Equine Performance: Products And Trends That Make a Difference

The Best Horse Trends For Your Barn – If you ask 100 horse owners to name what they consider to be the most important products or trends of the last two decades, I’ll bet you get 100 different answers. So let’s agree right now that it’s OK if you disagree with me on my top two performance-affecting choices. But maybe you’ll agree that some of the other things I’ve named were at least influential.

Game Ready is a welcome addition to the competitive horseman’s barn.

The two most influential things I’ve written about for the Horse Journal are the Game Ready cold-compression system, a product that was created to help horses stay sound and competitive, and “learned helplessness,” a training philosophy that has emerged in response to our era’s drastic increase in the number of inexperienced people who ride and own horses.

I’ve used dozens of products in Horse Journal field trials, and all but one were either variations on a larger theme or were created for a small niche. But I believe that only the Game Ready cold-compression treatment system is, literally, a game changer, a device that can non-invasively heal a wide variety of injuries and help prevent soft-tissue injuries. 

The worst isn’t a product: Learned helplessness is a training methodology that has arisen in the name of producing a safe, or “bombproof” horse. In it, the trainer or rider seeks to remove the horseness of the horse, basically through mental or physical domination.

Unparalleled Performance 
It’s too bad that the Game Ready system is expensive ($3,199 and up; rental $450 per week), because I’d like to have one in my barn all the time. In the ’90s the first Game Ready units were made for sports teams as their trainers discovered its benefits. Within the last decade, Game Ready branched out to the horse world. 

While you can find numerous manufacturers that produce cold-water treatment systems and massage systems, we know of no other manufacturer that uses this cold-compression system.Misguided 
On the other hand, learned helplessness is a philosophy we keep out of our barn. Training horses should not be about negating their reflexes and their power. Yet, that type of training has become distressingly popular.

Learned helplessness is a condition first identified in humans in the mid-1960s, following research done with dogs. Psychologists have since found that if a child is constantly told that he’s doing something wrong or that he can’t accomplish a task, he stops trying to do it. 

The child has learned that he has no control over his fate, and he simply gives up. And often they become rebellious or anti-social, because they’re seeking some means of self-esteem or recognition.

For training horses, this methodology relies on domination, punishment and exhaustion. These trainers “longe till dead” to wear the horses out; they ride them with their heads tucked in to their chests (with or without draw reins or other devices); they drill the same exercises repeatedly and forgive no error whatsoever; they ride their horses only on strong contact or in a collected attitude, never letting them stretch out, relax or look around; they reprimand them every time they kick at a fly or react to a new sound; they use the bit and spurs only as a reprimand or punishment, instead of as a means of communication.

We’re not suggesting that the other extreme—letting horses behave however they want—is correct either. In fact, letting horses run rampant is even more dangerous. Like so much in life, training horses is about finding a middle ground—rather like teaching children. The trick to training horses is that they must respect us, but they shouldn’t fear what we’ll do to them. 

More 20-Year Trends I Like 
I wonder how many lives have been saved and serious head injuries prevented by the improvement in riding helmets and their rise to use during the last 20 years? I know that ASTM/SEI-approved helmets have twice saved my life during that period.

In the same period, body protectors have become less expensive because of their greater use across disciplines, which has meant that manufacturers can make a greater range of sizes, almost eliminating the need (and expense) of custom-making each vest. 

Most riders and trainers have become much more aware of how important it is for a saddle to comfortably fit a horse. That’s partly because of saddle makers’ increased awareness of their customers’ needs and bank accounts, and because of the increase in the number and education of veterinarians, equine chiropractors and body workers—people who deal with saddles that don’t fit. 

I think a tremendous product innovation has been the changeable gullet systems, which were first introduced slightly more than a decade ago. I have three saddles that use this system, and I hope that in the future the process of changing the gullets becomes easier so that saddles can be even more interchangeable. 

Overall, our care of equine athletes has noticeably improved over the last decade. We’ve become far, far more aware of how hard competition horses work, and we’ve developed a host of products and veterinary and alternative therapies to help them. Trends like these need to continue. 

John Strassburger is Horse Journal’s Performance Editor.

By Performance Editor John Strassburger