Eric Smiley FBHS

 Articles by Eric Smiley FBHS

In this section of my website I plan to write an article every month on something!  Something that has piqued my interest. Something topical or even something that any of my readers might like an opinion on. So if you have a topic that you want clarified or my opinion on do make contact and see what turns up. 

"The Veterinary Student"

“I’m a third year Vet student and wondered if I could do two weeks work experience with you during the summer holidays?” 
Over the years this has not been an uncommon request. I don’t always say ‘Yes’, but in this instance I did. He duly arrived and seemed a personable young man. He had limited riding experience so I had warned him that he might not get any riding. But I already had a plan of what to do with him to give him ‘value time’.  Over the years I have watched vet students accompany my own vet and have been struck by their difficulty in making a connection with the horse. They needed to pay more attention to who they were with. My vet was a master of understanding the horse and it’s characteristics. 

This thought lead me to the formulation of my plan. On the first morning I instructed Mark in his three tasks. 

  • watch and learn each horse’s stable mannerisms 

  • get to know each horse’s legs better than he knew his own

  • keep a record of each horse’s temperature twice a day

I watched as he diligently set about his tasks. I was always there if he needed to ask questions and any of the other people on the yard would help if he needed it. He seemed very content and was able to watch the horses work in between tasks.

At the end of the first week I sat him down and asked him what he had found out. As he enthusiastically relayed the mannerisms of each horse I asked was there a pattern of what was normal? Was it possible to predict moods and times when horse’s behaved in a certain way. 

What had he found out about the horse’s legs? Were they the same every day? Young and old horses, before exercise and after, before and after being out in the field?

What about the horse’s temperature? Was there a pattern to that? Was it the same morning and evening, before and after exercise, every day?

I received what I expected, a factually accurate account, but , without any relationship to the individual horse. I explained. 

Every morning I fed early, of the ten horses I would always only see nine heads. If I saw the tenth head over the stable door, something was wrong with that horse. So I would make a bee line to look at him closer.  The same would be so of the horse that always looked over the door and one morning he wasn’t. It’s time to inspect. Box 3 always kicks the door, when he doesn’t , it’s time to inspect.

Of the legs. Heat, swelling and tenderness are the immediate signs of something. To know what’s normal is to know what’s abnormal! Knowing the legs intimately one is able to catch changes to how they feel, early. Improving the speed of detection can improve the outcome.

Knowing the daily temperature of the horse allows us to build up a picture of normality. 

In Mark’s second week the gathering of information took on a completely different tone. The picture of each horse took on a much more personable tone. He began to know the horses. The legs of older horses that were a little larger after exercise. The splint that suddenly appeared on the four year old. The bog spavin that was bigger than normal. The facial expressions of the three horses that did canter work, one looked tired the others didn’t. And on it goes.

Mark left after two weeks being able to ‘ghost’ into each horses stable and find out loads of valuable information. To watch from outside the stable and turnout paddock and notice the difference on a daily basis. To be able to relate all this information to the work each horse was doing and how that helped me with the training of each horse. (He became a very good vet a few years later. )

Most of this becomes second nature, with the experience of time. But it needs pointing out at the beginning of peoples journey with horses. They are not the same each day, there is no ‘normal’ according to the book, they are individuals. 

This principle applies in every point of contact with the horse, from riding to care. 

Know the species and know the individual.


    Wouldn’t it be interesting to understand where some of the issues that you having with your horse have their origins? How some of the ‘baggage’ that goes with the horse on its journey through life,  really wasn’t their fault. It was actually something they picked up along the way. Or that many of those little problems that occupy much of our time now, were there all along and were never identified or resolved when being started as a young horse. Or maybe to know that sometimes we create our own problems,  that go with us from horse to horse.

    However the problems materialise, we have to deal with them. We have to solve the puzzle that hinders us from achieving what we want with our partner.  It will occupy much time and thought, much frustration, many hours of help and endless hours of happiness.  It may never be totally resolved but the journey will ultimately make us better horsemen ( gender neutral ).

    When teaching,  people seldom say to me,   “I have a lovely trot can you help me make it better”!   The focus is normally on their problems.

    However, by focusing on what does work, we can often diminish what isn’t working. 

    By knowing what things should be like and how something has been taught, can also be very helpful. It can be a good start point to finding a way to fix the part that might not be working as well as we want.

    There are many stages to this process.  Firstly we must look at how to identify what isn’t working, by looking at how it should work. Then how we dismantle and reassemble some of the most common problems.  Drawing together differing views, finding a common theme, which then links to a logical way forward.

    So this is a bit like how I approach taking a clinic.

    As every new generation learns a subject in the way ‘of the time’ they are brought up in. They too must learn that the wheel is round and not just accept that fact because they are told by an older generation. This process of finding out is part of the intrigue, part of the fascination of learning for oneself how the wheel works. Every generation learns this for themselves. We can help to facilitate this learning, but we should not teach it too much.

    Nothing much changes in the horse world, but everything is new to the newcomer. 

    I never mind covering the same ground year in year out and watching as this journey of discovery happens. The moments along the way called “light bulb moments” are the ignition process for the inner glow of curiosity to become a burning ambition for more.

    Fun for the coach and the pupil.