Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse

Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse


Until fairly recently, I used to leave it until later in a training session to introduce new concepts, or progress further with established ones. On reflection I’m not totally sure why, but I think it is the outcome of training systems both within equestrianism and in general education that emphasise the accumulation and revision of prior learning as a precursor to adding new. In practice this meant that the first twenty to thirty minutes of a training session went from ground warm up – ridden warm up – run through what we did last time – run through something I ‘would like to work on or I think I should be working on’ and that we both have some grasp of from prior lessons or practice. It was often at this point that my horse started to offer something which would illuminate a possible next step or feel, which I would typically get into and take up to another half hour to explore. During the session I would add many wee breaks, scratches, rubs, praise and food rewards as positive reinforcement for the horse, but long sessions like this could get pretty intense for both of us, and it wasn’t always easy to finish the session with us both displaying a positive, sunny demeanour. In fact it would probably be 50:50 we even liked each other.

This way of doing things led to me as the human needing to look for little ‘get out of jail free’ justifications – learning is change – change is not always comfortable etc, and for my lovely horse to a level of background tension that was a barrier to his learning.

There wasn’t a specific event or ‘thing’ that made me change, I just wasn’t happy with the status quo and I wanted to find a different way of doing things and establish a level of agreement with my horse. Over a few years I studied and experimented, and now I have seven useful concepts that help me make training or even just handling and being around my horses generally work better:

1) Useful concept 1: Reward a great attitude. When I stopped thinking of training sessions with my horses as work, and started to think about them as exploration, my focus started to shift more towards prioritising the mindset of the horse, both in my own practice and in coaching. How could I set up learning experiences that established and protected their balance, calmness, engagement and motivation? What did I need to BE like when I was with them? How should I aim to present myself? This meant all the time I was with them, even during the majority of routine daily handling. Horses of course only like it when your inside matches your outside, so it isn’t acting or ‘faking it to make it’. If you were being asked to do activities yourself that you had little knowledge of, some extreme sports for instance, what kind of personal characteristics in your guide would give you confidence? Being reliable, relaxed but attentive, expansive and encouraging can all be conveyed by our bodies and speech (plus random noises) in a way that horses can intimately ‘get’.

2) Useful concept 2: Observe – Acknowledge – Blend – Influence. I have several clients (you know who you are lovelies), who try so hard to get ‘it’ right that it causes them to mentally or physically lock up in various different ways. To help them I set up a simple framework based on a big shape with several long-ish sides, you could use the sides of an arena or even between objects out hacking or on the trail, or you could set a timer for a minute for each task. If this sounds like it might help you, give it a try, you can use it for ground work or ridden, but for now I’ll describe it as if you are riding.

On the first side just ride and observe what is happening in your body and as far as you can feel in your horse’s body. On the second side and only the second side, think and make a small number of deliberate changes, just two or three at the most, one if you really want to get into deep practice. On the third side ride ‘mindfully’ ie without thinking or changing anything else, then back to side one to observe and evaluate whether the changes you made have had any influence on the horse or on you.

3) Useful concept 3: The Tunnel Concept. I borrowed this idea from Kelly Starrett, who may have also borrowed it as I’m sure it’s not new to humans. It comes down to starting a movement in the best position possible. For instance when you move from halt to walk either ridden or on the ground, what is your body position before you start, and how much influence do you have of the horse’s first step? How many steps does it take you to adjust your posture to gain influence? For years I was a third step kind of person, I sort of might have had influence by then but I’d left the first two steps for the horse to sort out. All sorts of things could have gone on by then! I try to apply this to every new movement – it’s not very respectful of the horse’s fragile mindset to start in a ‘sort of ready’ place yourself, and they respond really well when you give them a clear idea of what you will be doing right from the start. Plan and be ready.

4) Useful concept 4: How much is enough? I aim to ride any movement no more than three or four times in series nowadays, if we don’t understand each other by then and the communication is smoother it’s my responsibility to go back to the drawing board and work out how to break it down so I can present it more clearly. I found an old DVD of a natural horsemanship assessment I was doing back in the day. I repeated one liberty task no less than sixteen times and it was still mediocre, the horse was in a bad posture and we were obviously stuck in a loop. I loved my practice log then – notched up thousands of hours doing things not very well.

