Category Archives: Horse Care and Management

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

clark smiling.jpg
Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

2014 Distance Days Awards 007
Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.



On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.


Book Review:  The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders  by Heather Cook

c 2009 Storey Publishing (North Adams), 231 pages

ISBN 978-1-60342-147-8

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders is a super easy to read and well organized book which represents the most comprehensive summary of the concepts of “sustainable practice for horse care, stable management, land use and riding” in one place to have crossed my desk.   Depending on your previous level of knowledge on the subject of eco-friendly horse management practices, this book might alternately be too basic in some areas or too detailed in others.  In either case, though, you are likely to find references to supplemental sources which can direct you to more information.


I have long maintained that the equine industry needs to get on board with more sustainable management strategies.  Too many farms are overstocked, with destroyed paddocks/turnouts, unsightly and unsanitary manure piles and out of date protocols.  This book helps take the reader through the steps necessary to establish a different paradigm, whether starting a farm from scratch or working with facilities and layouts already in place.  Cook does an excellent job of balancing general guidelines with more specific detail.  For example, each chapter concludes with guidance to be considered for various climate regions in the US and Canada.

Manure compost bins do not have to be overly fancy.  Image from


Some of the strategies covered in this book include techniques for “harvesting” water from rainspouts for use as wash water or for irrigation (which, interestingly, is illegal in Colorado); several methods of composting manure; selection of sustainable and healthy building materials; reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reclamation of muddy paddocks.  In addition, there is an extensive resource list compiled in an appendix which is clearly divided into sections such as green energy, grant sources, recycling, trail riding resources, helpful government and non-government organizations, etc.

muddy paddocks
Management strategies which reduce mud will prevent your paddocks from looking like this one.

This book really is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in being a good steward of their land, or in providing guidance to someone else who is in that role.  The onus is on all of us as concerned and conscientious citizens to do a better job of implementing management practices which consider the local and regional environment.  A healthy farm means healthy horses.

5/5 stars

Blogger’s Note:  Cover image is taken from, another great resources for assistance and tips on better horse and farm management strategies.


Hilary Clayton:  Biomechanical Interactions Amongst the Rider, the Tack and the Horse

Dr. Clayton shares her thoughts at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on October 27, 2015

There is no doubt that how we ride our horses, the tack we use on them and the manner in which the horses carry themselves has a cumulative effect on their well-being over time.  Whether that effect is positive or negative is one of the questions considered in the study of equine biomechanics, which combines the disciplines of physics and physiology to study how forces and work affect the body of the horse.  Dr. Hilary Clayton is well known for the work she has done in this field, and she visited the University of New Hampshire in October of 2015 to share her thoughts on some of the more common interactions which occur amongst the horse, the rider and the tack.

Dr. Hilary Clayton (Photo taken from her promotional poster.)

Equine Topline Mechanics 101

Clayton started her presentation with an overview of the structure of a horse’s vertebral column and how it works.  Just like in humans, the horse’s spine is made up of bone, ligaments, muscles and discs; equine discs are relatively thin compared to a human’s, and therefore horses don’t suffer from slipped discs and disc pain like humans can.  Even though the horse’s spine is horizontal, it loads similarly to a human’s in that it compresses together when force is applied.

In this skeleton of an Arabian, it is easy to see the difference in the bones of the cervical and thoracic spine.  Note also the proximity of the spinous processes.

Each intervertebral joint has a small degree of mobility; when taken in totality, this allows for considerable movement along the entire length of the horse’s spine.  The degree and type of movement which the topline displays varies with each gait. In the walk, there is some bending and rotation in the topline, but little flexion or extension.  At the trot, there is more flexion and extension and the back is stabilized.  At the canter and the gallop, there is a great deal of flexion and extension, particularly in the lumbosacral joint, and the back is stabilized.

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

Instructors and trainers will often tell their clients that their horses need to move with a swinging back.  Clayton explained that this statement is not wholly accurate.  When in locomotion, the horse’s back must actually remain stable in order to support the horse’s weight and to transmit propulsive forces from the limbs. Clayton says that when the horse moves at liberty, they are not actively moving their back.  The back movement we see is due to gravity, inertia and the propulsive forces of the hind leg. In fact, excessive mobility of the bones in the spine during motion is never the goal—it is the muscles which need to be supple into order to control the movement of the spine.

Charlotte Dujardin and the incomparable Valegro.  Photo by Florence Skowron, via Wikimedai Commons.

Clayton compared the structure of the articulated vertebrae of the horse’s spine to a beam which has a support at each end.  In the horse’s case, the “beam” tends to sag a bit in the middle, due to the weight of the internal organs and other viscera.  When we add the weight of a saddle and rider to this region, we increase the hollowing of the spine and the “dip” in the middle of the beam.  Clayton explains that with a rider, the range of flexion and extension is the same but the entire cycle of the motion is more extended.

