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What to expect when she’s expecting: PART II
What to expect when she’s expecting: Foaling 101
Part II – Foaling and the Early Neonatal Period
The day has arrived… Your mare is looking like she is about to pop, and you are sure foaling is going to happen tonight. Knowing the normal progression of parturition and the immediate post-foaling period will be pivotal to ensuring a healthy foal. By having a thorough understanding of normal foaling, you will be able to more easily identify when something is amiss and in need of veterinary attention. Normal labor in horses progresses very quickly, so early intervention is required if a problem arises.
The Stages and Normal Progression of Labor
Stage I of labor can take minutes to hours (generally an hour or two, but it can be up to four). Often the mare will appear to be colicky. They often pace, look at their sides, will get up and down frequently, and urinate often. During this period the foal will be turning to the correct foaling position, which involves it’s front feet extended towards the cervix and their head between their front legs. Uterine contractions begin during this stage, which causes much of the discomfort. In addition, cervical dilation is occurring during this time, which is essential for uncomplicated foaling. Horses are one of very few species that can halt labor early in this stage if they feel threatened, so it is very important to not disrupt the mare during this period or you can expect to be up another night! If she isn’t already, be sure to put the mare in the foaling area during this time. In addition you can wrap the mares’ tail with brown gauze to minimize contamination of the foal during labor. Depending on how far away your veterinarian is located and how comfortable you feel with the foaling process, you may want to notify your veterinarian at this time. This should be discussed with your veterinarian ahead of time.
Stage II of labor begins when you see her water break (which is due to rupture of the chorioallantois portion of the placenta and release of allantoic fluid). This stage should progress very quickly (no more than 30 minutes) and is associated with significant pushing by the mare. After the water breaking you will see the white amnion surrounding the foal. You should be able to see two front feet followed by the foal’s muzzle at the level of their knee. Often the mare will get up and change positions periodically during this phase. In addition, once the foals’ hips are engaged in the pelvic canal the mare will often stop pushing for a period to rest, then finish delivering the foal. Once the foal's nose is delivered, break the white amnion if it hasn’t already broken, and clear the fluid and membrane from around its nose by massaging the nasal passages a few times and pushing the fluid out. Then as long as everything is progressing normally, you should step back and let the mare do the work. Resist the urge to pull the foal if all is going well, as it can result in trauma to the mare or foal as well as premature umbilical rupture. Once the foals chest is delivered ensure the foal is breathing on its own, even if the mare takes a break. If there is any concern about the foals viability, ensure the nose is clear first, then rub the foal briskly with towels. Often this is enough to stimulate breathing on the foal’s part and will help dry them off and warm them up. Once the foal is delivered and everyone appears happy and healthy, give the mare and foal some time alone to bond. This period is very important for maternal bonding, and is often forgotten as everyone is excited about the new foal. Within two hours, and more typically in the first hour, the foal should be up and nursing.
Stage III of labor is expulsion of the fetal membranes, aka the placenta. This should be completed within three hours after birth, and the mare is put at significant risk of infection and serious illness if she experiences a retained placenta. Do not wait to contact your veterinarian if you suspect she has a retained placenta, as early intervention is key. Be sure to save the placenta for examination by your veterinarian. They will look closely at the placenta to ensure that it is intact, for any evidence of placentitis, or indication of placental insufficiency.
These stages are summarized with a “1-2-3 rule”. This makes the general timeline of events easier to remember. The foal should be delivered within 1 hour of the beginning of stage II labor. Within 2 hours of birth the foal should be up and nursing on its own. The placenta should be expelled in its entirety within 3 hours after birth. By keeping this rule in mind you can more easily decide if a foaling is progressing in a timely fashion.
With horses being the fragile creatures they are, it’s amazing that most foalings go as smoothly as they do. However, if problems should arise they need to be dealt with promptly to give the mare and foal the best chance at survival. We recommend learning as much as you can about what to do in a foaling emergency before the situation should arise so you can be as prepared as possible.
