Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC
Welcome to Bit of Honey Training LLC

Monday, February 22, 2021

Effect of Rider Weight on the Horse

I occasionally get the following question from clients:  "I'm a heavy set person, can I still take riding lessons?"  My answer is nearly always, "Yes!"  

In the horse world, as in many other sports, there is a social construct which says the participant must be a certain weight, or body type, to be successful or even accepted in their discipline.  How often have we been to a horse show and overheard people discussing the weight of a rider on her horse in the ring?  Some riding styles are are more prone to this spectator judgement, notably the ones where female riders are expected to wear tight stretchy pants and ride big horses.  

Interestingly, you rarely hear people criticize the weight of male western riders, some of whom are quite large with heavy western saddles, on small quarter horses.  Personally, I've heard many times that a woman shouldn't be riding her (large, substantial, athletic) warmblood because she's heavy, but I've never heard anyone remark that a large man on a small quarter horse isn't appropriate.  That difference is definitely something to notice about how we treat genders in the horse world.

Even worse, I sometimes hear self-criticism from riders.  I inwardly cringe when I hear these things because it's so much more valuable to focus on skills rather than a number on a scale.  "I'm too heavy to ride", "I know I'm not a lightweight rider", "I'll ride when I lose X amount of weight".    I'm eager to debunk some of these negative thoughts because there is solid science that shows horses do much better than we think with heavy riders, especially if the rider is balanced.

In my personal experience, mature horses seem to do quite well carrying a heavy rider.  I've worked with many different types of horses, from small ponies to full drafts, and I've found them to be quite capable and comfortable carrying up to about 30% of their body weight.  Of course adding the weight of the saddle is a factor if you're using a heavy roping saddle.  However, when using a lightweight english saddle, its weight isn't as much of an issue.

That said, of course I want my riders to be healthy.  Rider fitness is critical, particularly with disciplines like eventing and endurance which more heavily require physical exertion.  But there are many ways and weights at which one can be healthy, and it's worth noting that different fitness levels are required of a pleasure rider in the arena versus an upper level eventer. 

I recently read a very interesting book which discussed a concept the authors called BIC, or the Bikini Industrial Complex:

"This is our name for the hundred-billion-dollar cluster of businesses that profit by setting an unachievable 'aspirational ideal' for us, convincing us that we both can and should - indeed we MUST - conform with the ideal, and then selling us ineffective but plausible strategies for achieving that ideal...  

The Bikini Industrial Complex, or BIC, has successfully created a culture of immense pressure to conform to an ideal that is literally unobtainable by almost everyone and yet is framed not just as the most beautiful, but the healthiest and most virtuous...  The body mass index (BMI) chart and its labels - underweight, overweight, obese, etc. - were created by a panel of nine individuals, seven of whom were 'employed by weight-loss clinics and thus have an economic interest in encouraging use of their facilities.'  You have been lied to about the relationship between weight and health so that you will perpetually try to change your weight...

With the time and money we spend on worrying about the shape of our bodies and attempting to make them 'fit', what else might we accomplish?...  If you're using up decision-making and attention-focusing cognitive resources on choices about food, clothes, exercise, makeup, body hair, and fretting about your body's failures, what are you too exhausted to care about, that you would otherwise prioritize?" -Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, Burnout, p107-112

I encourage you to spend your cognitive resources on something that brings you joy, like improving your riding or becoming a better horsewoman, rather than fueling the Bikini Industrial Complex.

I do find that the smaller the horse, the more careful I need to be with my balance.  When riding a compact horse I imagine that I'm a Lego person, sitting just behind myself in the saddle.  This makes my movements smaller, and changes to my balance less pronounced. 

When I'm riding a huge horse, I still try to be careful with my balance, but shifts in my weight don't affect my mount as much when she's that much over 1000 lbs!

Now for the science:


The data from the study linked above shows that when the rider weighs under 30% of the horse's weight the horse isn't really affected by the weight.  So on a draft horse who weighs 1700 lbs, the rider could comfortably weigh anything under 510 lbs.  A pony who weighs 600 lbs should have a rider under 180 lbs.


