With the New Year well and truly underway, it may be that you are contemplating a new horse for the new season. Getting a new horse is always such an exciting time. There are hopes, expectations and the fun of creating a winning combination with your new acquisition. But of course, this doesn’t always happen. Some horses and ponies do not seem to stay in one place for more than a few months at a time, moving from one owner to the next. And these horses are not all raging lunatics, badly broken in youngsters or ruined ex-racers; some have been faithful and loyal servants in one home for many years but don’t seem to fit into their new owner’s lives in the same way. And it can be very distressing for the first owners to learn that their beloved horse or pony whom they believed to have sold into similar circumstances and a forever home, is being passed on again and again.
So why does this happen? Well, the first thing to do, if your new horse is not behaving well, is rule out physical pain. I am hoping that you had your new horse vetted. I say hope, because I see far more horses bought without a vetting first, yet this can prove such a false economy! For the sake of a few hundred pounds max, you could save thousands and I have seen this happen on more than a few occasions. Needless to say, those excited new owners who were naïve enough to buy their dream horse without a vetting, found themselves considerably out of pocket when they added the vet bills to the original price of the horse, which was subsequently put to sleep as the kindest option – this happens far too often for my liking. A vetting is not a guarantee but it does show that the horse is fit for purpose on the day of the vetting, and if you have specific requirements which will demand a lot of the horse physically, then additional Xrays may be a sensible option too.
Once your vet has ruled out any specific lameness, obvious disease or injury, then the teeth, back and saddle should all be checked as well. Horses develop their fitness and conditioning relative to the environment they are working in, so if the horse is used to a sand school and 8 stone rider, but you are hacking out on stone tracks and weigh more, that can be sufficient to bring on some muscular soreness as the horse adapts. The saddle may have been specially made and fitted, but that will have been with the previous rider in mind, and not fitted for you and the horse as a new combination – get your saddle fit checked for BOTH of you. And even if the teeth have been previously maintained, ask your vet or equine dentist to check them again – there is evidence now that horses feeding from the ground have much better movement through the jaw joint on each side (called the TMJ), compared to horses eating from haynets. If your new horse’s teeth need attention, this can also restrict TMJ movement and the combination of eating from a haynet and reduced TMJ movement can have a knock-on effect on the horse’s whole body posture and movement patterns.
If the saddle, teeth and back are all ok, then look at the psychological aspect of change of ownership for the horse. We tend to treat our horses and ponies firstly as possessions: we have expectations of their skills and abilities and an agenda dictating what we want to do with them. The horse is not able to influence this agenda except by his or her behaviour and generally horses are pretty amenable – there is a reason why Zebras remained wild! However, at times of change, horses can behave erratically. In most cases, a calm state of mind is reliant on the horse knowing their routine, equine friends or other sources of safety. By removing these features of their life and replacing them with new ones, your horse or pony is thrown into a state of nervous tension, producing stress hormones and higher than normal levels of adrenalin, stimulating the flight or fight response. This reaction then produces behaviours which are not associated with the “bomb-proof” description given at the time of purchase. If they are lucky, a new horse or pony might be given a week to “settle in” before ridden exercise commences and for some horses and ponies this is enough. However, research into gastric ulcers has shown that just moving a horse to a new yard, (keeping the same owner and routine) is sufficient to produce ulceration of the stomach within five days. This physical effect of a mentally challenging change of environment shows just how stressful moving a horse can be.
Recent research into the optimism levels of horses has shown that when kept in environments where they have contact with other horses, freedom to graze and forage, and regular routines, horses demonstrate higher levels of optimism. The same horses, when kept separately stabled, with restricted access to foraging activity and limited contact, showed a more pessimistic response. How did the researchers show optimism? Well, they used a well-known method in animal welfare called a cognitive bias test. The horses were trained that two buckets in separate positions contained food and then were presented with a number of buckets in between these two positions. When in an optimistic frame of mind, the horses would check out all the buckets, whereas when pessimistic, they simply went to the buckets they knew would have food. This is a simple test we can all try out with our horses, to test their overall state of mind, in the environment we have provided.
Ultimately, in order to enjoy our horses and see them fulfil their potential, we need to ensure that they are physically comfortably and mentally happy in their new home, and sometimes this takes just a little bit more time and thought than is first expected.