5) Useful concept 5: Get the new stuff in early! Once I’ve warmed myself and my horse up these days, I want to introduce new ideas to him as quickly as I can. I always start with something that is an obvious next step from a well established movement. His mind is fresher, he offers to demonstrate movements, he takes on my ideas responsively and thoughtfully. The other day, he had to stop to clear his throat just after I had asked for a canter depart. I gave him a long rein in walk and a neck stroke while he had a cough, and about 30 seconds later he was better. He then picked himself up and gave me the canter depart without being asked again! He was in the middle of doing it and I am so glad I didn’t ask him a second time or I would probably have disturbed him. This concept also helps you – if you’re anxious about doing something get it in early before you build it up in your mind.

6) Useful concept 6: Get connected. Riding with an emphasis on blending and influence happens that bit more rapidly when my seat feels really connected with my horse. Not having a consistent connection reliably before has lead to the design of our in development product Sculptaseat, which puts me in a better place to blend with the horse’s body and easily comunicate. Many women riders are subtly disconnected from their saddles to protect themselves from intimate pain, or as a result of a little initial anxiety about riding. Give yourself time during warm up to feel whether your seat is in your metaphorical ‘basement’ or on the first floor. If disconnecting yourself is a persistent problem, get expert help from someone who is a specialist in seat training.

7) Useful concept 7: Revisit old haunts and have fun during and not just at the end of the session. Once I’ve warmed up and done some challenging new thing, I’ll sometimes quickly go back and see how it fits into the constellation of things the horse already knows, and explore what the new learning has done to everything else. Does it throw something else into a new light? Does new mobility or awareness make some other connections possible? What do I find in myself that I can see is helpful or not? Going over old ground now helps the horse find confidence in the session, and they often come out next time really motivated to do those new movements again, often straight away! This can be a very playful part of the practice, short bursts of activity, lots of changes, lots of praise and reinforcement for taking up the fun in everything. Getting the timing right and stopping to reward when the horse gives a tiny bit more than last time really helps!

Ready to be a lion tamer?

Ready to be a lion tamer?

It’s a whole New Year, and you might be anticipating longer daylight and spending time with your horse. You might have loads of exciting plans for things you want to do or try through the year ahead, or you might be cautious about making plans because things haven’t gone according TO plan when you have done it before!

The big deal is knowing in your heart of hearts what makes you tick about horses, and digging out and squashing those thoughts and beliefs that are of the ‘it’s not quite me but I think I should…’ variety. Some of my lovely coaching clients seriously devalue their right to enjoy time spent with their horses or even take up space because of their beliefs about ‘not being good enough’, or ‘just being a happy hacker’. If you have experienced this and it has put you off having a go at a new activity it’s important to know that when you think about new and maybe scary new things your brain is very likely to come up with all sorts of thoughts and feelings that can stop you! It’s frustrating but quite normal and if you think about it, a sensible thing, after all your brain has to guide you through a long and hopefully not-too-damaging life so it wants to put you off the danger-of-death stuff. “Hmm… I think I’d like to have a go at lion taming?… HELL no!” But the good news is you can learn to be ready for them and ‘pow!’ them into the far reaches of the universe.

Have a little go at this exercise: think of an activity you would like to do with your horse that you haven’t done yet or find potentially scary. Make it the full colour HD version of you experiencing whatever you have chosen. It doesn’t have to be galloping cross country, it could be loading your horse or climbing up the mounting block preparing to mount, those fears are just as valid for more people than would care to admit it. Make it something realistically within your reach that you would like to do but find challenging.  Just thinking about doing that will change how your body feels – what physical changes can you feel in your body? Has anything happened to your breathing, heart rate, posture or muscle tension? What has changed? I would bet it has and that you aren’t even near a horse, you might even be on a SOFA! If that happens when we’re even considering doing something new away from our horse, how much are we likely to change when we’re close to them and facing the challenge? Now, and this is important, how long does it take for you to calm down and feel normal again after bringing up this thought? If you have a heartrate tracker on you can actually see this happening.  Even if you feel normal your heart rate may take longer to come down than you think as you’ve given yourself a nice wee shot of adrenalin without even DOING anything!  Next, bring your original thought back up again, but slow it down and just think about doing the very first movement in the activity, then pause your film strip. Be ready for your body to change and keep your breathing steady, this is just a thought, it will pass. How long did it take this time for your body to respond back to normal? Recognise that this is an important safety system that keeps you from jumping off cliffs or running into traffic – it prepares us to avoid danger and that is pretty useful don’t you think?

