Sunday, May 26, 2013

Horses and Riders - Prevention of Heat Injuries

For humans and horses alike, heat injuries occur when your body temperature rises to dangerous levels, usually during periods of exposure to high temperatures and direct sunlight, aggravated by physical exertion and dehydration - not drinking enough water. The body cools itself by sweating but sometimes sweating is not enough, particulary when the aridity index is a high or at the other end of the spectrum, the humidity level is too high.

Another aggravation of human heat injuries are alcohol consumption, certain medications, heart disease, diabetes, and poor physical condition.

Heat Cramps is usually the beginning indication of a heat injury. Cramping or spasms in muscles, possibly a heat rash, dry mouth and sometimes, oddly enough, a lack of thirst. It is important at this stage to consume some fluids and monitor this person.

Heat Exhaustion is evident in humans by some or all of these symptoms: Weakness and muscle fatigue; profuse sweating; light headedness and/or dizziness; fast-weak pulse; and could include nausea and vomiting. One common way to check for heat exhaustion in a person to have them sit down for a couple minutes then have them stand up. If they are close to becoming a heat causalty their pulse will go up more than 10 beats a minute and they will feel light headed or dizzy upon rising from the seated position.

If you or someone you are riding with have these symptoms then getting out of the Sun and get some fluids, preferably water but gatoraid type drinks are okay - stay away from sodas and especially alcohol. Washing the exposed portions of the skin with a water soaked rag or sponge will help the evaporative cooling process.

Heat Stroke or what we used to call Sunstroke, begins when the body's temperature reaches above 103 degrees. Sweating make be profuse or stop completely. The skin will be hot and the person should have a severe headache and appear confused, and even lapse into unconsciousness. At this point the person's life is very much at risk. This person needs medical treatment now.

Until medical response can arrive, get this person out of the Sun, remove some of the clothing and wetting exposed skin. You can fan air over the person too to help with the cooling process. You probably won't have ice, but ice packs applied to areas of the body were blood vessels are close to the skin would be a good idea. Many medical authorities warn against giving the heat stroke victim water. If that person was conscious, I would feel okay about giving them small amounts of water, but this person really needs is intervenous fluids.

Think about this, have supper in the evening, hit the rack later on, get up with or before the Sun, feed the horses, drink a cup or two or coffee, then saddle up and ride. If this is you then you may have just gone 10 hours or more without any fluids besides coffee which is a are already dehyrdated.    

Not drinking water before riding because you don't want to get off your horse to pee is a bad reason to become a heat casualty. Not taking water with you on your trail rides is something a rider needs to reconsider. You can either carry a canteen on your saddle or you can carry a water bladder or hydration pack on your back. When I was riding by myself in remote country I always carried a two quart canteen on my saddle and often I wore a 100 ounce Camel-Bak Hydration Pack just in case I was thrown and broke a leg as it could have been a day or two before anyone found me and I don't crawl very well. 100 ounces of water weighs slightly more than 4 lbs and is relatively un-noticed on your back.  Never got in my way while riding.

Camel-Bak makes smaller bladder/hydration packs as well as belt worn hydration packs. They are available in many colors including yellow and red which would be useful if you were trying to attract a search and rescue unit. Some are available with small or large cargo pockets for storing additional items like a first aid kit, other survival gear, or even lickies and chewies (snacks). Camel Bak's motto is "Hydrate or Die", you can visit them here.

Heat Injuries in Horses I suspect many horses are exercised or ridden when they are not fully hydrated as some riders will feed their horses then pull them, tack up and ride without the horse drinking.

Try this little experiment sometime soon: Rake or smooth over the dirt around your stock tank or water bucket so you can tell if a horse has went to the water. Throw your hay and monitor how long it takes your horse(s) to eat, how long they spend picking up the last pieces of hay spread around, and how long it takes them to get a drink. You may be surprised.......surprised at how long it takes them to drink after starting to eat, and if you can, monitor how much they drink. A couple of my horses will begin to drink about an hour and a half after eating and then each drinks a good three to four gallons of water. And I also have a horse who only drinks a gallon to a gallon and a half at any given time. So they are different and it's a good idea to know each one.

