Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What other pedigree terms do we use?

So, I talked about sires and dams, but the generations back from them use some different terms:

1. Grandsire. Grandsire is always the sire of the horse's sire.
2. Grandam. Always the dam of the horse's sire.
3. Damsire. The sire of the horse's dam.
4. Second dam. The dam of the horse's dam.

As you can see, we distinguish the sire's side of the pedigree from the dam's or "distaff" side. Many horse breeders believe that the mare gives more to the foal than the stallion. This may be true at two levels - first in that the dam provides the vital mitochondrial DNA and second in that horses are higher mammals and the foal learns from the dam's behavior. A good horseman never breeds from a mare with a bad temperament...

But if you use grandsire to refer to the father of a horse's mother, you'll be exposed as a noob.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What is a horse's dam?

The sire is the father. The dam is, obviously, the mother. (Again, an example of the way horse people will use terms that would be archaic if used of people - worth considering when worldbuilding).

And yes, we do use grandsire and grandam, but in specific ways I'll talk about tomorrow - horse pedigrees are full of interesting terms.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What is a horse's sire?

A horse's sire is simply his or her father. The term is archaic when used of humans (you may have seen it show up in fantasy novels, although the more common usage there is as a term of address for a king).

The word might also be used to refer to the stallion himself. A stallion might be advertised as "Sire of multiple Futurity winners," for example, or as the sire of a particularly well-reputed horse. And it's used as a verb "Sires more fillies than colts" (Often a selling point used by stallion owners).

Friday, December 26, 2014

What is a flying change?

When cantering, horses can canter on a specific "lead." If on the left lead, the left foreleg appears to be in front of the right. The right lead is the reverse.

A flying change is when a horse changes its canter lead without breaking stride, normally seen when changing direction. It is very difficult for a horse to perform a flying change under a rider, and it is normally only seen in well trained and fit horses. They can easily lose their balance and have to break stride or, worse, end up on both leads at once, a situation called "cross firing" or "cantering disunited" - not very comfortable for either the horse or the rider.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

What is a nosebag?

A nosebag is a bag, usually made of canvas. You put some feed, usually grain, in the nosebag and then attach it to the bridle or halter.

Nosebags are most often seen in situations where horses are asked to work long days without access to grazing, such as carriage horses.

They may also be used when feeding horses at pasture as a way of making sure a subordinate horse still gets the correct amount of grain, or if giving medication.

This Turkish horse is enjoying a lunch break with his driver during the harvest in Cappadocia, Turkey. Source: Yelkrokoyade via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What are a horse's chestnuts?

A horse's chestnuts are the obvious hard "callouses" on the inside of the leg, often quite high up.

The chestnut is the equine equivalent of the dew claw in dogs - a vestigial toe that has migrated up the leg. They sometimes grow quite long and may have to be gently trimmed back (it's dead material like hair, so this doesn't hurt the horse, although grabbing and twisting the chestnut hard does - people sometimes use this to force a particularly recalcitrant horse to lift its head).

Interestingly, asses and zebras have chestnuts only on the front legs. The hind chestnuts are also absent on some Caspian ponies and most Banker horses and Icelandic horses, but are present in the Przewalski's horse, suggesting they have been lost by these breeds. Mules rarely have hind chestnuts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

What are a horse's ergots?

If you look carefully at the back of a horse's fetlock, you'll find a small hard area. This is what's left of one of the horse's toe pads and is quite normal. It's called an ergot. (No, I'm not sure of the etymology of this one at all, but it doesn't seem to have any relationship to the fungus).

Monday, December 22, 2014

What is a hard keeper?

A hard keeper or poor doer is, of course, the opposite of an easy keeper - a horse that has a fast metabolism and loses weight easily.

Such horses may need extra or even special feed to keep weight on. Sugar beet pulp is a popular feed in Europe for "poor doers" - this is what's left of sugar beet after the sugar has been extracted and refined.

Older horses often become hard keepers, especially as their teeth become bad.

Thoroughbreds, like this racehorse being walked out on the track, tend to be hard keepers.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What is an easy keeper?

In the UK the term "good doer" is used.

An easy keeper is a horse that doesn't seem to need much food to maintain good weight. It's often mentioned in sales ads as a good thing - the horse is cheap to keep.

However, an "easy keeper" is more likely to get fat and develop obesity-related diseases. They may need to have their grazing restricted and extra work to keep their weight where it belongs.

Fjord horses, like this mare, are often "easy keepers."

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What does the word "distaff" refer to?

Distaff is another word for spindle and is traditionally associated with women. (Much as an unmarried woman is still sometimes called a "spinster," especially in the UK).