Through the above description, it should be immediately apparent that the weight of the rider is inherently causing stress on the horse’s topline.  More troubling, though, is that when the horse’s back is hollowed as result of this weight, the dorsal spinous processes are approximated, which can lead to the development of the degenerative condition known as kissing spines.  Clayton’s research has shown that far more horses are affected with kissing spines than just those which show overt symptoms; however, even at a subclinical level, the syndrome can cause the horse discomfort and reduce the quality of their performance.  The good news is that when the back is rounded, the opposite effect occurs—the spinous processes are spread out. Therefore, regardless of your discipline, you horse should learn to work with a round topline.

In this image borrowed from a fellow wordpress user, the kissing spines can be clearly seen.

Round Backs and Development of the Horse’s Core

Clayton compared the mechanism which causes the horse’s back to be round to a “bow and string”.  The “string” is comprised of the muscles on the underside of the bones of the back, in this case the abdominal and sublumbar muscles.  The “bow” is therefore made up of the muscles located above the vertebrae.  Rounding their back requires the coordinated action of the horse’s core muscles.

Athletes of all species can achieve more optimal performance with a strong core.  These muscles are important both for balanced movement and coordinated stabilization.  Clayton divided the muscles of the horse’s core into three groups:  the back muscles, the sublumbar muscles and the abdominal muscles, and the groups work in concert to achieve the maximum mobility of the horse’s spine.

Image from

The back muscles make the topline hollow, round or bend right and left.  The sublumbar muscles flex the lumbosacral joint and the pelvis, which helps to bring the hind legs forward and underneath the body.  Finally, the abdominal muscles wrap all around the horse’s belly, running many different directions.  This group of muscles includes the transverse abdominal, the obliques and the rectus abdominus.  Collectively, they literally help hold the horse’s ‘guts’ in place, as well as stabilize the spine and assist with lateral bending.

Clayton explained the function of the back muscles in more specific detail. First, she discussed the longissimus and iliocostalis muscles, which are the long mobilizing muscles of the back.  They are made up of long fibers and cross many joints. These muscles are able to move the entire back of the horse.

The multifadi muscles serve the function of stabilizing the horse’s back.  These muscles are located right against the spinous processes and are comprised of short fibers which cross only a few joints; therefore, they work on only a limited area of the horse’s spine.  However, the condition of these muscles can have a profound effect on the shape of the back in a specific area.  More will be said on this later.

Image from

Clayton pointed out that most muscles work in pairs or layers; therefore, the deep stabilizing muscles are as important as the long mobilizing muscles, as they help to prevent vibration in the horse’s bones.  They also have a low activation threshold, which means that they will contract (along with the transverse abdominal muscle) simply in anticipation of locomotor activity.  They then serve to stabilize the horse’s spine as the limbs move.

Limited research has been done on the many effects of the horse’s stabilizing muscles on the spine.  However, research done on humans has shown that chronic back pain is often associated with atrophy of the deep stabilizing muscles, as joints then become too mobile.  Impaired spinal stabilization is an important risk factor and a predictor of recurrent back pain in humans.  Based on her research, Clayton extrapolates that a similar connection exists in horses.

Notice how the same muscles provide stability to the human spine.  Image found on

Human research has also shown that even when back pain is resolved, the deep stabilizing muscles do not resume normal activity on their own.  Physiotherapy exercises are necessary to re-train the pre-activation of the stabilizing muscles.  In human patients who underwent this therapy, the one year recurrence rate of pain reduced from 80% to 30%.

When it comes to back pain, Clayton says that horses go through a similar cycle to humans.  When the back hurts, the deep stabilizing muscles become inactive, resulting in atrophy.  This causes the long mobilizing muscles to compensate, but since they are not equipped to stabilize the spine, these muscles spasm and cause further pain.  Therapeutic exercises are needed to reactivate the deep stabilizing muscles and to break the cycle of compensation and pain.

Developing Your Horse’s Core with Dynamic Mobilization Exercises

Clayton has developed a series of core strengthening exercises and sequences through her research, and she goes into illustrated depth about these in her book, Activate Your Horse’s Core (Sport Horse Publications, 2008). She gave a brief synopsis during her presentation.

Dynamic Mobilization Exercises are those in which the horse follows a controlled movement pattern which strengthens the muscles that move and stabilize the back.  They are comprised of rounding exercises and bending exercises.  In the rounding exercises, most of the flexion comes from the poll (high position) or the base of the neck (low position).  In the bending exercises, most of the movement comes at the base of the neck.

Image from, from an article related to Dr. Clayton’s work.  