This article linked above discusses the balance component of weight and riding.  Horses have a much easier time carrying a balanced heavy rider than an unbalanced light rider.  This is why we focus so much on balance and symmetry in our riding here at Bit of Honey, because balance affects the horse SO MUCH MORE than weight does.  

This is particularly significant when working with riders with disabilities in therapeutic riding settings for a couple reasons.  Riders with disabilities often have challenges with their balance, which we know affects the horse.  Also, therapy horses are often smaller than average to allow therapists to reach the rider and physically assist.  So it's important to make sure that size of the horse is suitable to size of the rider for mounted sessions, especially if the rider has challenges with balance. 


This linked article discusses how changes in rider weight doesn't significantly affect horses, either.  This should hopefully bring some peace of mind to riders whose weight fluctuates.  Again, balance is more important, so don't sweat it if your weight changes with the seasons.  Mine sure does, and my horses handle it quite well!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Raven's Friday Night Colic in a Snowstorm

Last weekend I had a scare.  When I was outside feeding the horses in the evening, Raven was standing at the gate, which in itself isn't too unusual.  The odd part was how agitated she was.  She happily ate her mash, but when she finished she began pawing, kicking, staring at her belly, and then proceeded to lie down and get up repeatedly in the alley between the barn and the water tanks, a high traffic area where she was sure to be noticed.  

I brought her back into the barn, checked all her vital signs, and discovered that she was feeling painful and had a belly ache, or colic.  I gave her a dose of equine pain medication, contacted my veterinarian Dr. Landes with Equine Medical Services, and passed on to him all her vitals and how she was presenting.  I gave her an hour to see if the pain meds I'd administered would have an effect, but unfortunately they didn't seem to make her any more comfortable.  By then it was dark and cold, as we were in the midst of a polar freeze plummeting the temperatures down to negative double digits, and it was snowing.  Dr. Landes headed out to our facility in the dark snowstorm.


In the forty minutes it took for him to arrive from his place, Raven became progressively more painful.  I began walking her in a large circle outside the barn in our parking area which was just barely lit by the barn lights reflecting off the snow.  If I wasn't actively distracting her she would throw herself on the ground and begin thrashing regardless of whether she was in the stall, barn aisle, or outside in the snow.  I didn't want her to injure herself in this violent behavior, so I kept telling her I heard her complaints, but that we needed to keep moving as walking was safer than flailing.  

Generally with a mild colic I let the horse lie down, as pressure from the ground on the belly will often help with pain relief.  However, when Raven was not merely lying quietly but thrashing in pain to the point of injury I couldn't let her roll like that.  We were still walking when Dr. Landes arrived, and we all went into the barn where he tried to take her temperature.  As soon as she was standing in the barn she tried to collapse and go down, so instead of taking her temperature Dr. Landes gave her some IV pain meds and sedative.  Once she was standing quietly under the influence he resumed his examination.

She had no gut sounds on auscultation (listening with the stethoscope), which was different than an hour previously when I'd appreciated very loud rumblings coming from her abdomen.  Because she was in so much pain Dr. Landes gloved up to his armpit to do a rectal exam, my computer programmer husband looking on appreciating his tech job more all the time.  Thankfully there was nothing amiss internally that Dr. Landes could tell.  Her spleen was in the right place and was a normal size, her manure looked normal, there were some fecal balls in her small intestine, there was no twist in the intestines that could be felt.  It didn't explain why she was acting this way, but it was good news that nothing catastrophic was obvious.

Dr. Landes then proceeded to place a nasogastric tube (a tube that goes up the horse's nose, through the esophagus, and down into the stomach) and gave her some mineral oil and water.  The hope was that she would gain some hydration that way and I could watch for the mineral oil to appear in her manure to demonstrate that the biological plumbing was working all the way through.  I put her in the stall in the barn in some deeply bedded shavings with warm water buckets so that I could monitor her better.  We did everything we could for her in a snowy barn at night, and then it became a waiting game to see if she would feel less painful once the sedation wore off.  If the pain broke through the medications and sedative we would have had to consider hospitalization, surgery, euthanasia, all the difficult and expensive decisions.

