Ground Work

In the Laboratory of the Horse/Human Connection

Lately I’ve been wondering exactly why riding “works.” When we ride, we use non-verbal cues that allow us to move forward in harmony (usually) with our horse. In a ground work clinic, I began to understand how these messages get sent and received.

Cathie Hatrick-Anderson’s farm is tucked away in a woodsy hollow in Upton, Massachusetts. Her round pen is in the middle, with paddocks for her horses, and her client’s horses, surrounding the pen. Using her horses, Ruger, Kachina, and Jasper, Cathie covered tying, backing, walking, turning, moving through gates, and some client problems, such as applying fly spray and de-worming.

There was no note taking! We were too busy practicing with Cathie’s horses. Here’s what stuck, and some thoughts about why Cathie’s exercises work.

Body Language

Horses are incredibly sensitive to body language. Learning the basics is fun and directly applicable to riding. Energy “up” when asking. Energy “down” when the horse responds. All of us who ride have had the experience of communicating with horses without words. This mostly works through non-verbal communication.

In her chapter “Toward a Privileging of the Nonverbal: Communication, Corporeal Synchrony, and Transcendence in Humans and Horses,” Gala Argent of Eastern Kentucky University outlines the components of non-verbal communication.

  • Kinesics is the study of body movement and position, including facial expressions. In its largest scale, according to Argent, kinesics is about posture and gestures. The other end of the scale is facial expression.
  • Haptics is the study of tactile communication. 
  • Proxemics is about the dynamics of “personal space.”

Equine Instinct

A frightened horse will flee first and think later. When leading, resist the impulse to control a nervous horse by restraining him/her. This could be gripping the reins close to the bit (I’ve done this) especially when the horse is distracted or upset. Control the mind, not the body.

Horses are wired for survival. As a friend says, “If they don’t think you will take care of them, they will take care of themselves.”  In The Nature of Horses, Stephen Budiansky writes: “Watching a good trainer or rider at work, it is clear that human dominance is asserted and maintained largely through confidence and assurance, a language that horses through long evolutionary adaptation are well-equipped to understand.”  Constraining a horse with a rope or a bit on the ground will always be a losing battle owing to the differences in the respective weights of human and horse!

Leadership and “Training”

There is a fine line between establishing leadership and frightening a horse, especially a young or sensitive one. Ask, reward, and correct, but don’t keep asking after you get what you want. If fear is overwhelming the horse’s ability to think, stop. In my very limited experience, it appears that horse training follows the theories I learned in college Psychology 101. Stephen Budiansky reviews this for us in The Nature of Horses.

Classical Conditioning

  1. Stimulus – Sound of feed poured in to bucket
  2. Voluntary response – Approach, investigate
  3. Positive reinforcement (food)

Operant Conditioning (positive stimulus)

  1. Stimulus – Sound of feed poured in to bucket
  2. Voluntary response – Approach, investigate
  3. Positive reinforcement (food)

Operant Conditioning (negative stimulus)

  1. Stimulus – (reins tightened)
  2. Voluntary response (step backward)
  3. Negative reinforcement (reins released).

Horses react, but they can also think. We know that horses make associations; for their welfare, and ours, we want them to make the right ones. Ask once, then again. If there is no response, ask louder. Do it with your equipment (rope, whip) and body language not your voice. Watch the feet. Moving the feet is the first step (no pun intended) to engaging the brain.

There are many scientific studies about social hierarchies, dominance and the role of proxemics in horse society. Occasionally, you need to use a stronger “aid” but its use is never about punishment. It’s an extension of the three parts of non-verbal language (body stance, haptics, and proximity).

Using her body language for the horses, and words for the humans, Cathie was able to demonstrate these things in three hours. It left me with a better understanding of the communication channel that opens up when we start working with horses. Understanding the nature of the horse, and the elements of non-verbal communication is a big part of why riding “works.”


  1. Smith, J., & Mitchell, R. (Eds.). (2012). Experiencing Animal Minds: An Anthology of Animal-Human Encounters. Columbia University Press. Retrieved from Researchgate. 
  2. Budiansky, Stephen. (1997). The Nature of Horses: Exploring Equine Evolution, Intelligence and Behavior. New York: The Free Press.

Happy New Year

Wishing you Jinba Ittai “Horse and Rider as One”

I have been riding horses for a long time – since my teens. I love riding, but it can be a lot of work. After all the work of learning and practice, occasionally something magical happens. It is temporary and elusive (and can be gone with in a second), but every-once in a while it happens – a state where riding is effortless. Everything just works. Horse and rider become one.

Samurai on horseback, wearing armor and horned helmet, carrying bow and arrows. Circa 1878

In their latest newsletter, Mazda had an article about “Jinba Ittai” (horse and rider as one) to describe the “feel” of driving their new MX-5 Miata. The horse and rider in this video are practicing Yabusame, traditional mounted archery. Yabusame is not a sport, but rather a ritual that goes back to 4th century Japan. In order to shoot at the target, the rider must guide the horse with his knees (stirrups, but no reins). The horse is getting cues from rider, and knows how to adjust speed and distance to hit the targets.

