The Secret? Keep It Simple!

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www.GettyEquineNutrition.com
July 30, 2015

The Secret? Keep It Simple!
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.

We know they’re out there. Horses who are enjoying life. Horses who are brimming with health – strong muscles, shiny coats, hard hooves, good digestion, normal metabolism, strong immune function – just plain healthy! How does this happen? What is it about their care and feeding that gives them such wellbeing?

We’re always searching for answers. Our typical approach is to study sick horses. But that only helps us to understand disease. We look at fat horses to understand fat horses. We look at horses with pain, metabolic problems, and digestive ailments to understand those who are experiencing the same hardships. While such research is worthwhile, wouldn’t it also make sense to evaluate fit, hearty horses so we can strive to make our own horses be more like them? Shouldn’t we be looking at what healthy horses experience?

Here’s the basic “recipe” for a healthy horse:

Avoid feeding excess calories. Obesity is a real problem and it comes from piling on the calories, combined with lack of physical activity. Forage should be the dietary staple and it should flow steadily throughout the horse’s entire gastrointestinal tract. Pounds and pounds of concentrated feeds can shorten a horse’s life.

Prevent winter weight gain by imitating nature. In a natural setting, feed would be sparse during the winter months. The horse would graze continually, but on fewer calories, so he wouldn’t become overweight. Then, when the spring grasses come, he enjoys them without the risk of developing laminitis because his body has not been unnaturally put in a state of insulin resistance (through too much body fat). To imitate this cycle, the horse should be helped to stay trim by being fed all the quality, varied forages he wants, and only enough concentrates to meet his supplemental needs. Keep up with your horse’s exercise regimen throughout the winter—think of it as substituting for the way a horse in the wild will move over large expanses in search of winter food.

Keep stress to a minimum. The hormonal response to stress is capable of doing terrible things to a horse’s body – making it more likely to develop infections, allergies, and skin disorders, and to become insulin resistant. Stress produces free radicals that potentially damage every tissue in the body, including the brain, blood vessels, hooves, eyes, skin, and digestive tract. Stress also contributes to a horse’s poor attitude. Limiting stressors helps prevent ulcers, laminitis, and colic, and promotes an amiable, willing attitude. So a horse should be able to eat when he wants, and not be bound (stressed) by the owner’s schedule. Forage (preferably fresh grasses) should be available all throughout the day and night so the horse can self-regulate his intake of grasses according to his instincts, which include an innate need to graze, roam, socialize, and eat a variety of plants. He should be unencumbered by contraptions that inhibit his natural way of living. And he should have company. Companionship protects him against threats (real and perceived), keeping him calm, allowing his digestion to work properly, and permitting him to truly rest.

Be an educated owner. Learn the details about the equine digestive system and why forage must flow continually through the horse’s system.

Fill the nutritional gaps and build a strong immune system. Grass when dried for hay loses nutritional value, so supplement a hay diet by giving the proper vitamins and minerals as well as omega 3s. Feed a variety of protein sources to supply a large enough amino acid pool for the body to produce and repair tissues, keep blood proteins where they need to be, and naturally fight off disease.

Make movement a part of the horse’s daily life. Confinement is stressful and debilitating. The horse’s sense of safety depends in large measure on being able to move in response to fear. Furthermore, standing in one place wreaks havoc on his body. If stall housing is necessary, make sure the horse gets plenty of exercise every day – exercise keeps the digestive system healthy and without it, the horse can develop ulcers and colic; his hooves can become weak and thin; his joints deteriorate; and his overall natural healing ability is diminished. Movement also inhibits weight gain; exercise not only burns calories, but it makes the cells more receptive to insulin, allowing the body to burn fat.

Meet the horse’s evolving needs as he ages. Exercise maintains muscle and protects aging joints, so the wise owner encourages movement and feeds enough quality protein, vitamin C, and omega 3s to slow down the progression of arthritis. Care for your horse’s teeth and check his blood for proper kidney and liver function. Since saliva production diminishes with age, moisten your horse’s food so he can chew better, and feed at ground level to help prevent choking, a common problem with aged horses.

Variety is the key to balanced nutrition. Eating the same thing day in and day out, even if it is nutritious, can lead to nutritional imbalances. A pasture that is thick with one type of grass is not going to keep a horse healthy. To thrive, the horse needs different types of grasses, lots of weeds, bushes, berries, flowers, and trees; this is the ideal, to which all you would need to add is water and salt. Most of us do not have this amount of land to offer our horses, and must rely on hay. Choose a mixed grass hay, but realize that hay provides only basic forage for a healthy digestive tract; it is missing so many key nutrients that you must also feed a good vitamin/mineral supplement and provide a source of omega 3 fatty acids. You may also need to improve the protein quality by adding other protein sources.