In the horse word, the "distaff" is the female side of a horse's pedigree. (Many breeders consider the mare to give more to the foal than the stallion). It's most often heard when talking about racehorses.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Example: Merlin War of Dragons

Okay, this is overall a really terrible movie. (I am one of those people who watches bad movies for entertainment), but it includes some really good tips for producers who include horses in their picture.

1. Make sure that all of your stunt doubles and any actors expected to ride in the production actually can ride. It is really quite obvious when the horse is actually being controlled by a wrangler off screen with a bag of peppermints.

2. Historical accuracy pays off, it really does. If your story is set in fifth century Britain, then the largest horses available at the time were about 14-15 hands and would have been left there by the Romans. (These horses are the ancestors of the Welsh Cob and other large "native" breeds). If you're a Pict, then the horses you have available are 12 hand ponies. Friesians and Warmbloods look great on screen, but...

3. Same note on tack. Try to use bits that had actually been invented when your movie was set. And having your actors and stunt doubles wear heavy clothing is not actually going to hide anachronistic saddles well enough.

4. If you want a horse to perform an air above the ground, find one that actually can. Or don't bother. Don't try to create one by splicing together a rear and a buck.

5. Don't have your supposedly brilliantly skilled horsewoman do stuff that's obviously unsafe, like galloping along a 45 degree slope, galloping on a tar...what, it's the fifth century?...mac road, going flat out downhill. No skilled rider, no matter how much of a hurry she's in, is going to do that because if your horse falls you ain't getting there any time soon.

So, sorry, bad example today. (The movie got everything else wrong too, mind, including an inability to distinguish gods from fairies. And Vortigern wearing his crown outside his helmet was amusing too. Maybe Richard III should have done that...)

THAT is what your picts should be riding, by the way ;).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What is a daisy cutter?

A daisy cutter is a horse that moves in a long, low action, without lifting his hooves off the ground more than is absolutely necessary.

Daisy cutting is a very efficient way of moving, so is commonly seen in horses bred for speed (Thoroughbred, Quarter Horses, etc). It's also desirable in show hunters and in pleasure horses. It's considered undesirable in dressage, where horses are expected to show elevation.

The daisy cutter moves his leg primarily from the shoulder, not the knee as might be seen in gaited horses and dressage horses.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What Is A Grade Horse?

Grade is a U.S. specific term to refer to a horse of unknown breeding, of no specific breeding, or otherwise not able to be registered as a purebred (or part bred) animal.

If a horse's breed is given with "grade" before it, then either the breeding is known but the proof of it has been lost or the horse is reasonably believed by educated people to be of that breed in whole or in part by virtue of its type and build. So, a "grade Quarter Horse" is a horse that looks and goes like a Quarter Horse, but its history is unknown. (In contrast, an "unregistered Quarter Horse" would be a horse bred from two Quarter Horse parents but never, for some reason, registered).

Grade is sometimes used in casual conversation the way "mutt" is with dogs, however, some horsemen make the case that you can't ride a set of papers and a well put together grade is worth no less than a purebred.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What is conformation?

I've used this term a fair bit and just realized I never properly defined it.

A horse's conformation (conFORmation - it's very common to see it typoed to confirmation, making me wonder if people's horses are Catholic) is how the animal is shaped and put together.

Horse people spend a lot of time talking and thinking about conformation. Poor conformation can cause unsoundness, health problems and make an animal less useful, so a big part of horsemanship is choosing horses for work and breeding (especially breeding) that have good conformation. A good horse person can tell if a horse is well put together right away at one glance.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What is chrome?

When people say a horse has "chrome," they obviously don't literally mean it has, say, metal hooves.

Chrome is white markings - most especially stockings or socks - that are considered particularly attractive or flashy. A horse with "a lot of chrome" probably has high white stockings and often a blaze as well. You might also hear people say that certain lines "don't tend to give much chrome."

The term is US specific and relatively recent in coinage.

With his three white legs, belly spots and broad stripe/narrow blaze, you might accuse this Clydesdale of having "plenty of chrome." (Source: USDA by Bill Tarpenning).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Is Black Type?

If you listen to racing people talk, they might call a horse "black type" or talk about the "black type" in a horse's pedigree.

No, this doesn't mean the horse is black or that there's a type of horse called black.

Traditionally, in sales catalogues and advertisements, horses that won or placed in stakes races are bolded (upper case for winners, lower case for horses that have placed). This, of course, makes the type stand out as black.

So, a "black type" horse is a stakes winner or placer.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What Is A Cinch Hobble?

Some western saddles are rigged with two cinches. The back cinch is used for vigorous use such as roping, trail riding in tough terrain, etc. It stops the saddle from slipping forward.