As a horse rider you will undoubtedly need this safety system at some point, but you need to learn how it works and how to use it sensibly. In this post I would like to introduce you to the concept of the Readiness Ruler. It’s something really handy you can do on the spot that will help you manage your fear response and make the most appropriate progress for you towards your goals. Let’s give it a shot: bring up the full length colour HD scary thought again. Ask yourself this question: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten – where one is not confident at all and ten is super ninja confident – that you are ready to make that change? Now bring the thought back to the first step in  slo-mo: how confident are you on a scale of one to ten that you are ready to make THAT change? Hopefully the second number is a higher figure than the first, but if it isn’t maybe reassess whether the original thought is a realistic goal for you.

Regardless of where they get to, most people as children start from a similar place when it comes to learning. We are very likely to build up quite an extensive baggage collection by the time we reach middle age, plus there are a whole bunch of physical changes that can potentially impact on our confidence. Our safety warning system has to be hair trigger but it can directly impact on our decisiveness and commitment to change. If you have identified a challenging new set of goals in your horse life in 2019, have you included getting yourself ready to take them on? I know my brain at least loves to dangle nice shiny new thoughts in front of me for me to daydream about how wonderful it would be if I did x, y or z, but I know how uncomfortable it is not being able to immediately put them into practise properly, it can really make you feel like a failure! The way I tackle it (which my coaching clients have sometimes found surprising) is by breaking the changes down into very small pieces, training and exploring them thoroughly in short focussed positive sessions, moving the horse and person gently into new territory and reinforcing prior learning with each session. My goal is to make sure that everyone involved has practised the groundwork and ridden skills they need to confidently influence the horse under a range of conditions so they can both stay as safe as possible and keep enjoying their time together, which will keep the change happening! This means in real life that after the first few big ‘wowserooni!’ mega watt lightbulb learning experiences, we need to expect our practise to simply lead to the next step, to the next step, to the next step, a calm, positive and exploratory progression. If it doesn’t, then we can spot something is up and we can go back a few steps or look for some expert input.

At least that’s my aim…;-), sometimes people take fifteen steps at once on their own accord or decide to skip three and wing it from there! I was once doing foundation work on a young horse for one of my clients. We had started lightly riding about in a halter, had done some work on picking up a bit, and we were happily building towards introducing a bridle with reins along with the halter to make a logical training progression, or another ‘layer’ of the ponies education experience. I went away for the weekend and when I visited again the owner, who loved him, had decided as he was being so ‘good’ that she wanted to ride the pony by herself. He was happy enough about that having being steadily habituated to me getting on from different sides and obstacles, which had involved lots of rewards which made him happy, and waited calmly before she moved off, but her mental image of how to go about it included the pony in a bitted bridle… which was critical to her feeling ‘safe’, but which he had no clue about and ‘strangely’ didn’t comprehend… Happily nobody was hurt or upset and he just walked around the barrels in the arena doing the patterns he had learned with me of his own accord, but imagine if the first ride included a hack! Learning theory tells us steps have to be small, positive and logical for the horse, so we have to recognise when we are leaving the trail ourselves.

You can use the Readiness Ruler to check out if you are about to launch into uncharted territory too. If even thinking about boxing up and heading out for a group hack with strange horses in a new place sends your pulse skyrocketing, it’s ok to take a rain check and stay prepping at home until you are confident. It’s not braver to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ when it comes to horses, as being an equestrian is like no other activity you can choose – the horse will also feel your feelings and in response will add their own! If you want to get to that lovely place with your horse where you can take them out and about and get involved in a wonderful and positive horsey social life, then make your first 2019 goal to get ready to get the prep done really, really, REALLY well, you will definitely be a winner with your horse.

