Being mindful about a life that is completely in hour hand asks for a very wholistic approach.
The whole horse is to be considered, from the very beginning of the choices we ultimately make.
Which choices are those?
Lets begin with how we can create long and happy horse lives.
A long and happy horse life...
... begins with the choices of the parents. Not every mare and not every stallion is suitable for breeding and this can have many reasons, both physical and social-psychological. We should pay much more attention to the qualities and weaknesses of the parent animals, sincerely and honestly, and whether these genes can really provide the best quality of life. Whether they are sport horses or your dream of having your own foal at home. And with sport horses, unfortunately, the gene variety also plays a major role, because due to the high demand for few stallions, the permitted percentage of inbreeding has been quite exhausted (bizarre that it is allowed to exist at all).
It's nice if it produces a nice color - but is the predisposition for healthy hooves also there?
A special, popular breed! - but do we really know that the genes are free of hereditary diseases or conditions?
We want big movements with great knee action - but are the ligaments and joints strong enough?
Parents with past performance are great - but how long have they actually lasted?
So if you are standing at a switch that determines new life, you may be able to think and act about contributing something to the quality of life of future horses.
... is mainly determined by living conditions and socialization during the foaling period.
The time from birth (okay, just a little before that too) to puberty is extremely important for ALL mammals. During this time the 'window is open', the body and brain are being formed and 'worked in'. This time is intended for the organism to optimally adapt to the conditions in which it currently finds itself, so that it can live successfully in it in the long term.
After this window closes it becomes increasingly difficult for the brain and body to adapt. That is why it is so important to learn everything that is necessary during this time. This includes social interaction with different ages, genders and personalities, but also the world, surfaces, weather, exercise and food.
If the experience remains one-sided and limited, this can cause enormous problems later in life.
A foal or yearling that only stands and walks on soft ground, spends a lot of time in the stable and has little challenge cannot optimally prepare its body for the load that it will have to handle later as a riding horse, for example.
Do you have or are you expecting a foal and are you looking forward to raising it? Then consciously take the time to adapt the living environment and management in a way that the foal is confronted with stimuli and challenges as varied as possible. This does not mean that we take him to the arena and wave plastic bags, but that we offer different surfaces in the paddock and pasture, that there are peers but also older 'aunts' and 'uncles' in whom he can test himself in social skills. That the foal is allowed to nibble plants, bushes and branches, that it experiences what humans do with horses, without fear and coercion. That there is room for bucking, jumping, running and a happy foaling season.
... we must actively create, maintain and support. Also for adult horses, a challenging, varied, natural living environment keeps the body and psyche healthy (and creates space to heal). The horse must be able to be and maintain itself with enough forage, space and social contacts without us humans having intervene every day. That's the basics. That's home.
What we do outside of it with our horses supports their quality of life. And if a horse becomes a riding horse, this is even more important to keep in mind. We must actively care for the horse to grow and develop into a strong, confident and healthy individual, free of discomfort and pain.
This mainly covers food, hoof care and bodywork.
The food for each horse should be grain, sugar and starch free, as all three of these things have no place in the intestinal tract of a grass eater (this applies to manufactured food such as pellets, mash and slop. Carrots, apples and other fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed in moderation). The food may contain a balanced mix of minerals, vitamins and trace elements and this must also be taken into account with the hay quality and water quality. Too much iron in groundwater, for example, also causes problems. Too little magnesium and vitamine E in the forage as well.
The hooves are the foundation of every horse (read about it in detail here). And the basis of every horse is a bare hoof, without shoes. Irons can be helpful for individual, special and medical problems, but they are not the basis of a healthy horse. Not even if it is a sport horse. Iron shoes have several negative side effects (regardless of personal preference) and these are detrimental to the entire body. This only makes sense if the disadvantages of an injury, illness or the position of the legs are greater than the disadvantages of iron shoes.
Hooves grow continuously and consist of living material that adapts to the environment. So hooves also have needs. Read more about this here.