A cinch hobble is a strap that ties the back cinch to the main cinch to prevent it from slipping back towards the horse's sensitive parts, which can make the horse buck.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What Is Bone?

Well, we all know that, but in the horse world it can mean something slightly different.

A horse that has "good bone" has a solid skeletal structure particularly in the lower legs. Sometimes horses are advertised as having X" bone - in this case, the inches are the circumference of the foreleg just below the knee, as measured with a string or a tailor's tape.

The more "bone" a horse has, in general, the more weight it can carry and stay sound. Light or poor bone means thinner legs that aren't going to be up to as much. Thoroughbreds and other horses bred for speed tend to have lighter bone.

So, bone is one of the things a horseman might take into consideration when assessing how much weight a horse should carry.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What Is Balking?

"He balked" is something you might hear an equestrian say quite often. Or "When she's in a bad mood, sometimes she balks about going into the canter."

Balking is refusing to move forward, which may or may not be accompanied by moving sideways or backwards instead. A horse may balk because of a scary object ahead, because of pain, or just because he doesn't want to do what he's being asked. Balking is a common way in which a horse will test an unfamiliar or experienced rider.

The UK spelling is "baulking," and Brits may also use "napping" to describe this behavior.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

What Is A Latigo?

A latigo is very similar to a billet - it's the strap used to secure the cinch to a western saddle.

Traditionally, cinches are tied to the latigo with a cinch knot. However, modern latigos are almost always equipped for buckles (i.e., with holes) - mostly because a cinch knot is hard to tie and with many more casual riders around who don't have the time to learn it buckles are safer. It's probable that the earliest saddles, however, were indeed tied on.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Is A Billet?

In non-equestrian terms, a soldier's living quarters.

In equestrian terms, the billet or billets are the straps on an English or saddle seat saddle to which the girth is secured. A saddle has three billets on each side, although only two are used (the third one is a spare - because the last thing you need, trust me, is your girth coming off mid ride).

Billets often become worn and routinely have to be replaced. Because of this, it's not uncommon on older saddles for the billets (which are hidden) not to quite match the color of the saddle itself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What are brushing boots?

Brushing boots are protective boots normally worn on the front legs.

Some horses are so narrow they will actually catch the inside of a front leg (generally only in front, brushing in the hind end is much, much rarer) with the opposite hoof. This is called brushing or "speedy cutting." The boots protect the horse from damage.

Brushing boots are also sometimes used on jumpers to prevent damage caused by hitting a rail, but there are also specialist boots for this. (And some stadium jumpers don't believe in putting boots on the front leg because they want the horse to feel the rail when he hits it as an encouragement to jump better next time).

The boots on the right side of the horse (viewer's left) are standard brushing boots, front and rear. Image courtesy of Maloq.

Monday, December 1, 2014

What is a bell boot?

A bell boot or overreach boot is a plastic, leather or rubber boot that is placed around a horse's front hoof. (Almost always both feet).

The purpose is to prevent a common injury. Some horses, when ridden, are unable to get their front feet out of the way before their hind feet land in the same spot - this is caused by a fault in conformation or action. Additionally, when a horse lands from a jump, it's common for the hind feet to land very close to the front feet.

This can cause the horse to catch the back of a front foot with the toe of a hind foot, resulting in a "pocket" cut that's very likely to become infected and/or scar. Overreach scars are fairly distinctive and any horse that has one should be ridden in bell boots. Most horses, however, need them only for jumping.

Image modified by Nordlicht8 from photos from Maloq, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is a horse's action?

You will often hear horse people talk about a horse's "action." What do we mean by this?

A horse's "action" is the specific way it moves its legs and feet, especially at the trot. Different breeds are often bred to have action that matches their purpose. Racehorses, for example, are bred to have a low, smooth and very efficient "action" whilst carriage and hitch horses have a very elevated action that's designed to, well, look flashy.

If somebody says a horse has "good action" it means they move correctly for their breed and type.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Are there really a lot of one eyed horses?

Horses have the largest eye of any land animal and their eyes protrude slightly. While there aren't a lot of one eyed horses, horses are more likely to lose an eye to injury than, say, humans or dogs. (This is likely to be particularly true when horses are used in warfare, and war horses wear head armor that is designed in part to protect their eyes.

Eye loss is particularly common in horses that have lost vision in that eye due to an illness. Without the blink reflex to protect the eye, horses are particularly prone to corneal damage which can then result in infection and the need to remove the eye. Some vets recommend removal of an eye that is totally blind before damage occurs because it is just that common and is more humane for the horse than waiting for damage.

