For those of you who read my blog from the International Society for Equitation Science conference in Scotland last year you may well be thinking I'd give this year's conference a wide berth, but boy am I glad I didn't. I have attended five ISES conferences in the past in USA, UK, Australia, Ireland and Holland and this year it was to be hosted back in the US of A at the University of Delaware. I'd never been to Delaware and I was keen to go back to New York as my good friend Melanie had recently moved there from Auckland and I thought she could use an injection of Kiwi in her life for a week. So I tagged a USA stop onto the end of my mare buying trip to Portugal and landed at JFK to the welcoming face of dear Melanie.
The ISES conferences are great for catching up with not only academic types, but also some great friends and peers of mine that I have met since becoming the ISES rider's representative on the board. It's fascinating and humbling to sit down at a Mexican restaurant and share some coronas with people like Hilary Clayton - world leaders in their field. I was delighted to hear that Dr Clayton has her very own Lusitano to ride now and we got to discuss the ins and outs of these wonderful horses.
I also got to meet a few people that I had only met previously on line - the sort of people that I had had some rather heated conversations with in online chat forums and facebook discussion groups. I was delighted to get some "skin on skin" time with these guys and realise that not only do we have so much in common, but that we may also - shock horror - like each other after all! A valuable lesson as it's so easy on line to be opinionated, to bully or mock others, or to get the wrong end of the stick.
The drive to the conference was great fun. We hired a car in Manhattan and Rash (Melanie's hubby) got the role of driver as we headed out of the busy city, over the New Jersey Turnpike and out into the countryside direction Philli.
You may wonder what can be learned about horse riding from sitting in a university lecture hall listening to plenary speakers and "university types" presenting papers on their studies into various aspect of the stabling, training, and competing of horses. But we live in a world where (thankfully) equine welfare is becoming exponentially more important. Riders, trainers and owners are continually looking out for that competitive edge - be it from training methods, the tack we use, mental attitude of the rider or fitness training of the horse. These are all areas where science can prove whether what we are doing actually works and offer solutions and insights into ways to improve in the future. Without science in equestrianism we risk being stuck in the past, relying on conjecture, tradition and dogma which may not only be impinging on our performance in the arena, but may also be harmful to our beloved equine partners.
The first keynote speaker at this year's conference was Dr Hilary Clayton who is known internationally for her expertise and extensive research into the biomechanics of equine locomotion, conditioning programs for equine athletes and also the effects of equipment on both the rider and the horse. Dr Clayton's presentation outlined research into the rider-saddle-horse interface. We learned that the tree in a saddle distributes the rider's weight more evenly across a large area of the horse's back compared with a treeless saddle or riding bareback. When the horse is walking, the maximal force on the horse's back in each stride is about equal to the rider's weight but this rises to double the rider's weight at sitting trot and almost three times the rider's weight in canter. It has been proven that excess pressure on the back of the horse can lead to back injuries and saddle sores, and that both saddle fit and the rider's technique can play a part in this soreness. Dr Clayton presented the audience with studies of how different types of saddle pads and saddles can reduce the risk of back injury to the horse. Interestingly enough it was reindeer fur that proved to be the most beneficial material to use under the saddle!
Professor Jan Ladewig from the University of Copenhagen was the second keynote speaker. His areas of research include the behavioural and physiological reactions to stress in horses. His presentation on how we treat our horses for the 23 hours of the day we are not riding them raised some thought proving questions. It has been shown that group housing of horses is the best from the animal's point of view. Larger groups are better than smaller ones as there is less fighting and more chance of each horse finding compatible social partners. Horses require physical contact - not just the sight of another horse. They need to mutually groom and form bonds. Rugging horses covers up their mutual grooming spot - are these rugs for the benefit of the horse or the rider??!! Horses have evolved to live in social groups on open plains with most of the hours of the day dedicated to grazing and moving about. The conditions we keep our horses in should mimic this as close as possible with further studies needed into environmental enrichment.
My great friends Professor Paul McGreevy and Dr Andrew McLean from across the ditch headed the third keynote presentation. Paul is a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine and Andrew is an expert in the science of horse training. Their presentation encompassed some new areas of research into arousal, affective state and also attachment theory. Paul talked about how different operant training methods (positive and negative reinforcement) may be more or less effective depending on how aroused the horse is and what affective state (mood) the horse is in. This highlighted the likely need for different training approaches to suit different horses in different situations. Andrew McLean talked on attachment theory - the importance of tactile contact in forming human-horse bonds. Rubbing and stroking are found to be a major antidote for insecurities, where as traditionally in equestrian we don't value touch. We ride in saddles that put us above the horse, drive the horse to break it in, and even pat the horse vigorously in an attempt to show our pleasure. It was shown that two thirds of the horses patted at the London Olympics accelerated from the slapping of the rider's hand - a sign that it was an aversive rather than a pleasurable experience. Why do we want to slap our horses to show our approval - well chimps do it a lot to themselves and each other - makes you wonder...
There was a total of 33 scientific presentations during the conference encompassing topics as broad as: sports psychology skills in jumping riders; facial expressions of pain in horses undergoing castration; methods of measuring noseband pressures; the effect of different head and neck positions on the EMG activity of different muscles; the use of smart textiles and technology in equine science; the use of temperament tests for the evaluation of police horses and the evaluation of whip use and prevalence in elite and non-elite show jumpers.
The final day of the conference consisted of two field trips. - One bus went to the Hassler Dressage facility at Riveredge and a race meeting at Delaware Park. The second bus went to the famed New Bolton Centre which is the teaching division of Pennsylvania State University Veterinary Faculty. This is the one I chose and it was one of the best learning days of my life!! Here we were given some fantastic lectures by some of the world's best veterinarians on problem behaviours in horses. Topics covered included spinal X-rays, scintigraphy, lameness work-ups and problems pertaining to mares. Then in the afternoon the focus was on the application of learning theory for behavioural modification and also a bridle-less jumping display. The final part of the afternoon was spent viewing the University's semi-feral pony herd where Professor Sue McDonnell talked us through the herd hierarchies and the equid ethogram. For many of us it was the closest we will ever get to observing a true herd of equines in a semi-natural state.
Next year's conference will be in Denmark where the focus will be on Equine stress, learning and training. I'm already plotting how I will be able to build a holiday and some teaching on another round the world trip to fit this one in!