Sunday, 7 December 2014

Warm-up Exercise for the Horse: why do it and for how long

Mental and physical preparation

The importance of warming up the horse before any planned training, ride out or competition has been discussed many times in books and journals.  Even if you just intend to have a hack out on your pony, there is a lot to be gained by warming up first. A good warm up routine helps the horse mentally and physically prepare for work and, crucially, reduces the risk of injury.

Gillian Higgins in her article Effective Warm-Ups talks of the horse needing to do exercises to increase blood flow to muscles, warming the body up in readiness for work and to reduce the risk of injury. She also speaks about the mental attitude of the horse. Exercises should allow the rider to assess the horse and encourage him to listen and respond. Gillian suggests a warm up routine of at least 20 minutes.

In natural horsemanship, Pat Parelli uses the term “pre-flight checks” where the horse goes through a series of ground exercises, before being saddled and then under saddle, to enable to the rider to assess the condition of the horse and his mental attitude in that moment by working through exercises that ask the horse to move in straight lines and circles, yielding away and coming to, the rider. Initially this is at walk then trot and canter. Though it is n’t spoken of in terms of allowing the horse to warm-up, it can surely count as part of a warm up plan for the horse, as he is being prepared for the main work of the day.

What’s the difference between loosening and warming up?

If you think about cold winter days on the sports field at school, most of us will have a memory of being asked to do quite energetic exercise that was uncomfortable, painful even. Maybe you were breathless, maybe you felt a cramping in the muscles. In short, you were probably ill prepared and needed to loosen up and adequately warm up first.

Before a horse can begin to warm up, joints need to be loosened and blood flow gently increased to the muscles. Aristotle Ballou writes in "What makes a warm-up good?”  (see the link below) that the horse should spend the first few minutes – up to five- of a warm up session, loosening up. This is done through walking in hand or relaxed ridden work that encourages the horse to move freely. Fluid in the joints is mobilised to lubricate and protect the joint during the loosening up phase. Before exercise, Ballou says that blood flow is mainly directed towards the digestive system with only about 15 percent being available to the muscles. Because of this, any attempt to ask the horse to perform exercises requiring collection will demand more of the muscles than the horse is able to deliver. Anything that restricts free, relaxed movement and causes contraction of muscles will impact on an effective loosening and warming plan, including devices such as side reins, says Ballou. As the horse loosens up, blood flow will increase to the horse’s muscles by another 70%. Loosening up facilitates the transition of blood flow to muscle from low, to high.

How long does warm-up have to take?

There is probably no definitive answer to this question. How you warm your horse up and for how long will depend on the condition of your horse and the activity you want him to do. The horse need not be as fit as a grand prix dressage horse if he is a leisure horse, but he still needs to be prepared for exercise nevertheless.

Higgins, above, suggests a warm-up session of 20 minutes. Ballou’s article suggests 5 minutes loosening followed by 10 minutes of trot or canter work doing straight lines before moving onto more demanding exercises.

Way back in about 2006, at a showjumping and dressage clinic in Birmingham, England, trainer Ferdi Ellberg explained that all of his horses warm up for at least 45 minutes. In her DVD series on training the young riding horse, top event and dressage rider Ingrid Klimke - seen in the photo - recommends warming up for 30 minutes. This includes the loosening up phase mentioned by Ballou.

In 2008 Whitaker, Mills and Duxbury (link below) compared a British Showjumping Novice class with a Foxhunter class and found that the higher the level of competition, the longer the warm-up session was. It is not yet known –from a scientific view point- if a longer and thorough warm-up session results in being more successful in competition or, conversely, if a shorter warm-up yields a poorer result. Nor is it yet known if there is an ideal, ‘one size fits all’ warm-up time.

The reality is that most horses probably need their own bespoke warm-up schedule to suit their needs.