“Red bag”, or premature placental separation: In a normal delivery the red chorioallantois ruptures, resulting in the “water breaking” and you see the white amnion directly around the foal. If the chorioallantois separates from the uterus prematurely it will not rupture. The result is that you see a red, velvety membrane first instead of the white amnion. Since this is caused by premature separation of the placenta from the uterine wall, the foal becomes oxygen deprived during delivery. If you see this, you have to immediately rupture the sac and pull the foal out. The easiest way to do this is with a sharp pair of scissors, so be sure you have a clean pair in your foaling kit. Since it is difficult for the foal to breathe on its own until its thorax is through the birth canal, you will have to help deliver the foal as quickly as possible until it is to a point where normal respiration is possible.
Dystocia, or “difficult birth”: This refers to any birth that is difficult or prolonged due to poor positioning of the foal, anatomic abnormalities in the mare, or congenital defects resulting in an inability for the mare to deliver the foal normally. Normal foal position is front feet and nose first, in a “diving position”. A breech birth, or when they come hindquarters first, is particularly important to deal with and resolve quickly, as the umbilical cord will be compressed prematurely as it enters the pelvic inlet, resulting in oxygen deprivation to the foal. The most common cause for simple dystocia is shoulder lock, and is something that most owners can deal with quickly. The widest point of a foal is at their shoulders, and they frequently become stuck in the pelvic canal at this point. To resolve this, gently pull one forelimb at a time in synchrony with the mare’s contractions. This will help to pull one shoulder through at a time. If they get caught at the foal’s hips, you can try rotating the foal 45* to have them align diagonally with the mare’s pelvis, which is the widest point of the pelvic canal.
Times to Call Your Veterinarian Immediately
There will be some obvious foaling emergencies that require immediate veterinary attention. However, there are some situations where the foal may appear healthy, but urgent care can prevent serious consequences.
- Dystocia or red bag delivery, even if the foal is alive and out: these foals often have experienced some degree of oxygen deprivation, depending on how severe the dystocia and how prolonged the delivery was. Hypoxemic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) also known as "Dummy Foal Syndrome" is a potential consequence of oxygen deprivation in utero or during delivery, and may not manifest until hours to days after birth. However, preemptive steps may be taken to prevent complications, and serial neurologic assessments will be important to catch any problems early.
- Meconium staining of the foal and/or placenta: if there is any evidence of dark meconium (first manure) during delivery the foal should be assessed immediately. These foals are at high risk to develop aspiration pneumonia, and early treatment will be key for survival
- The inability to stand and nurse on their own within 2 hours (most normal foals are able to accomplish this within an hour): this can be an early sign of problems, including HIE or sepsis. While they often look too leggy and uncoordinated, normal foals will be able to get through the uncoordinated phase quickly and be able to get up and down on their own.
- Evidence of broken ribs: broken ribs are fairly common in foals, as their shoulders are tight through the pelvic canal and their elbows can press in with extreme pressure, resulting in rib fracture. Unfortunately the most common site is directly over their heart. Any foals that have swelling, soreness, crackling sounds, or you can feel crepitus (a rough feel of the bone ends moving over each other) should be evaluated quickly by a veterinarian to ensure there is no damage to the underlying structures or an imminent risk of the fractures causing injury to the heart or lungs. Foals that are suspected to have rib fractures should be handled with extreme care to not cause further shifting of the fracture ends.
All postpartum mares and newborn foals should be evaluated by a veterinarian about 12 hours after birth. The mare should be evaluated for any injuries and general health and condition. The placenta should be closely inspected for any evidence of placentitis, placental insufficiency, or incomplete expulsion. The foal should be evaluated for any congenital abnormalities and general health. In addition, blood should be drawn at 12-18 hours of age to test for IgG concentrations. This is a measure of the antibodies absorbed from colostrum. Inadequate IgG results in failure of passive transfer and needs to be addressed quickly by administering further colostrum (if the foal is less than 24 hours old, when they still absorb antibodies from the gut) or intravenous plasma (if the foal is greater than 24 hours old). The umbilicus should be evaluated thoroughly, and dilute chlorhexadine should be used to dip the umbilicus a few times a day for the first 3-5 days of life.
Foaling season is an exciting time for any horse owner, but much anxiety can be reduced by taking the appropriate steps ahead of time to ensure you are well prepared for potential complications. Specific steps to take and what is applicable for your situation should be discussed early on with your veterinarian, so you both have a good game plan for when that day comes.
