s ingenuity, they came to specialize in curved stair noses, serving the Edmonton-area million-dollar home market.
That was until a neglected miniature horse came into their lives, setting them on an unexpected course to become industry leaders in made-to-order carts and harnesses for small-statured horses. Patty vividly remembers the day everything changed – June 15, 2009. “My niece was coming from Quebec for a visit with her two kids and Kelly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a little horse here for the kids to ride?’ We had horses all along and still had two at the time, but hadn’t touched a little horse in 30 years. So off we went to a horse sale.”
The couple sat for seven hours waiting for a particular silver-grey mini to enter the ring. Yet, when it came time to bid, neither one made a move. They weren’t exactly sure why this was the case, so decided to go home. On their way out, Patty asked one of the sales personnel if more minis were going through. Sure enough, a 38-inch-high bay was just then up for sale. “The halter was embedded into the bridge of his nose and he could hardly walk. I looked at that little horse and got goosebumps. He had the brightest eye I’d ever seen. I threw my hand in the air and kaboom.”
Once Gimli, as they named him, was nursed to health at their farm an hour north of Edmonton, Kelly and Patty couldn’t find a harness to fit his small frame. In late 2010 and 2011, they worked harder than ever in the flooring business to finance the importation of harnesses from India and carts from China. It was the beginning of a new venture: Patty’s Pony Place.
The entire stock of carts and harnesses sold within a year. With too little money in their bank account to bring in more product and booked into the 2012 Mane Event tradeshow in Red Deer, Kelly decided to build two carts on his own instead. And he hasn’t stopped since. Patty’s Pony Place has customers across North America lining up for their wide range of custom two- and four-wheeled carts, harnesses and related equipment for those who enjoy pleasure or competitive driving, skijoring, sledding and pulling logs.
“Our business is like no other cart manufacturer. Nobody does what we do or comes from the position that we come from, and that’s about love, fun and enjoying a horse as a horse. And to make sure these little horses can do their job without getting hurt. That’s the basis of everything we design.”
In the years since Gimli arrived, the herd has swelled to 22. One of those fellows is farm celebrity Tonka, a favourite of Patty’s mother Irene, who died in 2017. To honour Irene, Patty created and manages a “Supertonk” Facebook page and website featuring the mini adorned in a huge array of homemade outfits (many of which are also for sale). “It’s basically carrying out what mom and I used to do as a pair. Over the years, we made tons of costumes and outfits even for my big horses.”
Supertonk has become somewhat of a superstar. His Facebook videos have garnered more than five million total views, resulting in media attention from several TV, online and print outlets.
A Passion for Ponies
For half a century, the Morton Stables name has been synonymous with importing and breeding high-quality Welsh Section B and sport ponies. Farm matriarch and former nurse, Darlene Morton, says her days as a nurse, although long past, still come in handy, especially during breeding and foaling seasons at their property in Sharon, Ontario.
Whether it’s resuscitating foals, straightening out crooked legs, inseminating mares or knowing which drugs to use, Darlene, 67, attributes her skills and practical sensibility not only to her nursing career, but also being around ponies and horses “from age 0.”
Her earliest recollection is sitting aboard one of her grandpa’s Clydesdale crosses. “I must only have been three years old and I didn’t want to get off.” Growing up on a farm in Streetsville, she and her brother Raymond showed the family’s Welsh ponies and dabbled in the hunters.
In 1971, she married husband Russel, whom she met when they were both competing in the Royal Winter Fair’s Welsh Pony division. The couple had three children and Darlene became a nurse. “It was something I’d always wanted to do. I loved the idea of taking care of people.”
She spent 14 years – the bulk of her career – at Southlake Regional Health Centre. As much as she loved her job, the pony passion held firm. “While on breaks, the other girls would be reading Cosmopolitan and Woman’s Day. I was reading my Welsh journals and Welsh studbooks. They always used to tease me because I was very horsey.”
By this time, the Mortons were travelling regularly to Great Britain to import ponies for themselves and clients. At home, Darlene fielded calls after tiring nursing shifts, and, often having to work weekends, felt she was missing out on family fun as her kids had begun showing too. “I had to
find out where my heart lay.”