For the next several hours through the night I went out to check on her and made detailed notes on her stance (up/down), whether she had drunk any water, whether she had passed manure and what it looked like (color/consistency/shape/mucus/mineral oil), heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate, mucus membranes, and capillary refill time.  She did lie down over the next few hours, but it was quiet resting not the agitated thrashing I'd seen earlier in the evening.  Finally at eleven pm I sent Dr. Landes the last text of the night saying she was looking much better and we could each go to sleep since I wouldn't need him to come out again that night.  My husband checked her once more just after midnight and she still looked ok, so he eventually came to bed too.  

The following day Raven was bright eyed and eager for morning mash.  I gave her the regular amount of mash, but I made it extra soupy to get more warm water into her in case this had been a dehydration colic.  She happily slurped it up, sounding just like a toilet being plunged.  She'd passed normal manure overnight, had been happily eating at her hay bag, and had drunk a few gallons of water.  Still no idea what had caused her to colic, but sometimes you don't get the answers.  I kept her in the stall for the rest of the day and that night, just to be able to continue monitoring her more carefully than if she had been out in the big paddock with the other horses.  Sunday morning she still looked like herself, feisty with sassypants, so I let her go back out to her usual living accommodations.

As a result, I've been feeling quite thankful for my situation.  I'm so grateful to have a barn with lights where we could treat her at night in a snowstorm.  I'm grateful for Dr. Landes' willingness to come treat her when we all know it would have been nicer to stay home on the couch in such bitter cold weather.  I'm grateful for my husband checking on her one last time before bed for my peace of mind, as well as coming outside to keep me company as I walked her in the parking area in the snow.  Mostly, I'm grateful for Raven.  Getting so close to the hard decisions makes me reflect on my time with her, and how much I appreciate her being in my life.  A huge blessing to me was the day Feisty McSassypants became my mare.

I came across a short essay online from Legacy Sporthorses Facebook page this afternoon that I edited to suit my own relationship with Raven.  Here it is:

There is an unfortunate trend going on in the world of horses (and rescue) that I see all too often. Having unrealistic expectations from our equine partners and seeking "the perfect horse".

The reality is, there truly isn't a "perfect" horse. Every single horse you meet will have his own set of quirks and personality traits that makes him, well, HIM. From barn presence, to behavior faults, each one is unique. As owners, our job is find a horse with such characteristics that suit us.  When horse shopping I tell people that every horse has baggage, just like every rider.  You have to find the horse whose baggage color-coordinates with yours.

A prime example of this is my mare Raven. She has become my right hand mare for any job that needs done. In the years I've had her she's carried me to the top of many mountains, she's helped me with young horses in the training program, gone to horseshows, searched for lost dogs in the snow, given demonstrations of tricky coursework and footwork in riding lessons, ridden thousands of back country miles and has kept me safe in many tight spots on cross country courses. She forces me to examine my riding skills and improve, and when I do she demonstrates she’s an upper level athlete. She has always been barefoot with never a footsore day.  She saved my mental health several years ago, reminding me that strong women are both born and made. Reading this, some folks would say she is the "perfect" horse.

People who know her well though, would say she has all the quirks and triggers I find most endearing and not everyone would like the type of quirks she has.

She insists I ride correctly, or she will buck or rear in disgust. She gets excited and nervous about going places and will get herself pretty worked up if she doesn't have enough warmup, or has too long a warmup before competing. She is like riding a race car both in the arena and on the trail, small, sporty, and quick-maneuvering.  If you watch her when tied at the trailer, she'll fling poop at you as she swings her hind feet in impatience before a ride.  She insists on correctly fitting tack, every piece of it from bit (or hackamore) to hind boots and everything in between.

However, every time she “popcorns” after a particularly good jump I laugh. When she squats to go down extremely steep terrain on the trail I breathe deep and give her a long rein so she can navigate her footing, which she does without ever putting a hoof wrong. When she gets nervous and distracted, I give her a task to concentrate on. I have professionals who do body work for her to help her perform at her best, and I always double check my tack.



