Equine Behaviour; The Nature of Horses
Dr Gustafson's latest book. Get to know your horses from their perspective.
Story on DrSid's equine behavior class at Equine Guelph
Horsefolk who know how to please horses have horses who are happy to please them.
Equine Behaviour class at EquineGuelph, the University of Guelph Office of Open Learning
The language of horses; Register for Dr Gustafson's Equine Behaviour online class here
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Dr Gustafson will be presenting "The Language of Horses" at the Horse Council of British Columbia Equine Education Conference
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DrSid's Equine Behavior interview begins at 25 minutes
The (behavioral) Life of a Racehorse
Pursuing his lifelong horsemanship interests, Dr Gustafson graduated from Washington State University in 1979 with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree to specialize in equine sports medicine. His subsequent interest in the behavioral and physical health challenges that stabling and confinement created for horses led him to the study of equine behavior. As Equine Studies Program Coordinator for the Natural Horsemanship Program at the University of Montana Western from 2006-2008, Professor Gustafson developed a science-based equine studies curriculum that explored equine behavior and husbandry as it applied to the mental development and training of horses.
Sid currently lives in Bozeman, MT, where in addition to being a veterinarian, he is a novelist. He had the good fortune to be raised by horses in Montana just under the Medicine Line of Alberta, Rocky Mountain Front Range country he rides about horseback with the Blackfoot Indians.
Dr Gustafson developed an early interest in equine behavior through his exposure to Native American horsemanship and his familyís ranching and horse breeding pursuits. Dr Sid remains witness to feral horses in natural settings on a regular basis. He has raised and trained horses all his life, and continues to do so understanding clearly there is much more to know and appreciate about horses.
In addition to equine behavioral consulting and teaching Equine Behavior at EquineGuelph, Dr Gustafson currently is a seasonal regulatory veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, where he represents the health and welfare of the racehorses.
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The Language of Natural Horsemanship
preview of upcoming non-fiction book
The centaur portrays something significant about our horsemanship desires, that primal mythological being; head, arms, and torso of man or woman connected to the body and legs of horse; Homo centaurus. Those of us who ride horses understand this conceit clearly, to be the horse. Thessalonian Greek tribesman, the earliest sophisticated horseman, imagined and mythologized this manhorse creature, a cultural reflection of their emotional and physical blending with the species. The centaur expresses pastoral manís exalted and cherished association with the horse.
A current expression of the centaur ideology is natural horsemanship, a renewed manifestation of our desire to connect with horse in a willing and conciliatory partnership. More than ever, or ever in recent memory, horsepeople seek true unity with their horses, harmonious partnerships based on understanding and trust. Horsemen hope their horse will let them control him or her willingly and readily⎯dependably, consistently, and reliably⎯wherever they go together. The ideal connection we seek with horses is empowerment from the horse, a controlled extension of ourselves.
Man continues his attempt to renew and refine the relationship that has bonded him to horses for millennia. Horsemen seek a connectivity of their mind to the horseís body. This requires understanding the horseís nature and the ability to connect both mentally and physically with that nature. The understanding can be subconscious, and/or conscious. Some are born with an animal understanding or connectivity, an intuition develops during their development phase in the presence of animals, and they often operate subconsciously when handled animals. Certain children absorb the nature of the horse if they grow up with horses.
To facilitate our connection with horse, a language of sorts has been described and delineated, a method of signaling, releasing, responding, and communicating with the horse, a physical language more than verbal. The language begins with a stance or demeanor to approach horses, non-threatening, a resignation to become one with them expressed in a smooth way of moving. Horsemen must develop a language which horses are willing to watch, a language with which to communicate with horses, and language that allows horse to interpret and understand the horseman, a language the horse understands. In addition, we must read horses, and develop the perception and awareness of the myriad levels of communication spoken by horses. Horsemen strive to understand horses and reciprocate effectively and efficiently.
It seems that there are common fundamentals of the language that have persevered through time, handed down from horsemen in direct and indirect ways. A huge culture of horsemanship became lost in the industrial age. Despite this, there is speculation of a psychic remnant in both man and horse as how to communicate with one another. Traditional horsemanship threads have been carried on with the Mongols of the Asian steppes, Icelanders, Laplanders, the horseback cattlemen of North and South America, European dressage and jumping equestrians, thoroughbred horsemen, draft and carriage horsemen, Oriental warriors, cavalry and law enforcement, and other various horse-dependent cultures and disciplines.
