Fizz Marshall’s therapy blog: The secret to a happy horse

  • I was reminded this week just how much a horse can change in terms of its attitude to life during the rehabilitation process.

    We have one particular horse (in the video below) who has transformed so much in his approach to work that he has developed an exuberance we never expected from him.

    His joyful squeaking noises combined with a renewed power and athleticism show how much he has blossomed.

    When rehabilitating horses it’s very easy to focus on the physical elements; muscular development, improvement in their soundness, or even how much shinier their coat is.

    Of course we expect to be able to achieve all of these things, but we also hope to discharge horses that are a whole lot happier than they were when they arrived.

    That is not to say that they are not being looked after properly at home, but more that the effect of pain on a horse may go further than just the physical.

    To add to the challenge of this, many of the horses that come to us will not be turned out during their stay, and so we have to keep them happy without the bonus of a field to help us.

    We have several horses currently who have either just gone home, or are on the verge of doing so, and in all cases the improvement in their mental health is marked.

    For all of the horses that come to us with either multi-limb lameness and/or back pain there will have been presenting symptoms or behaviours that signalled to the owner that all was not well.

    There may have been the fireworks of course, such as bucking in canter or rearing, but often more subtle things too such as a reluctant attitude to work generally, or a flatness and lack of energy in their movement.

    Some horses display signs of sourness or a distaste for humans in the early part of their stay; we have a couple currently who were tense and unforthcoming in the beginning, unless they were coming forth with teeth bared that is.

    Eight weeks later they look like they have stopped holding their breath. They are visibly more relaxed in the stable, and this has filtered into their work. We still have a few behaviour issues to deal with, but that’s pretty normal.

    And by behaviour, I don’t necessarily just mean the extreme vices, it can be a snatching contact, tripping in front or a head tilt. To me dealing with behaviour is about consistency, firm positivity and understanding.

    The importance of routine

    So what makes a horse happy? Well I think most of us know that it depends on the horse, but the answer is not necessarily buckets of carrots and polos.

    I’ve talked previously about how important routine is but I really can’t stress that enough. Some competition horses won’t eat or relax in the morning until they’ve worked, so we exercise them first. We had one horse who liked go back to bed after being fed and mucked out first thing, so he was worked later in the morning.

    For those horses who have the potential to stress, we keep their routine as stable as we can. They get fed at the same time each day, worked at the same times and so start to learn to relax during their quiet periods.

    We also give our horses a lot of contact and all manner of pampering, and they are fed small amounts of hay all through the day which I think helps too.

    There are exceptions to the rule of course, and we do get horses who are turned out in a small pen as soon as they are allowed within their regime because they’re just not happy being stabled all the time.

    The key for me is not to just accept that a horse is unhappy, but instead find out what makes it tick and work on that basis.

    Back to School

    I spend a lot of my working time training a variety of different and people and animals, but last week took on the opportunity to do some training myself.

    I’m working towards a professional qualification in leadership and management that is run at Hartpury for both college staff and external delegates.

    It’s a bit of a change as I haven’t done any real studying since gaining my Masters degree six years ago; at least the dark winter nights will encourage to me to stay in and do my homework!

    Christmas is coming

    Christmas seems to be suddenly upon us and we are heading into our last couple of weeks before we close temporarily over the holiday period.

    With a full barn of horses we have a lot to get through in the time left and have already compiled a list of jobs to do before we re-open at the beginning of January.

    The girls have well and truly entered the festive spirit already, with a highly enthusiastic duet version of ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ amongst their repertoire of Christmas songs.

    Saying that, perhaps 25 December can’t come soon enough after all…


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