Tina Sederholm wrote that, when showjumping, she likes to start warming her horse up when there are about 15 horses left to jump, in front of her. That way, she has time to properly prepare for the task ahead. 15 horses may seem like a lot, but Tina thinks it pays in the show ring. Allowing the horse to increase blood supply to the muscles and reach a supple state through graduated exercise must place them at an advantage not only in relation to performance potential, but by reducing risk of injury too.

Whitaker, Mills and Duxbury 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Charlie's First Year Under Saddle

Charlie June 2013

The Beginning

Charlie has experienced so much over the past year. 

He has gone from being a lanky, inexperienced four year old horse, to a much more confident five year old who is building stamina and strength.
Charlie July 2014

The year has been one of intense learning, for Charlie and for us. Training a horse was not a new experience, but Charlie has been something of a project.

All of his learning has been done at a pace he can manage. Here is his year in pictures.

July 2013 

July 2013

Charlie started to explore his world once he was familiar with communication with his horseman's halter and  line. He had  on a bareback pad so he could get used to having something on his back

August 2013

The next step was to use a real saddle. Charlie quickly adapted to this. 

All the while he was doing exercises to build his muscle strength, so he could support a saddle and ultimately a rider.

September 2013

Charlie spent many lessons learning how to move around with a rider on his back. With all of the foundation work a rope hackamore was used before a bit was introduced once Charlie understood enough about communication and signals.

Charlie quickly grasped the basics of communication within the confines of the arena.

In September it became clear decisions had to be made. Charlie was on lush grass and the regime was for the horses to be in during the day and out at night, unless Charlie was to be on his own, this is what he had to do too. But he didn't adapt well to this routine and often we found him tired and grumpy because sleeping during the day was - as anyone who has worked nights knows- difficult.

He needed a place with facilities where he could better develop himself no matter what the weather. At this stage we were noticing issues at canter as we have mentioned in other posts. Charlie needed  to be able to do a lot more work at canter than he could at this yard. And so we decided to move.

The yard we moved to was very large. It had a big indoor arena and two outdoor ones.  

Charlie certainly improved his canter here but as time went on, it became clear Charlie was not happy. Tying up to the point of not being able to walk. He fretted a lot and couldn't settle. 

As winter became more cold and damp Charlie became more upset and worried. 

We got to dread seeing him. Finding another rug torn to pieces, another kick mark and a miserable horse.

This was the first yard too where people have complained about our 'odd' practices. Meaning natural horsemanship. Maybe out of fear of something different, maybe out of jealousy. 

By now we had started to suspect Charlie had PSSM and his new high fat low NSC, no grain diet was beginning to help a lot.

 New Yard, New Start

Charlie and Benni
Yard three was a very happy place for Charlie. He liked it from the first day. We had started to regret our first move after all of the upset the previous four months but here, Charlie got on well with a nice herd of geldings and he was able to follow his training plan without any real problems.

February 2014

Meeting old stable mate Alfie

By February Charlie was turning into a proper riding horse. He was becoming more confident and lighter to ride. He hacked out with yard companions and in spring went to a local show. He also went to his first ever show jumping clinic.

One the Mover Again - July 2014

Sadly, as those of you who follow Charlie on Facebook will know, the yard owners decided to close the latest yard, so that meant looking all over again for a suitable place. By now we decided to look at yards which met as much of the criteria as possible recommended for horses with PSSM.

Turn out
All weather arenas with all year access
Quiet environment

Charlie, day 1 at new yard
By now the bond with Charlie was strong enough that moving again was not too hard on him. He showed very positive signs of settling very quickly.

We have all had such a lot to learn in the past year. Moving yards has been an education and we have met many more people as a result, which has proved a good thing. 

Charlie has been able to develop nicely and the canter  issues of 2013 have gone. 

What we know about Charlie now is that he is a performance horse with a lot of potential. He isn't a 'happy hacker.' He enjoys challenges and stimulation and he can set his mind to most things provided he has leadership and clear communication.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Tying-up; how Charlie horse is managed

Keep an eye on the horse every day

In previous posts and on  Charlie's Facebook page, we have spoken about Charlie tying-up. At his worst he has cramp in his muscles so bad as to make him not want to move at all. At his best, he has aches in both flanks and hind quarters easily remedied by a gentle massage.