The view from the mat

The view from the mat

This morning I get a text from my mother saying she is watching four sea eagles doing their enormous rapterous sea eagly thang outside her house, and this is my view of the one and only lovely Katy, physio dog, being super helpful and helping me with my rehab.

Spending plenty of time on the floor at the moment, but I’m particularly glad I’m not living in 1925.  Apart from the non-existence of comfortable insulating floor mats for doing exercises on, and I’m not sure whether labradors like Katy were even invented then (but I think there were other types of labradors that probably had a lot of her wonderful characteristics, but were maybe a bit posher and had fewer dodgy elbows), there is a reason for this which relates to something I think is called Intrinsic Factor.

On a health tangent from my recent ligament catastrophe, I had some blood tests done because of being about middle aged and having the kind of female stuff going on that is rather unpredictable and requires you to turn up the wireless from time to time. Now every time I’ve ever had blood tests done (about five or six times in my admittedly dodgy memory), they’ve always had low circulating iron and low iron stores, so I could guess the results of this lot, but this time my GP said I also had low B12. Gads no, thinks me, and there’s me with a much betterly balanced diet and not a veggie any more. So I asks the very specific talking GP if this could be congenital, as my Dad did a lovely collapse into a wheelbarrow last year and when they tested him that’s what he had going on. ‘What’ says the GP ‘pernicious anaemia?’ Nobody has ever said I had anything with such a tremendously Victorian title before (or maybe they have, admittedly dodgy memory is related to low iron/B12). When do I go for my corset fitting Carruthers? I’ll look out my parasol.

Pernicious definitely sounds like a ten on a one to ten scale, topped with a bit of flouncy frock-coat-swirling-in-an-alley, and a sack, and a river. Apparently before 1926 PA (see, using the acronym already) could be fatal, but in the same way scurvy could be fatal until they discovered about frottaging oneself in lemons.  Nowadays its annoying rather than fatal because it takes ages to get bad enough to actually notice, and when you do notice you forget you’ve noticed.  Dogs were not-very-helpfully-for-them in 1926, recruited into a study where they were made ill by humans and then cured by being fed liver, which is how they started to understand how to deal with it. Thankyou those dogs, I hope you went on to enjoy a rabbit chasing saturated life subsequently.

What the subsequent generations of clever well-meaning scientifically minded and potentially more dog sympathetic humans have found out, is that some people can’t absorb B12 properly because they don’t produce Intrinsic Factor in their tummies which holds the hand of B12 and shows it the way to the blood stream. Wish I’d known this a while ago (or maybe I did, if so I wish I’d written it down somewhere in big letters and not stopped taking iron and B12 supplements because I thought my kale, salmon and venisonicious diet would be nailing that one).  Anyway, thankyou dogs for your vital contribution, otherwise I and others of my kind would still be diminishing and going into the West.

And before I forget – terrific and heartfelt apologies if you have ever been a victim of my shockingly unpredictable memory. It must be really annoying when I repeat myself in seven different ways, especially when you told me the repeaty thing in the beginning. And please do remind me if I am supposed to be doing something (I prefer the friendly nudge meself if that’s ok).  I have actually named this experience – this weeks Forgettatext Victim is….dahdah!! I am definitely not avoiding you, in fact any minute now I will splutter gasping to the surface of reality going ‘NNNOOOOOO!! I’ve forgotten to send/text/make something for/call this wonderful and superlatively deserving human/horse/dog person! Get to it NOOOOOWWWWWW!’  I know that if I have a list of ten things to do, I won’t log some of them correctly – I have a lovely strong bias about the poor reliability of human memory (because I’ve read the papers about it during my Psychologist Period), so before you recall you always thought I was a bit that way, along with British Airways, I don’t think it’s just me. Stuff that improves my personal performance includes fasting, exercise and coffee, oh and not being anaemic, but Things Slip At Times….

