Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Emotional and Physical Ill Effects of Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is defined as;
"the attribution of human form or other characteristics to anything other than a human being"

We've all seen this, all the time, in the horse industry. And a lot of the time it's just us being cute lovey dovey mums to our horses; but sometimes we are doing our horses harm. And we don't even know it.

"Oh my little baby shnookums needs another blanket before it drops to 0 tonight!"

Here are some examples:
1) Assumption of Learning
      We assume our horses are capable of learning the same way we do. That if they do something one day, they must be capable of it another day with the same result. This leaves room for unmet expectations and often leads to unnecessary discipline or punishment to the horse. 

2) Expectations of Emotional Stability
      We often assume our horses should be able to handle their fear the same way we do. But it has been studied widely and proven that horses (and other prey animal species) experience "fear" much differently than we do. Therefore we need to act appropriately when our horses experience fear while in training; so we can calm them instead of light them up.
      We also often assume that since our horses can perform in certain situations; they should be able to perform in other environments without issue. This again leads to unnecessary discipline or punishment.

3) Ability to Adapt to "Solitude" Lifestyles
      This one I see far too often. "My horse enjoys his alone time, just like I do." Unfortunately, as nice as this may seem; as if we are doing our horses a favour by giving them time off in a stall. But the truth is that horses have evolved to live in a herd for a reason; to avoid predation. They feel comfortable and "good" in a herd, because it means they are safe. The only time a horse leaves a social herd is when they are driven out, they are sick/dying or they are giving birth. Yes, our horses eventually adapt by "learned helplessness"; but this is not to be confused with them being comfortable. 
      "My horse is on individual turnout so it doesn't get injured by other horses; but it can still see and hear other horses. That's good enough." Again, this is us thinking we would be ok with this idea. We are a language leading species; meaning we use our verbal language as the #1 way to communicate with our fellow human beings. Horses use body language and touch. They stand close together, they mutually groom and yes they bite, kick and chase each other. That's part of their lifestyle. But a well socialized herd of horses do not "injure" each other on any kind of regular basis. They keep each other safe, in shape and healthy because it benefits everyone in the herd to have such a strong band of horses.       
      Horses don't live in caves. Wild horses don't even go nears caves, know why? That's where predators live. Like us! Another reason we think we are doing horses a favour. "It's ok little horsey, come live in this dark cave with me!" 
      "But my horse loves to come inside to their very own stall!" Of course they do, they get fed grain in there, they get positive attention in there and have an easy access to feed in there. But if you were to leave the stall door open after they ate their grain, the next place they would find is another horse to socialize with.

      Removing a horse from the ability of touching another horse is like making a human wear ear plugs for the rest of their life. You are removed of your basic communication skills and ways to comfort yourself with others. Horse to horse contact has been studied to be one of the most important enrichments in a horse's mental well being and stability.

1) Thinking Natural is "Barbaric"
      Just because humans are an evolved species who live indoors, and wear clothing; does not mean horses are. Yes, it's nice to think that we are doing them a favour by taking them out of the cold and into cozy individual stalls. But the truth is that we aren't doing them any favours. If you are blanketing your horse for the winter; consider the "why". For the horse, not for you. If you are clipping your horse for show, a blanket is an obvious necessity. But if you have horses living out and don't work "hard" all winter; why would you stress their natural lifestyles by blanketing them? As long as they have a free choice shelter and the appropriate feeding options; a horse is happier and healthier without a blanket to as low as -15C (though many have success with healthy horses down to as low as -30C)

      Again, horses learn to "adapt" to live in dark places, and small confined places; but they are not "happy" to be there. Open the barn door, and see where they choose to be in bad weather, hot weather, good days and bad days. Horses are not fools, they do know how to care for themselves when given the option and they know how to find their "safe" place. An unhappy horse with the option to, will seek a happier environment.

2) "I wear shoes so my horse should wear shoes too"
      I won't push this one too far, you get the idea. But this comes down to a complete lack in understanding of hoof mechanism and the ability for a horse's hoof to grow callous. Management is the number one reason for this idea. I encourage anyone who doesn't believe every horse can go barefoot to look up Jaime Jackson, and everything related to a Paddock Paradise system. The research and proof are strongly rooted that barefoot is not only possible, but meant to be. Horses are healthier, happier and safer barefoot. Shoes are the barbaric way of the past.