These are the things that, albeit annoy me some days, are my favorite things about her because it's what makes her Raven in all of her antics. She’s as smart as the ravens who live in our indoor arena, in a giant nest that they add onto every year, and who have learned to mimic all the sounds regularly heard around here.  These birds click, kiss, bark, whine, and I swear I’ve heard them say my name.  Those birds are brilliant, and so is my Raven.  No horse is perfect but Raven is perfect for me. 

If you want the perfect horse, get a four-wheeler that doesn’t make its own decisions. Just remember that next time you're looking for your next partner, to find the horse with quirks that are fun for you, and whose baggage color coordinates with yours.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Mountain Thoroughbreds

This time of year I sure miss trail riding. Here are my three Thoroughbreds on long distance rides, Highboy and Raven are always barefoot and never have had issues, Note wears front shoes for rocky terrain.

One for Nothing, Note, at Beaver Ponds at Jack's Gulch up Poudre Canyon in Northern Colorado before the fires in 2020.

Note at Fort Robinson in Crawford, Nebraska in 2019
Colorado High, Highboy, on Pronghorn Loop at Soapstone Prairie in Northern Colorado in 2015

Highboy at Mueller State Park in Colorado with a view of Pikes Peak in the background in 2018

Raven at Red Mountain Open Space in Northern Colorado in 2020

Raven at Crested Butte in Colorado in 2018

We'll get back to trail riding once the weather improves....

Monday, February 15, 2021

Racehorse Art

I do love my retired racehorses, and I really love drawing exciting scenes with them running, and sometimes jumping in steeplechase races.  Here are a few of my recent racehorse pieces, all are available to purchase from www.BrainDamageDrawings.com


Thursday, January 28, 2021

I don't break horses, but I do start them under saddle.


I have enjoyed starting many horses under saddle over the years.  I've started two year olds, I've started 20+ year olds, and I've started many ages in between.  Years ago I got a phone call from a rancher in Wyoming, who had "30 head to get broke" that year.  He was hoping I'd come to his ranch and over the summer get them to be green riding horses.  I politely declined, as even at that time I didn't travel to outside ranches to train horses, and I wouldn't leave my facility here in Colorado (to likely go get killed trying to ride baby horses who had never been touched).  Now when I get phone calls asking if I "break" horses, I reply saying, "I do my best NOT to break them.  I do start them under saddle."  

This diagram showing the approximate ages when growth plates mature in horses.  There is some variability in when the growth plates finish maturing, as geldings tend to mature a little later than stallions and mares, and the larger the horse (17h vs. 14h) the later they mature.  I grew up hearing the conventional wisdom that you should "wait until the growth plates close in the knee" before working the horse really hard.  Now that we know more about the growth process, it makes more sense to me to wait longer.

The growth plates closer to the ground mature first, and the last ones to finish are at the top of the body, in the back and neck.  Since when riding we sit on his back and the horse needs his neck for balance, it makes sense to wait until he's older to start riding him.  To be honest, the simplest horses I've started have been in the 6-10 year old age range.  I suspect this is not only because they have had time to mature mentally, but they also are physically capable of doing what I ask.   

Often these horses were purchased as youngsters and then life got in the way for their owners, and eventually they realized the horse was an adult and had no riding training.  I really enjoy working with horses from these situations, because they often have had time to grow up and hang out with a herd learning social skills, which makes starting them under saddle much easier.  Baby horses have the attention span of a flea, but I can work with an adult for the better portion of an hour without losing their attention. 


In my barn I have several larger Thoroughbreds.  Highboy and Dewey are currently my tallest, Highboy at a half inch over 17h, and Dewey at 16.1h.  Highboy continued getting taller until he was eight, he finally hit 17h in his eight year old year.  Dewey grew his final half inch of height during his eight year old year.  They both had been ridden as youngsters as they were both off the track, but hadn't been ridden hard as they were abysmally slow.  I restarted each of them gradually, and didn't ride them hard until they were more mature.  I think that's partly why Highboy is totally sound and loves his job eventing at 12 years old, and Dewey is such a nice mover despite his somewhat wonky conformation.  Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I can list many just like them who have been in my barn for years.  