It's common, but not absolutely required, to replace the damaged eye with a prosthetic. If a prosthetic is not applied, the sunken eye socket can look quite unnatural, but this is purely a cosmetic concern.

Most horses adapt well to only having one eye, although they may lose the ability to assess heights well enough to compete over fences. They can be spooky to start with and handlers should always keep in mind the loss of vision. (Horses with only one eye will start easily if somebody approaches and makes a noise from their blind side, although I know one "cyclops" horse who has maintained his record of only spooking once in the last 15 years - but that's an exceptional horse to start with). Horses that had partial vision often become less spooky after the eye is removed.

Eye removal is often performed using only sedation and local anesthetic (general anesthesia in horses is dangerous).

It is not in any way cruel to remove a horse's eye if it is damaged (and can be life saving). It is also not cruel or abusive to continue to ride and work a one-eyed horse normally as long as the handler remembers not to startle the poor guy from his blind side.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Are there any deaf horses?

First, a mea culpa.

I mentioned that no pattern in horses is associated with blindness or deafness. While researching something else I found out I was wrong. Congenital deafness is sometimes (but not always) associated with the splashed white coloring. Oops.

Horses can also become deaf with age (the same as any other animal), or as a result of arthritic changes in the skull, inner or middle ear infections, and certain drugs.

Modern testing for deafness includes using a BAER test (the same as is used for humans), but older school tests include shaking a grain bucket where the horse can't see it.

Deaf horses won't spook at loud noises, can't be trained to voice, and sometimes become startled by sudden arrivals in their field of vision. They can, however, be ridden mostly normally.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Is JEB?

JEB (Junctional Epidermolysis Bullosa) is actually a horrible congenital deformity. It's also known as Red Foot Disease, Hairless Foal Syndrome or Epitheliogenesis Imperfecto (EI).

It's linked to two recessive genes, one of which is primarily found in Belgians and American Cream Drafts and the other in American Saddlebreds. The defect effects the production of a key protein that holds the skin on.

Affected foals are born normal, but rapidly develop hairless and then skinless lesions over points of wear, such as joints. In many cases the hoof is also shed. A key diagnostic feature is that the horse's front teeth are present at birth (which they should not be) along with oral ulcers.

The foals generally die or are euthanized within a week or so. And this disease has been recorded since the 1930s - it plagued draft horse breeders until a genetic test was developed to identify carriers. As it's a recessive gene, carriers are healthy.

(Incidentally, JEB also exists in humans, in two forms - Herlitz type, which is generally fatal, and non-Herlitz type, which is associated with a normal life span and appears to resolve itself after infancy, although long term damage to nails and teeth can be present).

Friday, November 21, 2014

What is lavender foal syndrome?

Lavender Foal Syndrome or Coat Color Dilution Lethal is a genetic disorder that generally affects Arabian horses (most often from Egyptian lines). It's a neurological disorder that causes "tetanic" episodes (a form of seizure) and a complete inability to stand. The foal may struggle and "paddle" with its hooves, but is unable to even get into an upright position.

The name of the syndrome comes from an associated color dilution, that lightens the coat to lavender or pink. However, the dilution may be minor or absent.

Affected foals are generally euthanized.

(This is a good example of how you could put together a specific disorder associated with a breed - the bizarre combination of a weird coat color and inability to stand sounds like something out of fiction, doesn't it).

Picture courtesy of PLOS Genetics and Dr. Yael Giora.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why are cowboy boots pointed?

It's not a matter of fashion.

Cowboy boots have pointed toes that still give plenty of space for the foot. And the reason is actually a very simple one. A pointed toe makes it much easier for the rider to regain a lost stirrup. As stirrups are so essential when roping and working cattle, a cowboy can't afford to keep riding without a stirrup.

Knight's armor boots are pointed for the same reason. English riding boots are not - in most English disciplines, riders can simply carry on with one or no stirrups and not have any problems.

Pointed (and heavily decorated) cowboy boots, courtesy of ZeljkoArtist (Via Wikimedia Commons).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Is Cutting?

Cutting is competitive herding of cattle. It's so named because the horse will "cut" one particular cow from the herd.

It might seem strange to use one herbivore to herd another, but "cow sense" - or herding instinct - has been bred into the stock horse breeds over generations. The original instinct probably came from a dominant animal's desire to keep their own herd together. (Horses with a lot of "cow" also tend to be more dominant personalities, which they need to face down a steer - but will often try to use to face down their handler).

In a cutting contest, the rider will generally cut three selected cows from the herd. The horse (with no guidance from the rider) will then try to keep the cow separated. The original purpose of cutting was to separate cows for doctoring (vaccinations, etc).