A new breed of horsemen has emerged from a study and renewal of all this, and that is the natural horseman, one utilizing the principles of natural horsemanship, meaning understanding horse in its natural circumstances, and applying that knowledge to effective training and husbandry of horses.
Those people who had the gift to communicate with horses, or other animals, may have had a survival advantage during the time when livelihoods depended on horsemanship and nomadic pastoralism. Certain people or cultural groups may possess more horse-friendly tendencies than others. Man and horse have shared a close and codependent existence together for the last ten or twenty millennia. Language skills allowing interspecies communication may have been involved in natural selection, and selective breeding, or so one who closely follows the horse/man culture speculates. Some individuals have a knack for animal understanding and communication.
The time and place of the first domestication of the horse remains debated. Various evidence has provided both conclusive and inconclusive data. There may have been multiple origins of domestication, waves and threads and disappearances, re-emergences, multiple horse types that were domesticated or attempted to be domesticated. No wild horse related to the domestic horse remains. All horses on the planet are domestic, or are descendents of domestic stock, all once genetically manipulated by man, victims of his selective breeding. Much remains to be learned about the phylogeny genetics of the horse.
Journeys with horse are spells of learning, never-ending accumulations, modifications, and clarifications of knowledge, mutual expressions of understanding and connection, development of balance, timing, and feel with one another. At times horsemanship feels synchronous and fluid, and these are times we relish, time suspended. Other times our relationship with the horse is not so harmonious. When harmony fails, the nature of the horse would be to flee and chill, escape the trouble, give it a break. Manís nature, however, in areas of dominion over animals, is to persevere, and here things have fallen apart between man and horse. Horsemen need to know when to offer the horse a break. The most common abuse is continued training while the horse is in the sympathetic phase of physiology. We want horses in the parasympathic phase, the digestive, mentally secure and relaxed mindset. If a horse becomes flighty, do what is needed to correct the immediate indiscretion by the horse, if there was one, and give the horse a rest. There is no need to end on any sort of note, although if things are going well, it can be nice to end. If they are going badly, ending can be even more appropriate. If the horse becomes troubled, secure the situation, and provide the horse rest. Respiratory rates should not exceed 12o breathes per minute, and this is high. Panting is to be avoided. If horses, especially young horses, are panting, stop the activity. Walk the horse to cool. Rub and massage. Water carefully. When horses get in the sympathetic flight state, their physiology can only sustain for minutes, the usual time needed to escape predators, short, or medium spurts of speed. Extended exercise puts horses in the anaerobic state, wherein they metabolize glycogen without oxygen, producing lactic acid, which inflames the muscle and releases toxic metabolites into the bloodstream, which further impairs metabolism, resulting in a cascade of failed physiology. Growth plates are especially vulnerable in this state, and often are damaged from both the activity that caused the anaerobic metabolism, as well as the toxic sequelae. Horses are born sprinters. Uses beyond sprinting require careful conditioning. Young horses are prone to both over-excitement and metabolic dysfunction, altering their growth patterns, sometimes irreversibly.
Natural horsemanship arose out of a concern for the welfare of the horse as it pertained to training, and the method holds a high standard to the horseís well-being. Horses hate pain, and more importantly, they remember pain, its nature and who and what offered the pain up, what immediately proceeded or followed the pain. Their learning processes are heavily influenced by fear. Memory of the cause of the pain is permanent, which is usually responded to by flight when the fearful event or the pain reappears, or reoccurs.
Our hope is to attempt to mitigate the horseís reaction to fear and pain by having the horse develop a trust inus to protect it from from fearful, and certainly painful things. That is the tryst we make with the horse: follow me, and I will not let you down, will not take you where you should not go. Of course this does not always happen, we take horses where they should not go. When they stop to tell us something, overriding our instruction after genral accepting our guidance, then we need to have the insight to listen to our horse. There must be a lleway in the relationship for the horse to refuse certain commands, if the result of the command appears to the horse to be asking for trouble. We must develop trust in our horse, as well, and remedy their fears appropriately, softly, and without pain.
