Written by Inger Lise Andersen, professor of ethology, Dep. of Animal and Aquacultural sciences, Norwegian University of Life sciences (NMBU)
The objective of this project was to study the effects of a one month treatment with longitudinal stretching while riding (LSR) on behavioural scores (i.e. expression of eyes, ears, mouth, head and neck position, willingness to work and collaborate with the rider) indicating positive or negative behaviour, gait quality, mechanical nociceptive threshold (MNT), and pain sensitivity.
MNT may indicate the extent of which important muscle landmarks along the topline is pressure sensitive or painful.
Results and discussion
Behavioural scores and gait quality
All behavioural scores were significantly higher (i.e. a high score indicates a positive behavioural expression and thus a positive mental state in the horse; Figure 3) after the one month treatment with LSR conducted by the experimental rider.
The strongest effects were achieved in:
- the expression of the mouth,
- sum of scores when looking at all body parts of the horse,
- score for willingness to work and collaborate with the rider,
- and gait quality.
The mouth of the horse appears to be a strong indicator of emotional state, and it was easy to observe whether there was tension in the area of the lips or not. Some horses may chew a lot on the bit in the beginning, make frequent mouth movements (mouth clapping), or show gaping responses.
A horse with a relaxed state should have a gently closed mouth with very little foam, there should be no gaping, no mouth clapping, and the lower lip should be slightly extended compared to the upper lip. However, one should be aware of individual differences in how the horses express themselves, and thus this requires some systematic, observational training and that you get to know the individual horse. This is also why looking at all body parts together before making any conclusion is important, because some horses have a lot of eye expression whereas others have more expression in the mouth.
Tension in the mouth is quite often also related to the impact of the bit during riding and thus how much pressure that has been used before.
Except for head position, there were hardly any significant differences between walk and trot in any of the behaviours recorded. Biomechanically, the horse will always seek a higher head position during trot than during walk, so LSR training should always start from walk and when the horse is ready and relaxed during walking, you can take it further to trotting in a slow speed.
A slow speed is always preferable because this implies that core muscles builds gradually with the correct technique.
At the deepest stretch, a slow motion will require a lot of back strength from the horse, and thus would need to develop over time. The horse will always tell us when it is ready, and nothing should be forced. Therefore, the rider always has to adjust the length of the reins according to where the horse places it head with a steady and light contact to the mouth.
Tail movement was not included in the present study, but will be included in our future work.
The tail produces more discrete signals similar to the ears, in contrast to the fine-graded ones from the eyes/muscles around the eyes and the mouth. The tail can be placed between the legs of the horse indicating fear. It can be slightly lifted or swing in a sideways manner, showing positive eagerness or engagement in the horse while training. It can be lifted high to signal that the horse is ready to flee any second. This is often combined with a blow from the nostrils.
The same signal may also be used when two horses are showing off assessing each other’s competitive ability. The most clear, negative message from the tail is when the horse lashes its tail in an abrupt manner vertically, as a sign of unwillingness, irritation, aggression, pain or discomfort.
This can often be observed in sport horses ridden in a forced and negative way and when the horses for instance have pain in their back. In contrast to the behaviours recorded in our study that quite easily can be observed as behavioural states in some time intervals during the training session, tail lashing is better observed as behavioural events and thus require a continuous observation method.
Willingness to collaborate was strongly correlated to gait quality, meaning that the more motivated the horse is to collaborate with the rider, the greater is the gait quality in walk and trot.
A few events with tail lashing may only signal a small “protest” from your horse that it is not willing to perform what you are asking for at the present moment. This is not such a “big issue”. However, if the horse lashes its tail vertically during most of the training session, the horse tries to signal that it is in a negative state, most likely involving pain or suffering.
The rider should thus actively seek the cause of this behaviour, and maybe start to check for signs of back tension or pain. This could also be combined with bucking or kicking with back legs. A stiff tail pointing to one side or upward in a constant and tensed manner could indicate that the horse is compensating for some kind of back problems.