The ponies prevailed and in the 30 years since, Darlene and family continued to build the Morton reputation
with their Welsh Ponies and eventually British Riding
The focus on quality bloodlines has held them in good stead. Notably, three years ago their imported British Riding Pony Rosedale Top Cat, was named the first foundation sire for the North American Sport Pony Registry. Thirteen years ago, Darlene also launched and (all by herself) runs the Sport Pony Starsearch Challenge Cup. Qualifiers at 20 shows across Canada and the eastern U.S. offer part-bred breeders a place to showcase their ponies and compete at the year-end championship at the Royal Winter Fair.
Darlene doesn’t regret her decision to leave nursing 30 years ago, in part because, “Importing and breeding became very profitable for us. It wasn’t a hobby.”
And, with her now-grown family still very much involved, it’s doubly worth it. Eldest son Jason manages a barn and occasionally competes in combined driving events. Son Ray and wife Alison Plumbtree-Morton actively train and compete in combined driving with Morton ponies, while Darlene’s daughter Angela shows her own and clients’ ponies on the line. The next generation, Angela’s son Hunter, 11, has shown too, but thinks riding is “kind of boring,” laughed Darlene.
The Science of Happiness
For Eloise Szmatula money truly isn’t everything.
The 30-year-old from France decided three years ago to veer from her originally intended profession in science and engineering to become a riding instructor.
After following her boyfriend Adrien to Canada in summer 2016, Eloise is now happily working at Dominique Maida’s Rock Forest Stables in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where she teaches and does general barn work.
“A lot of people are surprised because I had a nice career ahead of me and the money would be better, of course, but the quality of life I have now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything, especially not money.”
In 2014, Eloise graduated from renowned university and research centre ESPCI ParisTech with a master’s degree in bio-engineering and innovation in neurosciences. From a low-income farming family in southern France, the opportunity to pursue higher studies was “a big thing,” she said. The plan was to pursue a Ph.D., but she and a friend instead launched SoScience, a company that helps social and environmental organizations navigate the science world.
The work was fun, acknowledges Eloise, but not lucrative enough to fund what was revealing itself to be her true passion – horses. She had started riding at age six, owned her own horses growing up, and continued to ride while at university. While living in Grenoble and working on her new business, she half-leased a horse at a local stable. That’s when she started to become serious about riding and competing. She left SoScience to seek a consulting job in her field that would offer more money so she could ride more. Then, an interviewer set Eloise on her heels. “The guy told me, ‘You’re very good. We’d love to have you, but I’m not sure it’s what you want to do.’” Angry at the man at first, Eloise eventually admitted to herself he was right. “Maybe I’m going to spend a lot of time doing a job I don’t really like to bring in money to ride. So, I could just skip the middle part and spend my time riding.”
She joined her trainer Sylvain Coeur’s team and began an intensive two-year coaching certification process. “He was very surprised,” said Eloise. “He told everyone, ‘I don’t know why she’s doing this. She has such a big brain and now she wants to work for me.’”
She doesn’t consider her time spent on education and in the sciences a waste. “I didn’t just learn mathematics and physics and everything, I learned how to learn, how to think, how to fix problems and that’s something very handy. Most people tell me I’m good at organizing things and planning.” These skills come into play as a riding instructor, especially since most of her students are those just beginning to show. Eloise competes, too, and this year will campaign the nine-year-old Oldenburg Carando for the first time in the jumper ring.
Ultimately, she wants to return to France and have her own stable. “That’s the dream, not the plan yet. I’m not worried. I can find horses anywhere.”
Do All the Things
Martha Worts laughs that by the time she hit her mid-20s she’d already held a couple of careers. The now 35-year-old is happily ensconced in the horse industry in a number of capacities, but it took a couple of false starts before she found where she truly belongs.
Martha’s initial plan was to become a teacher or professor. While taking a master’s degree in history at McMaster University in Hamilton, she enjoyed the program’s teaching component but admitted, “I couldn’t deal with university politics.” This ended any thoughts of pursuing a Ph.D.