It has it’s advantages mind you, my dog and horse family get to do things they are already comfortable doing a lot, which makes them happy and reasonably smug little chaps and gels.  And I really notice the difference when the supplements hit the bottom, I don’t have to constantly remind myself what I have to do next, I don’t disapparate in the middle of doing things or talking to people (dreams of having phone calls where I suddenly just stop talking), and I can hang out in the zone for hours at a time like a creative Ninja. I just remembered for instance that I meant to write about that project someone has thought up getting crows to collect fag butts – that is not fair on the crows – you’re just assuming they don’t have a life of their own to fulfill.

Today I will mostly be with my things, looking up, making Sculptaseats and waiting for the new washing machine to arrive. Katy is the opposite of pernicious.

Toffee and Guinea Fowl

Toffee and Guinea Fowl

There is a huge amount to be gained by giving things away. The title of this post sounds a bit like a kind of unusual Bonfire Night-esque recipe, but whilst it is a recipe, the toffee is virtual and the guinea fowl are definitely still alive.

This weekend has been a wee nugget of a gem of a glint of time, at the end of a bit of life where I have been mining away at the seam of doing things when they hurt, making challenging decisions and also finding that for myself at least, hard work might pay off (which my pioneer woman rabbit skin wearing primal inner self always suspected).

As the last few weeks progressed, days one after another started early with making my body work so I could even stand up, because staying in bed really doesn’t help soft tissue back damage. I was fallen on by a client’s horse while trimming three weeks ago which ripped a hole in the soft tissues in my lower back. Deep stretching, foam rollering and lying on spiky massage balls and hunting round for painful and stuck bits of myself, ice packs, cold laser, going to the chiropractor to get manual adjustments and to help straighten and release my body, and taking a much greater amount of nasty pain relief than is probably healthy. I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to do what I had planned, I couldn’t do my normal trimming work or lift anything heavier than a kettle, and I was due to participate in the training clinic with my good friend and mentor Dorothy Marks that I had been looking forward to for months. I was at the point where I might have been able to sit on my horse, but not actually ride him as I would like to.

The first good golden treasury thing was that Dorothy came, as we haven’t had a good catch up since spring, and we like to bat thoughts about and come up with theories and invent things and glorious improving stuff like that.

The second good nuggety thing was that I could ride at all even though it was painful, and in a way that Dorothy could see what it is really like in my twisted up place.

The third little shoogly gemstone was that between Dorothy and my horse I had precise help to work out exactly what I needed to do to let the damaged areas work in a better posture than even before the accident. And even better the changes feel like they have stayed with me even off horse as I carry on rehab.

The toffee is an image that established an internal sense of flow, warmth, expansiveness and acceptance, and stopped my body from bracing around the damage in such a hard and protective way. And finding where my left leg and seat needed to be to support Lad in the best way for him was another glimmer, it stopped me from making him lose his balance by pulling him over his left front leg. How was I possibly pulling him over from on top? Well you can – imagine the horses front legs like two short poles with a barrel suspended between them on bungee cords, if you move the top of either pole outwards the barrel will swing out of alignment. You can use your inside leg to draw the shoulder of the horse away from its alignment in kind of the same way, which you can do deliberately, or, like I was, doing it accidentally like leaving the bathroom light on after you’ve left the room.

Riding when it goes well is about finding a way with your body to offer your horse a way to help him carry you. Using controlled changes in your tone and posture you can ‘borrow’ or blend with your horses body in a way that is agreeable for him. This is enabled by the horse’s particular physiology, and is not something that should be thought of as dominating the horse, or controlling him by strength – it is more akin to the experience of being ‘danced’ with by a skillful dancer. You can’t get the same result by force but the most truly talented riders know precisely what ‘good’ feels, smells and sounds like, and helps the horse open the right doors to get to it.  By the way, by ‘good’ I really, seriously, and absolutely do not mean competitively successful. This is about success as judged by the horse agreeing to be ‘danced’ and demonstrating changes in their own physiological ability and function, rather than by humans winning things from other humans. By aiming to be the ‘dancer’ you can help horses set up functional movement patterns that aid them in moving with a rider on board, and to do all the lovely expressive things that we riders enjoy.