Charlie had one attack after another in 2013 but with better knowledge and management, he is doing really very well.

We have developed a system of management. Diet of course is vitally important to get right. Low starch low NSC feed. We feed Coolstance Copra, soaked then some dried grass added for texture.


The importance of massage cannot be overstated. Most horses love a massage but horses prone to muscle problems really benefit from having regular workouts.

Several months ago, during a tying-up attack Charlie had a massage which we videoed. In the video (linked below) you can see how he reacts and how much the massage helped him.


Regular, daily exercise for a minimum of 10 minutes helps the horse maintain fitness and this in turn helps with muscle health. Charlie has a long warm up phase and a cooling down phase. 

If Charlie shows any signs of tying-up as he works we slow him down or stop and wait. Signs include, tail swishing, his head reaching down and stretching to relieve pain, haunches tightening and development of a disunited gait.


Charlie's surroundings need to be calm and quiet. At home he is on a small yard with limited comings and goings.
Ideally horses need to have access to gallops near home too. Pain or discomfort can make the horse want to move his feet and run. Being able to allow the horse to stretch his legs reduces stress and helps relieve muscle tension. Luckily, during dry weather, Charlie is able to canter in the fields.


Muscle stiffness

Observing the muscles for signs of stiffness is a daily job. Checking them for softness. During an episode of tying-up Charlie's muscles will feel solid and tense. They may even cause his skin to pucker up on his flanks.

Charlie himself will  offer clues as to how he is feeling by trying to nibble at the affected part.


If Charlie is feeling well he is very friendly and has a soft eye. When he is preoccupied with discomfort he is grumpy and irritable and may threaten to kick or bite.

Urine colour

When there is excessive breakdown of muscle tissue, this can reveal itself in the urine. The urine becomes darker. A brownish or dark brown colour may be noticed.

Knowing what is normal for your own horse is a good thing to be aware of.

Charlie knows the drill. When he comes in every evening he produces a sample of urine in a bucket. The urine is taken at the same time of day. Because Charlie has been so unwell previously we chart the colour of urine against his diet, symptoms and level of exercise and note anything else that might have happened, such as, being wormed or going into a new field.

To train your horse to urinate into a bucket all you need to do is wait until your horse needs to pass urine then when he does, do something at the same time such as whistle softly. After just a few times you will find your horse associates the whistle with passing urine. He will then start to assume the position when you signal for him to do so.

If Charlie does not position himself when asked he is not pushed to try to urinate. It is likely he has recently been and to try again may force him to strain.

The photo to the right shows how Charlie's urine changed over a period of six weeks or so. The darker images occurred when Charlie was symptomatic.

A good team

Charlie has a team of people who understand him.
Vet - having a vet who understands his issues makes it easier to manage Charlie. He has medication if he needs it and consideration is given when he has other needs such as vaccinations.

Podiatrist - Charlie's podiatrist is acquainted with his problems and uses natural horsemanship techniques to manage Charlie with consideration and care. Horses with muscle problems, especially PSSM can find it hard to lift and hold their feet for long, to enable them to be trimmed or shod. They also tend to paw the ground a lot at times and develop characteristic wear on their feet.

Feed and feed supplier - developing a relationship with the feed merchant is vital. Charlie's feed is not in common supply. Good communication is needed to ensure constant availability. Stance Equine, who manufacture Charlie's feed, are happy to answer questions and suggest solutions.