Fear has a deep connection to memory, pain even deeper, inciting flight. We must appreciate horseís memory, and their survival dependence on memory. We must know horse is first a herd animal, a grazer of the plains wary of all the predators of the world, and they consider everything and anything they do not have familiarity with to be a potential predator. We can be predator, we are apt to be predator, but our relationship with horses has drifted on now for millennia, and we have by and large adequately modified our predatory ways to manage horse domestication. We selectively breed horses that understand us, and we them. This was probably the earliest consideration as horse became domesticated.
I make the case, rhetorically and seriously, frivolously and compassionately, that horse domesticated man. Noting that man kept the range clear of predators for his treasured sheep, goats, and aurochs, and that he took them to the best and most nutritious grazing grass each season, horse sensed the advantage to tag along. Whether horse consciously started sidling along the fringe of man, I do not know, but a certain selective element, if indeed an advantage was held to staying nearby man for the aforementioned reasons, and other reasons unsaid and unknown, may have kept horses near man, facilitating domestication. Biologists are reluctant to embrace my thought, unwilling to credit any animals with insight or forethought as to the survival of their species. I beg to differ, as there is no more proof that horse consciously chose to adopt man, as they did not. Coevolution may have occurred early, wherein each species molded the development of the other. There was a long association, although evolutionists want eons, there were millennia before control of breeding occurred. Breeding horses was not easy to control. Wild stallions have bred domestic mares through all time.
Science cannot explain our deeper relationship with the horse. We are obligated to seek common ground in the language of the horse, and that is not so difficult as it appears to many that the horse-human bond involves some significant atavistic or previously existent subconscious experience, or memory of experience. Is it possible there is sharing of consciousnesses in man and horse because of our intense interdependent relationship through the last several millennia? I think so. It seems to me that I can communicate much more with horses than seems naturally, or humanly possible. At times, I can communicate with horses more deeply than with my fellow man. There is a peace that settles within horsemen after successful communication with horses.
The seminal centaur Chiron is renowned for his teaching and healing abilities, that is: his profound wisdom. The combination of man and horse is an ideal, the perfect ideal, a revered and special partnership cultured and nurtured over time that continues to defy our imagination. Before motor-powered transport, horse was the backbone of Western civilization.
Our contemporary relationship with the horse continues albeit on a different angle these days. No longer horse-dependent in the pre-industrial sense, we have embarked on a recreational, return-to-nature, exploration of the human-animal bond social phenomenon. Deep and heartfelt, ancient shadows of empowerment, challenges, and reflections of self-worth and wealth abound. Still, as through all civilized time, horses heal and free us: Empower us, enhance our self-esteem, humble us.
Horsemanship is a pursuit acquired consciously and subconsciously, an interspecies phenomenon characterized by some as co-evolution. Evolutionary scientists resent such loose use of the term, because of control of breeding of the horse by man they claim natural selection is null and void and thus no evolution of any pure nature can occur. But what of evolution of an impure nature then, some ask; is not man part of nature, his influence is not natural? So go the arguments.
Let us simply pose the question, rather than answer it: Can we define coevolution?⎯the evolutionary influence of two species on one another. Can we deny that the phylogenic developmental and diversification relationship between man and horse profoundly affected the naturally selective journey of the other? No. Certain evolutionary scientists insist coevolution cannot exist if man controls the selective breeding of the horse, as that removes natural selection of the horse, at least in large part. But others contest that fact, as breeding was not controlled for some time, perhaps tens of thousands of years as the horse/man relationship evolved, leaving room for potential coevolution. It appears that the horseís psyche is embedded in our psyche, and vice versa, or at least certain individuals with certain horses share a consciousness. To me the potential and ability for the man/horse connection to develop so deeply, indicates a long biological history together. Horse/man is more than a coincidental relationship. Coadaptation, coevolution, where do you make the distinction, can one even draw a line? In biology, co-evolution is defined as the HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_interaction"mutual HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution"evolutionary influence between two HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Species"species. Each party in a co-evolutionary relationship exerts HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selection"selective pressures on the other, thereby affecting each others' evolution.
