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Understanding your horse’s behaviour

February 24, 2014

Trainee animal behaviorist Beth Gibbons is currently studying at the Natural Animal Centre in Wales, and talked to the members of New Barn about meeting the natural needs of your horse.

Beth is studying a range of topics including the science of behaviour , neurology, psychology, the way that horses learn, ethology (the scientific and object study of animal behaviour), endocrinology  (the diagnosis and treatment of diseases related to hormones), welfare and abnormal behaviours.

“It’s an eclectic mix, but it means that we’re able to understand the biological mechanisms and driving forces of a behaviour,” she explains.













“Left to themselves, horses behave in a certain way. They’re herbivores/prey animals, live in a hierarchy within a herd, and highly sociable, are trickle feeders/grazers, travel over defined territories and sleep for around to hours in 24. These are normal behaviour patterns.

“There’s an important social aspect to their behaviour, which manifests itself in the herd hierarchy and body care such as mutual grooming. They’ve evolved these behaviour patterns over thousands of years, and they’re a vital survival tool.

“In the wild, a horse will graze for around 16 – 20 hours a day, eating low quality forage and moving over a large area. They sleep in two-hour bouts, although they have around five different types of sleep from dozing to REM. Around 9% of their time is spent in REM sleep, and the herd will never all sleep together. Interestingly, a horse must be lying completely flat to get any REM sleep, which is vital to health and well-being.”

horse-stabled“Horses have had a very long evolution – the proto-horse, eohippus, lived over 60 million years ago. It’s only relatively recently, in the last 8,000 years or so, that horses have been domesticated, and even then it was originally as meat animals rather than transport. Horses’ behaviour has evolved slowly in response to their environment, and in the short time we have domesticated them these behaviours have changed very little as there’s been insufficient time for them to naturally evolve and adapt. However, the circumstances of our relationship with horses have changed dramatically.Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that the way we keep our modern horses can be stressful for them.”

  • “The typical modern horse is stabled overnight for maybe 16 hours. He’s fed one or two haynets and hard feed, with other set hours for exercise or grooming. If you consider Brambells’s five freedoms, introduced in the 1960s to form the foundation of the basic welfare standard for animal care, you can see that we’re sometimes denying the stabled horse the ability to express his natural behaviour.”

The five freedoms:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to act out natural behaviour.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

A day in the life of a wild horse

wild horse behaviour

A day in the life of a stabled domestic horse

domestic horse behaviour

“In the case of the stabled horse above, we don’t really know what he spends his 16 hours of stable time doing, and some horses can develop abnormal behaviours as coping mechanisms,” says Beth.

“These are behaviours abnormal in frequency, duration or tendency, sometimes known as stable vices. These can be caused by anxiety or frustration, or be examples of ‘vacuum behaviour’, evolved to fill time. Some horses can also exhibit signs of aggression.

  • “There’s also a range of behaviour known as ‘stereotypies’, which refers to an unchanging pattern of behaviour that doesn’t serve an apparent purpose, such as crib biting, weaving, box walking, wind sucking or self mutilation (harming themselves). These are all examples of maladaptive behaviour, which fill the gaps left by the inability to practice normal behaviour.

“As horse owners, it’s not always practical to keep our horses in a 100% natural environment, but it’s always interesting to ask the question, “If my horse had the choice, what would he choose to do?”

“You might be surprised at the answers.”

Win tickets to Blenheim International Horse Trials

September 4, 2013

Fidelity2It’s one of the highlights of the equestrian calendar. Set in the stunning surroundings of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, this year’s Blenheim International Horse Trials are taking place between the 12th and the 15th September 2013.

With the chance to visit the house and groups, browse dozens of trade stands and see the top event riders compete, the International Horse Trials really does offer something for everyone.

Now Fidelity, the sponsors of the event, have launched a thoroughly modern competition using Twitter to win a pair of tickets to this year’s horse trials,  £200 to spend on Ariat equestrian equipment and a year’s subscription to Eventing magazine. Nine runners-up will each win a pair of tickets.

Find out more about the competition, including how to enter, here –

Follow on Twitter: @FidBlenheim

Laminitis and its prevention – a horse owner’s guide by Olivia Henderson

July 30, 2013

Laminitis is a painful and potentially crippling equine disease that can be fatal. It’s extremely important to understand what it is, its causes and how to prevent the disease.

