After writing a blog titled, “Are some horses ‘unfixable’? Are all horse problems created by humans?” I received the following comment:
“Don’t forget locoweed, it’s one of those toxic plants very prevalent in the western US, if a horse ingest a fair amount of it, they will have lifetime effects for example overreacting to normal situations- hence the name locoweed. I suppose may dishonest people would sell these horses who have been exposed to locoweed and not disclose that fact.” -Stephanie S
Being from the east, I have only heard vague references to ‘locoweed’ and most of the time the person was joking. A google search and several pages of reading later it turns out that ‘locoweed’ is no laughing matter.
Locoweed is a plant that grows in the Western United States and horses, sheep and cattle will all eat it, horses even more so than the others. Some horses will avoid it but sadly, others seem to prefer it and will seek it out. Immediate symptoms (after eating) include;
- lack of appetite
- weight loss
- over-reacting; rearing, flipping over
Long term symptoms include;
- brain damage causing; unexpected and violent behavior
- inability to handle stress
- and one article concluded that; “locoed” horses pose a substantial risk to humans (New Mexico State University website)
Testing to see if a horse has been exposed is very difficult though because the levels of the toxin quickly disappear from the blood although the horses don’t recover from the neurological damage.
The easiest to read article was on the Western Horseman website. It is written from the first hand experience of a vet. Here is a small excerpt:
“The lack of treatment, combined with the irreversible effects of the disease, render affected horses unsafe for riding. Their unpredictable behavior and inability to cope with the stresses of being under saddle should not be pressed, and many infected horses are either put out to pasture or euthanized, the veterinarian says.
Stubblefield was aware Deuce had low odds of a full recovery, but he still wanted to give his gelding a fighting chance.
“I tried to rehab him for a year and a half, and thought I had him to where he’d be safe enough for me to ride again,” he says. “The first time I tried to ride him [after eating locoweed], he was not safe at all. When we went to put the halter and headstall on, he reared up. He was really frightened easily, and couldn’t deal with any sudden changes. He had nervous signs of ataxia. His brain couldn’t handle the stress.”
Many years ago I worked with a horse that came from a large ranch in the west. Of all the horses I have worked with, he is one of only 2-3 that I found to be truly unpredictable. Several professionals evaluated this horse including veterinarians and we all came to the same conclusion; there was something ‘off’ in his brain. This article makes me wonder if he could have been exposed to locoweed years ago and was still suffering from its ill-effects.
The following three questions were posted on Weaver Leather’s Facebook page in response to the Jac videos:
“How do you teach the horse to accept contact with the bit better? “-Julie H
“How should I go about teaching my mare to put her head down and collect?”-Kaitlin F
“How do you teach a horse to accept more contact with the bit? I am transitioning from Western Riding to English and my old guy is telling me to “give me more rein” constantly (PS: he had his teeth check recently)!” Ildiko M
- mentally seeing the importance of teaching contact
- physically focusing on how you are using your hands
Many riders struggle with the idea of holding steady, light contact with the horses face. I believe this struggle has roots in the idea that we are somehow unfair because we are not releasing quickly. There are two ways that I look at this mental issue. First, in the beginning training of a horse I want to ‘hold the horses hand’ because it keeps us both safer.
Picture a two or three year old child who is constantly pulling their hand away from their parent as they are walking around a busy parking lot. The child is showing resistance to receiving instruction from the parent and they are also endangering themselves as well as others. The child does not view the situation this way but most adults would.
The horse is not a child and you are not riding in a parking lot. The horse is close to 1,000 pounds and you are on top of them. People have died while riding horses. To keep everyone safe there are times that the horse must allow us to ‘hold their hand’ for everyones safety.
Later on in the horses training it is also important that the horse allows us to have light, steady pressure if we choose. This is not a punishment for the horse and a horse that is comfortable with the riders hands will show no resistance with the rider making light contact. This contact allows us to help ‘shape’ the horse and encourage high level performance. Imagine a golf coach instructing a golfers swing, or a football coach instructing a quarterback on his throw or a dancer receiving instruction from a coach. All of these athletes would receive LOTS of advice on the shape of their body. Human-to-human we can speak and explain, or show video to the student and even then the coach will often touch the student and physically show them where their mistake is or where they could improve.
With the horse it is important that they trust the hands and legs of the rider and that they are willing to be shaped and molded by them. This ability of the horse to trust and be shaped is how the training can progress to a high level. A golfer, football player or dancer who isn’t willing to receive instruction will not be very successful and neither will a horse who will not receive gentle guidance.
