Category Archives: Horses

The Beginning of the End?

I I were a media strategist, I would have done it on purpose. Adelinde Cornelissen couldn’t have hoped for better luck than the [false] rumour spreading like wildfire: That her horse Parzival had suffered a hairline fracture to the jaw which caused the need for the rider to pull up in the middle of the Grand Prix in Rio.

Misdirection of Attention

If you aren’t a horse person and/or you have missed this, the horse stuck out his tongue as far as he could in the middle of the dressage test and the rider decided to retire. Not permanently – the rider that is – but for the 19-year-old horse Rio was supposed to be the final show. Now newspapers have been running sob stories about the heroic rider who quit the Olympics “to save her horse”. Hw she loves her horse. How he is the most important thing to her.

(What apparently happened was that an NBC reporter mixed up two horses, one show jumper really suffering from a hairline fracture and Parzival, who suffered from a suspected insect bite. I don’t really believe any media strategist was involved.)

But I think I’ve read something similar in the hilarious book version of the BBC TV series “Yes, minister.” I suspect that in politics it’s done all the time. Smoke screens. Misdirection of attention. Politician gets caught doing something embarrassing. As news of the impropriety is about to break, the powers behind said politician plant another, much more radical piece of news. Something that isn’t true. The result? The second piece of news is discredited, vehmently so, proof of its inaccuracy is presented, much righteous indignation aired. Mostly it works well: the initial scandal is forgotten in the furore.

Who is the Enemy?

Let’s be clear on one point: I don’t disapprove of competitive dressage. I’m not your enemy. I actually think that horses can be ridden, transported and shown without their well being being compromised too much. It can be done, if done properly.

I do however object to horses suffering because of competitive dressage or any other sport. In my opinion, no valid justification exists for causing an animal suffering because you want to compete. I especially object to sugar-coating something that should be the cause of universal disapproval. Something that in itself could – and in my opinion should – be the end of the FEI having control of horse welfare during competition.

What happened, if the news stories are true, was this: Parzival, was taken ill on a Tuesday. High fever, swelling on the head. He was treated by a vet, given intravenous fluids and the fever went down. All well and good. These things happen. Bad luck.

What happened next is the part I still have some difficulty believing. In spite of this, more than one veterinarian (Dutch team and FEI) and the rider herself decided that the horse was fit to compete the following day. The horse, as the world saw, was not. If you have ever had a high fever you know that you’re not fit to exert yourself in any way the following day.

That is what really happened. Disregard the rumour of the fractured jaw. It is completely irrelevant. The FEI vets, the Dutch team vets and the rider all let the horse down. This to me is evidence enough to prove that the FEI isn’t capable of taking the welfare of the horse into appropriate consideration. The team vets and rider certainly weren’t.

If we want to keep horses in the Olympics and keep the social license for horse sport at all – and after this case, and the two jumping riders being eliminated today because of excessive spur and whip use, it may well be the beginning of the end of horses in the Olympics – there is an obvious need for truly impartial experts monitoring the welfare of the horses. The FEI has failed spectacularly.


This poor horse is not in the Olympics.

It is perfectly possible to train and show horses without making them suffer. I think that it’s time to make changes from within before they are made from without as happened to commercial greyhoumd racing in New South Wales.

Edited to add: No, it’s not the double bridle. It’s what you do with it. In the image below: Coco Paradieso ridden by Mia Kainulainen in Colonel Carde’s clinic in Finland.



Posted by on August 14, 2016 in Horses


The Horse in Pain

First a note on horse mouths in general: When watching horses being ridden or driven it’s good to keep in mind that the default setting on a horse in trot or canter is with the mouth closed. A horse mostly opens its mouth when eating, biting, whinnying, yawning, scratching itself or another horse and when a foal “snaps” with its jaws when getting too close to an older horse. A horse at trot or canter doesn’t keep its mouth open unless it’s actually whinnying or neighing at the same time. If a horse has its mouth open while being ridden or driven it is probably trying to ease pain or discomfort.

This image is also in my colleague Anna Kilpeläinen’s blog (now in English) and I found it very illuminating. What do you see in this picture?


Fortunately there have been a couple of well executed studies on pain expressions of the horse, making it easy for anyone to educate themselves more on the subject if they put in a little effort.

What did you see in the picture above?

I can tell you what I saw.

Pain. I’d even go as far as saying suffering. In this image the hand holding the rein is blameless at the moment the picture was taken: the contact seems light. Still the horse’s expression is one of suffering. How can you recognise it? At the very least from these details:

  • The position of the ears
  • The tension and expression of the area around the eye
  • The expression in the horses’ eye (or lack of it in this case)
  • The tension of all muscles

The horse in the picture may have one or several other reasons for being in pain but the one which all horse enthusiasts should have spotted instantly is the badly fitting bridle. It looks like the horse has been saddled – or bridled – with a bridle two sizes too small.