Keep it simple

We are so busy micromanaging our horses’ lives and their diets that we have forgotten the basics: Fresh air, water, companionship, freedom to move, and fresh grasses and plants. Your horse will thank you. And you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you are giving your horse a lifetime of vibrant health.

Permission to reprint this article is granted, provided attribution is given to Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. No editorial changes may be made without her permission. Dr. Getty appreciates being notified of any publication.

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. is an independent equine nutritionist with a wide U.S. and international following. Her research-based approach optimizes equine health by aligning physiology and instincts with correct feeding and nutrition practices.

Dr. Getty’s comprehensive resource book, Feed Your Horse Like a Horse, is available at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com — buy it there and have it inscribed by the author, or get it at Amazon (www.Amazon.com) or other online retail bookstores. The seven separate volumes in Dr. Getty’s topic-centered Spotlight on Equine Nutrition series are available with special package pricing at her website, and also at Amazon in print and Kindle versions. Dr. Getty’s books make ideal gifts.

Find a world of useful information for the horseperson at www.GettyEquineNutrition.com: Sign up for Dr. Getty’s informative, free e-newsletter, Forage for Thought; browse her library of reference articles; search her nutrition forum; and purchase recordings of her educational teleseminars. Reach Dr. Getty directly at gettyequinenutrition@gmail.com. She is available for private consultations and speaking engagements.

Veterinary Visits “The Best Patient”

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If your horse is well-trained, well-behaved and easy to work with, you’ll make your veterinarian’s job much easier and more effective. Even the best veterinarian must struggle to examine a horse that’s stomping, biting, moving away or just not cooperating.

While you might blame your horse’s “sudden” behavioral problems on sickness or pain, chances are, your ill-mannered patient hasn’t learned how to look to you for leadership and guidance. If he learns to follow your every command when he’s well, he’ll respect your cues when he’s hurt or when it’s time for an important examination.

We met up with respected trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight to find out the manners your horse should learn to make veterinary exams a breeze. She believes you must be your horse’s “captain” at all times to gain and maintain his respect. If he knows that you’re the herd leader, he’ll look to you for guidance in any situation, even when he’s uncomfortable, hurt or fearful.

Goodnight has witnessed many horse owners handle their horses during veterinary visits. She’s seen the bites and kicks that could’ve been avoided. “While most veterinarians love all horses, most have a few favorite clients—it’s just human nature,” she says. “When your horse is well-mannered and you know how to handle him properly, you’ll make your vet’s job easier. He or she will enjoy working on your well-trained partner.

“Proper training might also boost your horse’s chance for a healthy outcome,” Goodnight continues. “Your vet will be able to thoroughly examine a horse that stands still without fidgeting and allows touch. Plus, the best-trained horses often don’t need mechanical restraints or extra sedatives for veterinary work, which can save you money and save your horse from potential sedative side effects.”

While your vet wants to do what’s best for your horse and will perform the necessary examinations, diagnostics and treatments no matter how your horse behaves, he or she will appreciate your mannered horse and will gain respect for your horsemanship.

Here’s how to teach your horse four lessons in ground manners: hold still; accept touch; place each step; and match your pace. (Note: As you teach your horse these lessons, always stay safe; if you have any problems, ask a qualified trainer or certified riding instructor to help you.)

Lesson Prep

Connect the lead rope to the halter with a knot rather than a metal snap to allow your horse to feel a correction without causing undue pain.

You’ll need: A rope halter (to place pressure on your horse’s poll and sensitive facial areas); a long lead rope (at least 12 feet long, so you can command your horse from far away) with a knot to connect it to the halter instead of a metal snap (the knot will allow your horse feel a correction without causing undue pain); leather gloves; flag or whip/longe whip.

Before you begin: Choose a time to work with your horse when he’s fed, rested and wants to move. “Begin your practice when other horses are leaving the arena or your horse is next to be turned out,” Goodnight suggests.

Lesson #1: Hold Still
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need your horse to stand still for examinations, injections and other procedures. If your horse stands still with his nose in front of his chest, he won’t interrupt your vet’s work by nudging or biting.

“You have to have a relationship with your horse,” notes Goodnight. “You have to have authority over him even when he’s scared, agitated or hurt. You might think you can hold him up close and keep him still, but you’re just not strong enough. You need to make him want to stand still.”
Training technique: Select a point several yards away where you’d like him to stand. Walk him to that point, and say “whoa.” Step away at a 45-degree angle from where his nose is pointing, so you’ll be in front, but safely off to the side if he does move on.

Once in place, point your toes toward your horse’s nose. Allow the rope to drape, holding it near the end. Stay still as long as he keeps his feet in place and doesn’t move his head from side to side. If he does, it’s time for a correction. Note that the lesson will go more quickly if he realizes his mission and can associate what he does just before a correction comes.