X-ray of laminitic foot, showing the movement of the pedal bone

X-ray of laminitic foot, showing the movement of the pedal bone

What is Laminitis?Laminitis is is a disease associated with ischaemia of digital dermal tissues and not an inflammatory disease, which is a common misconception.  The onset of laminitis can cause the inter-laminar bonds, the only means of support of the distal phalanx within the hoof, to be destroyed.  If enough of these bonds are destroyed, the animal becomes foundered meaning the pedal bone moves distally within the hoof.

What are its causes?

There are no specific causes of laminitis however the following situations are thought to contribute. These include; toxaemia – any systemic disease involving a septic or toxic focus, trauma – fast or prolonged work on hard surfaces and hormonal imbalances caused by incorrect use of thyroxine supplements.

Native ponies such as this Shetland require careful management

Native ponies such as this Shetland require careful management

Obesity caused by overeating is the most common cause of laminitis.  Owners with little or no understanding of horse management often overfeed their horses.  There are also external pressures from feed companies and peers. Native ponies actually require very little to eat. How to prevent it

Restricting the grass intake can help to prevent overeating and obesity.  Grass contains high amounts of soluble carbohydrates, which, if ingested in large amounts can lead to laminitis, most commonly occurring in spring and autumn.

Strip grazing can be a useful management tool, allowing control of the horse’s access to grass at all times.  This requires a small amount of investment high visibility electric fencing.  Ideally position the electric fence to divide the paddock in half or smaller is necessary – make sure the horse has access to water and shelter at all times.  Allowing for the end posts to stay in one position, move the fence a small amount each day in a zig-zag shape.  Move the electric fence end posts weekly as you see fit.

Regular hoof care is essential in the battle against laminitis

Regular hoof care is essential in the battle against laminitis

This method will be of benefit not only to the horses nutrition and control of obesity, but also to the paddock itself.

Author Bio:

Olivia Henderson is the content specialist for Fi-Shock – a world leader in electric fence systems. Fi-Shock systems provide safe, superior quality energisers, accessories, conductors (tape wire and rope), insulators, and electric fence components. Electric fences are an economical alternative to conventional or barbed wire fences.

**This is a guest post in association with Fi-Shock**

“Follement cheval” – twilight, an abbey and a donkey troupe

July 13, 2013

20130707_193618Since we started living partly in France, we’ve noticed that the French do love their outdoor events. Blessed with a more consistent climate than the UK, during the summer there’s a constant stream of music festivals, car shows, evening markets and even a local beer festival, as well as date specific celebrations such as the 14th July. There’s also a fair sprinkling of horse shows – but don’t expect British-style gymkhanas. These shows are spectator only, and feature ‘le voltige’ (acrobatics such as dismounting and mounting at a gallop), carriage driving displays and processions.

We recently attended an evening event at the beautiful Abbaye de Bonnefont, a building that can trace its origins back to the 12th century. The garden courtyard plays host to a number of events, including an evening of live music with a light show projected onto the abbey wall.

We were there, though, for Follement Cheval, a two day event in celebration of the horse. This year’s event was Spanish themed, and boasted tapas and As it was so hot, we’d opted to attend only the final evening.

After the traditional late start, which we’re now becoming used to, the event finally kicked off at 8.30pm with a display by20130707_195044 René Grassi of the Mas de l’âne gris, presenting his donkeys in a ‘spectacle asin’. Although designed to be a series of stunts and tricks performed by the four donkeys, bored with the long wait they obviously decided to take matters into their own hooves and stage a strike. Poor René became increasingly desperate as his donkey refused to unroll a carpet, put its head through a hoop or knock over a row of coloured cones, choosing instead to roll its eyes superciliously and crop grass.

Eventually, the pleading René managed to persuade his errant charges to stand on a block, and grudgingly count to 10. Which just does to show, you really can’t make a donkey do something it doesn’t want to do.

Afterwards, as the soft twilight came rolling down the valley, the audience of forty or so stood up and walked the few hundred yards to the arena, where the main attraction would perform.

20130707_201802Up tempo Spanish music burst from the loudspeakers, and two riders on stunning Andalusian horses galloped into the ring, coming to dramatic sliding stops. The two then performed a series of stunts, which the commentator incongruously assured us were ‘cossack style’, flinging themselves nonchalantly between their horses and the ground.

Next was a display of Spanish dancing – a single dancer twirled and pirouetted around a stunning bay Andalusian, appropriately asked by his rider to perform a Spanish walk.

After more displays of groundwork and ridden dressage, all four riders plunged into the ring together – the two men and two girls all in traditional costume for a formal display of drill riding.

Finally, with the night closing around us and the midges starting to bite, we packed up to leave, and I couldn’t help thinking that the setting and intimacy of the event made it feel slightly surreal. The cheerful chaos that had surrounded the performance – spare donkeys grazing happily amongst the crowd, small children helping with the barbecue – added to, rather than detracted from the atmosphere.

