Tackling Fear and Confidence Issues

We had a lovely note from a NickerNews & BestHorsePractices reader who struggles with confidence and fear issues:

She writes: Last November, you wrote about moving as being like riding and you raised the issue of fear and extending oneself.

I have a great, kind, sensitive horse and I would love to take him out on the trails and ride alone (as you often do with your horses). But I am not a good enough rider. I am not confident enough to help him through his scary moments.

His scary moments become mine. How do I gain the experience and confidence? I do attend clinics but I practice alone in an arena afterwards. We do well, but things fall apart when we head out alone on the trail.

Do you have suggestions for helping someone like me gain experience and confidence to head out alone?

smilThank you for the great email!

Here are some additional ideas:

Confidence and Riding, personal experiences and links. Click here.

Bolting and other thoughts from Buck Branaman

Joe Wolter writes about here.

Chrissi McDonald, who is married to Mark Rashid, writes often about post-trauma riding and getting back in the saddle. Click here.bolt-300x200

Amy Skinner considers the “bombproof” mentality here.

Mostly, dear Reader, remember that it’s a journey. Be patient, try to relax, and enjoy the progress (even baby steps) with your horse.

Good luck and happy trails!


Three things to know when trailering

I was hauling horses from Utah to Colorado earlier this month. Just south of Moab, Utah, with temperatures in the 90’s, two horses in the trailer, and three dogs in the truck cab, I got a flat.

After 30 sweaty minutes, I was back on the road, but the event prompted a series of “What Ifs” that, in turn, prompted a series of steps to be better prepared when it happens again.

Don't get stuck out here!

Don’t get stuck out here!

And it will happen again.

That’s the right attitude to assume so that you can be ready and unflustered when it happens.

We have a great check list written by longtime trailer pro, Bobby Fantarella, of Elm City Trailers. Check out the tip list here.

And you can read some cross country travel thoughts and concerns from myself and Mara Miles.

Three additional thoughts to consider:

The Spare:

Most trailers don’t come with spares. Believe me, you do not want to be caught spareless. Spend the extra dough and make sure it’s good to go on every trip.

The Jack:

You do not want to try to jack up your trailer (with or without horses aboard) with a car jack. It likely won’t even work. Carry a drive-on jack like a Trailer Aid, made by Camco.

Swapping tires:

A long, sturdy pipe to help with lug nuts has been added to the essential cargo.

A long, sturdy pipe to help with lug nuts has been added to the essential cargo.

If you’re like me, you might not be able to get machine-tightened lug nuts off the flat. In this recent case, I could only get four of them off. I had to rely on a Good Samaritan with a powerful drill (and the right size bit) . Thank goodness he stopped.

Since then, I carry a simple and cheap solution (instead of buying a power drill and then having to make sure it’s properly charged every time I haul.) A five-foot length of thick pipe. It fits snuggly over the tire iron and increases its leverage. Lug nuts, even those that have been machine-tightened and on the trailer for ages, now come off easily.

Safe travels and happy trails.

The Clinton Anderson Kerfuffle

There’s a big hullaballoo over some recent Clinton Anderson comments on a promotional training video. In social media comments and in several online blogs, both his horsemanship and his recorded comments are called to task. We agree with some commenters’ issues, like the concerns over hyperflexion and with asking such a young horse to train at this level. Research shows both elements are bad for the horse and have lasting negative effects. But we agree with Anderson when he cautions that nagging a horse with tiny reprimands buildsScreen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.45.50 AM resentment. Scroll down for links.

You can say one thing about Anderson: he sure is sure.

Meryl Streep had something to say about being sure. She commented on a character she portrayed in The Manchurian Candidate:

“I loved being someone so certain. Because certainty is just so attractive. It’s a completely bogus position because for me, I’m listening to every side. But it’s so nice not to have to listen to all the different sides…It’s a fabulous thing. Unfortunately, it leads to fanaticism.”

Say it ain’t so, Meryl. Confidence is sexy. Fans gravitate to confident “experts.” But again, research shows us that certainty and arrogance don’t allow for the necessary flow of new information. Leaders got lost in their own dogmatism. Read more about that here.

Sadly, you will find plenty of fanaticism in the horse world. And, despite Anderson’s off-the-hip comments and weaknesses, plenty of his fans go to great lengths to defend him. At BestHorsePractices, we try to be fair, but sometimes there are simply not two equal Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.44.30 AMand logical sides of an argument. In this case, a confident leader falls short.

On a more general note, we value scrutiny and open-mindedness. We ask first and always: Is it good for the horse? When reviewing expert horsemen, we value what some call an “ideology of doubt.” Is there another way? Can we assess the horse’s well-being in a given situation?

Or, as Rene Descartes said some 400 years ago, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.”

Read this commentary of Clinton Anderson.

Read another blog on Anderson, Rollkur, and hyperflexion.

Read Anderson’s goofy take on horse brains (once there, scroll down).