Soon after, a full-time position arose at a retirement home in her hometown of London, Ontario where she’d been working part-time. The job in the facility’s recreation department also included volunteer management and administration. After three years, and at about 25 years old, Martha still felt something was missing in her life, so she quit.
“With the baby boomers coming through, it was a pretty secure industry as far as benefits, growth and long-term opportunities. It was perhaps silly to leave the job at that point. But I just kept coming back to the horses,” said Martha, who, as a “horse-crazy kid” rode hunters mainly on the Trillium Circuit, worked riding camps and with lessons and volunteered at local equine goings-on. She continued riding until about a year after grad school, when, “as a young adult, you have other things to do,” she said.
After leaving the retirement home position in 2010, she moved to the Toronto area to shadow show stewards, judges and course designers, thinking, with the pool of equestrian industry officials aging fairly rapidly, it might be “a good life choice.”
After five months of shadowing and industry networking, Martha landed her steward’s card and was getting regular gigs. She had also started doing part-time office work and bookkeeping for Dave Dawson, an Uxbridge-based farrier and commercial horse transporter, who had just launched an equine-industry employment search website and opened a boarding barn with quarantine facilities. In a turn of events that proved she was, indeed, on the right path, Martha had “one of those random conversations that pivot your life.”
A man called the transport company requesting a run to Pearson International Airport to pick up horses for quarantine. “I happened to mention, ‘Just so you know, we opened this facility. We have a quarantine barn if there’s ever any interest in that.’ He asked, ‘What’s the address? Can you be available in an hour?’” The man was Kenneth Serrien, one of the owners of Calgary-based international equine air transporter, Overseas Horse Services. Today, Martha serves as the company’s Toronto operations coordinator.
She also manages the Trillium Hunter Jumper Association and still stewards during show season. Martha’s work falls under the umbrella of Equine Business Solutions, a company she and Dave formed in 2013, which offers various administrative, marketing and event planning services to the horse industry. On top of everything, Martha finds time for her 14-year-old Thoroughbred Leroy.
“I’ve stayed in this career, we’re coming up on 10 or 11 years now, so it’s the only thing that’s really stuck. I love it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Spreading Good Feelings
Mark Fletcher, 61, fought wildfires for 42 years. Now “retired,” he helps people connect with horses through equine bodywork – a somewhat more sedate occupation, but, for Mark, no less fulfilling.
Starting at age 17, Mark was a firefighter with provincial/territorial forest services, primarily in British Columbia and the Yukon. According to Mark, he “did it all” including parachuting into forests as a smokejumper, bombing flames by air from above and command and control. The work took him all over North America. “It was a great career and I feel so blessed and grateful for it because I met a lot of people, saw a lot of great places and had a lot of adventure.”
Mark lived transiently for a couple of decades, going wherever fires were blazing. While in his late 30s, he landed a more stationary job in Pemberton, B.C. Up to that point, he’d enjoyed some horse connections, but never owned his own. “One day I woke up and said, ‘I think it’s time. I’m going to go buy a horse.’”
Downtime from work then became mainly devoted to equine pursuits. In 2000, he began studying and training under a number of different equine massage and bodywork practitioners throughout North America. About eight years ago, Mark realized this was what he wanted to do when he eventually retired.
In 2015, he met Jim Masterson, founder of the Masterson Method. Described as an “integrated, multi-modality method of equine massage,” the techniques and principles revolutionized Mark’s understanding of horses and bodywork. He became a certified practitioner, coach and advanced instructor, travelling North America delivering courses and seminars. Today, while continuing to represent the Masterson Method, Mark is branching out under his own banner, Fletcher Equine Bodywork. He also recently settled on a 20-acre property in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, just north of the Montana border, and is excited to “cowboy a little bit” alongside local ranchers.
Mark admits he likely wouldn’t have retired in 2017 if he didn’t know his second career would be a go. He said he had “a vision and a goal” and took a generous amount of time before leaving his job to network within the industry and get a sense of whether his plan would succeed. “It’s’ been a real fun transition,” said Mark, who calls teaching bodywork impactful and humbling. “It’s so gratifying, especially in the horse world, where I can bring so much joy to people and the horses. It’s pretty neat.”