Other liveries - everyone on the yard is aware of Charlie's problems. They know how he moves and what he looks like on good and bad days therefore, they know whether or not to be concerned.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

PSSM - Charlie's Symptoms, Diet and Progress

The past few months have been spent reading up on tying-up. What causes it, how to manage it. This specifically led to discovering a condition known as PSSM, a common cause of tying-up. It is not uncommon for young horses to exhibit problems when they start training, but Charlie's issues  went deeper than this.
Looking back, after reading an immense amount by leaders in the understanding of PSSM such as Dr Valberg and Dr Valentine, it has become evident that Charlie showed signs right at the start.
The blog in November 2013 told of Charlie not liking being groomed. His skin would have felt sensitive because his muscles were tight and painful. He objected to the farrier, probably because he found it hard to lift his feet for the required amount of time. His muscles were set like rock and stayed that way until Charlie started his new diet.

The day we went to get Charlie he was incredibly difficult to load into the horse box. In his defense he had not been taught to load. There were a couple of moments Charlie seemed to get better and look as though he was  going to walk into the box. Instead he actually became much worse, rearing up and thrashing around. Even after lack of training,  handling and the horse box itself had been taken into account, his behaviour left questions. 

Stress will probably have caused Charlie to feel pain. Once that starts the problem tends to get worse not better. To load the poor horse into the horse box the vet needed to attend. Charlie then traveled well and slept his sedation off overnight.
When Charlie arrived in June 2013, on a relatively quiet yard, he soon relaxed and settled well. Then things started to show up. We just didn't know what to make of them. The gelding herd was small and during summer on this yard the boys were out at night and in during the day. To begin with Charlie was having short lessons and building up on a training schedule. The geldings we given access to lush pasture and an owner said how Charlie would love it and we needn't worry, him being a horse and not necessarily at risk of laminitis like our lovely Fell  pony had been.

Within a short time of going out on the richer pasture Charlie's attitude changed. He was lethargic and reluctant in his lessons. He started to resent being touched or groomed and threatened to kick in  his stable. My suspicion was that his body clock had been affected by the day/night regime of the yard. With the benefit of reflection, we can see the regime he was on, plus the high fructan content of the grass were probably both factors. Another factor was his training schedule. It is quite common for a young horse to start training and as more demands are made, symptoms begin to show.

As mentioned in other posts, Charlie struggled with some aspects of training. Canter with or without a rider on his back was challenging for him. So we decided to move to a yard with more space. This yard had really good facilities but a lot of horses and lots of activity. Horses coming and going, large tractors trundling around daily, small lots with even smaller groups of horses. In his first two weeks Charlie reached a point where he could barely walk. People suggested he had simply run around too much the previous day. Maybe he was tired.  Then the calls started from the grooms. Charlie doesn't want to walk today. Charlie's breathing was odd so we brought him in. Charlie was moving oddly so again, we brought him in.

Charlie had been tied up and started to drop weight. Then a horse friend posted an article on PSSM on Facebook and suddenly I saw Charlie, clear as day. It was him they were describing, him! After the video in this post is an article extract and link.

Here is a short video of how Charlie was and what happened when his diet was changed. It looks like magic or a miracle. It wasn't though. It was science and the act of tuning in to what was happening right in front of us. More importantly, not giving up on the horse and blaming him for his behaviour and attitude. The change to diet and management gave Charlie back to us and gave us hope if we try to understand how Charlie is and what his needs are, he can function to a high level and be happy. 

Charlie, before and after his diet and management changes

Below is an extract from an article on PSSM. It saved Charlie by helping transform his life on the diet to the point his symptoms were shed daily as his new diet was introduced.

EPSM is a metabolic condition related to skeletal muscle dysfunction. The primary issue is an inability to properly metabolize carbohydrates from feed. Attempting to make dietary changes and maintaining a schedule of regular exercise seems to be the most effective methods to improve these horses. This is a lifelong condition and altering the carbohydrate to fat ratio will be a permanent change.
Potentially any type of horse could develop this condition, with the highest incidence involving Warmbloods, Draft-related breeds, Quarter Horses and Arabians. It is thought to be an inherited disorder, but due to variability in its onset this may not seem clear.
There are a variety of signs reported thus making it difficult to conclusively diagnose this based on history and signalment. Clients have reported: an onset of weakness, poor performance, an inability to move forward, back soreness, gait abnormalities with or without a lameness, attitude problems, poor muscling, decreased impulsion and general stiffness. From this list we could probably come up with 30 or more reasons for these signs. What also makes this difficult is that a horse can be progressing normally in a training program then some of these signs can develop subtly. Over time the gait abnormality when recognized may not be clearly linked to any particular change in the horse's diet, work or routine. An actual lameness may develop from a slight stiffness to an actual lameness that involve one or both hind limbs. From behind the gait has been described as a "goose waddle".

