Interesting Recent Horsey Research

Where do racehorses get their speed? How can we reduce the spread of bacterial infections among hospitalised horses and the staff who care for them? Are bog spavins much of a problem among Clydesdales?

Three recently published studies delve into these questions:

1. Thoroughbred racing – Can the genetic basis of speed in racehorses be pinpointed? 

European researchers have found that one variation of a gene that plays a key role in muscle development originated in a mare who lived in Great Britain about three hundred years ago. The gene is a variation of the myostatin gene “MSTN”, and remained rare in the population until the 1960s when the stallion Northern Dancer, by Nearctic, began passing it on to his offspring. It appears that this may have played a key role in Northern Dancer becoming one of the most influential Thoroughbred sires in the twentieth century. (Read the abstract of the study here

Hyperion (1930-1960)
Hyperion, damsire of Nearctic. Did he have the “speed gene”?

It has always fascinated me how random events, such as the mutation of genes to form new variations, can alter the course of an entire breed’s history. For example, what would Thoroughbred racing have been like today if that mare had never had a single foal?

Would it have made much of a difference? Have other “speed genes” been lost due to the random nature of life and genetics?

Continue reading

The Spanish Riding School and Art in Equestrian Sport

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is on the “I simply have to go there one day” section of my travel wishlist. The main attraction for me is of course the rich history of horsemanship, despite the fact that the beautiful buildings with amazing features such as chandeliers in the riding arena, are just about enough to warrant a visit on their own.

Maestoso Basowizza & Oberbereiter Hausberger

Previously, I had read many interesting things about the Spanish Riding School, but I have just had a fantastic refresher course on the classical principles that are the heart and soul of their work. It has been a great opportunity to reflect on how much this faraway place has influenced my mental approach to riding and training. In one of those serendipitous moments that I love the internet for, this refresher course came in the form of a randomly stumbled upon youtube video, which you can see here, and part 2 here.

The truly heartening thing to see from this video on the Spanish Riding School is that good horse sense and horsemanship run through everything they do. Although the riders may dress in uniforms from a bygone era, it is difficult to spot anything about their practices that is so old fashioned that it should be left to the history books. Much has been made of the gap between classical dressage and competition dressage of today, but from this video I see much that can be learnt from the past and applied to the competition arena.  Continue reading

The problem with really good riders…

Watching other riders is a great way to learn. In fact it’s pretty much how I got started. When I was first bitten by the bug, I spent a lot more time hanging around watching my friends ride at riding schools and pony clubs than I did riding. I went to any horse show I could, and was happy to just sit and watch for hours. Even my horsey friends thought I was a bit mad… but I definitely benefited from learning some things from the ground. From the very beginning I had my heels down automatically, knew how to sit and hold the reins, and could recognise key basics such as trot diagonals and canter leads. I was told I was “a natural”, but I think my physical ability was strongly related to a strong mental preparation.

These days when I watch other riders I notice a lot more than I did back then. I notice a lot more of the fine technical details, I notice more of the many different types of unsoundness and most of all I think I notice the relationship between the rider and horse.

The thing is though, that the vast majority of my learning has been from picking up mistakes made by others. You can learn many variations on how not to sit by seeing other riders falling off or just looking unbalanced. You can learn how not to use your hands by seeing (too many) horses with unhappy mouths. You can learn how not to behave around a horse by seeing the sorts of people horses aren’t keen on.

Mark Todd was one of my childhood heroes, for his lower leg that never moves... Here he is riding Regent Lad in 2010. Photo: Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography

And this brings me to the problem with really good riders… They’re the role models we all look up to. They effortlessly achieve things with their horses that we wish we could do. Or at least it looks effortless. And that’s the thing – if they’re really good, you may not even notice why they’re so good. Everything is smooth and harmonious. The rider’s position is near faultless, hardly seeming to do a thing. The horse is at ease, with all the submission (although I prefer to call it acceptance) that you could wish for.

You just sit, and stare, and think “How do they do it?” or “I wish I could ride like that” or ” I wish my horse went like that “.

Or maybe… “I wish I had long legs”, “I wish I could afford lessons with better coaches” or “I wish I could afford to buy a better horse”.

The thing is though, that in some cases you may not even notice the really good riders at all. They’re so good that they know better than to try and push the horse beyond what it can mentally and physically cope with. So they accept what the horse gives them, even if it means being overshadowed by flashier combinations. The somewhat unfair result being that many people won’t even notice what a great thing that is, and how that calm, “boring” rider really knows their horse. Continue reading

The Irrational Horse and the Rational Human

“If the world was truly a rational place, men would ride sidesaddle.”

~ Rita Mae Brown

Oh dear… the rider seems to have lost her head…

People sometimes complain about how irrational horses are. I’ve noticed it’s often when they can’t get a horse to do something, and feel the need to justify the rough handling they have resorted to in frustration.

Apparently you can tell who the completely rational being is in this sort of human-horse pairing; they’re the little one who’s trying to force the big one to do something BECAUSE it doesn’t understand… Strange when it’s put like that isn’t it…. the little one tries to force the big one to do something, because who doesn’t understand…?

If you truly believe that the horse isn’t doing what you want because it can’t think rationally, then please realise that getting rougher with the horse isn’t going to magically make it understand what you want.

The ability or otherwise of horses to think rationally is too large a subject to fit in this post, so that’s a matter for another time. For now let’s focus on how we can tone down the irrational stuff in training sessions – from both horses and humans…

Let’s walk a mile…

If you step into the horse’s shoes (or bare feet) for a moment, I’m sure you will find more similarities than differences between the way a horse reacts to a confusing training session, and the way you would react to a confusing training session… We’ll put it in human terms that most people can relate to: Continue reading

Book Review: The Zen of Horseriding by Ingrid Soren

The Zen of Horseriding by Ingrid Soren takes a look into the mental component of horseriding from a unique perspective. The result is a book with many interesting insights into sports psychology in equestrian sports, which is sure to be of interest if you’re a thinking rider, riding coach, nervous rider or someone who likes stories of personal journeys with horses.

“How you approach the horse is a reflection of how you approach the world.”

The Zen of Horseriding follows the author as she embarks on two simultaneous journeys of discovery – one into the world of horse riding, the other into the world of Zen Buddhism. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, as although I know quite a bit about horse riding, my experiences with Buddhism are quite limited. Continue reading