To conclude about the behavioural expression, a relaxed horse during training will have the following expression:
1. No eye white and relaxed muscles around the eye
2. The mouth should have relaxed muscles, slightly closed with no gaping, mouth clapping, no chewing and with very little foam, preferably with the lower lip in the same position as the upper or slightly extended compared to the upper lip.
3. Ears should preferably be relaxed towards the side (“floppy ears”) indicating that the horse is focusing on the signals from the rider, and not pointing backwards or with the ears pointing back and fourth, the latter being a horse that is paying more attention to the surroundings than to the person who is training him/her. A horse with the ears forward has the positive attention directed forward and this is important among others during jumping. Ears directed forward is positive, but the horse may still not be in a relaxed state as we can say with the “floppy ears”.
4. Top line and movements: The top line should be curved with round hind quarters, with the horse seeking forward and lowering the poll. A tensed horse will never seek to stretch forward and downward. The neck and back muscles should not be stiff and the horse should move with unrestricted, elastic free-flowing movements, also with engaged muscles behind the saddle, irrespective of head position.
In addition to all behavioural scores being improved by the 1-month LSR treatment, the sum of behavioural scores (i.e. the higher the score, the more positive is the behaviour of the horse; Figure 4), was higher for all activities tested:
- lunging before and after the treatment period,
- both the first and second half of the 20 minute LSR with the experimental rider during the testing,
- and not the least – a similar progress was demonstrated under a control rider, which underlines the stability of the effect!
The horse owner must of course learn how to do the LSR but it is a quality insurance to observe that the behaviour of the horse maintains in a positive way after the treatment period even when ridden by a person that is not trained to ride in this way.
However, if the rider do not continue this training, the horse will quickly fall back to the starting point.
Willingness to collaborate was strongly correlated to gait quality, meaning that the more motivated the horse is to collaborate with the rider, the greater is the gait quality in walk and trot.
This motivation was stimulated through giving tit bits whenever the rider placed herself in the saddle and after every brake and small progress that the horse did. The training should be enjoyable both for the horse and for the rider, and correct timing of the responses is important.
In the LSR, the horse did not need to perform in any way, but the experimental rider rewarded and stimulated every attempt to stretch after making sure that the horse was moving straight.
This positive and comfortable learning process with the LSR also made the horses easier to handle after the treatment period (Figure 6).
We can never hide our emotional state to horses
Ease of handling is a trait that should be emphasized in the breeding of all riding horses, but it is also clear from our study that it can be significantly improved by positive training for all horses irrespective of age, background and breed!
Gait quality also improved in all activities after the LSR treatment period, and also here – even for the control rider (Figure 5). LSR may thus serve as a good method of rehabilitating sport horses with neck and back stiffness, overall tension or stress-related behavioural problems.
As in our first study, voluntary head and neck position was significantly improved for both gaits after the 1-month LSR treatment period, but the larges progress was achieved in walk (Figure 7).
Therefore, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do LSR training with the horse in a good walk first.
Our main message is that you cannot expect any progress or released tension in trot if it is not present in the walk first.
Mechanical nociceptive threshold (MNT) on selected muscle landmark locations
There was a tendency for a higher MNT after than before the LSR treatment (Figure 8), indicating that most muscle locations became less sensitive to palpation with the pressure algometer (i.e. needed more pressure to show avoidance reactions).
None of these changes were significant statistically after one month, but we can see that the trend is going in the right direction for almost all locations along the topline.
The only location that showed the opposite result and that actually became more sensitive was the right neck area at the third cervical vertebral level. The reason why we included this point in the first place on both sides of the midline, is that this is the area where many dressage horses have the so called “broken neck” caused by a forced, false collection through shortening of the reins, pulling the head of the horse towards the chest, and without engagement of the back and hind quarters.
This is the so-called “quick and false route” to high front leg movements and a preferred dressage posture for riders that do not have time to make the horse work correctly over the back.
As we can also see from figure 8, these two locations “neck right and left”, are the points where the horse is absolutely most sensitive and vulnerable to palpation or pressure.