Because horses are grazing animals, designed to travel long distances to find food and eat whenever they find it available, going for that grass is a perfectly natural behaviour.
As a first step, ensure your horse is getting enough forage (hay or grass) in her diet and that she has eaten before going out to ride. If her tummy is full, she’s less likely to be tempted to snack.
Next, work with her at home so that she consistently responds to your quiet leg and seat aids to go forward. A horse that is moving from her hindquarters can’t lower her head to grab grass as easily. Also, work on your riding position, ensuring you are balanced in your saddle, sitting tall and with your weight evenly over both seat bones. A well balanced rider is not so easily pulled forward out of the saddle.
Always pay attention to your horse and what’s available to her in the environment as you ride. When your focus is on your horse, you can feel subtle changes in her movement that signal where her focus is and what she is thinking about doing. The sooner you notice that she’s preparing to reach down for a bite of grass, the more pro-active you can be to prevent it.
As soon as you feel her move her head downward, immediately send her forward from your seat and leg. At the same time, close your fingers firmly on your reins (to create a block), pressing your knuckles into her neck if necessary so you don’t get pulled out of the saddle. Bridging your reins can also give you a stronger block to prevent her from pulling down. The more consistent you are with your aids and preventing the behaviour, the sooner she will stop doing it.
If you are re-training a horse that has been allowed to eat while being ridden, be prepared for her to try pulling down harder and refuse to move forward. It always takes more time to un-train an existing behaviour.
If you enjoy it when your horse has a ‘chew’ while you are taking a break during your ride, then teach her a cue that means ‘Okay, you can eat now.’ I do this by asking my horse to halt and stand quietly for a moment. Then, I release the reins and gently tap or stroke her shoulder or give her a voice cue. When it’s time to move on, I ask her to move forward from my seat and leg, taking up my reins again as she lifts her head.
Most horses are afraid to cross bridges…initially. Horses are naturally wary about anything that might trap their feet. A prey animal in nature doesn’t get a second chance to make a judgment error.
You don’t necessarily need a bridge to prepare for a bridge on the trail. Practice crossing lots of different things. Plywood, a tarp, a stall mat, a mud puddle. Carefully expose your horse to scarier things than you’ll encounter on the trail. My motto is ‘Overprepare, and then go with the flow!’ Just make sure your obstacles aren’t trappy. Particle board, for example, will break. If your horse’s legs get tangled, you’ll withdraw any training deposits you’ve invested.
Begin gradually, practicing crossing the width of an obstacle before its length. If your horse is quite fearful, start the process unmounted. You may even wish to sprinkle a food reward on each new crossing challenge. A powerful motivator, food links something scary with something pleasant.
Be patient if your horse doesn’t want to go near the obstacle. Research is indicating it takes at least 10 seconds for horses to go from alarmed to an investigative state.
Reward the focus. Your horse will need to stretch and lower her neck to investigate the bridge with binocular vision. When she does so, soften your aids. Pressing a tense horse forward is a losing game. Advance another few steps only when your horse is relaxed. Look for soft ears.
Keep straight. Draw imaginary lines in the dirt to form a chute several metres before the bridge. Correct the first step outside the chute with lateral pressure from your leg. Resist the urge to circle away and re-approach. Doing so only rewards your horse’s side door exit attempt.
Once on the bridge, your horse may try to rush or leap to the other side to get the experience over with. When threatened, a horse flees to a safe distance and checks things out from there. In her mind, she scooted to safety before that bridge grabbed her legs.
Proceed slowly, even pausing on top of the bridge. Be mindful that restricting reins will make her feel claustrophobic and inclined to flee the stressful situation.
Once arriving on the other side, don’t scurry away. Simply turn her back into the obstacle and start again. By increasing distance between herself and the object, your horse discovers that fleeing the scene works! ‘Slow the legs, slow the thinking’ is one of my favourite lines in coaching.
The safest way to ride down a steep trail is slow and steady. The faster your horse goes down a steep trail, the more his weight is on his front end. The problem with that is if he trips and his weight is already on his front, he’s pretty likely to stumble or possibly fall. If he goes slower, his weight is probably going to be on his back end, which means he’ll be less likely to stumble, and if he does there’s a much better chance that he’ll easily recover from it.