A new genetic test has become available that evaluates DNA from hair or blood to determine if the horse carries the gene for what is being called Type 1 EPSM. The Type 2 - the more common form is only diagnosed presently through a muscle biopsy.
Treatment Strategies
Dietary recommendations are designed to move the horse away from a high carbohydrate diet and to provide approximately 20-25% of total daily calories from fat.  Some horses are supplemented with vegetable oils, ( corn, cocosoya or soy ) high fat feeds and supplements such as Rice Bran. Still in order to modify the dietary content of the feed there will need to be substantial increases in overall fat content beyond what most people routinely feed. Much of the work done investigating these conditions has been done by Dr. Beth Valentine and recommendations are based on her research.
A change in a horses diet to one that contains these high fat levels is safe and may be used as a "test" to evaluate if a horse is a candidate for these type of syndromes. It may take 1-2 weeks to make the necessary changes some of this depends on the horses current diet, body condition and acceptance of the addition of oil. 

Results may take up to 4 months in order to realize full fat adaptation. Some horses have exhibited improvement in as little as 1 month with an improvement in gaits, attitude and energy. Over time improvement in the horse's musculature is to be expected. Potential set backs have occurred and may be associated with variables such as access to grass or hay. There can be a significant increase in grass carbohydrate content especially in the spring and after the initial onset of cool weather in the fall as grasses will concentrate sugars. Paying particular attention to the pastures and hay, such as first versus second cut will help.


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Could Charlie have PSSM?

Training a young horse has its challenges of course. But Charlie has come a long, long way since the end of June 2013.

One of the reasons Charlie is called a 'wonder horse' is to try always to view the horse -any horse- in the most positive light, believing they can achieve. If something goes wrong to look hard into what has happened or what is happening and not blame the horse. Clearly, communication needs to be improved and as humans, that's our job.

Pat Parelli talks often of knowing what happened before what happened happened. That's just one of the many easy to recall but profound Parelli statements that fits our current situation. Let me explain.

Over the past four months of  knowing Charlie, certain patterns have been emerging  which on the face of it, paint Charlie is a bit of a challenge to deal with.

When we got him we were told he didn't like to be brushed, especially around his hind end. Soft brushes only.

We were also told he was a nightmare at farrier visits and because of this the decision was made to simply not have a farrier. So Charlie developed poor feet and a mistrust of being handled. Charlie knew what a twitch was by this time too and so the scene was set for some active desensitisation sessions.

The previous owners were right about Charlie not liking being groomed  or even touched. But this was intermittent, not constant. It was perplexing.

Over time Charlie a pattern emerged of bracey behaviour. Not wanting to move forward. An and at times downright weird kind of hopping gait. Then the biting started! Another surprising moment came when after months of building our relationship, Charlie was in  his stable after a lesson and he kicked my daughter. There had to be a good reason for his behaviour.

The thing that was clear was that Charlie was becoming grumpy. It reminded us of our Fell pony, a chronic laminitic poor thing, who became nippy and very grumpy when he was in a lot of pain.

The upshot of all of this is that several weeks ago there was a light bulb moment.

Have you ever heard of PSSM? That is Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy.