These locations appeared to be tensed and painful, and in the long run, the horses may have irreversible damage to the vertebrate in this exact area if ridden incorrectly. Most of the horses showed strong avoidance reactions when putting just a tiny bit of pressure at this area, and some were even afraid of letting us get close to this area in the first place, suggesting that they were experiencing pain.
Overall, the pressure algometry method can serve as a good, long-term tool to use before and after a few months of rehabilitation training of the horse, as it would be a good indicator of muscle sensitivity and development over time.
Figure 8. MNT pressure before and after the 1 month LSR treatment (mean +SE; P<0.05) in 8 different muscle landmark locations along the topline.
Summary and future perspectives on horse training
In summary, all behavioural indicators, head and neck position, gait quality, ease of handling, and collaboration with the rider were significantly improved after the just one month LSR treatment.
Nociceptive threshold increased for all areas along the top line, indicating a higher pain threshold, except for the upper neck area that proved to be very sensitive and most likely painful for all horses tested.
This makes us reach the conclusion that LSR through positive reinforcement is a method to improve the mental and physical condition of the horse as well as strengthening the horse-rider partnership.
Why such a positive effect after just one month with a simple LSR treatment, all horses having different breeds and age?
We think the key with LSR and the way we have worked with these horses lies in the released tension, to make the horse move as straight as possible, to let the horse have more freedom of movements, to work correctly over the back, and not the least be able to express his emotional state to the rider.
Why do so many horse people ignore this and at the same time claim that the LSR is simply an old method described in the earliest riding books as the basis for classical dressage riding?
Why have we forgotten this old wisdom then when the horses respond so well to it, regarding both behavioural expression, gait quality and motivation to collaborate with the rider, irrespective of breed and age?
Well, it is somewhat easier to ignore than to pay attention, being aware and observe, because this may tell us something that we do not want to hear or realize, something that will take more time to change in us when working with the horse than the work with the horse itself. It takes time to understand the horse.
And it requires that we are open to a change in us, and because this change usually involves a process in getting to know who we really are, it hurts to accept the fact that we are the ones who are lost.
But, being lost could be a good thing in fact because it may lead us one way only, the positive way. Being lost could actually be the best discovery because it means a new beginning with brand new opportunities – and what is even more gratifying, is that your horse can lead the way if you give space for it to happen, as the horse is the best instructor ever.
People have been riding “rollkur” for many, many years in dressage despite the fact that horses strongly signals pain, fear and discomfort (e.g. von Borstel et al., 2009), and still keep forcing and using negative ways to make the horse perform quickly rather than spending time to develop a partnership first – because they want the quickest route to high performance.
A lot could be mentioned about what we are willing to do with the horse for selfish means, such as the “Tennessee walking horse” training that subjects the horse to severe pain and damage, but it all boils down to what kind of humans we are and want to be.
And despite the greedy, selfish and sometimes evil nature of humans, there is still hope – we hope and also see a trend towards more and more horse people asking questions about the ways we train, use and handle horses.
Luckily, some successful riders that compete on a high level have already understood this. That is what makes them a step ahead of other competitors – and thank God for that!
Those people can bring the sport of riding back to once was the art of riding. Science and researchers such as us can only give you some tools in the process of achieving this goal. Our motivation is only to understand the horse better to be able to achieve partnership.
So let us bring those two motivations together: partnership and performance.
In the end, it is the only long-term recipe to successful performance and good horse welfare anyway, so let us get on with it!
The most important criteria for partnership is that you have to pay attention, observe, read and interpret the fine-tuned signals from the horse, be aware of how you respond to the signals from the horse, assess your own body and mind when you work with the horse, and find ways to motivate the horse to collaborate with you.
Why should we pay attention to what goes on in OUR mind during the training of a horse?
Well, the most obvious reason is that our own emotional state in transferred into fine tunes signals from us that the horse has become an expert to read and interpret through thousands of years of domestication and co-evolution with humans.