3) "I like sugar, so my horse must like sugar as a treat too!"
      Sugar is something horses learn to like. And unfortunately end up thinking they like it too, the same way we do. (Yes, processed sugar is actually really bad for us... but way worse for our horses) Anyone who has had to deal with a laminitic horse understands why sugar is bad. But there are still many who feed sugary feeds (for "energy") and sugary treats on a regular basis thinking their horses like them for it. Unfortunately the reality of this treatment is stress to the digestive system and harm to their hooves.
      Talk to an equine nutritionist about sugar in your horses diet if you don't believe me. There are many PhD's and vets out there now pushing us to feed our horses as if they were sugar intolerant. Basically as if they were diabetic/insulin resistant. This means free choice forage grass hay and minerals.
      Check out "Feed Your Horse Like a Horse" by Dr. Getty. It's an incredible and eye opening study and has endless information on how to feed your horse safely and to the best of their digestive system!

     There is another side to this idea of anthropomorphism that I want to touch on. One of a uniting idea. I often see those who are in the show world guilty of the physical applications of anthropomorphism, judging the "pet owner" side of being guilty of the mental applications. And vice versa. The fact is that everyone in this industry is guilty of some part of anthropomorphism; the important thing is not to point fingers. But to educate ourselves to what our horses really "want" and "need" to be the healthiest they can be. Not to be as convenient and accessible as we want them to be. Not to be as safe and cozy as we would want to be if we were horses; but as free and healthy as they want and need to be as the horses that their genetics dictates.

    It is there where we will unlock the true potential of our equine partners and athletes.

Much love,

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Some Farm Updates; With Love.

      We've been so busy lately it's hard to find time to sleep these days, nevermind get a blog post up.. But here is a quickie to give you some insight into all the work we've been doing!

      Inside the barn we've been getting the lounge, boarder tack room and arena ready for winter use... With our lockers all ready and heaters finally in place, we're getting cozy!
      Our footing is finally drying and settling in, so we moved our poles and jumps into the arena. It's been a blast to ride in with the weather turning so quickly.

      Outdoors we've been building shelters for our herds living outside 24/7; and they have turned out great! Big enough to house 6+ horses without any issue. Next week when our straw order comes in we'll be fluffing up beds for them too.

      We've finally got a grip on these hay nets and everyone enjoys their lucious hay every day and night; while still getting to move around from feed station to feed station! Next we'll be putting up posts and hitch rings for the nets to hang off the ground over the winter months. With a few going in the shelters too. Everyone loves breakfast in bed!

      And lastly we brought in 30+ tonnes of round stone gravel for all of the paddocks to fill in any mud spots around the water troughs, shelters and fence lines. I love the results we are getting already! The horses choose to walk on the round stone instead of the mud and it doesn't freeze rock solid like the muds does. Their hooves are getting a great chance to transition into the harder ground instead of the usual winter shock of soft grass and mushy mud to hard as rock mud rivets. All the while getting tougher by the day with the added bonus of naturally wearing down. We are already seeing hooves harden, soles growing back in, toe callus formation and less to trim each time our barefoot trimmer comes up. Keep an eye open for our monthly updates following our horses transitions into real barefoot living! Remember, just because you took shoes off your horse doesn't mean they are really barefoot. You need to properly manage their living and access to harder terrain types to keep those hooves strong and allow for a proper callous to form. Otherwise you risk soreness and the inevitable unsound, bruised hooves we've all come to hate!

That's all I have for now, expect a new post later this week... I have some ideas brewing!

Much love.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why My Journey is a Bitless One...

      I'd like to start this post off with the disclaimer that I do NOT look down on anyone who chooses to use bits; but I do however challenge them in their horsemanship. A bit is a final refinement tool, not a control device. If you cannot ride your horse around a ring at the walk, trot and canter on the buckle; you don't need more leverage, you need to go back to the basics!
      A bit is a tool used to refine a horse's movement and to further your communication with them. If you can't communicate with them on the ground, and in a casual riding environment in the saddle.. You are not ready to have a bit.

      That said, I'd like to share why I am on a completely bitless journey with all of my horses and my students. It all started with my first horse, Johnny. As if he hasn't taught me enough!

      It's funny, everytime I start a new student with a difficult horse; we end up going down the same road I went down when I first was shown how to go bitless...