Evolution in a one-on-one interaction, such as that between HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predation"predator and prey, host-symbiont or host-parasitic pair, is coevolution.
Co-evolution does not imply mutual dependence. The host of a parasite, or prey of a predator, does not depend on its enemy for survival. Man and horse seem to fit these descriptions.
A very interesting point arises regarding selective influence The co-evolution definition describes the biological phenomenon of one species exerting selective influence over another species. This is acceptable in the natural world, unless, apparently the other species is man, in which this selective influence is manifested as attempts to control breeding. Man attempts to control breeding of domestic species, but this does not entirely mask evolutionary change, especially if the selective breeding is random, and aimed more towards reproduction than changing type.
How large a part of horse breeding did man control? And when did control become absolute? After the wild breeds of horses became extinct, the Tarpan and others before, control of breeding became absolute, which it is today, except in the case of wild horse preserves, of which there are many, where evolution is again encouraged and allowed to determine type. We study these herds, their behavior, their reproduction.
Some selective breeding, or attempts at such, does not leave phylogeny of the horse bereft of any naturally selective constraints, and as such, coevolution could technically exist under certain definitions. Certainly, manís intense control of thoroughbred breeding, for example, leaves less room for any sort of natural selection.
Understanding the nature of the horse allows understanding that breeding probably took a long time to become selective in the course of manís history with the horse, at least in the sense that man selected with genetic rather than just reproductive intent, qualitative versus quantitative. Before absolute control of breeding took place⎯which even today is not absolute, such is the reproductive nature of the horse⎯what complementary naturally-selective survival-associations developed between man and horse from 45,000 BC until recorded history began? If man was not yet writing, he was probably not selective breeding to the degree that genetic change would be vastly affected, if at all. Without fenced and enclosed pastures, selective breeding could not be ensured.
What does all this breeding talk have to do with training. The primary focus of breeding has been, and continues to be trainability. The horse must be willing to be trained, and later willingly perform requested tasks as wished by the horseman. Behavior is carefully selected for still. Horses must behave, and stable and train up to carry out their intended use, or function. In the selective breeding process the horsesí senses have been dumbed down, flightiness bred away, and docility bred in, so as to facilitate safe, and efficient training. Some horses trained up better than others, and provided services in a safer, more willing fashion. The trait of trainability, the understanding and acceptance of men and their ideas, was, and still is selected for. The influence is significant. In the proper hands most high-bred horses train up beautifully and willingly.
Despite our taking their freedom, horse bears man little malice or remorse, unless the horse begins to sense his freedom is coerced rather than agreed. Horse readily allows us to exist as their partners, and their leaders, provided we prove ourselves worthy in the horseís psyche. Horses have heart and try, they give their all for men time and again. I have had horses give me so much more than I ever expected possible. Their perseverance to willingly do overwhelming tasks is awesome, unheralded in other species.
Horses forgive men, although that claim cannot be made for mules. Other species are not so amenable and adaptable to the shallowness of manís pursuits. Philosophers speculate horse may have domesticated man in a sense, providing the means for civilizations to prosper and spread. Horse teaches man as man teaches horse. Dedicated horsemen learn from horses every day of their life. They learn firsthand, and then from the threads of history and legacy of the horse. Horses empower horsemen and horsewomen, and humble them. Horse is roguish and flighty, insightful and instinctive. We attempt to both contain and enhance these characteristics.
Centaur Chiron taught Aesclepius the art of healing, and Aesclepius went on to become the Greek God of Medicine. Horses have long been healers, and perhaps their human followers are survivors as a result. Mythology purports that horses maintained manís health and provided him survival strength in many ways, providing various sustenance, conquest, security, worship, and transport. In our societyís quest for a return to nature, horses are symbolic and essential for many, as they have been through time. Horses heal those who let horses soothe them. Contrarily, unhappy people can afflict horses adversely.
Greek mythology repeatedly portrays horse as leader and teacher, and fittingly so, as it seems the tribal nomadic Greeks became the first riders of horses. If the mythology is interpreted correctly; it seems it was the horses taught the Greeks to ride. The Greeks, through their newfound powers of observation and contemplation, came to understand that in order to control the uncontrollable horse one must collaborate with the creature. One must learn from the horse, understand their wants and needs, their motives and fears, their history and nature.