To get your horse going downhill slow, start with trails that aren’t very steep. Ride down small hills and stop him several times before you get to the bottom. This will cause him to think of going down hills as a time to go slow. If you feel him start to rush, stop immediately and back him up a few steps. Backing up a hill is a lot of work for a horse, so this is a mild reprimand for rushing and it also really causes him to use his hind end.
Another exercise is to make small changes of direction when going down hills that aren’t very steep. Sometimes when a horse goes down a hill, he will start picking up more and more speed. Making slight changes of direction and going down a hill on different angles forces him to slow down and think more about what he’s doing instead of rushing.
Once your horse is good on small hills, progress to steeper ones. If I feel a horse really putting his weight on his front legs as he’s going down a hill, I will put light pressure on the reins to keep him from going faster and at the same time squeeze with my legs to drive his hindquarters up under himself which re-engages the back end. This is really just asking for collection, but doing it while going downhill.
As far as rider position goes, I have heard reasons for sitting forward in the saddle, but I always sit back. I do this because if a horse trips or stumbles and I’m positioned over his front end, my added weight is going to make it harder for him to recover his footing. I’ll usually hold one rein in each hand and put light pressure on both reins when going down a steep trail, as it helps most horses keep their balance. However, if I’m going down an extremely steep hill and I feel there is a chance that I could fall over the front of the saddle if the horse were to trip, I will put both reins in one hand (making sure they’re the same length) and reach back and hold onto the cantle with my other hand. This holds me tight in the saddle.
Using a computer model, researchers from the University of Kentucky have been able to predict the course of anthelmintic resistance in small strongyles over the next 40 years.
Incorporating the life-cycle of the cyathostomin species of small strongyles as well as weather station data, the computer model allowed the team to run simulations evaluating the use of the anthelmintic (dewormer) ivermectin, in a variety of circumstances.
The purpose of the study was to determine whether selective (targeted) deworming programs (where only horses that shed a high number of parasite eggs are treated) can slow down resistance to anthelmintic drugs in small strongyles.
To start, the impact of time of the year was evaluated when a single ivermectin treatment was administered once, in any of the 12 months. The next simulations looked at the effects of treatment intensity, varying between two and six treatments per year. Finally, they compared treatment schedules consisting of a combination of traditional strategic treatments administered to all horses and additional treatments administered to high shedders.
They found that the month of treatment had a large effect on resistance development in colder climates, but little or no impact in subtropical and tropical climates. Resistance development was affected by treatment intensity, but was also strongly affected by climate. Selective therapy delayed resistance development in all modelled scenarios, but, again, was climate dependent, with the largest delays observed in the colder climates.
For most riders, the barn is like a second home, and between the two places there are a lot of chores that need to get done in a day! If you learn to do the following four things you can balance horses and a busy lifestyle:
1. Learn to estimate time accurately. There are 168 hours in a week and of those, we spend about 56 sleeping and 40 working. That leaves approximately 96 hours of time to fill. Most people typically over- or underestimate how much time they actually spend doing things. And because of this, they don’t adequately plan and end up with periods where they’re simply killing time, or find they run out of time to finish things they’ve started.
Solution: Keep a tracking sheet of your daily routine for one week and see how long it actually takes you to do each task. (How long to make breakfast, commute to work, do housework, groom and ride your horse, etc.) This will help you see where your time goes, what you spend it on, and where you can make adjustments.
2. Learn to prioritize. Some things we must do in order to survive, such as eating and sleeping. Other things are important and give meaning to our lives such as parenting, professional activities and relationships. And some things provide little to no meaning in our lives. It’s critical that we learn to prioritize these things, and take care of them in order of importance to us.
Solution: Get a set of recipe cards and write down one task you do on each card. When you have all your obligations listed on separate cards, see if you can place the cards in order of importance from most important to least important. If you can’t, and you find you have multiple cards which you feel are all critically important, then you might benefit from working with a counsellor or coach to help you clarify your values and priorities.
3. Learn to say no. In my practice, I often see people who complain about having no time to spend with their horses. Often, it’s because they feel guilty for saying ‘no’ to requests, so their time gets sucked up doing things for other people.