Clayton described a protocol which provided positive results in several “couch potato” school horses.  Using small bits of carrot to motivate the horse, they did three rounding exercises (chin to chest, chin between the carpi (knees) and chin between the fetlocks) and three lateral bending exercises (chin to girth, chin to hip, chin to hind fetlock).  For the lateral bending exercises, the human stood next to the horse, making them bend their neck around the human.  Horses did five repetitions/day and on left and right sides, if appropriate.  The exercises were repeated five days/week for three months.  Even with these stretches as the only form of exercise, the horses showed a positive development in their deep stabilizing muscles.

One of the benefits of these exercises is that the horse will only stretch as far as they are comfortable.  Ideally, the handler should encourage the horse to hold the stretch for as long as possible, but even stretching for a short period will help improve the strength of the multifidus muscle.   The best benefits are seen when these exercises are performed before the horse works each day; regular inclusion of them in a training program will help equine athletes throughout their career.  In addition, these exercises can be used in youngsters to help develop the deep stabilizing muscles before they begin under saddle training and are also especially beneficial for horses recovering from colic surgery, with appropriate approval from the attending veterinarian.

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The Role of Equipment and Rider in Equine Back Pain

When it comes to saddle selection and fit, it is clear that both the horse and the rider must be comfortable.  While the rider can simply vocalize their discomfort, the horse must express it in other ways, and it is important for riders and trainers to remain sensitive to this communication.  Unfortunately, the manner in which horses display the existence of back pain is as variable as the causes.  However, both the saddle and the rider can contribute to discomfort in the horse’s topline, and certain issues are almost sure predictors of pain in the horse.


Clayton has made extensive use of an electronic pressure mat which sits on the horse’s back in her research on saddles.  This specialized mat has 256 sensors (128 on each side of the spine) which measure force distribution on the horse’s back.  Her research has shown that the total force placed on the horse’s back varies with the size and weight of the rider and saddle as well as the gait of travel.

For example, in the trot, the suspension phase has minimal pressure, while the stance phase of each stride has the maximum force.  This is when the horse’s body is starting to rise up, but the weight of the rider is still down.  The mean force placed on the horse is at least equal to the rider’s weight in the walk; in the trot, it is two times the rider’s weight and in the canter it is three times.

This image, taken from, shows the pressure profile of a rider’s buttocks and thighs on the saddle.  Clayton’s tools offer her similar insight into the intensity, duration and location of pressure when a horse is in motion. 

Clayton says that she is frequently asked to quantify how much weight a given horse can fairly be asked to carry, but she says that this is a complex question to answer.  Variables such as the height, weight, conformation, fitness and soundness of the horse all play a role.  For example, a horse with a short and broad loin coupling can likely carry more weight than a horse of similar size with a long or narrow loin.  As far as the rider goes, variables such as weight, fitness, symmetry, balance, postural control and health issues all influence the impact they have on a given horse. Also important is the activity the horse is being asked to do—what type of work and on what kind of footing or terrain.

Finally, the saddle itself can have a positive or negative impact on a horse’s comfort level.  Each saddle is unique in terms of its load-bearing area, fit and suitability for a given horse, rider and job.   Soft tissues compress when pressure is applied.  The larger the area the force is spread over, the less overall pressure there will be.  This is one of the reasons why more modern saddles have long, broad panels.

Image from

Pressure is calculated via force divided by area.  Therefore, the pressure increases if the force is larger or if the contact area is smaller.  Areas of deep pressure can be very harmful, causing ulcers or necrosis of the tissue due to increased capillary pressure.  On a less extreme level, pressure can cause discomfort through abrasions.  Clayton says that it is the magnitude and duration of pressure which are most important.  Muscles in particular are easily damaged by pressure.

If you see dry spots under your saddle after work, these are areas of increased pressure which prevent the sweat glands from working and are cause for concern.

In this photo, it is clear where there has been an area of increased pressure and therefore inhibition of the sweating mechanism. 

Interesting Saddle Trivia

In her research, Clayton has had cause to investigate a number of different areas in which saddles might impact the horse, and she shared some of her findings with the audience.

One of the first questions she looked at was whether a saddle is truly necessary.  Most riders prefer to use a saddle for the stability and security it provides them on the horse’s back, and as it turns out, horses seem to prefer that their riders use saddles, too.  Without a saddle, the pressure of the rider is distributed over a smaller area, and the focal points of that pressure are over the rider’s seat bones.  (Interestingly, Clayton found similar results when she looked at one brand of treeless saddle, as well).  Clayton found that in general, a saddle which fits the shape of the horse’s back and the shape of the rider’s pelvis will provide stability to the rider’s position, and as a result, the pressure is more evenly distributed.  She also mentioned that within a breed, 80-90% of animals will have a similar back shape.

Correct saddle fit is of course of paramount importance.  Correctly fitted saddles are more stable, which increases horse and rider harmony.   The rigid parts of the tree, including the gullet plate, the points and the bars, can cause increased areas of pressure on the horse’s back.   It is important to consider the width of the gullet plate and length of the tree’s points in relation to the position of the scapula and related muscles.  When the horse extends their forelimb, the scapula rotates back and down on its back side, and rotates a little bit up in front.  This causes the back edge of the scapula to actually slide underneath the saddle in this moment of the stride.  A well fitting saddle should allow for free movement of the scapula when the forelimb is protracted.