Bodywork is the summary of everything we can do with a horse's body to make it feel better. Think of physiotherapy, massages, cranio-sacral therapy, relaxation techniques, balance pads, etc. The market is large and the possibilities are endless. That doesn't mean you have to offer them all and spend a fortune on it. You can also do and learn a lot yourself. A day at the spa, massage, cuddling and stretching after a tough workout is also part of it. But it does mean to have a good understanding of mechanics and to be able to see if something is off with your horse. That also includes reading pain signals in body language and the ridden horse.
A horse that is ridden is an athlete - whether you ride dressage or only do hacks outside. And the body deserves just as much attention as we grant ourselves when engaging in sports.
An mindful approach to training and using a horse also requires a lot of patience. We prefer to wait another year before breaking in or riding on if we see that there is a growth event coming up or the horse develops a unhealthy, compensating movement pattern.
The training plan adapts to the horse, not the other way around.
If I see that my horse still has a lot of imbalance and does not step under, I prefer to do ground work for a few more weeks.
That may sound annoying to some - but an injury due to incorrect loading will keep you out of training for longer. And we want to prevent worse, right?
Just think about how complex a horse's body is. And how great the burden of a rider can be.
I already have trouble carrying the shopping bag after 10 minutes. I also often sit incorrectly and constantly have a sore neck.
In order to be able to lift, carry, walk, climb and perform in a healthy way, we must train correctly and mindful, avoid overload and compensation and follow a healthy lifestyle.
Why should it be different for horses?
A balanced training plan
How do you train and maintain a healthy horse?
Which exercises should you do or should you not do and to what extent?
You can also listen to my podcast episode: 9 A Balanced Training plan for your horse
We assume that we have good housing and the horse is ready for training.
An example of this is Sol, my 5-year-old gelding who is now slowly being ridden again.
How does a balanced training plan look like?
Points of attention for Sol: building balance and strength, appropriate for his age.
A young horse cannot simply balance and carry itself correctly, and certainly not a rider, that must be learned. In any case, in an arena (and on short bends), the tendons and joints are much more stressed than, for example, on a hack outside. We therefore keep work in the arena short and rather go for straight and forward.
We have built up the training from working freely in very short sessions to find common communication before I reintroduced tools such as ropes and whips. Because I want the horse to learn to read my body and not just give way to me because I am holding a long stick.
Working freely also gives him a better chance to feel his own body undisturbed and to balance it where necessary.
Only when I can ask for all 3 gaits on command, stop and yield, do I switch to regular work on the lead rope, lunge or long reins.
Working on a rope therefore requires many more short bends and bends for which the ligaments and muscles must be strong enough.
We do groundwork almost every day and alternate between physical exercises on the lunge, in freedom and tricks using R+, which greatly improves motivation. When we're not working in the arena, we go for walks. 1-2 days a week we do 'nothing', brushing and cuddling, or just bodywork for relaxation.
Our sessions start and end with something fun, which may also include feeding - so it remains a pleasant memory.
The stronger Sol gets, the better his balance is, the more I can ask for. But that can also take weeks and sometimes we relapse again for a week or two. That is very normal and good for the body and the psyche to confirm and restore things. It doesn't always have to be progress.
The basics of leading and yielding, standing and patience are your greatest strength and skill in any further wanted achievements. You can always come back here.
During groundwork I alternate more and more and introduce more variation into the training, a combination of R+ and R-, working with poles, de-spooking and getting used to objects and tack.
We gradually built up each next major step, such as riding, starting with confidently parking at a step and remaining standing during getting on.
It is not necessary to immediately ride a whole round in the arena or even ask for a canter under saddle.
As long as Sol can't carry himself properly on the lunge or in freedom, he wouldn't be able to do that with me on it.
'At the pace of the horse' means to really take the time and be patient.
That could take weeks or months.
That is being mindful.
Going too fast here is a major risk to the integrity of the horse's body. Even though other people in the stable may think something different. Even though it is done differently everywhere.
Do not let them silence your inner voice.
Above all, keep listening to your horse.
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