If you’re ever in France in the summer and see a small, modest, printed note advertising one of these events, go – but be prepared to ‘vive la différence’.


The horse’s anatomy and saddle fitting

June 22, 2013

Lorna Kettle (Equine Body Worker) of Happier Horses and Lisa Pritchard Centred Riding Instructor (L2) of the Modern Horse talk about the importance of saddle fitting at a recent New Barn Riders lecture.

Lorna, who specialises in equine massage, began by explaining why it’s so important for the saddle to fit the horse.

 The horse’s skeleton

Lorna and equine assistant Fergal explain the horse's skeleton

Lorna and equine assistant Fergal explain the horse’s skeleton

“Horses have no collarbone – the shoulder’s attached by muscles only,” she explained.

“This means that the horse can dissipate the tremendous forces on its forelegs through the movement of the soft tissue, but can also – as any rider who’s ever tried to ride a circle will know – push through its shoulder. At speed, the forces acting on a horse’s forelegs are huge, so all the muscles have to be flexible, and the shoulder blade has to slide across the rib cage. If the horse’s muscles are tight or the saddle’s restrictive, that force can’t be dissipated in the right way, and will flow elsewhere through the body, damaging the horse’s joints with each stride it takes. The top of the shoulder blade should be free to swing back, and a saddle that impedes that motion will cause problems. The spine isn’t very flexible, so naturally the horse turns by moving its thorax between the shoulder blades, which again, the saddle can prevent.  The saddle must therefore have a good channel, and be wide enough not to touch or pinch.”

The horse’s muscles:

Lorna and equine assistant Callum demonstrate the horse's muscles

Lorna and equine assistant Callum demonstrate the horse’s muscles

“The horse has a long back muscle, connecting one end of its body to the other. When the horse plants its back legs this means it pulls its front legs up into a rear, and if planting the front legs, it can produce a buck. This muscle attaches to the pelvis along the spine, and also to the neck, harnessing the power at the back end of the horse to the front, so it must be loose and flexible. When riding, that long back muscle has to be raised and engaged, yet long and loose.

“In order to raise the back muscle and work properly, the horse must use its abdominal muscles, which attach the front ribs and breastbone to the pubic bone. When these muscles are contracted, it causes the horse to contract like drawing a bow and arrow. In order to raise its back, the horse needs to step under with its back legs, which it can’t do if the back muscles are tight. If the muscles are too tight to allow the horse to tuck its pelvis under, it has to overuse the other joints such as hocks, which leads to problems, this can even sometimes be seen in high level dressage horses. The neck should be capable of stretching and lifting at the base, which will lift the forehand. The poll must be relaxed, allowing the horse to flex naturally. Riders who force a flex at the poll will only succeed in preventing their horse from stretching properly.
“The points of the saddle must be positioned far enough behind the horse’s shoulder blades to allow them to move. The saddle’s quite inflexible, and the horse’s back is flexible.

“To function properly, the muscles must have a good blood supply and enervation – a restrictive saddle can potentially cause muscle wastage. A sign of this is finding dips behind the withers upon removing the saddle. If the saddle is too narrow, the points will press into the back, and if it’s too wide, it will tend to rock forwards onto the points anyway. The flaps are less important, as the horse’s shoulders can move freely underneath them.

“The rider can carry out the following checks before mounting: the channel should be clear, and it should be easy to pass a hand under the points. The tree is designed to dissipate the rider’s weight – this is the job of the panels, which much have as much contact with the horse as possible. If they’re not touching evenly, they can ‘bridge’ and create pressure points. Run your hand under the saddle to make sure there are no gaps. Both panels must be even, as otherwise there’ll be uneven pressure.”

Lisa then took over to discuss the rider’s anatomy and saddle fitting, and why it’s so important for the saddle to fit the rider.

Lisa shows where a correctly fitted saddle should sit

Lisa shows where a correctly fitted saddle should sit

“The saddle should never be positioned further back than the last true rib, so a big rider in a big saddle on a medium size horse can cause problems with weight positioning, as the saddle extends too far back,” she said.

“The top of the horse’s spine is not designed to bear any weight at all.”

Horses for courses...and saddles for riders.

Horses for courses…and saddles for riders.

Lisa brought in a selection of saddles to show to the group, including conventional, balance, treeless and dressage.
“Modern horses are wider, cobbier and generally chunkier than riding horses traditionally used to be, as they tended to have a lot of thoroughbred blood. Older books on horse care were more preoccupied with the problems caused by a saddle that was too wide, whereas nowadays far more problems are caused by tight, narrow saddles. As modern horses are also differently bred and better fed, it’s led to a new range of problems.