When dehydrated, horses will appear lethargic, have a dullness in the eyes, and may have a dry mouth even though you have your favorite sweat iron bit in their mouth.  They may not have peed or when they do the color is dark and may appear thick. The horse's skin will lose elasticity when dehydrated - you can check by pinching a fold of loose skin along the horse's neck or back then releasing it. A hydrated horse's skin will move smoothly back into place whereas a dehydrated horse's skin will stay tented for a bit.   The picture at left shows pinching the loose skin on the neck.  I will release and the skin should lay flat if the horse is hydrated. 

The picture below right shows the horse's upper gum line.  Using your finger or thumb, pressing into the gum for a second or two will push all the blood away from that spot, once you release the blood should flow back in a second or two.  If it takes more than that then it's a good chance the horse is dehyrdated.

Do the same for a horse as you would for a person you suspect of having a heat injury - get off their back, get them out of the Sun, a water bath can help evaporate cool thier skin and minimize the water the body is sending to their skin, and let them drink water.

Prevention is the key: Access to clean drinking water 24/7, providing a salt block for your horses, considering the horse's eating and drinking schedule - just feed them earlier enough so they can get a drink and be cognizant of the signs of heat injuries will help you have a safe ride for you and your horse.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Horses for Mounted Search and Rescue

I have received e-mails from mounted search and rescue organizations in four different states. Usually they are casting about for different opinions on what horsemanship skills are necessary to safely and successfully conduct search and rescue on horseback.

Most of these organizations are volunteer in nature sometimes affiliated with a County Sheriffs Office or associated with multiple Counties in rural areas where combining resources and skills are necessary. My hat is off to these people who volunteer to spend their own time and sometimes risk their own safety to search for and rescue those lost or injured. When I was involved in search and rescue missions as an Army Range Rider it was part of my job, so unlike these volunteer units I got paid to do it.  

I think the bottom line in mounted search and rescue (SAR) organizations are that the people and horses participating have to be competent enough out in the wilderness to minimize the risks of becoming an object of a rescue themselves.  This means pretty calm horses and fairly experienced riders. Horses who have problems with other horses being close to them, such as kicking, should probably not be part of a horseback SAR unit.

SAR horses should be accepting of new and various stimulus and this is usually accomplished through desensitizing exercises. You may not like the term "desensitizing", so just think of it as exposing the horse to new situations and stimulus where the horse learns to think before panicking. However, this takes a rider who is patient and does not push the horse before he is ready. The key point here is to get the horse to accepting.

The issue with the desensitizing on various objects is that the horse can become really good as recognizing and dismissing various stimulus (objects) at one place, but take him down the road and the same obstacles are different to him. Again, the whole idea in my way of thinking, is that the desensitizing is really getting your horse soft and accepting, and learning to think his way through problems.

I think it would be important to have routine or periodic training events, where the obstacles and rider/horse tasks are different. Some things that would be important to me are:

~ The horse leads up correctly; stops when asked and does not move forward unless cued.

~ The horse stands while mounting and does not move off unless cued.

~ The horse can back when asked, move his front end over and rear end over independent of each other, and both ways when asked.

~ Be able to turn in tight box- this is for dead end trails where you have little room to manuever.

~ The horse should be able to be ridden one handed, and while a reining prospect the horse need not be, being capable to be neck reined or ridden one handed is important, as the rider may have to use a radio or a flashlight, move low laying branches out of the way or do any other tasks with the other hand.

~ The horse should be okay with the rider putting on and taking off a coat or rain slicker. You should be able to spin a slicker around like you would a lariat as yellow slickers are also useful to get an over flying helicopter's attention.

~ Each horse should be broke to be ponied or to pony another horse in case you have to lead a horse out of the wilderness. Imagine one of your SAR team members hurt and having to be being MEDEVAC'ed - somebody will have to lead that horse out.

~ All the horses needs to load and transport in a trailer easily and calmly.   Train on using different trailers.   

~ Think of obstacles that the horses may encounter on a SAR mission: riding into a camp site with a smokey fire, seeing different colored sleeping bags laid out, maybe a tent with someone coming out of the tent as the horse approaches, riding through brush, mud, and water obstacles.

As you do obstacle training consider doing each obstacle as a group to ensure each horse and rider are going to be safe about it then work you way towards one horse and rider completing the obstacles with the rest of the group a significant distance away. For most horses, doing these by themselves, with their buddies not there with them, will be a whole different thing.