“Horse and rider as one” could be that flow that you experience when everything is working right – whether you are riding, driving, coding, making art, writing, raising kids, or just threading your way through daily life.

Happy New Year. I wish all of you a year of “Jinba Ittai” – the ability to hit your target, and the feeling of horse and rider as one.

Measuring Horse Personality


Last December, I lost Lago, my part-lease horse, to colic. Part of working through this loss was identifying what I liked about this goofy, personable, and sometimes aloof Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred gelding. In May I found Robin, a Thoroughbred/Percheron cross. Robin is interested in people, a little fearful of new things, and enthusiastic about work. Two different horses: two distinct personalities. Thinking about the differences between Lago and Robin, I started to wonder if there is a scientific basis to my intuitive ideas about their personalities. Here is what I found out:

Personality can be defined as an animal’s basic stance toward environmental stimuli that is expressed by behavior patterns and remains relatively stable across time and situations. To measure this, scientists use a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to reach a conclusion, or test a hypothesis about how a horse behaves and reacts to the world.

For example, the behavior coding method uses trained observers to record behavior of one animal at a time under controlled circumstances. In this study, researchers observed and recorded 13 behaviors (e.g. “aggressive” “alarmed” “fearful” “curious” “friendly” etc.) when horses were exposed to unknown humans in two controlled tests. First, the observers stood outside the stall, observed the horse for 30 seconds and rated the horses to establish a basic score. Then, they rated the horses on the same behaviors when approached outside the stall from a short distance, and inside the stall with touching. Results were consistent across observers and horses; the authors concluded that the test successfully measured personality.

In the trait rating method, observers rate specific, commonly understood traits. This study examined the occurrence of specific breed traits to see if anecdotal knowledge about breed temperament was supported by testing. 1223 horses representing 8 different breeds were assessed by experienced horse people and rated according to 25 traits. Horses were rated on a scale that indicates levels of agreement about a trait (e.g. Strongly disagree | Disagree | Neither agree nor disagree | Agree | Strongly agree). In this study, anxiousness and excitability showed the highest variation between breeds.

Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Welsh cobs were ranked at the top of this list with Irish Draught and Highland ponies at the low end of the scale. Sociability and inquisitiveness showed low variability between breeds, with the Arab and Thoroughbred ranking highest, the Irish Draught and American Quarter Horse ranking lowest. These results align with anecdotal evidence of breed temperaments.

Personality studies are not perfect. There is no one model for describing personality, and there are many methods for measuring it. A horse’s reactions to different stimuli may be different on different days, and human observations can be subjective. Also, horses can become habituated to even the most upsetting noises and situations.

Despite the difficulty of measuring and characterizing equine personality, these studies are useful because they can inform suitability of an individual horse for a job or discipline. This can only be good for both horses and people.

When the Horse Throws Up in Front of the Pharmacy

PharmacyHorse copyMy friend Karin is a dressage rider from Germany, so she was the perfect person to explain the odd German expression: “Ich habe schon Pferde vor der Apotheke kotzen gesehen.” Roughly translated this means “I’ve seen horses puke in front of the pharmacy.”

According to Karin, this phrase is used to express something that is completely unlikely (horse anatomy prevents them from vomiting). For example, “I’m going to clean the house every day” might be met with: “Yes, and I’ve seen horses puke in front of the pharmacy.” – something similar to “Yes, and I’ve seen pigs fly.”

It is true that horses cannot vomit, but why “in front of the pharmacy?”

A horse vomiting in front of the pharmacy is extremely unlikely because 1) Horses don’t vomit and 2) The pharmacy contains all of the possible remedies for vomiting!

Could Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) be a Treatment for Laminitis?

With knowledge about the molecular mechanisms of chronic laminitis (founder), the biology of PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma), and evidence that PRP helps to heal tendons, ligaments, and wounds, researchers at the Universidad de Caldas in Manizales Columbia describe why they think that PRP (platelet-rich plasma) might be a useful therapy for laminitis.

In their paper, Could Platelet-Rich Plasma be a Clinical Treatment for Horse with Laminitis? the researchers describe five horses that showed new hoof growth and improved hoof horn quality after a course of PRP injections. These horses, which had chronic laminitis after episodes of tying up, colic and traumatic hoof damage, all showed visible improvement after treatment with PRP.

With these encouraging results and a detailed examination of the molecular picture in laminitis, the authors examine the possible ways that the PRP could help tamp down the various cell mediators that contribute to the inflammatory response in chronic laminitis.

Chronic Laminitis

Common TermAnatomical/Scientific Term
Coffin JointDistal Interphalangeal Joint
Coffin BonePedal Bone, Distal Phalanx, Third Phalanx
Laminae, LamelaeLaminae, Lamelae
FounderChronic laminitis

The authors observe that the chronic laminitis is similar to other types of inflammatory responses. The trouble starts when some metabolic disturbance – colic, grain overfeeding, Cushing’s disease, “tying up” (rhabdomyolysis), triggers a series of events that result in inflammation of the sensitive structures (lamellae) that lie between the pedal bone and the inner wall of the hoof. As the disease process progresses, the connection between the coffin bone and the hoof wall deteriorates, leaving the horse with weakened suspensory apparatus of the distal phalanx (SADP); the structures that buffer the daily pounding of the foot on the ground. 