Some good resources for expecting owners
- The Complete Book of Foaling: An Illustrated Guide for the Foaling Attendant by Karen E N Hayes DVM MS
- A foaling guide from the Veterinary School at Kansas State University http://www.vet.k-state.edu/VHC/equine/pdf/Foaling_guide.pdf
If you have any questions regarding foaling and what to expect or questions about any equine health issue please speak with your veterinarian or any of the veterinarians at New England Equine.
Erica Secor, DVM
Jacqueline Bartol, DVM, DACVIM
Does my horse need shoes?
Are horses meant to wear shoes? Are they meant to be barefoot like the horses of the wild? This is a very popular question in equine husbandry today and there are very good arguments on both sides of the table. Some argue that shoes hinder the circulation and sensation of the foot, while others argue that the equine foot requires support and protection to function properly. Whatever your preference, it is truly important to recognize that theories are like shoes....one size does not fit all.
The equine hoof is a complex structure which encases the distal bones of the limb and a number of soft tissue structures. Any one of the structures involved with the foot can be a source of pain or lameness. The hoof wall is meant to do the majority of the load bearing with some pressure being transferred to the sole. The sole itself is a sensitive structure and will become painful if forced to become the primary load-bearing structure. This generally happens when the wear on the dorsal horn exceeds the growth. This is one reason we choose to apply a shoe. This is a universal problem which dates back centuries and crosses many cultural boundaries.
There are many examples of shoes going back to the days when the horse first starting being used for riding and draft around 1580 B.C. The first shoes were made of woven grass and reeds tied on the foot. The Egyptians used animals skins as shoes to protect their horses' feet and the Romans created a "hipposandal" which was a leather sandal with an iron sole. The swift movement of Genghis Khan's armies are partially attributed to a rawhide "cup" for the feet which aided in the swift movements of his armies. China is credited with developing the first iron shoe, but traditional shoeing with nails is thought to date back to 5th or 6th Century B.C. with the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans reportedly had horseshoes with nails when they invaded England in 55 B.C. William the Conqueror (1066 A.D.) was credited with popularizing the practice of shoeing horses in England. History tells us that protecting the horse's foot is paramount to the continued use and soundness of the animal.
We must keep in mind though, shoes are not innocuous. Horseshoes can be a source of pain and discomfort to an animal when inappropriately selected or applied and they can constrict the natural expansion and contraction of the foot. The growth and circulation of the foot is tied to that movement and can be compromised by poor shoeing/trimming practices. That is why it is important for you, as an owner, to ensure that your horse is kept on an appropriate shoeing cycle and that the feet are trimmed regularly because this minimizes the negative effects that shoes can have on the feet. At the same time, if your horse does not need additional protection for his feet, he may be better off barefoot. Shoes are sometimes used for purposes other than protection though.
Shoes can be used to compensate for various conformational deficits or pathologic processes which might otherwise cause lameness. Variations in the size or shape of a horse's foot in relation to the conformation and size of the horse can have serious effects on the animal's long term comfort and soundness. If we can detect problems early and apply corrective shoeing or trimming techniques we may be able to alter the course of disease or minimize the long term effects of a condition rather than allowing it to progress unchecked.
The most important thing to do is use common sense when making a case for or against shoes. Just because the words "wild and natural" sound appealing, they don't necessarily offer a universal solution. If your horse is comfortable barefoot, there may be no need to put shoes on him. But if wear exceeds growth or there is a pathologic condition which needs to be addressed, look at the options. Good farriers take a great deal of pride in their work and want your horse to be comfortable and sound. Many attend regular continuing education and are willing to explore reasonable options to keep your horse happy and healthy. Discuss your ideas or concerns with your farrier and/or your veterinarian. Remember that good shoeing techniques have taken centuries to develop and it takes many years to be able to master those skills. You may not need to change anything with your horse if he is happy and sound, but if not, do your homework. Good farriers, trimmers and vets should take the time to answer your questions and help you find a solution which is right for your horse.