For the rider it is important to remember that your hands must be steady and reliable if your horse is going to trust you or willingly allow you to ‘hold his hand.’ Most horses lose trust in the riders hands if the rider is either new and lacks coordination to keep their hands steady or if the rider bumps or jerks a lot.
Can you keep your hands smooth and steady? To find out, I recommend that you try either carrying a cup of water or an egg on a spoon as a test. If you want less mess, and an easier tool to practice with, you can check out the Egg and Spoon set I developed with Weaver Leather. I used this tool for years when I was giving lessons.
For physical exercises that will help improve both the horse and the rider, go back and watch the following three episodes of the Stacy’s Video Diary: Jac series. Watch how much I focus on keeping my hand steady from the early rides all the way to episode 29. I actually recommend that you watch episode 29 first and study the ‘bend and counter bend’ exercise and then watch the previous exercises to see how I built to this stage of training. Watch for how steady my hands are and how Jac reflects this steadiness in his face.
Remember also that just like the golfer, football player or dancer it will take repeated practice to build muscle strength and muscle memory. As the horse builds this strength you will also see the horse carrying their body differently including the head being lowered and the body becoming more collected. Can you see how Jac physically got stronger from Episode 18 to Episode 29? Can you see the headset and collection that has been developed?
I wrote a post featuring the quote, “I would travel only by horse, if I had the choice.” And received the following comment:
“Yes!!! I keep saying, it would be awesome if someone developed a town that only allowed horse travel in the entire vicinity. If the roads were made for horses (soft), no cars or trucks to think about. All the stores could have hitching rails, or better, small corrals everywhere. Especially if you had lots of stores and restaurants….. oooh, restaurants with horse fare ;) . Friends houses could have a small stable instead of a garage, unless they owned a ranch, of course. And all the wonderful trainers and clinicians in the world (like Stacy Westfall) would want to live there or visit often and host clinics :D Hmmm…. what to call it…. what to call it?-Rebecca”
Good news! I have been to a place very similar to the one you describe…it is called Norco, California! In 2006 Norco began promoting itself as “Horsetown U.S.A” and even trademarked it.
When I visited Norco I was amazed to see that instead of sidewalks made of concrete there were instead, very well maintained dirt paths. Even the paved driveways had this dirt path running through it! Very frequently (maybe every block?) there were pens to turn horses in or places to tie…especially in front of the stores! And the stores….
I have never seen so many tack stores! Huge! And right beside each other! New, used, consignment stores, you name it…they have it.
A McDonalds with a hitching rail? Cross walk buttons at horse height? A community riding arena? Community round pens?
“Stacy I enjoy your blogs and thoughts thank you so much for what you do for the equine world. I grew up riding in open shows and for fun and decided that I would like to make a career out of training. I got my equine riding and training degree and spent some time riding under a reining pro. My ethics would not allow me to continue with my chosen profession so I got a normal job and now ride non pro. I happened across a sale with a horse raffle, I watched them start this mare and she was bred really nice. They pushed her too fast through the process since it was a show and they wanted to be riding her the next day. She bucked a lot… I mean a LOT when they first saddled her but by the second day with riding she was coming along great. Low and behold I win this mare. I take her home and start over with her and she is SUPER reactive and add that with cat like reflexes. I worked with her an entire winter on the ground and then started riding her. We had lots of good rides but one day out in the pasture a rabbit jumped out of the brush and she left, no bucking but there was no way I could stay on her. After that she dumped me several more times. I decided to start over again and went back to ground work and saw lots of improvement so the following summer I started riding again. Now when we loped she would suddenly start bucking which led to the very first stride of the lope being a buck. This was never consistent, some rides were great and others were not and she could REALLY buck. I stuck with her for several months for only one reason, I 100% feel the buck came from fear not nastiness. But the triggers were always different, some days there was no trigger, and the ground work prior to the ride was always great. I came to believe the mare had a wire in her head that would suddenly snap and I was tired and a little scared of her so our relationship would never be great. Whether this came from genetics or being pushed too hard her first few days I will never know. I have started several since her and they are great horses. I know the common philosophy is 100% of a horses’ problems are human created but I do not believe that. Do you believe some horse are just not trainable?”
My answer may not be popular but it is what I have observed. I have come up with a set of numbers, that although they are not perfect, can be used to analyze horses as a whole…including the possibly ‘unfixable’ horses.
