Happy...and Healthy

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They work hard, rarely complain, and for many barns, are the primary source of income. With so much riding on their well-being, school horses must be kept both physically and mentally fit.

Physical Concerns

With so many different riders, are school horses under an unusual amount of stress? No, says Frank Andrews DVM MS, DACVIM of the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine. A scientific paper on the “Prevalence of non-glandular gastric ulcers in horses involved in a university riding program,” published in 2006, looked at 70 horses used in the University of Connecticut’s lesson program. The study showed a surprisingly small number of gastric ulcers. Since stress is a major contributor to ulcers (as well as traveling, poor nutrition, and other factors), the study concluded that these stay-at-home lesson horses were actually under less stress, and less prone to ulcers, than show horses or racehorses.

Still, notes Dr. Andrews, there are several things you can do to keep your school horses in peak condition. Many school horses, he says, are kept in stalls much of the day and bolus fed (intermittent/twice a day). This is “very unnatural, and such horses have a greater prevalence of gastric ulcers. Ideally, horses should have hay all day. But with the alfalfa mix that many barns feed, horses eat it quickly and then have nothing to do. I’d suggest a mixture of alfalfa with a grass hay that will take them longer to eat.“Also, alfalfa is high in protein and energy. You don’t want horses who work with all levels of kids hyped up, so mixing with a lower energy grass hay helps.”

Pasture turnout is another key to keeping school horses fit. The school horses in the above-quoted study, Dr. Andrews notes, had a low incidence of ulcers in part because they were kept out on pasture when not in use. “A lot of pasture turnout,” he notes, “will keep school horses mentally happy and better able to perform.”

Ring Sour?

Unfortunately, it happens. Horses used in a repetitive way can get sour. What do you do? Several instructors suggest rotating horses through both beginner and advanced lessons. “With a steady diet of nothing but beginners, horses can get sour and develop some pretty rotten habits,” says Rachel Robinson of Huntermark Farm in Coal Valley, Ill. “The more advanced riders keep them tuned up.”

What if a horse does get ring sour? Robinson says, “I’d look at what kind of load they have; are they getting used a lot? Have the number of beginner riders seriously outweighed the number of advanced riders? Do they have a right to be sour? If I think they’re burned out I give them a little pasture time. Sometimes sour can just mean a horse has been allowed to be the boss and needs a bit of an attitude adjustment. We don’t use a horse if there seems to be some kind of physical problem.”

At Chrislar Farm in Rowley, Mass., all horses are reviewed on a regular basis for attitude problems. “We will rotate out horses that are not happy,” says owner Chris Cassenti. “If we see a horse who goes to the back of the stall when students arrive, gets anxious on the cross ties, or doesn’t want to be girthed up, then we remove it from the program.”

Mix It Up!

Many instructors find changing the format of lessons keeps horses stimulated. At Partridge Hill Stable in Barre, Vt., patterns are popular. “I have made up many patterns with cones to keep the riders and horses from being bored,” says Carol Fleck. “One lesson a month I allow students to go out on a road/trail lesson [beginner students are led with a lead rope]. “On those rides,” she explains, “we talk about road safety issues such as what side of the road to ride on and why, what ground is safe to trot on and why, how to go up/down hills at what gait and why, what to do if traffic comes, what is a safe distance between horses, and how traffic is supposed to move past horses and why.” [Editor’s note: you should check your insurance to see if it allows lessons off your property.]

At Camp Nashoba North in Raymond, Me., students learn many Pony Club style games, and horses are rotated through different rings. “It seems to keep horses happy and stimulated,” notes camp director Sarah Seaward. The camp has 24 to 26 horses, typically several more than are actually needed. This means that on the rare occasion when a horse seems sour, they can easily rotate that horse out of lessons for a few days.

With 200 active students and 12 to 15 lesson horses, Chrislar Farm knows about keeping horses mentally stimulated. They too, rotate horses through various rings, both indoors and out. In addition, “we play a lot of games,” says Cassenti, “and will hold play days with gymkhana games. It’s all timed, and creates a lot of excitement, even for beginners who participate at a walk. For other lessons, we might set-up obstacles that simulate a trail course. For group lessons, a drill team works well as it helps students learn how to speed up, slow down, and pace themselves, while keeping the horses fresh. For younger children, the instructor might play Simon Says or other popular games. In good weather, we might start a lesson inside and then go outside. You have to be creative.”

Other programs have different philosophies. “We don’t use ring games or any out of the norm exercises at Hollins,” reports Nancy Peterson, director of the Riding Program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. “Our goal is to have the serious rider learn and progress in her riding in a serious way. For the most part our horses get enough breaks that they stay fresh.”

What if one of their horses seems bored? “A horse will tell us when he is ready to stop doing his particular job,” says Peterson. “For instance, if he just seems to struggle at the 3-foot level, his job will automatically go down to the 2’6” level, not necessarily to a lesser class but just not jumped at that level.

“Some horses, because of soundness issues or other problems, just don’t want to jump any more. That’s a situation in which this horse will be used on the flat only, whether it is on the beginner level, for a lunge lesson, or for a flat practice. Our best beginner horses are the older former show horses. They know and appreciate their light job, know how to stay to the rail, are wonderfully broke, and just love their new job.”

Massage Therapy

Realizing how hard her eight school horses work, Fleck invested her time to become a certified massage therapist, and sees many benefits. “Equine massage therapy is done with a person’s fingers, thumbs, elbows, hands, or man-made massage tools,” says Fleck. “Using various massage techniques, soft tissue is worked on through therapeutic manipulation. Just a few of the many benefits of massage are increased range of motion and flexibility, prevention of injury and disease, improved circulation, and pain relief. They perform better after a session.”

Does she see a difference in her school horses? “Yes!” she exclaims. “They definitely give you signs they enjoy it. They’ll lean into you, drop their heads, relax, lick their lips, and chew. They will let you know where they don’t like it, too, which is usually a sore or sensitive area.” Costs to get certified vary greatly, with a four-day course running just over $600, to $3,400 for a four-week, three-credit, college course.

For many equine businesses, school horses are their largest source of income, and any problems with them will have a direct effect on revenue. The tips here will help you keep them physically and mentally fit for years to come.