If you have any questions regarding trimming and shoeing your horse, please consult with your veterinarian, or farrier, or any of the veterinarians or farriers at New England Equine Medical & Surgical Center.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Lordan, DVM
Jacqueline Bartol, DVM, DACVIM
IRAP, PRP, MSC, OMG! The use of biologics in lameness treatment
The world of lameness treatment options has grown considerably in the last decade through the introduction of various biologics. To the average horse owner, the various acronyms that go along with these can be daunting enough, let alone understanding the processing and use of them. The methods discussed here are all considered autologous biologic agents, meaning that they are derived from the patient in question. The processing allows these normal factors and cells found in the body to be concentrated or converted to products that can have potent effects when administered to a local area. These therapies are becoming more widespread, and additional uses for them are becoming apparent.
Interleukin-1 β Receptor Antagonist Protein (IRAP):
Interleukin-1 β (IL-1β) is one of the major pro-inflammatory mediators found in healthy and diseased horses. This protein is released from a variety of cells and will help incite inflammation. There is also a protein in the body that will bind IL-1β and inhibit its function, thereby reducing inflammation. This protein is termed Interleukin-1 β Receptor Antagonist Protein, or IRAP. We now have ways to induce white blood cells to produce IRAP and can concentrate the protein. This concentrated form of IRAP can then be injected into injured or osteoarthritic areas to help reduce local inflammation and can help support regeneration as well. While IRAP will not completely prevent osteoarthritis from developing, it can help support a healthy joint environment and delay the onset of changes.
IRAP therapy involves drawing 50-60ml of your horse’s blood into a special syringe, and this is transferred to a tube containing special glass beads that will stimulate the white blood cells to produce IRAP. The blood is incubated in this manner for 24 hours, then the serum portion is taken and either used immediately or can be frozen for future use. One blood draw typically produces enough serum for 6-7 treatments. IRAP is most often used in early osteoarthritis or following joint surgery to reduce inflammation and prevent osteoarthritic changes. However, we have also begun using it with some tendon and ligament injuries as well to reduce the local inflammatory response.
Platelet-rich Plasma (PRP):
Platelets are a natural component to blood, and most often thought of for their role in clotting secondary to injuries. However, platelets carry a wide variety of growth factors which will induce white blood cell infiltration to an area to induce blood vessel, connective tissue, and skin regeneration. One benefit of PRP over other therapeutics is the wide variety of factors that it provides, compared to just one. This can help to assist the healing response from a variety of angles.
Blood is taken from your horse and is centrifuged in a special container to separate it into red blood cells, platelet poor plasma, and platelet rich plasma (PRP). The PRP is separated from the remaining blood products. Immediately before use, the PRP is activated using one of a variety of methods, which will cause it to form a platelet clot. This is then injected or applied to the site of interest. Most commonly PRP is used in tendon or ligament injuries, which often have difficulty healing due to poor vasculature, which PRP helps to combat by recruiting new blood vessel formation and collagen production. It is also used in wound and bone repair, and only recently is being used within joints.
Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC):
Mesenchymal stem cells are derived from bone marrow, adipose tissue (fat), or umbilical cord blood, with bone marrow or fat derived cells being the most commonly used in equine practice. Stem cells have the ability to regenerate tissue, however this has only been shown with certain tissues and mostly in research settings. In addition, stem cells have the ability to release a wide variety of growth factors and anti-inflammatory proteins.
Bone marrow requires about 3 weeks to process the stem cells and return them to the clinic, while adipose derived can be turned around much quicker (2-3 days). There is some evidence that bone marrow derived stem cells may show more benefit than adipose derived in some circumstances, but the tissue of choice is clinician and case dependent. MSC’s generally are able to exert their maximum effect early on in the disease process. Stem cells have been used successfully in a variety of clinical disorders involving bone, tendon, and ligament.
The use of these biologics in lameness treatment, as well as management of other disorders, is only recently becoming commonplace. There are many intricacies in case selection, but these options can serve as valuable tools in lameness management and should be discussed with your veterinarian to determine whether they may be useful in your horse.
Please call your veterinarian or the veterinarians at New England Equine Medical & Surgical Center with any questions about the management of lameness in horses.