One time as an Army Range Rider I was riding in the rare instance where we rode as a team, this time there were three of us. A government agency was training Afghani pilots in large old Soviet Helicopters with flight routes in the remote areas we patrolled. The helicopter (an Mi-17 HIP - think school bus with rotors) spotted us and decided to fly and hover over the three of us. Two of our horses were initially spooked, spinning a circle before settling down,...completely understandable with a large, noisy object hovering 30 feet over our heads. However, the third horse bolted and ran through scrub creosote and uneven terrain. Everything worked out, no wrecks, except us getting on the radio and threatening to shoot down any more helicopters who did the same thing.

So if you could get a helicopter to fly over riders and their horses in a controlled manner that maybe be something to sack them out on especially if you face the possibility of MEDEVACing someone via helicopter. It would take several training passes, at decreasing altitudes, to get the horses understanding the helicopters are no threat.

Good luck and safe journey to all volunteer Mounted Search and Rescue Units.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Question on Horse's Head Position

Jaclyn wrote and asked me, "I am a pleasure rider and sometimes trail ride with a friend of mine who is taking lessons. Some of the time she has good tips to pass off to me but sometimes it makes riding not very fun. The latest thing she is trying to get me to do is to drop my horse's head and try to ride her with her head bowed but not long after I try to get my horse to drop her head she will stop become seemingly frustrated and toss her head. When I just ride her normally everything is fine. My favorite thing to do is to ride her in a big open field and just spend time with her, so how important is it to get my horse to drop her head or is this just for competitions?"

Hi Jaclyn, maybe your friend is just excited to share what she is learning. Your friend is seemingly explaining Collection, where the horse breaks at the poll placing the plane of their head, from forehead through the nose, perpindicular to the ground.  This does a couple things such as rounding the horse's back, helping to get the back end up and underneath the body, transferring weight from the front end, where the majority of the horse's body weight is, to the rear end for balance, quicker turns, stops and back ups. It shows an element of training, or softness on the horse's part that reflects the horse and rider's relationship.

It is most often attained by being in contact with the horse, through the reins and bit. From the pressure of being in contact, a horse will learn to drop it's nose fiding that release from that pressure.  So notice if your friend is riding with a taunt rein when she gets her horse to give his head and notice that she ain't always riding him like that cause it would wear him out, as it isn't a natrual headset or otherwise we wouldn't have to teach it, the horse would already be there.

Think of a boxer who keeps his chin tucked into his chest to protect against an uppercut punch. With his head tipped downwards he has to look out of the top of his eyes as opposed to the center of his eye. The boxer will get into this position as he gets close to his opponent because he has a purpose for that position - to protect his exposed chin, but he can't stay that way all the time, let alone hard enough for an entire 3 minute round as it is too fatiguing and un-natural. Go ahead and try this - stand straight up and look at something eye level. Then tuck your chin into your chest, your back should start to round, and continue looking at the object. See how long it takes for your neck and eyes to get tired. I think it's the same way for a horse. It is natural and more comfortable for them to have their head more forward and be looking through the center of their eyes.

So just like the boxer, the horse breaks at the poll and collects in order to establish a position, again a weight transfer from the front end to the back end, through rounding the back and making it easier to get the back end more underneath the body. This is particularly useful when backing the horse as it allows for the rear legs to be picked up more easily.  The picture above left is a horse standing with his natural head set on a loose rein.  The picture above at right shows a standing horse being asked to drop his head (notice the taunt rein) and collect for which I will reward him with a release of the pressure.  Eventually, the idea is to hold the contact at a point where the horse can bend at the poll, drop his nose to a position where he finds his own release.

The picture above left is a horse at the trot where he takes a natural head set that is comfortable to him.  The picture above right is the horse at the trot being asked to collect - he's not quite there yet but will be when his face is vertical and his poll is about the same level as his withers.  It will be hard to begin to train your horse to do this while he has forward momentum. Normally, the progression is to train your horse to break at the poll in ground training, then with you mounted while she is standing, eventually doing that while she is walking, then trotting and holding that position for longer and longer periods of time. Your mare tossing it's head is showing some frustration, most likely because she doesn't know what you are asking of her. As you are walking her and your friend trys to get you to get her collected through being in contact with her mouth through the reins ands bit, she is probably slowing or stopping because that is similiar to her for how you are getting her to stop.