Clayton says that the width of the tree is equally important.  The correct width allows the load to be evenly distributed over a large area.  Ideally, the contact area is long and wide, with no focal points of high pressure.  A tree which is too wide may cause the gullet to put direct pressure on the withers and/or cause high pressure along the panels close to the spine.  In addition, the saddle often tips forward and down.  A tree which is too narrow is one of the most common causes of bridging; there is more pressure at the front and the back of the panels, and the saddle tips backwards.  Clayton says that bridging is the most common saddle fit problem, and it must be evaluated with the rider on board and while the horse is in motion.

Image from  

More nuanced aspects of saddle fit include assessing the width of the gullet and slope and shape of the panels.  A wider gullet is usually better, because it allows mobility of the spine without causing it to hit the edge of the panels.  The slope of the panels must also suit the shape of the horse’s back. Panels come in a variety of widths and curvatures, and it is important that the type chosen suits the individual animal.

Finally, Clayton emphasized that saddle pads cannot compensate for the deficiencies of a poorly fitting saddle.  However, they may increase the horse’s comfort if the saddle is essentially the correct size and shape.  Clayton says that pads made with natural fibers, such as sheepskin, seem to have a better degree of resiliency and spring.

Girths and Slipping Saddles

Girth design has evolved considerably in recent years, and Clayton touched briefly on the subject at the end of her talk.  She said that the highest pressure beneath the girth occurs just behind the elbow in the moment when the forelimb contacts the ground. In her research, contoured girths seem to do the best job in terms of reducing both force and pressure.

Finally, Clayton discussed saddles which seem to constantly slip to one side.  She says that it is important to determine if the cause of the slip is the horse, the rider or the fit of the saddle.  Subtle hind limb lameness can be blamed for the cause of many slipping saddles, particularly when the slip occurs consistently to one side and with a variety of different riders on board.  In 60% of these cases, the saddle slips towards the side of the lame/more significantly lame hind limb.  The slip will go away when the lameness is eliminated through the use of nerve or joint blocks.  Clayton commented that rider crookedness is more likely to be an effect than the cause of saddle slipping.  Clearly if the cause of the saddle slip is lameness, this issue must be addressed before the problem will go away.

Final Thoughts

Clayton’s presentation covered a broad range of topics, but one theme was quite clear—riders have an obligation to their horses to ride them in as correct of a manner as possible, in the best fitting tack possible.  In this way, riders and trainers can actively contribute to the preservation of the horse’s long term soundness and promote their well-being.

With good training and attention to correct tack and conditioning, horses are truly capable of amazing feats.  “Cadre-noir-saut au piquet” by Alain Laurioux



Caring for the Older Horse

As the caregiver for a 33.5 year old equine (who has been in my life since he was a mere lad of 16 years), I am frequently asked for insight or advice in terms of the care of the older horse.  I have to admit that in Carmel’s case, I think I have had the advantage of some good genetics—his dam was a maiden mare in her upper twenties, who was bred by a recently gelded youngster who jumped the fence.  Clearly there is something in these lines which is determined to survive!

That being said, I feel that Carmel’s longevity and good health can also be attributed to several critical care and management decisions along the way.  I have the unique advantage of basically knowing his whole life’s history, and I know that he has always been well taken care of.  With the ever improving quality in veterinary care and an increase in owner education, it stands to reason that more people will be finding themselves caring for aged horses who are still sound, happy and healthy members of the equine community.

Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.
Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.

For me, caring for an older horse has been a gift, but it has not been without its hard times too.  Once horses reach a certain age, it is a tough truth that as the steward of that animal’s well-being, you will be asked to make some hard decisions.  Horses are expensive to maintain, and it isn’t everyone’s reality that they can afford to keep a horse who doesn’t suit their personal needs anymore.  I feel quite strongly that if you make the commitment to keep a horse into their retirement years, you have an obligation to do right by that animal—which usually means that you will be doing more than just meeting the horse’s basic needs for shelter, feed and water.  It is important to know, going into it, just where your personal “bottom” is—knowing this will hopefully help ease the difficulty of making judgement calls when they come before you.

So with all that being said, here are five tips from my own personal experience caring for older horses.