The Greeks had successfully domesticated sheep, breeding them, tending them, taming them, moving the bands from grassland to grassland, clearing those rich grasslands of predators, nurturing, even cultivating the most-nourishing grasses. Horse, curious and insightful grazers, became attracted to this nomadic security and leadership, as is horseís nature. In time, and with selective survival preference, horses came to follow pastoral, nomadic man along, adopting man, choosing him to lead their way. The association grew to what we have today. The relationship grows today as it grew then.
And now such a different world for the horse. Much different. More and more horses moved closer and closer together, against their nature. Horse, herd animal of the plains, grazer and walker, body talker. Horses; inherently requiring collective connection for security, for comfort. Everything in a horseís life geared to taking flight, horse, sprinter of the grasslands. Sensuous, ultra-sensual horse. And today, stabled horse.
Greeks were probably secondary horseman. Others had their hand with the horse earlier, others to the north. The Greeks refined that borrowed horsemanship. They articulated their relationship with the horse in writing and thought, and sought to improve both the welfare of man and horse. Civilization required civilized use of the horse, and the Greeks, in their moral phase of humanity, established guidelines in regard to the well-being of the horse based on its nature. Other horse cultures, those in the conquest phases⎯or as defense or escape, however obligated to utilize the horse for war⎯established more coercive brutal training regimens.
Horse and man coming together reigns as the most important cultural-changing event in the history of mankind, horse embedded in the psyche of many civilizations in Asia and Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Linguists speculate that the words for mind and horse are similar in many of these ancient horse cultures. Horse bones from that time are found buried with the bones of men buried at that time. Horses as art, as cult, as culture, as God, appear. Animal enlightenment flourishes; horsemanship becomes a state of mind more than any physical, coercive force. Archeological art and burials portray the connection.
In order to commune with the horse, one need develop a deep sense of horse. This requires time with horse, which people in past times most certainly experienced, horses being their way of life. That sort of time with horses is only experienced by few these days. I had the great fortune of being horseback each day from the first of June to the fifteenth of August each summer of my teenage years. I was on the ranch crew that moved 5000 mother cows and newborn calves to summer grass, an exquisite horse life.
Horseback day in and day out, daylight to dusk, teenaged, I experienced the horsetraining attitudes that bridged old times to new, a horsetraining thread that had persevered for ages. I became one with others who relied on horse for pastoral livelihoods. We developed a soft connection, a confluent relationship with our horses; true and willing partnerships. I am grateful to have been there. My horses had the job of moving cattle; I had the job of steering the course of cattle along. I experienced a harmonious pursuit many of us today seek to re-establish, rediscover, and even reinvent, so it seems. My preference is that the relationship simply be called horsemanship, and that universal understanding of the horses becomes the norm, the standard, like it must have been in the long age of the horse. The goal of this book: Harmony, unity, understanding, confidence, respect, connection, knowledge; all good things with the horse.
The Mongol word for horse is takh, meaning spirit. Mongols, the ones atop horses ahead of the Greeks, perhaps the oldest continuous horsemen in a grazing plains setting, relate to horse in a state of grace, a blending of body and mind. In Mongolia there is a sharing of manís spirit with horseís spirit, a blending of the physical and metaphysical. In America blending and getting spiritual with the horse is all the rage. The premise of American horsemanship, like that of the Mongol, is to control a horseís feet. We must go though the horseís mind, in consideration of his soul, to penetrate the horseís psyche, to get to his feet. Control requires finesse, willing-partnership finesse.
In consideration of the horseís nature and behavior, horsewomen and horsemen are obligated to provide horses an appropriate environment, unconstrained neonatal development and formation and fulfillment of the mare-foal bond, adequate nutrition, sufficient sociobehavioral circumstances, as well as training and horsemanship modalities based on the horse's innate perspectives and sensitivities.
By nature the horse is a precocious grazer of the plains, a social and herd animal, and flighty. Horsemanship and training are best accomplished through behavioral appreciation of the horse and facilitation of the horseís nature, rather than by force or coercion. Horses are best trained in a relaxed, calm state. Training that puts the horse into the flight or sympathetic state generated by fear and punishment while restricted by rigs or round pens is discouraged, and not in accordance with acceptable standards of animal training. Horsetraining and horse teaching methods are best based on scientific studies regarding the nature of the horse. Horses learn preferentially in a relaxed state from a calm experienced handler with adept communication skills.