Erica Secor, DVM
A. Rachel Roemer, DVM
Touchstone Farm is Site for Post-Traumatic Stress in Youth
Touchstone Farm, in Temple, NH, is the site of a research study on the effect of equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) on symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) in adolescent boys. Researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and from Washburn University in Topeka, KS, are partnering with Touchstone Farm and the Wediko School in Windsor, NH. The Horses and Humans Research Foundation awarded the $50,000 grant to fund the study.
Megan Mueller of Tufts and Leslie McCullough of Washburn are the principal investigators for the research. Boo Martin, Executive Director of Touchstone Farm, and Winter Keeler, who is both Senior Clinical Supervisor at Wediko and Manager of Horse Power Therapeutic Horsemanship at Touchstone Farm, will implement the EFP sessions at the farm. A select group of Horse Power volunteers will participate in all the sessions, with each volunteer working one-on-one with a horse/client pair.
Five Wediko students, adolescent boys assessed to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress, will participate in 10 weekly EFP sessions that include both mounted and unmounted work with horses, while receiving psychotherapy at Wediko. A control group of five boys who also have symptoms of PTS will receive psychotherapy at Wediko but will not participate in the EFP sessions. Touchstone Farm will run multiple 10 week sessions so that a total of 30 boys will participate in equine-facilitated psychotherapy at the farm with corresponding control groups at Wediko.
“EFP has been shown to be effective in reducing children’s anxiety over attending therapy and in treating emotional and behavioral challenges,” says Mueller. “However, we need additional research on the efficacy of equine based psychotherapy in addressing the needs of youth who have experienced trauma to support evidence based practice in this field.”
The first EFP session begins in February. Throughout January, Touchstone Farm staff and volunteers will continue preparations for the research. This includes additional training for volunteers as well as training for the horses who will be paired with Wediko clients. Touchstone Farm has a large pool of riding and driving horses already trained in therapeutic horsemanship. The additional training will enable Martin and Keeler to select the horses who are most willing and able to partner with adolescent boys coming to grips with past trauma and help them move ahead.
Touchstone Farm, home of Horse Power and Pony Farm, is a non-profit educational and therapeutic organization that fosters a community of belonging for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Touchstone Farm offers a rich and challenging variety of experiences, which includes summer camps, able-bodied and therapeutic horseback riding and carriage driving lessons, an instructor training school, and equine-related specialty weekends. Grounded in a sense of place, mutual respect and well- being, the 28-acre farm is a sanctuary that nurtures connections, cooperation, self-confidence, and personal growth.
Have you ever stared deep into your horse's eyes and wondered what they really see besides a funny looking two-legged horse? Can they even appreciate the time and effort you put into picking out the color of a blanket? How do they tell the difference between a stick on the trail from a snake? In this article, color recognition, night vision, field of view and depth perception are discussed. Lastly, behavioral issues that are similar to vision loss are considered. The design and function of the equine eye has enhanced the horse's ability not only to survive in the wild, but also to work and perform in their domesticated settings. Their ability to see is not only dependent on a functional eye, but also on intact neural pathways and processing centers in the brain. The eye collects information about the outside world such as movement, size, color, distance, depth etc, but the brain is where this information is deciphered and reactions determined.
Color and day vision
The equine retina, like the human retina, uses cones to interpret light of different wavelengths. Light of differing wavelengths corresponds to different colors. The cones of the retina are only sensitive to certain wavelengths of light. Horses have two types of cones that are sensitive to wavelengths of light between 380nm-760nm. This corresponds to a color spectrum of blues, greens, and yellows with limited red. Cones work most effectively in bright light which emphasizes wavelengths in the yellow, green and red. The horse eye has the least amount of sensitivity to blue wavelengths in bright light. In dim light, the green and blue wavelengths are much more visible. The equine eye has mechanisms to improve vision in bright light. The pupil shape and specialized structure on the iris, the corpora nigra, limit light intensity and entry into the eye to prevent overstimulation of the retina. Additionally, the equine lens contains yellow pigments which filter out shorter (blue) wavelengths of light and reduce glare.
