Myths of the horse world Part 2
All those pretty things - or, yes you can have too much tack
Following part 1, where we talked about training methods, horse behavior and how we approach horses, I will know break with some of the most common used tack and aids. And be prepared, it’s apparently very controversial and confronting, since I get a lot of even angry responses, every time I talk about it on social media.
So let me say: I get it. I have used all of these following aids, too ,in my life. I know the feeling of avoidance, defence and guilt and shame. And I am aware of all the anger coming with this. And I am here, giving you the space to talk about it and even hate on me. Because I don’t do it for me or for you. I do it for the horses.
If it wouldn’t be a serious welfare issue I wouldn’t include it here. I don’t want to mug anybody about minor things. This is about horse health and the longelivity of their lives.
Bandages protect from tendon injuries and support the joints
There are many different ways to wrap the legs of a horse in protective gear. You have fleece bandages, which come in all the lovely colours, fitting to your saddle pad and pants and fly hats and so much more! And you have boots, made of leather or neoprene or hard shell plastic, filled with cozy wool. They look fancy and professional and just make up the image of a great sports horse! But are they really necessary? Do they actually support anything? What are they protecting and from what? It’s a common phenomena that leisure riders copy from professional riders they see at competition and on television. And the commercial world of horse tack really loves that! You just have to say “bandages protect the legs and can help prevent tendon injury” - which we all fear like the devil himself - make them pretty and colourful and whoops - sell them in the thousands. Wrapped fleece or cotton bandages and even the hardshell boots have no capacity to support a joint from an animal that weights more than half a ton and which is in full motion or even jumping. Its just bare physics that a piece of fabric will have no effect on the ligaments and tendons inside the leg and fetlocks. It’s a blunt, brute force that comes down here and no bandage or boot can hold this. *There is only one kind of boot that does hold the ligaments and joint in place and that is only used for revalidation after injury and of course requires restricted movement and rest. Same as for bandages used to cover up injuries, I am not talking about revalidation. So bandages and boots are actually only useful for protection from outside force - like brushing and injuring themselves with stepping out too far and the possibility of hitting the legs against objects, therefore show jumping and eventing. This makes bandages and boots only necessary if your horse has a wrong stand and locomotion which should be addressed by a vet and farrier, or if you are competing and therefor bringing your horse voluntarily to the risk of injury in the first place. There is no need for bandages or boots if you are a dressage or leisure rider. In fact, bandages and boots bring a great risk with them. Only if you really need them, apply them. And then make sure to be educated about the risk they involve and how to minimise it. All bandages and boots trap the heat coming from the ligaments in motion. And its a fair amount of heat as well! Studies on unridden galloping horses have shown the temperature inside the bandages can even go up to 45ºC after only 10 minutes. Now, add a rider and do a 45 min training session. Heat is a serious risk, because cells denature at 47ºC (meaning the protein literally ‘cooks’ and the cell dies). But even if the temperature inside the leg doesn’t reach this high, repeated heating of the ligaments cause the cells to become less resistant to heat (so some cells will even die now and then), less flexible and will degrade over time, making the tendon less strong and prone to injury in the long run. If you really must use protection from outside forces, make sure you keep the sessions as short as possible and take off the bandaging or boot immediately after the risk is gone and cool the legs down with water. Some boots and bandages come in breathable material now. Make sure you only use those. Fleece is not a breathable material (even tho they are so pretty). And by the way, outside temperature plays a role here, too, so be aware of your training plan in the summer.
If the saddle has a pressure point, use more padding
There is so much to say about saddle fit and all the word-of-mouth wisdom that come with it, that I can’t fit them all. Luckily I already have a blog post addressing this and two videos talking with Jochen Schleese on my Instagram account. But the ‘padding away pressure points’ is a sticky one. It fits to the overall idea that saddles can be interchangeable between horses and riders - and ignoring the fact that horses also do change in shape and size. So every now and then your saddle won’t fit anymore and pressure points do appear. Remember, when you see white spots appearing you’re already too late to the party. Saddle pads are fancy and a nice accessory. But they are not a form of padding or support for the weight bearing properties of the saddle. The saddle is the element that should fit the horse perfectly (and the rider) with no additional padding needed. The saddle pad itself is only there to protect the saddle from dirt and sweat. For western saddles some padding is needed as they don’t have them built in, but here, again, it’s the tree itself that should fit like a glove to the physical attributes of that specific horse. The more padding you add, the more ‘tight” the tree gets, thus more uncomfortable. If you like to clean your English saddle a lot, you can even go without a saddle pad (a good fitted saddle shouldn't move and rub).
Flash straps are necessary
I couldn’t come up with a better statement, because often the use of the strap is not even questioned. It’s just there, everywhere on every horse. Some people somehow think it stabilises the bit. And some people are more openly about it and really want to shut the horses mouth because of various reasons. That the flash strap has no influence on the bit itself, I do not need to explain, just look at it properly and you’ll see it has no connection to the bit whatsoever. It just holds the mouth shut in front of the bit and the bit can still move as much as you move the reins.