In the picture along with this blog post I am shaping Lad’s posture to help him gently bend his neck but keep his body straight. This is functional training – it helps him develop balance and strength, and improves his ability to lift me safely by teaching him to lift his ribcage – with me on it –  between his shoulders. (Horses can do this because they don’t have collar bones, and they are ninja’s at seeing things by putting their heads up as high as they can. In my ideal world all ridden horses would learn this as a basic skill to protect their bodies from the unnatural weight of a rider).

Notice a couple of things – firstly that my hands are in unusual places, my right hand is high and away from my horse’s body, this helps support Lad from falling onto a circle rather than carrying on in a straight line. My left hand is lightly touching the rein to his neck to give him an idea of where to bend it in this position. Secondly notice that his face is almost vertical – eyes above nostrils – and there is a wee twirl of his skull on the end of his neck and his ears are focussed back on me. If the other horse hadn’t hurt my back I wouldn’t have found the missing piece of my own jigsaw that was making me ‘dance’ Lad out of line and stopping me from being able to achieve this with him, so I am grateful for the fact that it happened if not for the actual experience.

I am pretty pleased with this unusual image because it shows how he is agreeing to go with my idea and is doing a really good job of balancing for both of us – as well as that my ‘toffee’ has only hardened a little compared to how hard it was on my left side last week, and my shoulders are almost level which is more important for my body and balance although I don’t care about that as much as his.

And the spinkly gems continued to glimmer in the earth… Last week Jane and I had a good session on our Sculptaseat project after a slow few months, and are going for a new strand of development funding soon. Then this week during lessons with Dorothy, most of our wonderful riders tried Sculptaseat in practice to really good effect on their horse / rider interface which I videoed. And after THAT, Dorothy and I worked on a new invention taking the same approach to another piece of equipment for ourselves to pilot before opening up the tech to another group of riders. Loads of thinking and SO much to work on….

And well the guinea fowl… technically it was an invisible guinea fowl, at least invisible to Lad. I am grateful for its sunday morning perambulations in the nettle beds behind the school boards as although it did give Lad something seriously unusual to concentrate on which was potentially as big as a T-Rex, it made me keep my toffee soft so I could help him manage his fear. (Until the bloody thing cackled then I made a swift tactical dismount as poor Lad experienced an adrenalin tsunami).

So I have a glinting handful of gems after a pretty yucky few weeks, which makes all the digging worthwhile, and I can breathe on them, polish and admire them, and I am really looking forward to the next few months. I can trust it to be hard work and exciting which is just precisely how I like it, as although it looks like one chapter of my life is coming to an end – my trimming practice – I am so looking forward to working with a great group of riders and horses, and creating and building more ways to help people explore what life has to offer for their horses and themselves. With gratitude and love….


The Nitty Gritty

The Nitty Gritty

By Anni Stonebridge

This morning I was waiting for the kettle to boil and I noticed an FB post which referenced an article from the EVJ from some Swedish researchers, conducted in 1999. The title caught my eye because it specifically included measures comparing shod and unshod conditions. If you are as familiar with scouring research papers on hoof function as I am, you will realise that this is pretty unusual. So while I appreciated the first tea of the day (Lady Grey, little bit of milk, big cup), I took a scooby at the study itself. I opened up Deep Dyve, which is a way to access full text articles for free, but you have to read quickly as its time limited.


I love research analysis, yes it’s nerdy but picking out the bias in how research is written up and how these findings travel within the wider world is fascinating. Analysis is a hobby I have, I loved it at uni and it preps me for starting with as much of an open mind as I can. First of all I ask myself the question ‘what am I likely to fix on in this paper?’ This flags up my personal biases – if an article is hoof related, as a barefoot hoof care professional I am definitely likely to focus on information that supports my views. We will always be biased, this is something we need to accept and deal with but that’s interesting in itself! Then I look for the features of the study that challenge my assumptions and I hope, add stuff to my ‘mind workshop’ (shameless ref to Sherlock there, apologies).


Here is the paper we are looking at today:


Roepstorff, L., Johnston, C and Drevemo, S. (1999). The effect of shoeing on kinetics and kinematics during the stance phase. Equine Veterinary Journal 31, suppl. 30, 279-285.


How are we likely to be biased?

