University of Vermont AAHS

The Secret Cure for the Sour School Horse

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS


To avoid the sour school horse, several aspects of the horse must be considered. These are:

* The psychological horse - his mental state.
* The horse's environment - where he lives and works and what he wears.
* The physical horse - his health and comfort.

This is where you can really save the wear and tear on your school horses and this is the responsibility of your instructors, your head of horseback and head wrangler.

1. Tacking up - quickly is not as important as quietly and softly - checking for safety and things that make horses uncomfortable, such as ill-fitting equipment. It is just as important to check when untacking to catch a little problem before it becomes big.

2. It is not necessary when teaching students to allow them to make the horses uncomfortable. There are many ways to teach quiet hands without abusing horses' mouths. The easiest way is to have students walk with cups of water - then jog - then jog with hands in a rein-holding position.

3. Boring lessons are just that - BORING. If the students are just learning to steer, then can do many things at the walk. They can learn all their school figures; they can do "follow the leader" through a course - anything that will keep them riding rather than just being passengers. A horse that spends most of his time following the horse in front can be quite dangerous if it becomes necessary to not follow the horse in front. The students and the horses need to both understand that the rider gives instructions and the horse follows them.

4. Change of pace - certainly not all ring horses are appropriate trail horses but when they can be used both places it's nice to do so if the students have the appropriate skills. If the horses must work in the ring only, try to vary the level of rider. It isn't so necessary to vary the level of activity or the speed but simply vary the activity itself and the level of sophistication of the rider. If there are not advanced riders in the program then the instructor should regularly ride the horses.

This also applies to jumping. It isn't necessary or even recommended to always jump the same beginner fences in the same places. Although it requires more energy from the instructors, vary the obstacles - even if they are only cross poles. They can be set up in different patterns, in different places. However, jumping should only be taught by an experienced jumping instructor who not only understands rider position but also placement of obstacles and the inherent risks.

If a horse is healthy, well-fed, well-cared for and he has a comfortable place to spend his off-time, then it becomes our responsibility to keep even the lowest level of work interesting for horse and rider. Over work is a common cause of school horse sourness. Not that the work is hard - just too long, too repetitious, too boring with inadequate leisure time.

Remember - the healthy, comfortable contented horse rarely hurts anybody.

Where the school horse lives is important to him. It should be a clean place with shade and free access to fresh, clean water. It should be free enough of rocks so they can comfortably lie down. If you have the luxury of grass so much the better, but check with the extension agent in your area for information about the local poisonous weeds. When the grass low or gone the horse will nibble on whatever is there. Fencing should be proper horse fencing - not barb wire or unprotected T-posts. There should be enough room and perhaps several paddocks if space is scarce so those horses that don't get along won't be in close quarters with each other. They should be able to eat in peace--after all, this is their lounge area.

It should go without saying that the school horse has had all recommended vaccinations and regular de-wormings. Adequate hay feed and plenty of fresh water is also a must. Even though most operations feed twice a day - some forward looking places will rest their horses midday and untack and give hay and water - a real refresher for horses expected to work long hours.

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