Solution: Practice saying “I would love to do that for you, however, I don’t have time.” Then, practice tolerating the distress it may cause you to say it. Learn to accept that it may not feel comfortable until you have done it 1,000 times. Allow it to be uncomfortable and do it anyway. Keep in mind that, quite often, individuals who can’t say no are “people pleasers,” who learned to sacrifice their own needs growing up. If this sounds like you, consider seeing a counsellor.
4. Stop procrastinating! Procrastination is doing anything except the thing at the top of your priority list. You may justify it by saying things like “Yes, but I need to fold the laundry first” or “I’ll do it after I’ve gone to the bank.” It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to yourself, if you are avoiding the priority tasks on your list, you are procrastinating, and if you want to spend more time with your horse, you’d better get a handle on it.
Solution: Get real with yourself. Why are you avoiding doing your priority tasks? Procrastinators typically do so for one of three reasons: 1) they are perfectionists who can’t start a task because they’re afraid they won’t do it well enough; 2) they are overwhelmed by a task that seems too large to manage or they don’t know where to start; 3) they dislike doing a particular task; let’s face it, some chores are just no fun. If you are an expert procrastinator and you can’t figure it out on your own, talk to a counsellor and get some clarity. You can also check out “Stop Procrastinating: A Simple Guide to Hacking Laziness, Building Self Discipline, and Overcoming Procrastination” by Nils Salzgeber.
If you can do these four things, you should be able to claw back some much-needed time for yourself. But, if you find you’re still struggling, consider makings some lifestyle changes such as letting go of some responsibilities at home or work. Additionally, talking to a counsellor or professional life coach might help you gain insight into what needs to change.
Twisting in the saddle is a common problem for riders, and one of the most challenging to identify. At its simplest, it looks like a rider whose upper body is turned to one side when they are intending to be straight, but twisting leads to asymmetry from head to toe. Sometimes we mask these symptoms of a twist by correcting leg or hand positions, but that often leads to stiffness and discomfort for both horse and rider.
Twisting is mainly caused by muscle imbalances in our body – weak and/or tight areas that prevent us from moving equally on both sides. Everyone has some asymmetry to begin with, and it is often worsened by injuries or pain. Correcting these imbalances is particularly challenging on horseback, since horses have asymmetries of their own.
The following exercise will help you identify asymmetry in your body and train your muscles to help you resist twisting while riding.
Start by sitting in a chair. Secure a resistance band around a stable surface so that the band is roughly at elbow height, as shown in photo 1. The goal is to have your hand in approximately your riding position, with the band mimicking your rein. From this position, draw your elbow backward, as in photo 2.
The goal is to keep your body relatively unchanged while you pull on the single band. The force you are applying with your single arm will try to twist you to the side. It’s normal to notice a small shift forward in your seat bone and a small lift-up of your shoulder blade on the side you pull with. Otherwise all the movement should be in your shoulder and elbow joints.
You can also do this exercise in standing, as in photo 3. Standing is typically easier for your back, but more challenging for your legs, so switch between these two exercises depending on what works best for you.
It can also be done while standing on one leg, like in photo 4. This becomes a very challenging exercise for stability and body control. Try it on either leg. If you find yourself struggling with body symmetry, return to standing or sitting to strengthen your basics first.
Spend about two minutes practicing this exercise with both hands in turn. Sometimes the more challenging side is not the one you expect. Swapping back and forth can help you to feel the differences between your left and right sides. Pay particular attention to any areas you commonly struggle with while riding, such as your heels or shoulders. A mirror can help with this process.
This exercise improves your postural awareness and helps you strengthen your body, making it easier to correct your position in the saddle. Once you are on horseback, see if you can feel these same asymmetries and focus on the corrections you applied off of your horse.
Performing this exercise may make you aware of asymmetries you didn’t know about, or issues that are very difficult to correct. Twisting is a complex problem for riders, so don’t be afraid to get help. A physiotherapist can help identify and correct the root causes of your issues. This helps you to achieve greater symmetry in your riding, which both you and your horse will appreciate.