In my own ideal situation with no time constraints (no futurities, no young horse or future event horse competitions, no need to push the horse in its training to get it sold), I prefer this tentative schedule for starting a youngster and avoiding overuse injuries:

Yearling: Come for 1 month of in-hand training to learn ground manners when leading, how to stand tied politely for grooming, loading in and and out of the trailer, picking up feet for the farrier, standing quietly for the veterinarian.  Introduce obstacle work such as bridges, tarps, hula hoops, anything else found at the dollar store to desensitize the yearling to new things.

Two years old: Come for one month to continue ground work.  Refresher on yearling skills, plus learning to free lunge with voice commands, how to wear tack from surcingle/pad to saddle/breastplate, free jumping to assess natural ability and whether he likes it.  May begin attending competitions as good exposure to "real world" situations.

Three years old:  Come for a month to review previous training.  Add to it minimal lunging on a long lungeline, introduce wearing a basic snaffle bit, introduce ground driving, clicker training to finesse obstacle work, begin ponying while I'm riding one of my older horses.

Four years old:  Come for 3-4 months to begin riding if the horse is ready.  If the horse is not ready mentally or physically, repeat three year old work for one month instead.


Five years old:  Come for 3-4 months to begin riding if not previously started.  If the horse is not ready mentally or physically, repeat three year old work for one month instead.  Starting under saddle includes learning to carry a rider at the walk, trot, canter on both leads, halt, back, turning, and riding both in the round pen/arena as well as out in the fields and on trails.  Long walks with lots of gentle hills develop the horse both physically and mentally.

Six years old:  Horse can be put into full training if mentally and physically ready.  This includes reviewing everything from year five, plus introducing small cross rails for jumping and low cavaletti work. Sliding and spins may be gradually introduced at this time.

Seven year old:  Horse can be in full training if mentally and physically ready.  Jumping under saddle with a rider over various obstacles both in and out of the arena, gymnastic work, with spins and sliding stops.  Cross training in various footing, sand, dirt, grass, rocky trails, hill work.  

Eight years old: Horse can really begin to compete in his preferred discipline.  


I recognize that my "ideal" schedule is a generous one regarding timeline.  There are very few horses who are allotted this much time to grow up and learn their job. It's understandable from a financial perspective.  Who can afford to give their horse this much time and training before starting to compete?  What about all the young horse competitions, such as futurities, maturities (still for young horses), young event horse, future event horse, or FEI young horse dressage competitions?  What about having the young horse move quickly up the levels as a way to prove its athleticism and value, as well as the trainer's value?

In this industry, a traditional way trainers try to make money is by getting a horse, putting some training on it, and selling it for more than they invested.  People tend to think that the horse is "better" if it's farther along in its training at a younger age, that a trainer is "better" if they have horses who are quickly moving up the levels.  People want to purchase young horses with lots of training.  This may be the standard in the equine industry, but is it the best thing for the horse?

So many issues, both physical and mental, can be from overuse.  Of course horses are flight animals, and some do their very best to injure themselves as often as possible.  But if I can avoid problems by starting my horses later and slower, I'll choose long term soundness for them every time.   I'm extremely fortunate to be in a position where I could take years to get Highboy jumping around a cross country course with prelim level questions.  I'm also grateful that I was able to develop Dewey slowly and correctly, so that his superficial scars and injuries are from accidents while playing, and nothing that will limit him athletically.  I recognize this is not an option for so many people and horses, and I'm extremely thankful to have the options I do.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Training Progression

I'm a stickler for correct physiological training and development, and one of the simplest ways to address it with horse training is the dressage pyramid.  I've recently come across a diagram with sketches of the horse's posture at each stage, and after looking at it for a while I decided I should have photographs of each of the stages...  So I created my own pyramid with photographs to illustrate!

This is the reference diagram, I love how it shows the horse's balance gradually shift to the hind end as you move up the pyramid.

This is the pyramid using photos of horses who have been at Bit of Honey over the years.  As expected, there were many Rhythm, Relaxation, and even Contact photos on my computer, since they are at the bottom of the pyramid most of our riding and training time is spent on those foundations.  I was able to find a decent impulsion photo - you can tell because the horse is really reaching underneath herself with her hind legs and her haunches are significantly lower than her withers but she's definitely moving forwards so has the "thrust" required of impulsion.  

