In this weeks Horse and Hound (28.12.12) was one of my favourite topics in Equine Veterinary – Stress. A topic very ‘close to home’ my first ever horse being very stressful, it is a common and potentially dangerous problem for many owners. In this review article I shall also be touching on the latest on the ‘Rollkur debate’ ( picture inset).

Riding a horse in a Rollkur (type of bit) is the application of restricted rein contact for a prolonged amount of time, pressure the horse cannot move. A recent study from Denmark looked at stress responses in 15 dressage horses ( discipline in which the bit it primarily used ) who were frequently ridden in the bit. The experiment, being the first of its kind, measured a variety of behavioural and physiological responses of horses ridden in this ‘hyperflexion’, and two horse common head and neck positions – loose frame with no rein tension and ‘competition’ frame. The horse was ridden 10 mins in walk, trot and canter in each of the 3 head and neck positions, randomised over 3 days of testing. Heart rate, heart – rate variability, salivary cortisol concentration ( which indicate levels of stress ) bahaviour and tension in reins were recorded. The study found that the horses had significantly higher salivary cortisol levels when measured after being worked in ‘hyperflexion’ position, but their heart rate was not significantly altered by any of the positions. However, the most shocking finding of all, being that the riders were applying more than 5kg of pressure continously in ‘hyperflexion’ position when it is known that 200g is the amount when horses are most happy.

In conclusion to the recent findings on the rollkur debate – In my opinion it is a very contraversial topic, different owners/riders will have different views. It also depends on your disipline of riding, Rollkur bits are primarily used in Dressage, which is viewed the ‘safest’ disipline. But it is unnatural for the horse not to have any head movement for a prolonged amount of time. For me, it would only be used in training for a short amount of time as a training aid, not a permanent flatwork bit. In addition, Rollkurs have been known to teach the horse to ‘overbend’ which actually deducts marks in opposition, sometimes even damaging the horse’s mouth and drawing blood – causing elimination. In this way, they can be seen as causing more harm than good, so why are top Dressage riders so insistent on using them?

Now onto the stress side of things. Horses become stressed when they feel they cannot control or predict their environment, just like us. In training and domesticatiing our horses, it is envitable they will be exposed to some degree of stress at some point – this can be minimised through good training and management. Identifying and avoiding stressful situations is key. Some stress indicators are : Core eyeball temperature, salivary cortisol and heart rate.

Stifling nature – Left to their own devices, animals control their envirornment to remove discomfort. Horses learn that another horse pinning its ears back and snaking its head in their direction is likely to turn into a bite or kick. Stress in these situations is reduced because the horse feels he is able to predict and avoid this negative experience. However, when we get onto the horse, this completely changes. Horses have to get used to a rein contact via the bit in their mouths and accept a leg contac against their sides. One of the main causes of stress is simultaneous use of rein and leg pressure. We teach our horses rein pressure means slow down, shorten or give to the hand and our leg means speed up or lengthen. Applying both, especially to a young horse, can be confusing and stressful.

Measuring pressure – Scientists have recently developed methods of quantifying the pressure we apply to various parts of the horse as we ride :

Rein tensiometrey- Measure of rein tension, how heavy or light a horse is in the hand. It is important when assesing the varying degrees of rein contact and different head positions on a horses’ stress levels. Research from Belgium and Austrailia conducted about 5 years ago showed that most horses are happy with around 200g of pressure in their mouths.

Pressure testing – scientist have developed special pads to measure how much pressure is applied from the rider’s leg or spur, as well as the pressure on the horse’s back from the rider’s seat. This is still quite new technology, but has the potential to help with things such as the application of timing of aids and the asymmetry of leg aids.

Putting theory into practice – The application of pressure, whether from the saddle or ground, plays a large part in training regimes. It is vital that the horse feels relief from pressure. If pressure is applied with leg to make the horse go forward, as soon as the response is felt the leg should be removed. In the way, the horse learns quickly that he can remove the pressure by moving forward, thus he will feel in control of his environment and be more confident with his work.

Conflict behaviour – If the pressure is not released when the correct reponse is offered, the horse will try other , potentially dangerous, ways of removing it, such as bucking, rearing or napping – all examples of conflict behaviour. Horses showing this behaviour are stressed, however in some cases, bucking can be shown as a sign of excitement. This stress behaviour has long – term consequences for their mental health and well-being.

In my opinion this is a rather complicated article. In my experiences of professionally training for 3 years now, pressure plays a very important part in working the horse on the flat. The exertion of pressure from your hand and leg to get the horse to ’round up while moving forward’ is vital. Also, in showjumping, hand pressure is needed to change the horses canter gate to set it up for the fences, and leg pressure is needed to urge the horse forward and give it the confidence to jump the fences. However, through reading and analysing this article it has made me more aware, and I will be particularly careful when riding and/or training young horses in the future.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and it has been interesting for you! Next one will be out 2.01.13 🙂

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