Inflammation’s Effects

Chronic inflammation has several stages that involve mediators (cytokines, proteins, and enzymes) that act on cells in tendons, ligaments, and bone. In chronic inflammation, an initial inflammatory response kicks off a secondary one that releases matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), enzymes that break down components of collagen. Also present in inflammation are peptides that control blood vessel constriction, molecules that contribute to neuropathic pain, and other mediators that increase levels of cytokines that act on important structures like collagen, and the molecules that absorb and maintain water in the tissue.

Possibly, according to the authors, the molecular pathways in chronic inflammation could be the same events that cause deterioration and ultimately, separation of the lamellae and hoof wall in laminitis.

Why could PRP Help?

PRP (platelet rich plasma) is a formulation of blood platelets and plasma (usually from the patient). It is prepared with a centrifuge that separates the components of the blood. An anticoagulant is added so that the liquid does not clot. Platelets produce growth factors and proteins that are known to participate in essential biologic activities including collagen deposition, bone formation, and blood vessel formation.

Growth Factors and Cytokines

Seven growth factors produced by platelets have an effect on some of the molecular actors in chronic inflammation.  PRP is reported to have helped heal equine tendons and ligaments and is currently used in human sports medicine as an aid healing after tendon and ligament injuries. Knowing their general biological actions, and citing the current literature, the authors discuss the potential actions of these on the mechanisms of laminitis.

After describing encouraging results with five horses treated with PRP, the authors have considered why the growth factors released by platelets might help stop the inflammatory cycle that leads to chronic laminitis. “However,” they write, “additional basic and clinical research is necessary to determine the exact role of PRP as treatment of horses with chronic laminitis.” The next step, according to the authors, is more research to examine the specific actions of PRP on inflammation mediators in equine lamellae – specifically, the cell mediators that might be affected by PRP grown factors, and the genes that control them.


  1. Dhurat, Rachita, and MS Sukesh. “Principles and Methods of Preparation of Platelet-Rich Plasma: A Review and Author’s Perspective.” Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery 7, no. 4 (2014): 189–97.
  2. “Laminitis.pdf.” Accessed April 26, 2018.
  3. Libby, Peter. “Inflammatory Mechanisms: The Molecular Basis of Inflammation and Disease.” Nutrition Reviews 65, no. 12 Pt 2 (December 2007): S140-146.
  4. Pollitt, Christopher C. “The Anatomy and Physiology of the Suspensory Apparatus of the Distal Phalanx.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Equine Practice 26, no. 1 (April 2010): 29–49.
  5. “PRP Information.pdf.” Accessed April 26, 2018.

Mapping Contact Patterns at a Dressage Show in Ontario

Taking a break

Show season is here! You and your horse will travel to a local show, perhaps to another state, or even across the country. Your horse is vaccinated, registered, and ready to go. You know there is a potential for exposure to disease, so at the show, you try to limit his contact with other horses. If you could see the pattern of potential contacts at the horse show, what would it look like?

Using network analysis, a method from social media research, researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph described the network of contacts between horses at a 2-day dressage show in Ontario Canada.

Ninety-six competitors kept their horses in three different locations at the show – an outside covered arena (cover all), a barn, or a trailer in a field. Show attendees completed a questionnaire about contacts with other horses. Using the answers from the competitors, the researchers developed a network graph (see figure). The figure shows the relationships between the three locations at the fairgrounds, the horses attending the show (primary contacts), and the horses stabled at the home facility (secondary contacts). The lines represent connections between horses and locations.

From: Descriptive and network analyses of the equine contact network at an equestrian show in Ontario, Canada and implications for disease spread. BMC Veterinary Research. Authors: Kelsey L. Spence, Terri L. O’Sullivan, Zvonimir Poljak and Amy L. Greer. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph.

The graph shows a high degree of connectivity from horses from the home location (the black dots). The horses attending the show (blue dots) have a less dense pattern. “Only 8% (69/820) of the nodes in the network represented horses that were competing at the show, while 87% (710/820) represented horses stabled at individual home facilities,” according to the authors. The “home barn” contacts represent additional opportunities for contact, in addition to the relatively sparse connection density of horses at the show.

This, according to the researchers, is something to keep in mind when considering strategies for disease intervention and biosecurity. “Simply planning disease intervention strategies based on the horses that attended the show without explicit consideration of secondary contacts would severely underestimate the resources required to control a potential outbreak,” say the authors.

Visualizing equine contact patterns the same way we visualize social media contacts or computer local area networks could be helpful in determining biosecurity policies and heading off disease outbreaks.

The paper is freely available on the BMC Veterinary Research website. You can read it here.
Descriptive and network analyses of the equine contact network at an equestrian show in Ontario, Canada and implications for disease spread.