Start the correction by waving the lead rope up and down about one foot so that the movement travels through the rope and affects the halter knot. Make one correction, then allow your horse to lower his head and stand still again. If he picks up a foot or turns his head to the side, correct again. Be consistent with your corrections until he learns the new rule.

Next, face your horse with your feet pointed toward him. He shouldn’t move at all. Your physical presence and your leadership should keep him still. If he moves, lead him back to where he started. If you allow him to move, for instance, one step toward the gate, you’ll reward him for moving, rather than standing still. He should stand just where you tell him, until you cue him otherwise.

“You’re really teaching your horse to ground tie,” Goodnight says. As your horse begins to figure out his ground-tying lesson, back up even more, and lay a portion of the rope on the ground between corrections.

Lesson #2: Accept Touch
How it helps your vet: Your veterinarian will need to look in your horse’s mouth, ears, eyes and other sensitive areas during routine exams or if your horse becomes ill, sore or injured. If your horse isn’t used to having his sensitive parts touched, he might pull away and make an exam difficult. Here, we’ll focus on the mouth to prepare him for oral exams and dental work. “I’ve taught several of my horses to accept this pressure in their mouths so well that my vet doesn’t need to sedate before teeth floating,” Goodnight notes.
Training technique: Your horse needs to learn that if he accepts touch, the touch will soon go away—that it’s easier to stand still and accept the touch instead of fighting.

Don leather gloves, stand at your horse’s left side, and place two fingers at the left corner of his lip. He should open his mouth slightly. Move your fingers slightly back and into his mouth, avoiding his front and back teeth. He’ll most likely shake his head and pull away from your touch, but keep your fingers in place no matter where he pulls you.

Watch for an instant of relaxation. As soon as your horse lowers his head or stops resisting, pull your hand away. Keep the pressure until he accepts it, then remove your hand immediately. Repeat the process until he allows you to open his mouth from both sides without resistance.

Use this same technique to teach your horse to accept your touch on other parts of his face and body.

Lesson # 3: Place Each Step
How it helps your vet: If your horse needs a flexion test during a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to pick up and hold your horse’s foot and leg without resistance or leaning. If your horse needs a radiograph (X-ray) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he’ll have to place his foot on a small plate. Many horses are taught how to pick up their feet, but not how to hold them up or put them down with finesse. Your horse needs to trust you to hold his foot, then gently place it down onto any surface.
Training technique: Have a helper hold your horse, or tie your horse to a sturdy post. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing his hindquarters. Place your left hand on his left shoulder, and lightly move it toward his fetlock. With your thumb and index finger, gently squeeze the tendon just above his fetlock joint.

When your horse picks up his foot, lift it so his lower leg is parallel to the ground, then hold that position. If you feel him squirm or pull away, maintain your hold, moving with him until he relaxes.

When your horse relaxes and accepts the foot hold, gently lower his foot to the ground, and place it in a precise spot. Don’t let go or drop his leg. If you do, he’ll learn that he can place his foot wherever he chooses, not where you or your vet needs it to be.

Repeat this exercise several times on each leg. When your horse understands that you’ll put his foot down when he’s relaxed, experiment with new foot-placement locations. Pick up his foot and place it on a block, piece of paper, a flat rock—whatever you can find that may mimic an item in your veterinarian’s clinic.

Lesson #4: Match Your Pace
How it helps your vet: During a lameness exam, your veterinarian will need to see your horse’s movement at a walk and trot. If your horse is pokey while you lead him, clinic staff will have to work extra hard to get your horse to move at an even cadence. If your horse moves smoothly and at the speed you request, your vet will likely be better able to see a change in stride and pinpoint the lameness.
Training technique: Work in an arena or other area with flat, consistent footing. Stand at your horse’s left shoulder, facing front, holding the lead rope about a foot from the halter. You don’t want to pull your horse forward, you want your horse to learn to match your step and follow your lead.

Walk forward a few steps, leading your horse at a walk, keeping his head just behind your shoulder. Then jog in an animated way to cue your horse to pick up the trot. If he does so, increase your pace. If he moves at your pace without lagging behind, allow him to rest as a reward. Then repeat the exercise until you know he’ll respond well to your trot cue.

If your horse is sluggish, ask a helper to jog along behind your horse waving a flag or whip/longe whip  to prompt your horse to go forward. (Make sure your helper stays off to the side and out of your horse’s kicking zone; remind him or her to avoid actually touching your horse.)

Ask your horse to move on again, with your helper to reinforcing your trot cues. As soon as your horse moves forward easily, allow him to rest as a reward. Make sure he stops on your command or when you stop, not when he thinks it’s time.

Continue to trot your horse up and down the work area until he’ll stay at your speed without the prompt. When he’s cooperative, trot him in circles to make sure the change of direction doesn’t slow him down. You’ll get a good workout, while your horse gets ready for potential lameness exam