The headpiece almost digs into the root of the ear and the browband is far too short. Because of it the browband settles too high, pinching the root of the ear as well. The noseband is also too small and causes pressure to the bone above the horse’s ear. The  throat lash is too short: even when the head approaches the vertical there should still be some slack in the throat lash. This means you have to fit it very loosely when tacking up.

Both upper and lower nosebands are far too tight. The cavesson probably presses the horses cheeks into his teeth, causing pain. The lower one is so tight it prevents the horse from opening his mouth at all and even makes the lips flatten where it crosses the horses mouth.

Pain Is in the Eyes

I’m sorry for posting another disheartening image, but recognising the face of a horse in pain is one of the most important skills for anyone in any contact with horses.


A classic pain face. Ears, eyes, veins, expression around the eye. A horse cannot cover up pain in its expression as well as it can in its behaviour and this is why recognising a pain face is a very good way to notice a horse being in pain. The horse in this picture is at that moment eating the first dose of painkillers. A few days later this horse was no more.

Links to the pain expression studies:

An Equine Pain Face (PDF)

Horse Grimace Scale

If I have understood correctly, a study or two on fear expressions in horses are also on the way.


Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Horses


“You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a Good First Impression”

How do you make sure you end up with a trusting, trainable horse? You start right. From the very beginning.

I work with other people’s problem horses a lot, and I think because of this I have a distorted view of horses and their state of mind. I hope. Over half of the horses I work with are some kind of “problem horses” ie. the horse does something else than the owner wants it to.

I see some horses who don’t know what the owner wants them to do. Either they’ve never been trained properly or they’ve learned to do something else over time. Easily fixed, horses are easy to train and learn quickly. Example: A horse doesn’t respond to the rider’s leg. You begin again, reward a little try and gradually increase your demands. Being sure never to nag with your leg again.

I see some horses who don’t want to do what the owner wants them to do. Pretty easy to fix: you only need to figure out how to get the horse to want to do the same thing the owner does. Example: A horse doesn’t want to go into the trailer. You add something the horse wants and train him that whenever he steps towards the trailer, he gets that something. Gradually increase your demands.

(Yes, a lot of horses are nervous around trailers, and with good reason. Now and again, though, I’m asked to see one who genuinely just would rather stay out of the trailer than inside it. Lovely and easy to fix.)

I see some horses who can’t physically do what the owner wants them to do. Usually the vet can help: if you have a horse who otherwise does what you ask but for some reason won’t strike a right canter or just will not trot in one direction when the other is fine, and you try stretching the horse, rewarding the right response and still – after a while – it doesn’t improve, the horse must again be checked by a vet. Kissing spines are terribly common in riding horses, as are ulcers and joint problems too just to name a few.

But to come to the point: I meet a lot of horses who are a bit tense around people. That in itself may not seem like a big deal to the owner, but it is to the horse. Imagine having to work with someone who you’re a bit afraid of. Even for an hour or two every day. You may become a little more tense every day, and if you’re a horse, tension brings with it some problems. For the horse, but also for the owner.


A horse that is tense when being handled or ridden can be considered a difficult horse. If the baseline tension is high, the horse reacts oddly. He may seem unable to focus on work or the handler. He may react too slowly or too little – or hugely, quite out of proportion to small changes in the environment. And at the end of the scale, he may buck, bolt or refuse to let the rider get on – or he may be impossible to shoe, vaccinate or catch in the field. Sometimes it’s all due to being tense around people. Sometimes the reason for the tension goes way back to the first hours or days in the foal’s life.

Horses learn quickly and it seems they don’t forget much at all. They learn from the moment they’re born and that makes their first impression of being touched by a human of vital importance. If that first touch causes fear, it may influence the foal’s opinion of people for the rest of his life. If you wait until the touch is actually pleasant to the foal, it may also influence the foal’s opinion of people for the rest of his life: for the better.


The foal in the above picture is three weeks old and was touched for the first time by a human the previous day. Here he’s getting to know our vet.

The good news is that at some point – usually at the latest around the two week mark, some earlier, some later – the foal will begin to itch. If you have been able to manage the environment well enough so that you haven’t had to catch the foal and try to lead it somewhere (with it possibly learning that people are ever so slightly frightening), now you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. It may take you a few minutes and some ingenuity to get close enough to the foal to be able to scratch him, but once you do, you’re set. It takes one minute or twenty seconds to teach the foal that people are the best thing ever. That memory will carry a long way once you start training your foal. (I suggest the next thing you train is how to move the foal out of your lap.)

Is it really that simple? Yes. No need to be there at birth, no need for imprint training (which brings with it some serious problems, see the list of studies at the bottom of the page) or catching the foal at a day old, putting a halter on (and not being able to catch the foal again to remove the halter, I have seen several of those) – nor, as I’ve even heard, carrying the foal around so that it learns the human is stronger than he is…



The most important thing a foal should learn is how to be a horse. The most important relationship a foal has is with his dam. This foal is four days old and too young to be learning anything else.


Some studies on foal behaviour: (Even when only helped to suckle, foals avoid humans later on) (foals handled immediately after birth show negative effects even after weaning)

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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Animal Training, Horses