I think you can ride all your life, not asking your horse to collect and you'll be fine, however getting your horse to be soft, to give and learn how to collect will help in so many other aspects of your riding.  I don't work a lot on collection except when asking my horses to back.  It makes it easier to back on an arc if they are collected and get their back end more underneath their body.  And it sure is pretty to watch a horse and rider screaming down an arena, head lowered and collected, and come to a stop with the back end sliding 20 feet.  Hope this helps you Jaclyn.  Safe Journey.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Lonnie's Horse Won't Back Anymore

Lonnie wrote me about her horse who is getting worse on backing up. As she tells it "Hello, I often read your site and decided to write about my horse Yankee. He is an 5 year old gelding who I bought 3 years ago but only really started riding him again late last year. He and I are both still rusty, but he is safe to ride. He re-learned quickly but within the last couple of months he is getting slow or stubborn on backing up. Not only is he slow to backup but now stops after a steo or two and throws his head up.ccCould this be a phase where I need to go to a different bit?"

Hey Lonnie, before you try some different leverage in your horse's mouth, I would start over teaching him to back on the ground then in the saddle. It may be that when you are asking him to back you are not providing enough release so your horse gets confused with what you are asking then just stops - the head tossing is a sign of frustration. It is pretty common actually, not providing a clear release, the late timing of the release or a inadvertant release where you acidentally teach the horse that the wring thing is the right thing.  

I would try to use as little pressure as I could and release upon his try. Be unmistakable on the release.  Then ask for alittle more. Give him time to think between asking.

Your timing on the release is key here. Once a front foot leaves the ground moving to the rear, release the pressure you have on his mouth through the bit. Same with your legs, if you are using them to help move his feet, release the pressure as he starts to move back.

Your release can be subtle and still provide your horse a understanding that he is doing the right thing. Again, this is common.....not providing a release and confusing the horse. Another mistake is the timing of the release as when we do not provide a release, then the horse just plain stops, then we release - we are actually teahes him that he id the right thing by stopping and not continuing to back.

Let me know how it's working out for you and Yankee. Safe Journey.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Question on Lunging a Horse

Haley wrote to say she has a 9 year old TB gelding, "Macho", previously owned by teenage girl who was given the horse from a racing stables. She wants to use the horse for pleasure riding and maybe start doing Western Showing with him. She is suspect that the girl sold Macho becaue he was too much horse for her. Haley say's that Macho is so hyped up he is hard to control. If she rides him 5 or 6 miles then he will normally be much calmer towards the end of the ride. Haley's friend suggested she lunge Macho before she rides him to "bleed off some energy" but Haley doesn't have a round pen for use, only an arena and a dressage field.

A round pen is a great tool because it has no corners and allows the horse to keep forward momentum and is generally safer than a pen with square corners.  Round pens are really necessary for free lunging horse also called lunging horses at liberty, meaning they are not constrained by a lead rope or lunge line.

I wasn't big on lunging horses on a line, but over the years I have came to recognize that lunging horses on a lead or lunge line is not only valid it is necessary to help them get soft, moving their feet, to face up and to move their hindquarters around.  I am not getting on horse if I can help it that can't be lunge on a line in circle and have some degree of softness.  I'd want to be able to move that horse around on a loose lead or lunge line, without him being bracy and be able to disengage his back end and have him face up at a minimum. 

Lunging your horse is not just to "bleed off excess energy", it also gives you a chance to do some ground work which is often the most neglected area of horse training. It gets the horse tuned to you before you ride him that day, as well as allows you to see any lameness problems.

So if you are using a lead or lunge line, you don't need a round pen. The arena or a flat section of ground will work.  In the photo above I am lunging a horse using the reins on a hackamore, not the best lunge line to use, but I am using it to warm him up and get an idea of where his mind is that morning.  I have seen people lunge their horses with the reins attached to a bit, which I highly suggest you don't do. 
Haley's friend's idea to lunge your horse before you ride him is a good idea. If don't have time to ride him on a particular day, lunging him for for whatever time you do have would be good for you both, providing that you end the ground training session on a good note.  I have 14 foot tie on lead ropes for my rope halters for this purpose.

I would also look at what you are feeding him as too much feed or the wrong types of feed can make him an "energetic horse".  But by far, probably the best thing you can do with him is to create alot of wet saddle blankets - riding him as often as you can and changing up the rides and routines. Ground work should be a part of it.