When we look at horses, we tend to see them as strong, powerful, indestructible beings. We may even look at them as different than us. Perhaps we see them as being perfectly designed to do the things we ask (or force) them to do.
We're All the Same Under the Skin
While horses are mighty to be sure, they are also vulnerable to aches, pain, and even permanent damage like we are. Why?
Because horses' bodies are made of the same stuff as us.
Injury is common (too common!)
When I conduct Wellness Evaluations, I find signs of chronic physical damage 90% of the time. Why is that number so high? Because most horse owners, even the majority of trainers (sorry folks but it's true - I was one of them myself for a long time), don't know that the way they are working with their horses is harmful.
Take a look at that list of body structures again.
When a horse is asked to use his body in a mechanically unsound way, beyond his physiological capabilities, before he's strong enough or mature enough, the body makes adjustments. Bony changes (arthritis, inflammation) occur to "strengthen" the body against the excessive forces. Tendons and ligaments are stressed, become inflamed, micro-tear, and eventual tear if the pressure on them continues. Muscle protects itself from damage by developing scar tissue which makes it weak, inflexible, painful, and less functional. Cartilage breaks down and synovial fluid thins, making joints ache and dysfunctional. Organs are affected too. Stress releases stress hormones that damage all tissues and affect every system.
Pure Joy Horse Haven is populated with horses that that have chronic physical ailments because of what their bodies have gone through. We have young horses that were put into hard training before they could handle it. We have horses that were asked to carry a rider without proper cardiovascular or musculoskeletal conditioning. Some have been worked to the point of exhaustion, run (or be chased) at high speeds for extended periods of time, and compelled to use their bodies in ways that defy their natural physical functionality.
Poor saddle fit, riders with lopsided seats, and poor leading, lunging, and riding techniques don't help either.
Do No Harm
We do no harm by understanding and accepting that our horses are not inherently designed to do all the things we ask of them. They are also not physically "at the ready" for anything we throw at them. They need to be carefully prepared, body and mind, to handle our requests. We also need to make sure our expectations match, not exceed, our horse's capabilities.
That Means Change
We need to learn how to handle our horses in a way that not only prevents damage but IMPROVES him so he is able to perform tasks comfortably, happily, and healthily.
That takes EFFORT and TIME. You will have to systematically condition your horse on a regular basis to make sure flesh and bone are properly conditioned and resistant to injury. You will also have to learn how to work with and ride you horse in a healthy way! That might mean you'll have to seek out evidence-based, humane, knowledgeable people to guide you. Don't worry. They are out there.
It also takes saying NO to the person (friend or professional) who is telling your horse is okay when you know he or she is not. That's not easy, I know, but your horse is counting on you.
It also means you need to recognize the signs of distress or upset, such as bucking, biting, kicking, rearing, bolting, refusal to move, refusal to stop, spooking, avoiding the saddle or rider, opening the mouth or chewing on the bit, panicking, refusing to be caught, etc. Don't cover up these very important pieces of information your horse is communicating to you by punishing your horse. If you ignore the signs and push harder, your horse will continue to suffer and become more damaged.
It's worth it
Yeah, I'm asking for a lot but the difference it will make for you and your horse will reward you a thousand fold. I promise. I also promise that working with a horse whose body is healthy and comfortable can do all the things you want to do effortlessly.
Yep. Horse training should be pretty darn effortless. The fighting, excitement, and theatrics are not doing you or your horse any good. Think about that, then let me know in the comments how you're going to help your horse have a happier healthier life.