      When I first bought Johnny he was coming off of time in the pasture, but he had a good amount on training on him. I rode him in a simple single jointed snaffle and things were pretty ok. He had his moments, but overall wasn't a very difficult ride. But as we progressed into more refinement in our training, things got more and more difficult. He wasn't disobedient, he was terrified. Everytime I asked for contact or collection, he would jolt forward and throw his head up in the air. Take off, freak out, scare me to death... And I always got a similar answer as to why he was like this; "He's a thoroughbred", "he's too hot", "he's being disobedient" etc etc... But I knew this wasn't the case with him. I could do so much with him on the ground, and he was connected to me. We had a very good relationship even through rough times; he had no reason to suddenly become sullen under saddle.
      Under the advice of different trainers and coaches, I tried a selection of different bits. A single jointed copper roller (which ended up being THE WORST for him, almost landed me in the stands one night), different combos of single and double jointed snaffles, happy mouths, rubber, copper, sweet iron... I tried a very soft french link, and a second level Myler comfort snaffle. But the result under saddle was always the same. Hollow backed terror.
      At some point during this battle through bits, I reunited with my NH coach and she took me down a new road. She pushed me to try bitless. I had just moved Johnny to her farm after finishing school and I was mentoring with her. I was riding horses every day in bitless bridles.. but with Johnny I was absolutely terrified at the idea. How would I control him when he decided to take off? What would I do to stop him when he decided to jump out of the sand ring?
      But she just laughed at me, and pushed me into a lesson. And the result was the same result that I get every time I push one of my students to try bitless with their horses...
      Absolute shock and astonishment. But how? How can they be so soft? Is he rounding?! Sitting back and relaxing even? We did a full lesson walk, trot and canter in the most relaxed frame of mind (and body) I had ever experienced from him. No terror. No panic.. no pain.

And I've never looked back. Ever.

      It's funny to me now because I think of how scared I was to try something new. Something that I did not totally understand at the time, and had only really experienced from afar. And because of it's stigma, had deemed myth. But here I am, with a facility full of bitless horses. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Johnny showed me that bad hands had ruined his mouth, and no matter how soft a bit or working hands could be; they would not shake his past. This is why I choose bitless. Not only because I believe all of that refinement is totally possible without a piece of metal in their mouth, but also because it allows room for bad hands to create torture in a horse's life.
      And yes, I hear it all the time. But a bit is just a tool, and a bitless bridle in the wrong hands can be bad too. And it's true. It most definitely can be. But there is no way you can tell me that a jointed piece of metal (nevermind two) is softer than a padded piece of leather. Test it! Put a bit on your wrist (the boniest part) and tap it around, pull on it, push on it, bend it up and down and pinch your skin with it. Now get a padded leather noseband and do the same. Point made? Point made.

      With that said, there are a million different types of bitless bridles. And there are a million perspectives on each one. And to this I say, as with all things, to each their own. This is just my opinion. My experience and my perspective. It's right for me. And that's all I can say about it! But from my experience in trying new bridles over the past couple of years, here is what I do with my horses.

      I start all horses in a rope noseband sidepull. This is a very simple bridle, with easy questions and easy answers to find. It is soft with no contact, but can be very strong if needed for emergency stops. It also lends the hand of pushing horses up off their forehand if they tend to lean on your hands. It is the very basics of pressure; it makes the right answer easy to find, and the wrong answer uncomfortable. There is no bridle I feel safer in. I have no doubt in my mind that I could stop just about any horse (with foundation ground training) under saddle in this bridle. It is my go to, and also the bridle that every student begins in. This bridle teaches you basic steering with minimal touch on your horse's face; and forces you to use your body as your main aid. You cannot lean on your hands, you cannot rely on steering for everything. It encourages a loose, casual rein; which encourages relaxation in your horse.

      Step two is into a simple leather noseband sidepull. Basically the same as the rope, but allows the horse to lean into the noseband a bit more with comfort. And thus lays the foundation to search for contact. This is a bridle you move up to when you have proven you can go walk, trot and canter with your horse with a loose rein and good connection; in any environment.

      Step three is into a padded noseband hackamore. Only those looking for "contact" and "collection" need to move up to this step. It is one I am just reaching myself, and with only two rides on Johnny in one.. I am inlove! Johnny had started looking for contact when we were in work last year, but I didn't know what options I really had. I have found every bitless I try online from different countries.. And the one I have chosen for this step is the Zilco flower hackmore. It's padded, and fits nicely. And it allows you to configure your "contact" to best suit your horse. It's almost like an elevator bit where you can choose what level of leverage you want/need. So far I haven't felt any real difference in my mechanics with this bridle in comparison to riding with a bit. The contact weight is the same, the hand aids are the same... but my horse is seemingly happier and no more taking off!

      Our next aim is to get our bitless show team out into the area and showing what we can do! With hopes of being allowed to ride in higher level events which require a bit to show. I have some girls dying to try eventing but whom aren't allowed to show because we need a bit for dressage...
Here's a great article about that whole ordeal!

To Bit or Not To Bit - Dressage Naturally

And here's a quick video of Johnny and I in our first ride in the Zilco flower hack. Don't mind how out of shape we are, we're working on it!
Much love!