The striking truth in this is that the horse is more aware of our body signals at any time during the interaction than we are aware of it ourselves. In this way, the horse can actually teach us to become mentally and physically more aware of ourselves through reacting to our signals at any time. The horse can see our fear and even smell it. The more unsecure and fearful we become, the more we feel the need of control, and the less we become partners with the horse. Just consider it and think about it! Does it all make sense to you?
A change in the pupil of your eyes, slightly lifted shoulders, or a tiny change of posture or how you walk, makes a big difference to the horse. It could be information about fear and frustration, or it could be the opposite – that you are happy, positively aroused because of some great happening in your life. The horse can smell it and observe it.
This means that we can never hide our emotional state to horses.
So, eventually, you are better off becoming more aware of it yourself and learn something from it. Since horses have developed this ability through co-evolution with humans, horse-assisted therapy of people have become increasingly popular and successful.
However, the somewhat complex process of understanding more about yourself and the horse and the interaction between the two of you, should not stop you from working and training, in case you become too critical about yourself.
You should work in the “here and now”, accept your present stage, and build your competence “brick by brick”.
Let this be an ongoing process where you gain more experience and cherish what you learn every step of the way without knowing where this will bring the two of you, while the “dream” is always still in the back of your head.
See yourself from the outside a little bit and do not be too hard on yourself. Sometimes this implies that for instance a ride in the forest replaces training in the riding house to satisfy the need for more cognitive brain stimulation of the horse. Or – could you even consider to do the dressage training on a forest road?
The reasons why longitudinal stretching during riding is so positive are multifactorial. It is about the mental state of the horse, freedom of movements, released tension from the bit and reins, efficient “pilates” training of core muscles along the top line, and not the least, positive reinforcement every step of the way.
We always adjusted the length of the reins and the depth of the stretch to what the horse was capable of and willing to do at any time, as this depend on the present strength in the back and whether some regions are painful or not.
To engage different muscles along the top line, it is also an important point to vary how deep the stretch goes. In the present experiment, we conducted LSR with bits on all horses, as they were all used to being ridden with bits by the owner. However, it should be mentioned that LSR could preferably be conducted with a bitless sidepull bridle, as this could potentially release the tension in the mouth even more.
In our new, ongoing experiment, we investigate how different bridles with and without bits affect behavioural expression in the horse, degree of synchrony in the horses` movements and the collaboration with the rider.
Training should be enjoyable for both the horse and the trainer. Some people are hesitant to use food reward when training the horse, but experiments with young horses show clearly that using food reward in the same way as we did in the present experiment, results in more positive behaviour towards the handler, such as licking and sniffing (Sankey et al., 2010).
The same study also demonstrated that horses trained without positive reinforcement had four to six times more negative behaviours, such as biting, kicking and failure to learn the task.
Thus, I think we can conclude that food reward is something positive in any learning process for horses, rewarded for the right reason and at the right time.
It might be painful for the horse to stretch a stiff neck in the beginning and it is too heavy to go deep in the stretch for a horse with a weak and aching back. However, by a smooth start with just keeping the horse straight on a loose and light contact with the reins, elasticity and core muscle strength can develop gradually over time, resulting in a deeper stretch.
A horse should be able to carry himself and work correctly over the back by nature, but we have to realize our impact on the horse and understand that it is more to this than what first meets the eye.
One important question then is how can we work with the horse without any negative stress and rather maintain a positive energy and motivation? And how can we maintain and not disturb the natural movements of the horse while riding?
Those are the two most important questions and messages that we would like you to think about and remember when you start developing the partnership with your horse.
The project group: Inger Lise Andersen (ethology – head of the project NMBU Norway), Sylvia Burton (experimental rider Norway), Linn Therese Olafsen (VL Sport Horses Norway), Benedicte Reneè Stokke (master student NMBU Norway), Lars Moen (equine veterinarian Romerike hesteklinikk), Juan Carlos Rey (veterinarian SLU Sweden), and Lars Roepstorff (biomechanics SLU Sweden)
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Felleskjøpet A/S, Norway, for sponsoring us with the concentrated feed “Champion Diamant” that contains more fibre than other types of concentrates.