Tip # 1:  Give them a job.  In my opinion, a horse which is used to competing, regular riding or even just weekly pleasure outings doesn’t do well in complete retirement.  Horses are creatures of habit and routine, and when they are used to a consistent program, it can actually increase mental stress and contribute to physical issues when their work is ceased, particularly when such a change is made abruptly.  Certainly as horses age, their job will change.  But this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a niche to fill.  The term “schoolmaster” is frequently used to describe the experienced horse which teaches the novice.  While it is perhaps most appropriately used to describe horses trained to elite levels, I believe that the term is relative.  Carmel never competed above novice level in eventing but went on to give lessons to many beginners who learned to walk, trot, canter, and jump small fences on him, and he took several Pony Clubbers up to the D3 level, all after he “retired” at 20.  Even today at 33.5 years old, I take Carmel for twenty minute hacks a few times per week in order to provide him with some sort of structure and routine.

Tip # 2: Quit while you are ahead. A corollary note to tip # 1 is that in order for your older horse to have a job, they must retire mostly sound.  This means that it is imperative for you to be highly in tune with your horse and to fully consider the consequences of pushing them “just one more season” at a level which is becoming a physical challenge.  While we certainly can prolong the performance career of our horses through the judicious use of all means of sports medicine therapies, it is my opinion that the conscientious horse owner must always consider at what point enough is enough.  Horses which need extreme maintenance to perform at a given level should probably step it down a notch to where their job can be done without taking such lengths.  In my case, that time came when Carmel was twenty.  While he was still handling the height and width of novice fences at that point, I could tell that the effort was becoming greater and his recovery times longer. Instead of risking an injury which might result in permanent lameness, I opted to change his job.

Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.
Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.

Tip # 3:  Allow for plenty of turnout. We all know that horses are herd animals which are meant to travel up to one hundred miles per day or more, foraging along the way.  It is a reality in our increasingly developed and suburbanized world that our horses frequently must be kept stalled due to lack of appropriate turnout areas.  This is truly unfortunate and contributes to all manner of health and behavioral disorders.  I have been very fortunate that since owning Carmel, he has almost always been able to live in an in/out situation where he can come and go from a shelter at his own desire.  Barring that, he has lived at a facility that allowed him to be out about twelve hours per day and kept in only at night.  I really do believe that this living situation has allowed him to remain sounder in the long run, both in mind and body.  Arthritis never had a chance to really establish itself in his joints in a debilitating manner, and his lungs remain clear due to good air circulation.  My horses go out every day for at least a little bit, even in extreme weather –and what is funny is they almost always choose to go outside in spite of it.  I do not think that we do them any favors by locking them in for our benefit.  So long as they have an accessible shelter if they need it—let them be out!

Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.
Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.

Tip # 3:  Provide routine veterinary care. Older horses require the same regular veterinary care that any other horse receives—but having a good relationship with your veterinarian can help you to customize their care to suit your individual needs and situation.  For example, your older horse still needs to be vaccinated each year, but some of the risk based vaccines may no longer be a priority.  This is important if your horse is one who has had a history of mild or moderate reactions to vaccination.  Annual monitoring of your older horse’s bloodwork can give you a baseline from which to compare results if your horse begins to seem a bit “off”; it can also allow your vet to notice changes in the function of the body’s systems early.  Many older horses end up developing pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID (usually called Equine Cushing’s Disease), which often causes symptoms such as an extremely heavy hair coat that is slow to shed, a cresty neck, abnormal fat deposits and sometimes hoof abscesses and laminitis.  Confirmation of this disorder is done via blood test completed in winter, spring or summer.  For most horses, Cushing’s can be regulated through the use of diet modification, exercise and medication (pergolide)—but you will need to work closely with your vet.  Older horses also need routine dental care, but as they age and the available tooth decreases, they may not need regular floating—your vet or other qualified dental professional can advise you on your horse’s specific needs.

1998 or 1999.  I wish I could get his tail that long again!
1998 or 1999. I wish I could get his tail that long again!

Tip #4:   Give them a little attention every day. Just because you may not be riding your older horse as regularly doesn’t mean that daily attention isn’t important.  At a minimum, I always pick out feet every day and do a once over of Carmel’s entire body. In the winter, blankets come off at least every other day, but preferably daily, to check on body condition. (Blogger’s Note:  To blanket your older horse or not is a topic for another blog—I have chosen to blanket Carmel due to his tendency towards being a hard keeper and also because his PPID can cause thermoregulatory challenges.)   Even as Carmel’s activity level has decreased over the years, I have still religiously groomed him every day.  I think this is important for so many reasons—it is a way for me to keep my bond with him, and because I am in close contact with him, I notice the tiniest changes in his attitude or way of being.  Grooming promotes circulation and stimulates the oils of the skin to come to the surface, and for horses who are struggling to shed, regular grooming can help ease the process.