Straightness had to be a halt photo - apparently we don't save enough pictures of horses coming straight towards the camera or going straight away!  Lastly the collection photo had to be of a horse placing all her weight in her hind end, loading the springs in her legs to take off over a jump.  We don't spend a ton of time in true collection because it's the most physically taxing for the horse and it's more important to build the foundation before you place the top on the pyramid, but we definitely see true shifting of weight entirely to the hind end with good jumping form in the horse!

What is "Feel"?


At the risk of being negative, one of my pet peeves is the use of the word "feel" in lessons, clinics, or while training horses.  I don't mean, "Can you feel that these bristles are softer than the hard brush?  That's why we use the soft brush for a final polish on the horse's coat"...  In the horse world, particularly in certain genres of horse training, "feel" is one of those mystical phrases that everyone uses but never explains.  It's a vague indescribable quality that some horsemen have and some don't, but good luck trying to find someone to explain what it actually is or how to get it.  It's extremely common to hear things like:

"Feel is THE most important thing"

"Without feel, you will never accomplish your goals"

"That person has a great feel of her horse"

"You must learn feel"

"A person either has a good feel or they don't"

All these statements beg the question, "Then, dear Equine Guru, do share with us, what exactly is 'feel' and how do I learn it?"  Most of the time, responses are merely a repetition of how important feel is, and declaring you either have it or your don't.  I don't find this line of conversation particularly helpful, and it certainly doesn't describe what "feel" is.  As a result, I don't use this expression.   

"Feel", as often used in the horse world, is really just timing.  Horsemen tend to use the word feel when they mean a person did a good job of releasing pressure at the appropriate time when training with negative reinforcement.  For example, if I'm lunging a horse and trying to get him to step forwards, I'll sometimes lift my whip off the ground to put psychological pressure on him.  As soon as he takes a step forwards, I lower the whip.  Applying the negative stimulus (lifting the whip) to get a certain behavior (stepping forwards), then ceasing the negative stimulus when I get the desired behavior is called negative reinforcement.  

If I do it with correct timing the horse will learn that he should step forwards to avoid the discomfort of the whip getting higher in the air and closer to him.  If I repeatedly do this with correct timing, one might say I have good "feel" with ground work.  The phrase is a gross oversimplification of basic behavioral psychology techniques.  One does need a better understanding of behavioral psychology to explain using a lunge whip correctly, as well as more words to truly explain, rather than just labeling it "feel".

(This chart is the quintessential one used to illustrate positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, and merits its own blog post, but it's good to have it available as a quick referral to what each of the methods entails.)

When riding, "feel" is also about timing.  If a rider consistently applies a leg aid at the exact right time to get the correct lead at the canter, you'll hear people say "she has a good feel for canter departures".  A more accurate way to explain what happened is to say the rider pressed her horse's side with the calf of her outside leg at the instant the horse's outside hind leg was pushing off of the ground.  When the horse pushes off into the canter with the outside hind leg, the horse will be on the correct, or inside, lead at the canter due to the pattern in which the legs move at that gait.  One needs a good understanding of equine gait analysis to explain cuing a correct canter depart, as well as more words to truly explain rather than just labeling it "feel".

Sometimes you'll hear that a rider "took a feel of the horse" in preparation for a jump, a hard stop, a fast turn, or some other athletic maneuver.  In this instance it merely means the rider shortened the reins slightly, or moved her hands so that she could literally feel the horse's mouth with her hands through the reins and bit.  This also has to be done with correct timing, since it is a way to rebalance a horse in preparation for the maneuver.  One needs a better understanding of equine biomechanics and how the rider's hands affect it, as well as more words to truly explain rather than just labeling it "feel".

So really, "feel" is timing.  It's the ability to communicate with the horse using aids or cues with correct timing and strength, when applying or removing them.  It takes more words and a deeper understanding of the subject at hand to explain the how and why, rather than just calling it "feel".  Next time you hear an instructor proclaim the necessity of feel, see if you can figure out how timing of aids would influence the situation.  And if the instructor won't explain the how and why, perhaps they're using "feel" as a cop-out because they don't understand, or can't explain the particulars of the behavioral modification technique.