Monday, 27 January 2014

Zen and the art of hoof rehabilitation

I've long suspected that one of the important but hidden factors affecting how a horse's health improves is  positive thinking and positive action.

That may sound odd - and it would be fascinating if it were possible to measure what the horse's thoughts were - but what I mean (in this instance anyway) is the effect which an owner's positive or negative thoughts and actions have on the horse he or she is taking care of.
There was a remarkable study carried out at Harvard by a psychology professor, Ellen Langer. She took 2 groups of elderly men to a retreat which was fitted out exactly as it would have been in the 1950s. One group were asked simply to reminisce about that period in their lives, the other group were asked to take it a step further and try to relive that time, acting as if they were much younger.

The results were astonishing and are summarised in the Harvard magazine:

"Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board. 

Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis. 

But the men who had acted as if they were actually back in 1959 showed significantly more improvement. Those who had impersonated younger men seemed to have bodies that actually were younger."

Of course this study wasn't done on horses but our horses are often more in tune with us and our feelings than we may realise and this can affect their physical performance as well.

For instance, its quite common for a rehab horse to still be footy on tough, uneven surfaces even after they have been here a few weeks. Nearly always the horse is actually perfectly capable of crossing stony ground without any harm but will be more careful than a horse with a completely healthy hoof.
However, there will often be a dramatic difference in the horse's gait and demeanour depending on whether I or the owner is at the end of the lead-rope.  

I never mind a horse slowing down and being cautious over a difficult surface but equally I don't ask them to work on a surface they aren't able to cope with. The result is that generally they become more confident fairly quickly and - like the group in the Harvard study - actually more capable over time.
For the owner its usually a lot more nerve-racking. For many of us, the first time we saw our horses working without shoes was a real worry. This is of course utterly natural - particularly if you've been taught all your life that horses cannot cope without shoes and that their feet are so delicate that they need constant protection from a rim of steel.

The result is that typically, the first time the owner and horse together approach a surface tougher than grass, the owner will turn towards the horse and tense up, often taking a deep breath and saying something like "Oh, poor you, are you ok?" in a  voice full of concern. 
For the horse, the message is immediate and clear: the owner has lost confidence and is worried - there is a problem and probably every reason for the horse to be concerned as well.  Ironically, the better and stronger the relationship between horse and owner the more forceful the message will be!

Not surprisingly, once owner and horse are tense and worried then everything becomes more difficult and not only will the horse most likely find the tough surface more of a struggle than normal but both owner and horse will have reinforced in each other the belief that this really WAS a struggle. 

You can see how this could easily become a vicious circle, can't you, and how it could be even worse during ridden work, when a tense rider can block the horse's movement as well?
Now, I'll make it clear that I am NOT suggesting you should drag your horse over ground he is unable to cope with - that is unfair, counter-productive and irresponsible. After all, YOU are responsible for choosing the route  and terrain you and your horse are working on and so its up to you to make sure he can cope with it. 

Having chosen, however, you should have the confidence that it will be beneficial, not harmful, for your horse; it will be a big help for your horse if you can convey this confidence to him via your positive attitude. It will not only make him more confident and more relaxed, it will most likely improve his way of going; working and moving well will lead to more confidence and better movement, better movement to healthier hooves. 

By the same token, don't always take the easiest option because there is otherwise a good chance your horse will never be able to cope with the more difficult option. Its a balancing act that requires sensitivity as well as confidence. 
Finally, here is one more example of the contrasting effects of positive and negative action. 

"The rice experiment is a demonstration of the power of negative thinking (and conversely, the power of positive thinking). In this experiment, Dr Emoto placed portions of cooked rice into two containers. On one container he wrote "thank you" and on the other "you fool". He then instructed school children to say the labels on the jars out loud everyday when they passed them by. After 30 days, the rice in the container with positive thoughts had barely changed, while the other was mouldy and rotten."

It would be an interesting one to try on your horse and his hooves, don't you think?!


billie hinton said...

LOVE this post.

And thank you for inspiring me. I recently took video of my big handsome bay and the walk and trot and slowed it down to see how he's landing. Heel first except for his one front where he is landing level. That's the hoof that has always had the weakest frog development and happens to also be the hoof he uses to splash in the water trough. (drat that gorgeous mare Lily who taught him to do this years ago!)

I'm treating that frog and also replenished several areas of different sizes of stone in various places and am still working on letting my riding do the trimming. He's going really well and I'm noting his hooves are not perfectly shaped but he is sound. :)

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

what?! That rice study is incredible. I have sprinkled Greek holy water on my horses hooves for positive healing. No joke ;) along with diet, trim and movement, lol of course

Nic Barker said...

It would be interesting to try and replicate the rice study and see if it really works but for me the Harvard one was the astounding one - can't believe its not more widely talked about :-)

The Dancing Donkey said...

This touches on something I have given a lot of thought to over the years regarding "hard keepers". I have come to believe they are a bit of a myth. Horses who can't keep weight on either have a genuine physical problem, such as poor teeth or they are suffering from constant stress. If a hard keeper is put into a new environment where he has free choice access to exercise and forage and has companions he feels safe and happy with, he will easily gain weight. I have never seen it fail.

My mare is a good example of this. I bought her as a 2 yo and found her to be constantly nervous and hard to get weight on. I poured feed into her just to maintain her. She was in a large pasture with two other mares, free choice access to the barn and grass, but I couldn't keep weight on her. I thought she would finally prove me wrong about hard keepers. Then she got kicked by one of the other mares and I finally moved the other two to another farm. I got a donkey to keep my mare company and ALL of her nervousness, behavior problems and weight issues disappeared completely. Turns out my mare was afraid of the others and I could not see it until it was gone. She was raised in a show barn with no turnout and was weaned at 3 months. She never learned how to be in a herd. She wants to be with other horses, but is afraid of them at the same time.

Horses who are unhappy do not do well, but it sometimes takes a major shift in environment for us humans to recognize it. Who would have thought that a horse would be afraid to live with horses after all. It does make me wonder how much more we miss because we just can't see it.

cptrayes said...

It's on record in my blog that my second rehab horse was so footie that I put him on a lead to trot him up because I thought he was outright lame, only to find that once I was leading him he was totally confident on exactly the same piece of ground that had been causing him such problems when he was responsible for himself. It was completely astonishing.


AmandaB said...

This is a really thought provoking post and one I can empathise with.
When Itsy came back from Rockley she was tentative over some of the more tricky going and I think I pandered to that initially. She wasn't lame she was just super cautious and I found that the days I threw caution to the wind and just enjoyed riding again she was better. So I can really relate to this. Currently I forget that she doesn't wear shoes and don't anticipate a problem and she's getting stronger and stronger .

Nic Barker said...

We need a "like" button for comments :-)