So, why would you want to use a flash and shut your horses mouth? For one, it makes the horse more compliant, taking away the freedom to move his jaw and tongue. Then there is safety or ‘self injury’ when horses bite their tongue or inside of the mouth because they play with the bit, so we shut them, to make the behavior stop and therefore make the horse more compliant. The thing is, behavior always has a root, a cause. Behavior always is communication. A flash strap always only will be shutting out a symptom without addressing the cause. It is forbidding the horse to communicate. If your horse opens it mouth a lot, plays with the bit or tongue, get off and check. I’d say take out the bit as this is clearly a sign that he finds it aversive (bitless is a great option for every horse and every rider). But beyond finding a metal gag, that is even pulled on, in the most sensitive part of the body aversive, it can be a sign for pain and blockages in the whole body, including teeth, the tongue bone, neck muscles and tendons, even down to the legs and the back. Remember, often the cause for pain is not easy to find, sometimes only when it’s too late and the damage is done. So take the communication of your horse serious and don’t just shut him up. Beyond covering underlying discomfort and pain, the flash itself can be reason for discomfort and pain. No strap on the face of the horse should be tight. The head is filled with nerve endings and the skull is a very sensitive bone structure. Any kind of pressure to the head is uncomfortable and can cause headaches and nerve damage. Even a loose flash strap hinders the horse to open its mouth (bio mechanics of the jaw, which is really long so it needs some space to open) and therefore puts pressure on the sensitive nasal plates every time the horse tries to chew, lick, yawn or escape the bit pressure. In fact a study of 144 riding horses has shown the shocking and alarming number of more than 80% of theses horses having visible and palatable changes to the nasal bones due to restrictive nosebands. Some even to the jaw - and even worse when checked by a radiograph.
As I said, its just unnecessary and you do not want this.
Side reins help the horse to get into frame
The category of side reins, draw reins, chambon, pessoa or any kind of frame forcing tack, that has been invented to ‘short cut’ training, fits to the flash strap category. It’s just unnecessary and can even be harmful to the biomechanics and mental wellbeing of the horse. Because it does the same thing: forcing and outcome or shutting out symptoms without addressing the cause or finding the root. To get a horse into frame asks just simply training. Training, that you have to put in yourself and teach your horse to find the position that actually supports his body instead of using a piece of leather or rubber to just put him into this. The frame is supposed to let the horse use and strengthen the right muscles to make movement easier and more comfortable (taking weight on the hind quarters, forming a strong back). But the horse will only know how this feels what he’s supposed to do (because you know, we can’t explain it with words) if he can experience how it feels - and that it does feel better, good and strong. But if he has to work against an outside pressure and force, always checking to not lean on the bit that is tied up in a small frame, working against discomfort, he will not develop the right muscles but a compensating position to the tack (same counts for pulling the horse into frame while riding). Biomechanics speaking, this compensating position for the horse in a forced flexion is using the big neck muscle to keep it round and in frame. The pain that comes from overusing this muscle is then compensated by making the back hollow - and not round. So actually, using a forced frame is developing the opposite position from the one you want. And there’s no need.
Several studies have mentioned the increase cortisol level and heart rate in horses that are exercised or ridden with a fixed and flexed neck position, while the use of the back muscles is actually decreased. Training aids such as side reins do influence the biomechanics, but in a negative way. There are several techniques on how you can teach a horse at liberty to find his frame which will simultaneously let him use and strengthen his body in a healthy way. You can even set this on a cue, asking for the position you learned on the ground when mounted and your horse will soon find it even more comfortable to be ridden like this. And on top, you get awesome horseman skills and a great relationship with your horse, instead of taking the ‘short cut’ with side reins and causing discomfort in body and mind.