In low light conditions, the rods of the retina become primarily responsible for interpreting the visual world. These photoreceptors, unlike cones, are not color sensitive. This is why vision at night for humans seems more gray. Certainly horses have a greater ability to see in dim light than humans. Horses have evolved several adaptations to help with this. The horse has the largest eye of terrestrial animals, this allows a greater amount of light to be captured by the equine eye. The pupil is more elongate in a horizontal direction and can be dilated to six times that of a human. This change in pupil size allows tremendous capture and delivery of available light to the retina. Light is also processed differently in the equine eye as opposed to the human eye. Neural processing by the retinal bipolar and ganglion cells summate light signals and may actually make retinal images appear brighter. The eye of a horse continues to increase in sensitivity to light for longer than humans as they adjust to low light environments (up to 30 minutes) which heightens their ability to see. This may also result in the animal's hesitance to rapidly move between light and dark areas. The presence of a tapetum (reflective arrangement of collagen fibrils just under the retina) allows horses to see better in dim light.
Field of vision and depth perception
Given the location of the horse eye within the skull, horses can see from their hind limbs to their nose. Specifically they possess 350 of 360 degrees of visual field. Blind spots though do occur directly in front of the forehead, directly below the nose, and the base of their tail. The visual field of each eye overlaps in front of them allowing them to see the world in three dimensions. Humans are considered to have better depth perception than horses.
Behavioral disorders suspected to be related to sight
Spooking is a behavioral response of horses to a surprising or threatening stimulus. The stimulus at times has been associated with ocular disease processes. However, a common misconception exists that because of the positioning of the horse eye, horses cannot relate information about what they see with one eye to what they see with the other. This is untrue. Horses can see an object with one eye and process the information in the brain recognizing the same object when seen with the left eye. Abnormal behavior relating to head shaking or spooking may, however, be related to many different ocular abnormalities. The list of ophthalmic diseases responsible for vision deficits is exhaustive however some examples are corneal irregularities or deposits, iris cysts, cataract development, lens position abnormalities, vitreous degeneration, retinal degeneration, and uveitis. It is recommended to have your horse's eyes examined if vision related behavioral changes start developing. The equine eye is a fascinating structure which possesses adaptations and abilities unique to the horse. Disorders in the structure and function of the eye will commonly relate to certain behavioral changes. Understanding more about the equine eye helps us get closer to answering the question "What do they really see?"
If you have any questions regarding your horse's vision or any other equine medical issues, please contact your veterinarian or any of the veterinarians at New England Equine Medical & Surgical Center. Our ophthalmologist, Dr. Nicholas Cassotis, is available on Fridays for outpatient appointments and anytime for equine ocular emergencies.
Betsy Lordan, DVM
Nicholas Cassotis, DVM, DACVO
Jacqueline Bartol, DVM, DACVIM
Using Leg: A confusion of terms
By Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Dressage Department Head, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
An online chat about an article that discussed how to get the horse ‘in front of the leg’ caught my attention recently. The students argued whether the writer was right or wrong. When I read the article, I realized that their disagreement arose, in part, because of the bewildering use of terminology in the horse industry. People use different terms to mean the same thing. Or they use the same term but with different shades of meaning. As an example, let’s take a look at hoW the meanings of ‘forward’ and ‘in front of the leg’ might get tangled.
The first thing a baby green horse learns about leg pressure is that if he moves forward when he feels pressure from both legs simultaneously, the rider releases the pressure and it goes away. That pressure may be described as a squeeze or a bump or a tap but they all mean ‘the lightest possible pressure the horse will understand.’ The release of that pressure is the horse’s reward. We are only looking for a directional response, not for a particular speed or a particular shape the horse takes with his body. Trainers call this basic understanding of leg ‘forward’ or ‘moving off the leg‘ or ‘forward off the leg’ or ‘respect for the leg’ or similar terms.
As the horse progresses from this very basic, baby green response to higher levels of training, the rider adds layers of sophisticated nuance until the horse understands the individual meaning of a wide range of leg pressures. But at every level of training, the basic response we expect when the rider applies pressure with both legs simultaneously is that the horse moves ‘forward’ immediately.
