Healthy Horses Workshop: The Language of Gold

During the annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, one day is set aside for horse owners in the area to listen to experts in the field lecture and demonstrate on specific aspects involved in the overall wellness, training, and care of the horse. This program is known as the Healthy Horses Workshop.

The December 2007 workshop was held at the Osceola Heritage Park, Kissimmee Valley Livestock Show Pavilion, a short distance from the convention site in Orlando. A panel of blue ribbon presenters touched on subjects ranging from dentistry to understanding the art of communication between horse and human. About 175 horse owners were in attendance.

Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor was on hand to discuss horsemanship and give demonstrations.

O'Connor put on a three-hour clinic at the end of the day, complete with dressage and jumping demonstrations, coupled with advice on how to be successful with your horse. He stayed to autograph copies of the book Life in the Galloping Lane that he and his wife, Karen, authored.

Helping him during his presentation was one of the event horses from the O'Connor Event Team, Tigger Too. The horse had a portion of his colon removed in the third of three colic surgeries to solve a medical problem, but he is still competing at a high level with a young rider, although he must be kept on a special diet.

O'Connor's theme for the day was set forth early when he said: "It is our job, outright, to understand the horse's language, not for them to understand ours."

Horse are very social animals, he said, and if we take them out of an environment where they can socialize with other horses, such as in preparation for a major event where they spend much of their time isolated in a protective box stall, the normal environment must be replaced and "you are it." You should spend time with the horse in a relaxed setting, such as grooming, rather than just in training sessions.

When horses are in a group setting, he said, there is always one that is the "bucket" horse. He described that horse as being the one that, if you were to set out a bucket of grain, would always be the horse that took possession of the bucket because it was number one in that group's pecking order.

O'Connor said in learning to communicate with--and relate to--horses, "you have to be the bucket horse, the leader." However, he pointed out, this position isn't established through force, but rather by establishing a line of communication with the horse that leads to respect.

Using his horse as a prop, O'Connor demonstrated how a horse can be taught what he described as "the four basics" on a longe line in a round pen. The four basics are moving the forehand, moving the backhand, lowering the head, and backing. "The round pen can be a valuable tool," he said.

O'Connor also told the group that various disciplines in equine competition should keep open minds about what others are doing, rather than ignoring everything but that in which they are involved. He said dressage riders, for example, could learn from cutting horses. He explained that many dressage horses are keyed up and on edge much of the time. The cutting horse, he said, moves in quiet, slow motion when going into the herd and bringing out a cow, but when it starts cutting, it is an exploding dynamo of energy and action. The moment the horse is signaled to cease work, it reverts immediately to a calm state.

O'Connor explained that communicating with a horse involves the principle of pressure and release. Pressure is applied to obtain a response and the moment that response occurs, pressure is released. "The most important aspect is the release of pressure," he said.

Timing is important, he said. "Riding is an instinct thing, like driving a car. If you think about it, you're late."

He also espoused the use of more than the bridle in giving signals to a horse. "You must learn to use the whole body."

To prove his point, he removed the bridle and, with just a string around the horse's neck, put it through some dressage movements and went sailing over a jump at various angles. The horse responded to his body aids almost as well without a bridle as with it.

O'Connor said he learned much about communicating with an equine companion when he was 11 years of age. He, his mother, and his 13-year-old brother set out on horseback from their home in Maryland and rode on a cross-country odyssey to Oregon.

Other presenters included: Rob Arnott, DVM, a practitioner with Saint John Valley Vet Services in Houlton, Maine, equine dentistry; Heather Heiderich, DVM, associate veterinarian with Florida Equine Veterinary Services Inc., in Clermont, Fla., acupuncture and chiropractic; Jennifer MacLeay, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor of large animal medicine at Colorado State University, Understanding the Science of Natural Horsemanship; and David Hayes, DVM, owner of The Pet Hospital in Meridian, Idaho, One Step Horsemanship. Keep an eye on for more on their presentations.

Read more about the Healthy Horses Workshop.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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