Firstly the word ‘shoeing’ in the title will stimulate an emotional reaction – we already do not support the findings should they not support our world view.


Secondly the word ‘unshod’ in the abstract will prime us to look for, and place more value on, evidence supporting the barefoot condition. We will pick up little pieces of evidence and inflate their significance, and we will decrease the value of evidence that supports shoeing.


Thirdly, if we come across elements within the study that are complex, or that we don’t understand, we are likely to avoid them or diminish their importance. Human brains are inherently lazy, but if you know that you can pick out when your own is trying to duck out of some work!


How are the authors likely to be biased?

The authors are also going to have their perspectives, which will affect how they design and conduct the study. This is going to be influenced by their education, life experiences and beliefs, and if they are a team, even the team dynamics, funding or time pressures. The historical focus prior research in the area will play a strong role. We often believe researchers are inherently objective but far from it, there is a fair amount of research in this area which finds inherent bias rather than objectivity in research practice.


So lets get into the nitty gritty. The OP who highlighted the study highlighted it as evidence that “[i]t doesn’t really matter if your horse is shod or barefoot, trotting on roads will lead to a similar degree of concussive damage within the hoof and joints within the hoof and fetlock.”


Does it? The aim of the study was the describe changes in ground reaction forces and locomotion patterns during the stance phase of the stride, due to the application of a standard iron shoe. Their hypothesis was that shoeing would cause changes mainly in the initial phase of contact between ground and hoof.


Comments on the thread quickly highlighted that the horses used were not barefoot adapted but were normally shod, which buys into the belief that shoeing-adapted horses initially struggle without shoes. In real life some do and some don’t, but we will tend when looking at the paper, to assume that all of the sample horses do. The researchers removed their shoes, ran them through the study for the unshod condition, and shod them again for the shod condition. Convenient, but questionable, our barefoot bias will suggest. The small sample size also came up (common for equine studies – this one started with ten warmbloods, but four of them were evaluated as unsound when their shoes were removed so were excluded).


Reading the methodology, the horses were trotted along a asphalt (tarmac) road at a ‘comfortable speed’, then they went over three rails and a force plate buried in 1-2 cm of sand. At the point the measurements were taken they were trotting on a different surface – sand. This may have been because it was more convenient to bury the force plate than to dig up the road and embed it, that the plate was slippery, or that it was impossible to set up a scenario where the surface was continuous, but it is questionable whether the findings have any relevance to trotting on tarmac at all.


This post isn’t really about the findings from the study, but out of interest the researchers concluded that when unshod, the horses showed a decrease in initial horizontal loading. It appeared that there were significant differences in the alteration of concussion-dampening mechanisms in the distal limb. These may have been related to heel loading, quicker joint rotation and transmission of forces more quickly up the limb. It is likely that from our barefoot world view we will pick up on those findings as ‘better’, confirming our biases, but it is also possible that the newly unshod horses were trying to unload the front of their feet, which were suddenly exposed to the ground, or that the suddenly unshod horses trotting on tarmac and experiencing a surface change, altered their stride more quickly because they were closer to it or sank into it more quickly than the shod horses.


Let’s think, in an ideal world if we were going to improve the design and re-run the study we would:

  • Increase the sample size
  • Use barefoot adapted horses as an additional comparison condition
  • Use a continuous surface
  • I find myself querying whether using the same sample of horses and running them through three different conditions of shod, newly unshod and barefoot adapted, (including time for barefoot adaptation) would ever be possible but hey, we’re in an ideal world so why not. If money is not object and the sample size is big enough it could be possible. In that case we could add fourth condition ‘never shod barefoot managed’, and even a fifth of ‘never shod regular domestic management’. In fact you could go on forever adding conditions, but it would be hellishly complex to draw useful conclusions.


Well, enough distraction and time for another cup of tea I think. I strongly recommend reading Daniel Kahneman’s writing on bias in his book ‘Thinking, fast and slow’ if you are interested in how our thinking is affected by bias and representation.


Look out for our new book ‘Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse’, published by Crowood in May this year. An extensive collection on barefoot and evidence based horse keeping, where myself and Jane Cumberlidge demonstrate precisely how biased towards barefoot we actually are!