Social behavior in natural feral settings is the 'natural' behavior that 'natural' horsemanship utilizes to appreciate the nature of the horse.
As to dominance, the science reveals that free-ranging horses form social hierarchies that are complex and rarely linear. Under natural open range conditions with adequate resources, horses seldom have the equivalent of an alpha individual because the roles of leadership and defense are more critical than domination. Dominance theory as a training modality is not only discouraged, but appears inappropriate. The formation of order in horse groups sustains collective welfare and enhances group survival, and reflects leadership rather than domination. It is important veterinarians and students of equine behavior appreciate this science.
There is no alpha. Leadership is shared and alternated and variable and context dependent in established harems in natural settings. Dominance is rare, and certainly not prevalent. When present at all, it facilitates group protection and stability. Horses share leadership. Survival is herd based, rather than individual based. The lead mare leads the horses to water and grazing and resting places. She drinks first to make sure the water is safe, rather than because she dominantes the others. Students of equine behaviour appreciate shared leadership and herd stability. Horses seek competent leadership and are willing to accept competent leadership from humans.
The horse is special in retaining the ability to thrive in feral conditions independent of man. This allows us to study their true nature versus their stable nature and to apply that knowledge to their welfare as it pertains to training.
Horse retains the ability to survive without us, and survive well.
It behooves humankind to take care with horses. Sensitive horsefolk respect the 60 million year development of the horseís social behavior and development. They appreciate equine intelligence in regard to both training and husbandry, and what the future might hold.
Stabling is unnatural. Horses graze and walk together 60-70% of the time under natural circumstances, eating and moving from spot to spot independently but within a few meters of the next horse. Stable managers and horse owners should make every effort to accommodate or recreate these long-evolved herd grazing and life-in-motion preferences for proper physiological function and mental health.
Horses require other horses for proper health and prosperity. Horses prefer the constant companionship of other horses. A horse should seldom be kept alone. Horses being mixed with other horses and expected to share resources should be properly acclimated socially, and be given the required space to adjust to new herds without injury or undue stress. Every effort should be made to provide horses with the social benefit of appropriate companion horses through times of stress and illness.
Horsewomen and men need to appreciate the sensual nature of the horse, and understand the physiological needs of the horse. Horses prefer the open view. If they cannot be in physical contact with other horses, they need to see and smell other horses for proper behavioral functioning and responsiveness.
Water is the most important nutrient, and must be provided in consideration of equine behavioral preferences. Salt is the most important mineral, and should be provided daily in some fashion.
Grazing is the preferred and predominant equine activity. Horses did not evolve to metabolize grains and non-structured carbohydrates, or to remain stationary for even short periods of time. Serious metabolic issues develop when horses become sedentary grain eaters, and this lifestyle should not be imposed on horses.
Play and sleep are naturally occurring preferences that require accommodation however horses are housed or stabled, as deprivation results in behavioral deterioration.
Horses are physiologically dependent on shared social grooming and sensual contact companionship. If stabling precludes these preferences from fulfillment, then every effort need be applied to replace or recreate these needs on a daily basis.
These behavioral considerations apply to horses in transport, and for those horses too, however unwanted, man is obligated to provide the proper environment, social functioning, nutrition, medical care, and exercise to sufficiently assure health and comfort.
As to performance, every care and precaution need be taken to avoid exceeding the adaptability of the horse. All of the horse's normal natural sensation should remain fully intact and functional without undue pharmaceutical influence. The horse's metabolic, physical, medical, and behavioral limitations are best be monitored by equine veterinary professionals on an intense comprehensive basis.
Professional veterinary societies and organizations are encouraged to provide education regarding equine behavior.
Equitarian philosophy promotes safety; eventing safety, equestrian safety, and equine safety. Fatigue and exhaustion cause spills such as this. Horsemen need to become more aware of their horse's metabolic state. As horses tire, they lose coordination, speed, and judgment. Regulatory veterinarians need to be more involved in eventing making sure fatigued horses are pulled before spilling.