Spurs give more precise aids in riding
Let me start with one thing: I am not saying anyone who uses flash straps, side reins, spurs or bits automatically abuses their horse. You can have good intentions (and I hope just missing knowledge), love your horse to the moon and still use those aids and I would be last person judging you for this. The thing with our training aids and tack is exactly this: we don’t know better! We’ve learned riding with the best intentions and a love for horses - we never wanted to hurt them. The stories of why and how we should use certain aids sounded plausible and acceptable. But unfortunately, they often don’t tell the truth. Its a word-of-mouth wisdom brought to us from generation to generation and unless we start questioning them, we will just give them further to our children. So let’s pause. When you think about how old these stories are, how long this tack and aids exist - what do you, honestly and frankly, think they are made for? Does the history of animal treatment show us we have been fair and kind? Or do you acknowledge that we come from a time where animals have been used heavily with the need of them to comply fully and always do as we say - making forcing gear necessary? Well, all our horse tack comes from this time. And today, we have science and studies to tell us we can do better (and as I hope, a collectively growing empathy). Spurs are one of those examples. We get told ‘spurs can give more precise aids’, meaning you need less ‘force’ with your legs and therefore it can be softer, somehow. That’s what we want to believe. But it’s unfortunately the wrong conclusion. Spurs work more “precise” because they hurt more “precise”. The horse reacts faster to the aid of spurs because it is more aversive than the leg or heel. There is no way around this. So this is again a form of “short cut” which comes with the cost of comfort. Instead of working slowly on precise subtle, soft cues which can even just be voice or sound or weight shifts, spurs make it faster and easier for the rider because it’s more uncomfortable for the horse to not perform the wanted task. Horses are very sensitive beings. Their skin feels more than ours. They can and will perform anything for you on the most silent cues. They don’t need spurs - the human does. And I say that’s not fair. The number of equestrians using spurs is big. And the number of reported abrasions, hair loss and wounds due to spurs is shocking. We have to stop telling ourselves these stories we heard as young riders and start questioning the practices in the equestrian world. When working and living with a species that cannot tell us with words and tears, we are responsible to always seeking the best for them - above tradition and hurt feelings.
I need a bit to control my horse
What can I say what I haven’t said already? Control is an illusion that is made up by fear. You can not control a half a ton flight animal. Not really. At any time, he could decide to run you over and you would not be able to hold him. Not physically. Not even with a piece of metal in his mouth. You know that and its kinda freighting isn’t it. So what is it, that he doesn’t do it? Best guess: he doesn’t know it. Horses are gradually introduced into helplessness, an uncomfortable or painful stimulus always there to hold them back anytime they try something unwanted. But we all know, if he really spooks, he doesn’t care about the bit. The bit is only for you and your fear. To have some kind of feeling of control. Again, the bit is an old invention - its ancient. We tell ourselves stories about control and communication, about signals and aids and how we can be more precise with a double bridle to perform on higher levels. False conclusions and short cuts, unquestioned practices and missing knowledge. Again, studies tell us a whole different story. About soft tissue damage, scarring, oral lesions, bone damage to jaw and palate, increased cortisol levels and heart rates, pain faces and problem behaviours - all associated with bit use.
The uncomfortable but necessary truth, that a lot of people don’t like to hear, is bits are, like spurs and flash straps, more harmful than useful. Everything you want to do with your horse can be done without these aids and tack. That’s just a fact, proven by many great trainers and horsemen. It is a choice you can make. Even if one of these statements made you angry and you wanted to quit reading five paragraphs ago - this is about your horse and how he feels, not about me, not about you. Despise this article, but be honest and do the least thing you can do for your horse: your own research, ask your own questions and don’t accept anything just because someone said it - not even me in this article.
Bitless is always the most friendly
One small paragraph on bitless and I keep it short. Bitless is not automatically non-aversive. And there are many different forms of bitless options. Hackamores are not friendly in my opinion as they use a leverage effect on the sensitive nose plates and in the neck. They still use pressure as a signal and pressure can be very aversive especially on the head.
Sidepulls with soft material and a good fitting are a good option. BUT - and here it comes: a riding style that includes constant pressure and pull on the reins is still aversive and can be - same as above - aversive, as it it uncomfortable for the horse. The most friendly way to ride is soft cues on voice and weight shifts and a loose head where the horse can find its own healthy position and movement. And this asks for a lot of time, patience and training from the ground. But that’s why we have become equestrians isn’t it, to spend time with our horses.
As always, you have the space here or on my social media to write comments and discuss different opinions. You can also write me a mail or personal message for any further question or information. If you totally disagree with me and want to discuss your points, I am happy to do so! If you feel offended in someway or angry, I advice to first search for the source of your anger and defensiveness, as this often tells us a lot about ourselves and reveals things like cognitive dissonance which opens us up to grow and learn. I invite you to do so and seek contact with me if you need it.
For further investigation on your own check these sources. You can also use Google Scholar and type in your own keywords to go even further.
Bandages: The effect of exercise-induced localised hyperthermia on tendon cell survival.
Restrictive nosebands: Prevalence and Distribution of Lesions in the Nasal Bones and Mandibles of a Sample of 144 Riding Horses https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/9/1661
Siede reins and fixed head positions: The effects of training aids on the longissimus dorsi in the equine back https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/comparative-exercise-physiology/article/abs/effects-of-training-aids-on-the-longissimus-dorsi-in-the-equine-back/7A61B5273E88DBFD9FC1FEB8FB7DEE33
Cortisol release, heart rate and heart rate variability, and superficial body temperature, in horses lunged either with hyperflexion of the neck or with an extended head and neck position
The influence of head and neck position on kinematics of the back in riding horses at the walk and trot
Spur use: An investigation into equestrian spur use in the United Kingdom
Lesions associated with the use of bits, nosebands, spurs and whips in Danish competition horses