Tip # 5: Feed the right amount of a quality feed.  Older horses can be challenging to keep at an appropriate body condition.  Some are easy keepers and they need little to no grain to maintain a healthy weight.  Others, like Carmel, tend more towards being too thin and therefore careful feed management is necessary in order to keep them in good physical shape.   There are numerous senior feeds on the market which are formulated to meet the needs of an older equine.  They tend to be palatable, fortified, extruded and complete—meaning that if your horse struggles to chew forages, the senior feed can be used as a sole source of nutrition.  Most also dissolve easily in water to make a mash for those horses whose teeth are not up to the task of chewing.  Something I learned along the way is that senior feeds are meant to be fed at a much larger quantity than regular feeds.  We are so conditioned to feed “little and often” that it can be hard to understand that as much as five pounds of senior feed can be fed at one meal, with as much as fifteen pounds per day being totally reasonable and safe to feed.

Carmel snacking in 2012.
Carmel snacking in 2012.

Final Thoughts

The truth is that taking care of older horses is mostly about continuing to practice good horsemanship and to attend to their basic needs with the same level of attention to detail as for a competition horse.  Certainly the onset of age related conditions will require some modifications to their riding schedule and maintenance plan, but with quality care the older horse can remain a productive and happy equine citizen well into their golden years and beyond.

Preparing for the Worst: Planning for Animal Care in Disasters

First, a Little Story….

When I was a recent Pony Club graduate, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas and Oklahoma to teach a few weeks of summer camp for some local clubs.  One club in particular had a robust program for its members; few of the riders owned their own horses but instead were dropped off at the DC’s facility, where an appropriate mount was provided.  When I asked how many horses were actually on site, the answer was “something on the order of seventy five before we stopped keeping count”.  Horses were stashed here, there and everywhere, with a large number living in a herd on the hill.  Mind you, this was Kansas, so “hill” is a relative term.  But each morning, the members would head up to the hill, halter and lead slung over one shoulder, horse treats in hand, and they rode whichever horse they could catch.

If you live in the Midwest, apparently tornado sirens become a sound synonymous with summer.  During the first several days of camp, the sirens went off at least daily, causing this New Englander’s hair to stand on end.  “Shouldn’t we take shelter or something?” I asked nervously the first time they went off, while simultaneously noting that no one else, human or equine, looked remotely concerned.  “Oh no,” came the reply.  “There is nothing going on right now.  Those just go off every time there is the remotest chance there might possibly be a tornado.  If we went inside every time they went off, we’d never get anything done.”


The sirens continued to intermittently howl, and as the days went by, I began to adopt the “casual and carefree” attitude of the locals.  I will admit that a part of me wondered what the point was of having a warning sound which no one seemed to listen to.  Nevertheless, they lived here, I didn’t, and they weren’t worried.  So why should I be?

Then there was The One Morning.

I will never forget it.  The air was thick—humid, oppressive, heavy–the kind of air that only a strong thunderstorm can get moving again, the harbinger of a front and a change of tide.  While the air felt still on the ground, the clouds above were agitated and rolled along quickly; not in a leisurely, lazy summer afternoon sort of way, but in a hectic, hurried and disturbed manner.  And the sky was green.  Everything felt positively unsettled.  Then the sirens went off.  Again.

I went to the covered arena, where the first group of riders was already mounted and waiting to start their lesson.  I looked to read their faces, to see if any level of concern was creeping into their visages.  I certainly felt on edge.  Most were busying themselves in adjusting tack and joking with each other.  No one looked worried.  “Ok,” I thought. “This must be just another day.”

But not one beat later, the only other Real Adult on the farm (my co-instructor) came running over.  “I am going up on the hill to get the kids back down,” she yelled.  “Tell these guys to pull off the bridles and get in the shelter.”

“WHAT?!” I couldn’t help but exclaim.  Her instructions seemed irrational.

She grabbed my arm and pointed to the roiling clouds.  “Do you see how that cloud is curling that one way, but that one is doing it the opposite?” she asked.  I did.  “That is how they start.  Tornados.  This is a siren we listen to.”

So we pulled the bridles, grabbed the attention of all the kids on the hill and ran for the storm shelter.  The older children reassured the younger ones, while I tried to remind myself that I was also supposed to be a Real Adult and needed to be calm and in charge of the situation.  Fortunately for us, the area we were in only experienced a strong thunderstorm with large and damaging hail; a neighboring town was less fortunate, as a tornado did in fact touch down, though leaving minimal damage.

The experience for me was a powerful one on a number of levels.  As someone who has lived in the northeastern US for her entire life, tornados were an unfamiliar threat; I had to rely on the wisdom and experience of the locals for guidance as to how to act.  Their reaction showed a level of composure that only comes from having done something before; even the younger children knew what to do and got themselves to a safe place efficiently and calmly.  Yet it got me thinking about how easy it is to become nonchalant about those threats that we face on a regular basis, perhaps leaving us unprepared to quickly react when true danger is imminent.

New Englanders don’t usually face threats from sudden and hard to predict events like tornados and earthquakes.  Our natural disaster risks are most often weather related—the classic “nor-easter” winter storms and blizzards, ice storms, and in milder weather, hurricanes.  These are events which have the capacity to paralyze a region figuratively and literally; however, they also usually come with plenty of warning.  In spite of this, local residents are usually found scrambling at the last minute to refill pantries, replace batteries and to check generators.