  Horses with both forms of PSSM have signs typically associated with tying-up. These signs are most commonly muscle stiffness, sweating, and reluctance to move. The signs are most often seen in horses when they are put into initial training or after a lay-up period when they receive little active turn-out. Episodes usually begin after very light exercise such as 10-20 minutes of walking and trotting. Horses with PSSM can exhibit symptoms without exercise. 
During an episode, horses seem lazy, have a shifting lameness, tense up their abdomen, and develop tremors in their flank area. When horses stop moving they may stretch out as if to urinate. They are painful, stiff, sweat profusely, and have firm hard muscles, particularly over their hindquarters. Some horses will try pawing and rolling immediately after exercise. Most horses with PSSM have a history of numerous episodes of muscle stiffness at the commencement of training; however, mildly affected horses may have only one or two episodes/year.
 Check out the link above for a brief overview of this genetic condition.

Well, we had never heard of it and why should we have? Fell ponies don't get it. Draft and cross breeds do.
PSSM horses cannot digest sugars like normal horses and glycogen gets 'stuck' in their muscles causing pain (our, basic novice level understanding of the problem).

The solution is diet based and if it works, lifelong. No grain, carrots, sweet treats and so on. Instead a high oil diet can help a working horse live a near normal life, keeping symptoms to a minimum. Of course it isn't that simple and we have found extremes of heat and cold affect Charlie as well as grazing availability.... We are still on a steep learning curve and will one day have found a way to better manage Charlie. Understanding what symptoms are showing and what to do.

Below are two video clips of Charlie before we knew about this problem. To begin with we just thought, young, dominant horse with a training issue. The second video shows a before and after of his movement. Before he was uncoordinated, reluctant, resistant, then on his new diet he became happier, more forward going and athletic.

We'd love to hear from people who have PSSM affected horses. You will know that this behaviour comes and goes. We are still learning about this but can say that after a change of diet alone, Charlie is loving being brushed, touched, rubbed and it is easy to go near his hind end now without threat of being kicked. He isn't as short tempered and grumpy. The changes observed so far have made us quite sure that we are on the right track with Charlie and he'll one day be fine.

Transitions Part 1

Before we left our previous yard it was becoming evident that Charlie needed to find a way to feel more confident when moving from trot to canter. Every book we have ever read on the subject of horse training talks about this being a challenge for the young horse when you factor in a rider.

In addition to using natural horsemanship techniques we are also following the good advice of top event and dressage rider Ingrid Klimke on training the young horse. Ingrid talks about crossing the reins over and holding so the horse is less likely to receive a sudden tug on the bit. In this exercise, to improve confidence at canter, Charlie was likely to be pulling at times or at risk of receiving a tug to his mouth. Our job was to set things up as much as we could for success.

It is also good to have a space large enough so the horse can set off in canter confidently and continue long enough to find their balance and feel the rider on board.

With this in mind we went through a process of negotiation to ride in one of the farm fields. In the arena, Charlie was having to concentrate on turning rather than cantering and balancing himself.

We set up the field with a virtual fence. Only posts with nothing in between, to provide support during the canter.

This exercise worked very well and Charlie had two sessions over two days building his confidence. He found out what it felt like to have a rider on his back at canter. 

Charlie Horse: four months on

Charlie has been busy over the past four weeks, settling into his new home. The place we were at quickly became unsuitable for his needs. We had use of an outdoor arena but this was small and Charlie, being large and young found it hard to do certain thing like canter, because he was always running out of space and having to turn. Anyone with a young horse will know they need a lot of space to turn until they develop and get better coordinated and balanced.

So we found a place with not one, not two, but three arenas. Two large outdoor ones and one large indoor one. Perfect for Charlie.

Now he can get on with training even in poor weather. 

Charlie has been developing his confidence out hacking and was starting to become more confident on busy roads. That was a double edged  sword because the roads where he lived really were congested and dangerous, being close to shops and an airport. Now Charlie can go for literally miles without bother of traffic.

On our first walk around the fields we laughed at this notice. At our previous yard the horses were often being worried by loose dogs in the fields. It bothered some horse owners more than others possibly depending on personal affinity or otherwise with dogs. Now we have an area where you can ride without fear a dog will appear from nowhere.

And so, although I really liked our previous yard and we had been there for quite a number of years, this was a good move for Charlie horse and had to be done, to give him the best start.