“In addition to being comfortable for the horse, the saddle must also fit the rider. Traditional astride saddles were originally designed to fit male riders – the only saddle actually designed for women riders was the sidesaddle, which allows a woman to ride in the same way as a man, with a completely neutral pelvis. Because of our anatomy, 90% of women riders can’t use our pelvises naturally when we’ve riding astride.

“A dressage saddle has a deep seat, straight cup flaps and thigh rolls. These days, people have started to ride big moving horses such as Dutch Warmbloods, and they feel they can’t sit still in the saddle without a little help. Dressage saddles hold the rider in position with big knee rolls and deep seats. This position might be OK for male riders, as their different anatomy means that they sit differently in the saddle, with their legs below the knee roll. If you’re shorter in the leg, though, and your knee is wedged against the roll, that can block the movement of the knee reduce the efficiency of one of your main shock absorbers, meaning you can’t rise properly to the movement of the horse, so you’re always behind the movement. The horse will respond by starting to rush, or becoming stuffy.

“Treeless saddles should be used with a little caution, as they don’t suit everyone. Older style saddles must be used with a pad underneath, which creates a channel over the spine, although some newer saddles now have this built in. On treeless saddles the stirrup bars are attached by webbing over the horse’s back, rather than being attached to the tree itself, and this can potentially create a pressure point, which riders should check regularly.”

For more information, visit or

Cheshire Show, Wednesday 20th June 2013

June 21, 2013

There was a huge turnout this year, and crowds taking advantage of the fine weather and varied programme of events, including a visit by Princess Anne.

Parade of hounds in the main ring

Parade of hounds in the main ring

Photo 2

Photo 3

Logging demonstration in the Shire horse ring

Logging demonstration in the Shire horse ring

Show jumps set up in the main showjumping arena - anyone fancy trying those?!

Show jumps set up in the main showjumping arena – anyone fancy trying those?!

Competitors in the dog show

Competitors in the dog show

Shopping mews

Donkeys at the Frank Marshall stand

Donkeys at the Frank Marshall stand

Carriage driving in the Shire ring

Carriage driving in the Shire ring

Parade of ridden heavy horses in the main ring

Princess Anne leaves the members' enclosure

Princess Anne leaves the members’ enclosure

Morris men

Morris men

Giving the gift of time – the work of the air ambulance service

April 5, 2013

As horse riders, we’re always aware that horses have the potential to be dangerous. This was brought home to two members of New Barn Riders recently, who had two separate accidents resulting in an unscheduled ride in an air ambulance. Both riders are now recovering, but it made our group aware of what an essential service the air ambulance provide, and when volunteer presenter Victor Crawford came to talk to us about the work the service does, the room was packed with an interested audience.


Most of us weren’t aware that the air ambulance, set up in 1999, relies almost entirely on charitable donations.

“The point of the air ambulance service is to give the ‘gift of time’,” explained Victor. “We flew over 1,400 missions in 2012 alone, and aim to get patients to hospital in under an hour, saving over 1,000 lives in the process.

“Just like the lifeboats, we’re almost 100% charity funded. Only our paramedics are government employees, and the service costs £4 million a year to run. Our funding comes from individuals, groups and businesses.

“The North West Air Ambulance services covers Cheshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, an area with around eight million inhabitants, and we’re one of 18 air ambulance charities nationwide. We’ve got two helicopters, which are leased – one’s based at Blackpool and the other at Barton in Manchester. The aircraft would cost around £4 million each if we were to buy them, and then we equip them with another £500,000 worth of kit. At the moment, we’re only allowed to fly during daylight hours, which is a Civil Aviation Authority regulation.

We’re currently in the process of moving our helicopters so that they’re more on the spot. Although they’ll remain based at aerodromes overnight, after their first mission of the day they’ll go to one of the hospitals, such as Wythenshawe, and wait there for the next call.”

Photo copyright NWAA

Photo copyright NWAA

Each helicopter carries a paramedic, a pilot and a doctor, as well as a full range of medical equipment such as a heart defibrillator. After each mission, the inside of the aircraft and the equipment are thoroughly cleaned to avoid cross infection.The paramedics are supplied by the NHS, and stay on secondment for two or three years. They volunteer to be on the team, as they want to gain experience with serious trauma cases. One of the paramedics on board will also be a trained navigator, and each aircraft carries a bag full of Ordnance Survey maps to help the team choose a suitable landing spot if they have to come down among fields.