Straight Dope on Dopamine

Working with neuropsychologist Steve Peters and reporting on Evidence-Based Horsemanship, his collaboration with Martin Black, I’ve become more familiar with how brain chemicals represent themselves physically and behaviorally. These chemicals are present in horse brains, human brains, and are often referred to as neurotransmitters.



The expression of the neurochemical, dopamine, is one of the more commonly observed ones in our horse work. When this relevant neurology gets discussed articulately and in layman’s terms, it’s cause for sharing and celebration!

A recent RadioLab segment discussed the neurology of addiction with award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer.

Zimmer: Anytime you do something that makes you feel good, your brain spurts out dopamine. For years, scientists thought of dopamine as the neurotransmitter of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Of pleasure.

RadioLab host: But you said it had to do with movement.

Zimmer: What is the ultimate purpose of movement in terms of evolution? Movement’s purpose was to get you to food, to get you to sex, to get you to a reward. That’s why the same circuits, the same chemical that controls motivation, that controls what you want, also controls movement.

In an experiment, researchers initially noted that a monkey got the dopamine release when he took a sip of juice. But after a while, the dopamine release occurred when they entered room. Then the dopamine release happened when researchers walked down the hall toward the room.

Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black

Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black

What the monkey’s brain is trying to do is piece together the sequence of events that lead to juice.

That’s what these cells do, they try to predict rewards. This isn’t about movement or feeling good, it’s about finding the pattern that makes you feel good. It’s pattern finding. It’s how brains make sense of reality. It parses reality in terms of rewards. This is how you get food in the wild. How you survive might be how you can see the reward before anyone else can.

What does this have to do with horse training?

We want to optimize how our horses learn. This means recognizing the release of dopamine and being sensitive enough to predict its release. Black and Peters call this the cultivation of a “Special Forces Horse.”

You can see the anticipation of reward (and thus a dopamine release) in a non-training situation every day:

fnkyhorseheadWatch your horses’ behavior before you toss hay. Do they start licking their lips and move about when you grab the wheelbarrow or open the barn door? Does it take a while for a new horse to recognize the pattern?

Horses learn patterns that precede what will ultimately make them feel good. It’s our job to introduce patterns which will be rewarded with subtlety and benefit both horse and rider.

Happy horse work!

Read more about Optimal Learning.

Read more about the Cons of Comfort.

Read about the Wobble Board of Learning.

Forage Fine Points

We asked Dr. Joyce Harman to contribute this guest blog post on forage.

In 1990, the Virginia veterinarian opened Harmany Equine, bringing holistic healing to a wide range horses, from backyard retirees to Olympic competitors.

Me-at-work-1retIn 2001, Harman wrote the first peer-reviewed paper on equine insulin resistance. In 2004, she published the first comprehensive book on English saddle fitting since the 1800’s. The Western version followed in 2006.

Tune in July 9 at 8 p.m. EST for a forage webinar with Dr. Joyce Harman. Click here to register.

You can win a free Harmany Equine muzzle by messaging us on Facebook. Check out our BestHorsePractices and NickerNews facebook pages for details!

Harman writes:

The average horse should eat one to two percent of his body weight each day in forage. But not all forage is created equally. Though horses are designed to graze 20 hours per day, they have not evolved to gorge themselves on the sugar-rich grasses we have today. Even some hay is too high in sugar and/or protein to feed free-choice. Add in concentrated grain, and we’re just begging for health problems with our horses, although forage feed can be an option.

Here’s what you can do to ensure that forage is the cornerstone of your horse’s diet while limiting excess sugars:

  1. Regulate Sugar Intake from Grass: Most of the grass we have today has been modified and cultivated to feed and fatten up cattle. Though the high sugar content does exactly what the industry requires, it can be dangerous for horses. To keep your horse safe on grass:
  • Graze when sugar is lowest in the morning, on cloudy, rainy days or overnight when fructans (sugars) are lowest.
  • Keep in mind that the sun increases the sugar in grass, so sugar is highest in the late afternoon on a sunny day.
  • Contrary to what we might think, drought or over-grazing increases the amount of sugar in grass.
  • Though sugar content is more dependent on environmental factors than grass species, native grasses are typically lower in sugar.
  1. Be Hay-Smart: Sugar content may be lower in hay than grass, but the amount can still vary greatly depending on the horses-horses-grazing-grass-animals-field-nature-animales-paintography-background-pictures-736x362type of hay, how it was fertilized, and even what time of day it was cut.
  • Get your hay tested. Read more here.
  • Not all hay should be served free-choice. Even some rich grass hays should be fed in several feedings throughout the day.
  • Slow-feeders for round bales or hay flakes are a great way to keep your horse “grazing” without eating too much.
  1. Grab a Muzzle: Muzzles allow a horse to exercise and socialize (essential equine behaviors) without over-grazing.

The Harmany Muzzle is totally customizable, from molding it to a horse’s head shape to determining how much, or how little, grass is available to each horse. It is made of a medical grade plastic with Kevlar fibers, making it lighter and more durable than other muzzles. Click here to learn more.