‘Going forward from the leg’ is a precursor to having a horse ‘in front of your leg. I feel this term confused the students in the chat room because it did not precisely describe the response from the horse that the writer intended. When talking about a horse being in front of the leg, I prefer to describe the rider’s feeling that the horse ‘moves forward into the hands’ or ‘moves forward into a connection’ with the rider’s hands. The rider closes the leg and the horse responds by pushing off from behind, lifting the back, rounding the neck and connecting to the rider’s hand, thereby completing the circle of aids.
Moving ‘forward into connection’ is a much more sophisticated forward response not to just leg but to a combination of legs, seat and hands than the green horse’s simple ‘respect for the leg.’ When I close my legs on a more advanced horse, I want him to do more than just go forward quickly. I want him to step well under himself and push off the ground energetically with his hindquarters, taking a particular shape with his body that transmits that energy into my hands holding the reins.
In the beginning stages, the combination of legs, seat, and hands feels like a mixed message to the horse. I am saying GO with my legs and HOLD YOUR FORWARD ENERGY A BIT with my seat. My goal is that when he feels this apparent contradiction, he will step farther under himself than he would have from leg pressure alone, contract his abdominal muscles to lift his back and withers, and allow an energetic connection with his driving hindquarters to flow up into my hands holding the reins.
Some riders try to ride their horses faster into ‘connection’. Adding more leg pressure without modifying it with seat and rein aids only asks the horse go forward faster. Forward is simply a direction, not a connection with the hands. Horses cannot go faster forward into collection nor can riders gather a horse’s forward energy into collection by pulling on the reins. Connection starts with that powerful thrust from the hindquarters that moves through the horse’s body in a way that allows the rider’s hands to gather and direct the energy.
Also adding to students’ chat room confusion, different riding systems describe different methods for applying leg—bump, tap, squeeze, flutter, pulse, use heavy leg, use light leg, lay leg against the horse’s side, keep the legs away from the horses’ sides, drive every stride, drive and leave the horse alone, and the list goes on. “How DO I use my leg?” lamented one chat participant.
There is, unfortunately, no simple formula that I or any other instructor can offer that fits every situation. How the rider applies leg or other ‘forward’ aids depends on multiple factors. Here I will discuss two of those factors:
* THE HORSE’S TRAINING LEVEL – In our training classes, students learn to first SHOW a horse what they want him to do. At the next stage, they can ASK for what they want. When the horse consistently gives what they ask, they can then TELL him what they want and expect a response. If the horse does not respond, only then is it fair to ENFORCE their request. The rider enforces forward movement with only as much pressure as needed to get a response. That might be increasing levels of leg pressure, a kick, or a touch of the whip added to leg pressure. Spurs, by the way, are not on the list of aids for forward movement. They are used to encourage hindquarter engagement (that first step in collection).
The rider starts with the least amount of leg pressure and increases the pressure until the horse moves forward. The rider pays attention to the horse’s response to the aid and changes the aid based on the horse’s feedback. The next ride, the rider does not start with a tap of whip pressure because that was what it took to get a forward response the last time. Then that would become the pressure that the horse understands as ‘forward.’ The goal is to help the horse respond respectfully to the least amount of leg pressure.
* THE HORSE’S TEMPERAMENT – Leg pressure must have meaning to the horse. It must be part of the vocabulary used by both horse and rider to communicate. The hot horse that needs no leg to move off as soon as the reins are released must learn to allow the rider to apply leg pressure. When a horse runs from leg pressure, he may be going forward but the rider cannot get that energetic connection from back to front. As training progresses, however, hugging lightly with the legs creates a corridor that helps this type of horse relax and trust the legs. At the other end of the spectrum is the placid horse that ignores a leg constantly bumping or gripping his sides. This horse is more likely to pay attention to a fluttering leg or a bumping leg against his sides. The horse would ignore a constant leg pressure and start going slower and slower.
When terminology confuses riders they should ask their trainer or riding instructor to explain how they are using a particular word or phrase. Good instructors know how to explain the same thing different ways to suit the learning styles of individual students. If riders come across the use of a term in an article or book that seems to contradict their own understanding of the term, they should search for the author’s definition or try to tweeze the meaning out of context. Different riding disciplines and different schools of training within individual disciplines often use the same or similar terms with different meanings. Don’t let it throw you. Just keep learning.