Following an emergency call, the team aims to scramble and take off in under four minutes, and the helicopters can reach any point in the region in under 15 minutes. After spending 15 – 20 minutes on the ground retrieving and stabilising the patient, the team will try to reach the most appropriate hospital, such as Wythenshawe, which has a specialist burns unit, in less than 15 minutes.

Photo copyright NWAA

Photo copyright NWAA

“Sometimes the landings can be very challenging,” explained Victor. “If the helicopter has to land in an urban area, it can be dodging anything from lampposts to bus shelters.”

The air ambulance team see a relatively high proportion of horse riding accidents, which make up 13% of the total. This is partly because riding can be a dangerous sport, but also as many riders fall in remote areas that are inaccessible by conventional vehicles.

“Land ambulances now have to carry so much equipment, and are so heavy, that they can’t get across soft surfaces such as fields anymore,” said Victor. “Our teams are far more flexible, and we can normally reach a casualty wherever they are. We also work with the mountain rescue teams where necessary.”

T o find out more about the work of the North West Air Ambulance Service, to make a donation or to organise a talk for your club or organisation, visit

Get into shape for spring with ‘horse-ercise’

April 2, 2013

Hot on the heels of new exercise classes such as zumba and hula-hooping, I’m going to start my own fitness craze – horse-ercise. I’ve always known that horse riding is good for you, and offers a range of mental and physical health benefits ranging from low impact exercise to de-stressing. Until now, however, I’ve never really appreciated just how good for you looking after horses on a day-to-day basis can be.

Wearing the armband to groom Blue.

Wearing the armband to groom Blue.

Last week, for a magazine article, I was asked to wear an activity monitor for seven days. The point was to monitor my weekly exercise routine with my dog, Monty, to see how many calories I could expect to burn during a typical week’s dog walking. As I was wearing the monitor 24/7, I also ended up monitoring, by default, all my riding and stable chores, and the results were surprising. Here’s how I got on.

To give you an idea, during half an hour’s brisk walking with Monty I burnt 140 calories on average; a half-hour run burned around 200.

Riding and groundwork

1 hour’s hack, walking only – 250 calories

1 hour’s hack, walking and brisk trotting – 300 calories

1/2 hour light schooling (walk, trot, lateral work, no cantering) – 140 calories

1/2 hour lunging – 100 calories

1/2 hour long-reining – 140 calories

Who needs gym membership?

Who needs gym membership?

Stable jobs

14 minutes poo picking in field – 43 calories

25 minutes general stable jobs – skipping out, cleaning and re-filling buckets, filling haynets – 100 calories

1 hour 20 general stable jobs – turning out, skipping out, sweeping up etc – 334 calories. On Sundays, we have a yard rota and this Sunday was my turn. I turned out eight horses, then skipped out, watered and filled nets for four.

5 minutes grooming – 15 calories

The monitor

The activity monitor was kindly on loan from Ki Performance. As well as monitoring calorie burn, it also measured the number of steps taken, sleep quality, and exercise quantity and intensity. It was around the size of a large wristwatch, fitted comfortably and securely and I soon forgot it was there. Every so often, I downloaded my data to a computer, and retrieved my results which were automatically calculated and presented for me.

Image courtesy of Ki Performance.

Image courtesy of Ki Performance.

The results

While some of the results were expected – poo picking, for example, consisting of a brisk walk with a loaded wheelbarrow, came out as a little more intensive than plain walking – some were very surprising. I couldn’t believe that an hour’s hack at walk would burn 250 calories, which is only a little less than if I’d walked an hour on my own feet. The experts at Ki Performance, though, confirmed that my results were trustworthy. Although the monitor’s step counter may have been confused by the fact that I was on a horse, the calorie count would still have been accurate, as it was measuring my readings such as skin temperature and pulse rate to calculate a result. As I’m reasonably riding fit, I never feel that an hour’s hack is particularly energetic – but it’s obviously harder exercise that I thought. Also, the stable chores are exercise I have to do every day, rain or shine – whereas I know I’d never keep up a regular visit to the gym.

So, buy into the benefits of horse-ercise – even if you have a retired horse that’s no longer rideable, leading him out for half an hour, trying a horse agility session or just giving him a thorough grooming every day will benefit you both, and could be better exercise than you think.

The Ki Fit armband automatically captures your individual metabolic profile by collecting 5000 data points per minute, including calorie burn, amount and intensity of physical activity, and number of steps taken. Prices start at £99.99 plus a monthly subscription fee;  available from Ki Performance.