Muzzle1-JoyceHarman-AConcentrates, or grain, are only needed to make up the difference in calories between forage and what the horse needs to maintain weight. Horse owners should consider the horse’s metabolic rate (thoroughbreds have a higher metabolic rate, and therefore need more calories) and workload before adding grain to a horse’s diet.

Want to learn more? Register for the free “Forage Facts” webinar tonight! In this webinar, participants will learn more about the ins-and-outs of forage, and how to safely fuel their horses year round. Click here to register.

9 Benefits of Slow-Feeding

We invited Monique Warren, the owner of Hay Pillow, to guest blog about slow-feeding savvy. Studying equine nutrition and the equine hoof health are her passions. She writes from her home in southern California.

You can win a free standard-sized Hay Pillow by messaging us on Facebook. Check out our BestHorsePractices and NickerNews facebook pages for details!

IMG_1949 FBHere, Warren highlights the advantages of using a slow-feeder like Hay Pillow.

1. Decreased secretion of cortisol

Horses are not physiologically designed to eat meals. They benefit most from nearly constant grazing. Feeding meals has been shown to increase cortisol, the hormone associated with stress. If cortisol is elevated, insulin rises, which leads to fat storage. This can cause or worsen obesity, which is why some horses seem to be able to “live on air.” Even overweight horses should receive a minimum of 1.5% to 2% of their body weight per day in grass hay that is low in non-structural carbohydrates. If appropriate forage is available at all times, they can typically eat more and maintain or even lose weight.

2. Reduced risk of ulcers

The equine stomach produces acid 24 hours a day in preparation for constant uptake and it can empty in as little as 15-20 minutes. Chewing activates saliva (an alkaline substance) production, which buffers gastric acid. Under natural conditions with free-choice forage, the horse will produce about five gallons of saliva every day and eventually “recycle” much of the water content via re-absorption prior to excretion.

Fiber present in the stomach prevents the “splashing” of acids. The lower part of the stomach, in addition to producing the acid, receives protection by also producing mucus. The upper, or non-glandular section has no protection and thus is more standard-hay-pillow-slow-feeder-bagsusceptible to damage by acids. Having fiber in the stomach is especially important during any physical activity.

If your horse consumes hay too quickly, the chewed particle size will not be reduced sufficiently or have a high enough saliva-to-forage ratio. Large amounts of dry matter lacking sufficient saliva can contribute to impaction colic.

3. Increased digestion

Optimal digestion and fermentation require time and movement. Mobility stimulates gut motility. Providing forage free-choice in multiple locations will encourage both. This will promote consistent fermentation, effectively keeping the hindgut both weighted (to discourage twisting) and motile, thereby preventing conditions that can contribute to colic.

The primary site for fiber digestion is in the hindgut. There, the healthy balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria can easily be disrupted by periods of time without hay or grass intake (fiber). Maintaining a consistent population of beneficial bacteria is essential to ensuring healthy gut function.

4. Minimized or alleviated boredom

Equines allowed to continuously slow feed benefit psychologically. Slow-feeding horses are less likely to develop vices. Horses sleep only 3 to 4 hours in a 24-hour period and usually no longer than 20 minutes at one time; food tends to be their main focus.

5. Natural wear of teeth

Increased chew time wears teeth more naturally when eating at ground level. A natural grazing position allows the mandible HayPillow-4-3-520x245(jaw bone) move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction; facilitating optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.

6. Little to no wasted hay and (again) less stress

As prey animals, horses naturally prefer to eat outside in the open and they can be stressed when stalled. When eating from ground level in an unobstructed area, their peripheral vision is not impaired and they may feel more secure and safe. In these conditions, slow feeders are ideal.

7. Weight management

If your horse is overweight, slow feeding will help to regulate insulin spikes, metabolism, and secretion of cortisol. For underweight equines, it can help increase digestion and assimilation of calories and nutrients.

8. Decreased food aggression

Slow feeding with multiple locations enables your entire herd to eat and live together full-time. Equines are herd animals; they benefit physically and psychologically from direct physical interaction. Dominant members will keep the others moving as they claim various locations. The less dominant individuals will have alternate sources to eat from; this encourages movement and can decrease cortisol levels associated with stress from being physically separated from herd members.

9. Less stress in your life

Equine meals may be stressful to you, too. Horse owners may experience an enormous weight lifted off their shoulders when they are not concerned about feeding times.

Always consider nutrition when dealing with any health or mental issue. Feeding a balanced diet (low in non-structural carbohydrates for overweight individuals) including free-choice forage is healthiest for your herd. Equines were not designed to thrive on a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet comprised of meals. By providing free-choice forage, you will have a healthier, more content herd.

Some additional resources:

Colic, Ulcers, and Equine Digestion

Free-choice Forage Feeding by Dr. Juliet Getty

More discussion with Dr. Juliet Getty

Dr. Kerry Ridgway on Ulcers

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