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene left a devastating wake of destruction in its path, especially impacting Vermont, a state which normally escapes hurricanes relatively unscathed.  When I lived in Vermont during the summer of 2014, many of the areas which I travelled through each day to get to and from work had been under water after Irene came through.  What was chilling is the fact that the rivers in this area for the most part are shallow enough for fly fishing or even just wading; tubing is a popular past time as well, but the waters are so tame that it is possible to devote one tube to one’s beverage of choice.  It is nearly impossible to imagine that these seemingly placid rivers could ever reach a flood stage that would cause so much damage and destruction. Yet even now, three and a half years later, there are numerous locations in Vermont and New York which still have piles of debris now weathered by the sun , pushed high up on banks and into fields.  These piles serve as silent reminders that disasters can affect us in even the most unlikely of locations.

For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up.  Hood is visible at bottom of image.
For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up. Hood is visible at bottom of image.

Defining Disaster

Pearce (2000) defines a disaster as a non-routine event that exceeds the capacity of the affected area to respond to it in such a way as to save lives, to preserve property and to maintain the social, ecological, economic and political stability of an affected region. Disasters are usually large scale, cross geographic, political and academic boundaries and require response and recovery efforts greater than what a local community’s resources are equipped to provide.  According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), most common disasters are weather related or geological in origin; some are predictable (like a hurricane or blizzard) and some are not (earthquakes).  Clearly there are also disasters that are manmade in origin; this could include a toxic spill, a nuclear reactor failure, or acts of terrorism.


For individuals who are responsible for managing animals, ignoring the threat of disaster is simply unacceptable.  In fact, FEMA emphasizes that owners are individually responsible for the animals under their care during a disaster threat.  If you as an animal caregiver are not prepared, then it is more likely that you will potentially experience a devastating loss.   Ultimately, animal caregivers will need less outside assistance and will experience fewer losses if they face the possibility of disaster with proper preparation.

FEMA defines five areas of emergency management:

  • Prevention
  • Protection
  • Mitigation
  • Response
  • Recovery

The first three areas are all geared towards “preparedness”, which is better defined as the prevention of or decreasing the cause, impact and consequence of disasters.  Taken cumulatively, the goal is to create “a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action in an effort to ensure effective coordination during an incident and response”  (FEMA).  Preparedness activities include planning, training and educational actions.  Response defines those efforts which occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; during this phase businesses and other services might not be normal.  The term recovery addresses those restoration efforts which occur concurrently with regular operations and activities; this phase can be prolonged in the case of a severe disaster.

Considering for the care and safety of animals (livestock as well as companion) during a disaster is a critical component to a community’s Emergency Operations Plan, because experience has shown that by planning for the care of animals, a community ultimately is planning for the care of its citizens.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, leaving over 1800 people dead and causing nearly $89 billion in property damage (FEMA).  In addition to the loss of human life, thousands of chickens, cows and hogs were lost, as well as hundreds of horses and companion animals.  The negative effects on agriculture in the region were felt for years.  A portion of these losses were the result of individuals who failed to evacuate in a timely manner due to concerns for their animals.  It has been proven time and again that when it comes to their animals, people will put themselves at risk by going back into damaged areas to rescue animals or failing to evacuate when told to do so.

New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the  hurricane hit August 30, 2005.
New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005.

And while major disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Irene, and the tornado which devastated Moore, Oklahoma in 2013, grab the national media headlines, livestock producers (which includes horse farms under FEMA guidelines), suffer the most losses from small scale disasters and local events, such as localized flooding, hazardous waste spills and fire.

It is easy to become overwhelmed or to feel hopeless or helpless in the face of some of these disasters.  Where should a concerned animal caregiver start when it comes to planning for disaster?

Lessons from Irene, Rita and Katrina and Moore: How to Protect Your Animals

Preparedness (prevention, protection and mitigation) are the three areas in which animal care givers have the most control of the outcome of a disaster event.  Below are some specific areas in which to focus your energy.

Know your area

Certain weather or geological events are more common in some parts of the country than others.  Here in New England, we are more likely to face severe snow or ice storms or hurricanes than fires, tsunamis or earthquakes.  However, I remember flying into Boise, ID, a few years back to the sight of smoke out the plane window, rising from uncontained wildfires in the region.  My friends from Kansas were accustomed to the threat of tornados.   Knowing which kinds of threats are most likely to affect you will help you choose the best types of protection and mitigation strategies.  This might mean relocating a barn out of a flood plain along a river, building fire stops into the landscape on a western farm or installing an automatic generator to power a well in New England.

A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.
A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.