10-80-10 is a term I have coined to describe the natural mental state, or trainability, of the horse population; which is to say that there are 10% of horses that are amazing, 80% that are average, and 10% that need professional or medical intervention.
Lets start with the top 10%. They are exceptional. If they were humans they would be Michael Jordans of the horse world. You will see theses horses winning big in their events BUT pay attention; you will also see them at your local open show or trail ride. Even without ‘the right training’ you can spot these exceptionally great minded horses. Sometimes they even stand out MORE when they are not in professional hands because it is even more obvious that it is the horse who is choosing to be good even in tough conditions. You will see them packing kids, green and novice riders around and wonder how their ‘training’ is still there despite the inconsistent hands and mixed cues…but it is not the ‘training’ but really their great mind that you are seeing. My stallion, Vaquero was one of these rare individuals as was my mom’s horse, Brandy, that she had when I was growing up. Brandy never won any thing of note but was always our ‘go to’ horse for teaching a new rider or building up a riders confidence. Brandy was not physically exceptional but mentally he was clearly in the top 10%.
My stallion, Vaquero, was mentally in the top 10% and he also had the rare combination of being physically talented as well. He was a joy to train and I believe that he would have excelled in anyones training program. Even if he had never been trained as a reiner any horseman who saw him would have appreciated him. Have you ever known a horse like this?
The middle 80% of horses is a tougher group to analyze. Inside the 80% there is a sliding scale of trainability BUT they all have one thing in common; they are greatly influenced by the training they receive. With good training techniques, horses that belong to this 80% can look like they are one of the top 10% but with bad training or life experience they can also look like they belong to the bottom 10%. Roxy was part of this group. She was not an easy horse in the beginning. When she was a two year old, the girl who worked for me at the time actually told me, “You’re crazy if you ride that horse outside.”…and she meant with a saddle and a bridle. Unlike Vaquero, Roxy could have become insecure and scared. She defaulted to fear and required patience and repetition to learn the proper way to respond.
The biggest difference to note between Vaquero and Roxy, the thing that identified one as the top 10% and the other as the 80%, was not where they ended up, the difference was in the amount of work it took to get them there. With Vaquero I could show him something once and he ‘got it.’ There was no fight or fear even if he was confused but he wasn’t confused often. He forgave mistakes and could handle pressure. He was like training a gifted child who could simply read a book and then perform.
The bottom 10% is generally the most difficult for people to accept the existence of. Notice that I didn’t use the word ‘unfixable’ but rather I said they need professional or medical intervention. It is accepted that genetically horses can be at risk for HERDA or HYPP…but no one is talking about possible mental issues. In humans it is documented that 20% of adults have experienced mental illness in the past year…why can’t these issues happen in horses also? In humans many of these are treated by therapy, medication or by dealing with the symptoms. Are some of these possibly appropriate for horses? Maybe. In addition to the mental component I also believe that there are horses dealing with untreated physical pain that can also cause difficulty. I knew a man who was given a ‘problem’ horse and later it was discovered that the horse had an old wire segment embedded deep in his shoulder.
I have personally seen a small number of horses that I believe had some kind of brain disorder. The one ‘common’ thread that they had was the tendency to ‘snap’ for no apparent reason. I am not talking about horses that lacked training or were in unusual or trying circumstances, but rather, horses that more closely resembled humans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am not condemning horses that potentially belong to the bottom 10% for whatever reason; I am stating that it is important to be aware that they can exist. Not everyone is equipped or capable of dealing with these horses which is why professional or medical intervention is usually the best route. Know what you are capable of dealing with and make your decision accordingly. Some people choose to keep these horses as pasture pets, accepting that they are unsafe to ride, other people continue to look for help for the horse, and still others choose the route that was documented in the movie, “Buck“.
Have you seen horses that fall into each of the categories? What category do your horses fall into?
Vaquero had an exceptional mind and I put him in the top 10% of horses, when considering them mentally.
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I can appreciate this quote because I also believe that the world looks better from the back of the horse. I love the pace, whether that is walking and enjoying all the detail you would miss from a car, or if it is galloping up a hill feeling the wind, smelling the fresh air and feeling the power of the horse I am riding. Traveling by horse gives me time to think and appreciate my surroundings.
Do you prefer riding a horse over other forms of transportation? Why?Here is a link to a blog about a man who has been traveling by horseback for years!