GUEST Post: The importance of assessment

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The author, Sue Palmer

So often when we hit a problem with our horses training, we feel blind, unable to see or find a way forwards. There’s advice coming from all sides, but we’re not sure who to turn to, or who to trust. Our horses are much loved and precious to us, and all we want is the best for them. Education is key, and in this article I help you to understand more about what you can do for yourself towards diagnosing and resolving the issue.

Dr Renee Tucker’s excellent book ‘Where Does My Horse Hurt?’ is packed full of exercises to assess your horse for pain, discomfort or dysfunction that could be affecting his behaviour or performance. My book and DVD ‘Understanding Horse Performance: Brain, Pain or Training?‘ gives yet more exercises to help you assess your own horse, including learning to feel through the muscles for tightness and soreness and observing closely how he moves. But why is this assessment so important?

Of course it’s important initially to know whether your horse is suffering pain or discomfort in some way. Often a particular behaviour, or a drop in performance, has you searching for answers, and these assessment exercises are a good place to start. However equally important, if not more so, is the ability to assess your horse before and after an intervention. That intervention might be therapeutic, from the vet, physio, chiropractor, osteopath, farrier, saddler, dentist, etc. Or it might be a training exercise, either on the ground or ridden. It might be time off, or medication, or management changes such as different feed, or increased / decreased turnout. Obviously you can use the original behaviour change or drop in performance to determine whether or not the intervention has done the job, but often the changes are so subtle that you’re not sure whether you’re just imagining things. Bear with me… there’s an example coming up!

Imagine, then, that one of the assessment exercises you regularly do with your horse is to walk him in hand in a tight turn around you (as explained in Brain, Pain or Training). You’ve noticed recently that he’s occasionally bucking going into canter on the right rein in his ridden work, and when you do the tight turn exercise this week, you see that he’s not crossing his right hind under his body on a tight turn to the right as much as he does his left hind on a tight turn to the left. 

Now imagine that you want to see what you can do to help him. First you try massaging his quarters for a few minutes each side, then repeating the tight turn exercise  – there’s no change. Next you warm him up in hand in walk and trot for 10 minutes – there seems to be some improvement in how much he’s crossing his right hind under after this. You get on and start with some lateral work in walk, and after 10 minutes you get off and repeat the tight turn exercise – hey presto, he’s crossing his right hind under just as much as his left! Now, was it a combination of these exercises that made the difference, or was it purely the lateral work? To find out, you’ll need to try them in a different order next time (assuming the issue is ongoing). You could use the exercise to assess the effectiveness of professional intervention, if appropriate, or at the very least as a discussion point with your therapist. 


Most importantly – has the improvement in crossing his hind legs under his body affected his canter work? Once he’s crossing under equally, does he stop bucking? If the bucking is intermittent, you’ll need to ride several sessions before you can be sure either way. But if it turns out that the two are linked, then you’re just that little bit closer to being able to help your horse more efficiently and more effectively. I’ve picked just one example of a performance issue here, but the concept applies throughout. 


Disclaimer: I would always advise you to contact your vet if you have any concerns over your horse’s comfort or wellbeing.


The author of this post is Sue Palmer.  She is a Chartered Physiotherapist and helps hundreds of horses in the UK.  Her website is

Images copyright Simon Palmer;

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