Disaster Kit

Every animal care provider should have an emergency disaster kit which is kept stocked and accessible; it is important to periodically check the kit and update its contents.  The exact content will vary depending on the species which you are taking care of.  For companion animals like cats and dogs, the kit might contain spare harnesses/leashes, carriers/crates, bowls, litter/litter boxes, dry or canned food, spare medications, toys, beds, and copies of health paperwork; essentially, everything you would need to take care of your pet, all stored together in one place for easy collection if the need for a quick evacuation arose.

For larger animals like horses it is more complicated; however, a modified version of this kit might be kept in your trailer.  Similar to above, the kit should contain items that would allow you to care for your horse in the event that you needed to evacuate; it is ideal to be able to bring grain/hay, but in a true emergency this might not be possible.  Spare halters/leads, health paperwork, first aid kit and proof of ownership/identification are good to keep in one easy to access location.

Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo:  Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska
Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo: Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska


Having clear identification on your animals can make it possible to be reunited with them post-disaster as well as clarify ownership in situations where large numbers of animals may be gathered for shelter.  Owners of companion animals should consider implanting permanent microchip identification, but can also use tags on collars and harnesses.  Livestock such as horses can also be microchipped but identification is more likely to rely on markings, coloring, permanent ID like tattoos and brands, as well as photos.  Owners who have had to evacuate without livestock sometimes resort to labelling taped phone numbers on halters or even painting the owner’s phone number on the animal themselves.

Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita's landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo
Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita’s landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo

Plan Escape Routes/Alternative Housing

In its Emergency Management Institute training, FEMA encourages animal owners to take their pets with them when told to evacuate, if it doesn’t jeopardize human safety, even if you have no place to go. However, planning in advance for your animals will alleviate stress and worry during a chaotic time.

Consider looking into staying with friends or relatives from out of town as well as pet friendly hotels; knowing several areas to which you could go will provide alternatives if some routes are impassable.  Note that many Red Cross and public shelters are unable to allow animals in due to public health concerns.   Contact local shelters and animal welfare groups in your area in advance to locate potential shelters which will allow animals during disaster.

Large animals are obviously a bit more complicated and require advance planning. Fairgrounds, large horse farms, racetracks, show facilities and veterinary referral hospitals all have taken in livestock during evacuation orders.  Many states have an emergency DART (disaster animal rescue team) which might be able to refer owners to evacuation centers within the region.

The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to large animals like horses, it may simply be impossible to save all the animals, especially in the case of a “sudden impact” event like fire, tornado or flash flood.  In these situations, saving some is preferable to saving none, so managers should know in advance which animals are the priorities to get to safety.

If a potential disaster is aiming for your area, it is best to respond to the threat at the earliest sign of danger.  Using the tornado example from the beginning of the blog, the other adult went to get the children from the hill and so began to enact their emergency drill as soon as it became clear that a tornado threat was imminent.  This meant that all of the Pony Clubbers were able to take shelter before the storm’s force hit the area, and if a tornado had actually come through, that they had the best chance of emerging unscathed.  If the actions prove unnecessary due to the threat moving away, the practice gives managers the opportunity to assess and modify the emergency plan so that it will work effectively when it counts.

Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture.  FEMA photo.
Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture. FEMA photo.

Get Involved in Your Community

When it comes to disaster preparedness, no one is better equipped to plan for the safety and well-being of a community’s animal residents than their caretakers.  This is particularly true when it comes to large animals like horses.  It is the responsibility of local government to create an emergency plan to serve as the roadmap for an effective and coordinated response in the event of disaster.  These plans are typically reviewed on a regular basis, and these reviews can present the perfect opportunity for the input of knowledgeable and skilled livestock and animal caretakers.  Local resources and expertise usually are the best source of ideas, and can identify those resources which already exist or are needed within a specific community.  Developing a cohesive plan with the input of all critical stakeholders is the only way to ensure that citizens, animals and property will be protected during an emergency.

In its Emergency Management Institute training, experts from FEMA recommend that animal caretakers take the initiative to see if their community’s plan addresses the needs of livestock and companion animals.  If the existing plan does not address these concerns, then the impetus to improve or revise the plan moving forward will likely need to come from the caretakers themselves.

Further Education

FEMA offers a variety of free online courses through its Emergency Management Institute which can help provide a more complete picture of disaster planning.  These programs take participants through the disaster preparedness process and help them to consider how disaster planning can benefit their farm and community.  After passing a final exam, participants may download a certificate of completion and/or receive continuing education credits.

The whole list of offerings is found at

I have personally completed four courses relevant to planning for animals in disaster, and would highly recommend them to anyone who might find themselves in charge of the wellbeing of animals in an emergency situation.

IS-10 Animals in Disaster: Module A, Awareness and Preparedness

IS-11 Animals in Disaster: Module B, Community Planning

IS-111 Livestock in Disasters

IS-100.b Basic Incident Command System