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What is reining?

Reining is a western riding contest that, like dressage, is designed to show off how well the horse is trained, using maneuvers that are stylized from those used to work stock.

Reining horses demonstrate sliding stops (used once you had roped a cow to secure it), spins and rollbacks (for quick turning) and other complex maneuvers. The very highest level of reining riders may do their routines without a bridle. Reining is often done to music.

The video shows top reiner Stacy Westfall doing her freestyle with no tack. (So, you know, the trope of the super rider who doesn't need tack may not be as inaccurate as a lot of people think).

Monday, November 17, 2014

What was the most common cause of early death for cowboys in the old West?

Hint, not Indians. Or other cowboys. Although gunfights did happen, they were relatively rare.


The most common cause of death was falling from a horse. Riding helmets had not been invented (and sadly, many modern cowboys refuse to wear them out of a sense of tradition), so head injuries were common. So was being dragged by the stirrup, although good boots could prevent that.

Dying by falling from a horse would also have been a common fate of mounted warriors - the most common training accident would have been a simple fall. A knight's helmet was designed to protect him from blows to the head, so might have helped reduce the number of brain injuries - or not. And, of course, horse trainers would have faced this as their greatest risk (and to an extent still do).

Friday, November 14, 2014

What is a coronet?

The word "coronet" means two things when referring to horses:

1. The top of the hoof, specifically the area from which the hoof grows. Damage to the coronet, also called the coronet band can cause serious hoof problems and lameness.

3. A white marking that forms a thin ring around the top of the hoof.

A white coronet. Image source Kersti Nebelsiek via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What are stockings?

If socks are white markings on a horse's legs that are fairly short, then obviously stockings are fairly high. Sometimes the term "high white" is used - in this case generally for white going all the way up the leg, which is often indicative of sabino (If white is also on the flanks and belly, then it is definitely one of the sabino variants).

Socks stop below the knee or hock. Stockings carry on above it.

Stockings are common on pinto horses that carry the tobiano, sabino or splashed white genes, but can also be seen on otherwise solid animals.

This Paint horse has stockings as well as everything else. (Based off of the ragged patch on his shoulder, this is a tovero horse).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Are Socks?

No, horses generally don't wear socks under their shoes.

Socks are white markings that start at the hoof and extend to some point between the fetlock and the knee or hock.

A horse might have socks on one leg all the way to all four. Note that in some equestrian disciplines, horses with a sock on only one side are frowned upon because it can make their gait look uneven.

The chestnut horse in the center has a sock on his right hind leg. And is hamming it for the camera. Or asking me to take all that gear off his back, not sure which.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Is A Bald Face?

"Bald" originally meant white, not devoid of hair. So a bald face is a completely white face, covering the entire front of the face and often also the lower lip.

Photo taken by Malcolm Morley. (If anyone has a better quality picture they'd be willing to let me use, let me know - I don't know any bald-faced horses).

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Is A Snip?

A snip is a white marking on a horse's nose, between the nostrils. The skin under it, like all white markings, is pink - this can often be particularly obvious on the nose, to the point where sometimes snips on grey horses are visible even after the horse has turned white.

This mare has both a star (discussed yesterday) and a snip - which is not uncommon. Her snip is wide and covers the nostrils.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What Is A Star?

A star is a white spot on the horse's forehead. All horses have a whorl of hair in the center of their forehead, and sometimes a white marking forms around it. Stars are most often circular or close to circular, but can occasionally be closer to a diamond shape.

A rather "smudged" star on a black horse.

This bay also has a star. The white hairs around his muzzle are, like greying in humans, a sign of age.

A large, diamond shaped star on a Quarter Horse mare. (Often considered a very desirable marking.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Is A Stripe?

A "blaze" is a broad stripe down a horse's face. A stripe is just a narrower one, that may be as thin as a pencil line.

Some people might call this stripe a blaze - it falls between the two, especially as the top reaches to the top of the eyes. I'm still tossing it up myself.

A much more distinct stripe on this Quarter Horse gelding, which narrows towards the top.

Ignore the delightfully spotted butt - you're looking at the chestnut, which has an extremely thin stripe.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What Is A Blaze?

No, I don't mean a stable fire.

A blaze is a broad white stripe down a horse's face. To be called a blaze, it has to reach at least the inside of the eyes and in some cases may cover the eyes. (If it does, the eyes are often blue).

This Quarter Horse mare has a blaze which runs all the way down to the lips. The lower lip also has some white on it. Note that the skin of the nose is pink.

Very wide blazes are sometimes associated with pinto genes, but as you can see this horse is otherwise solid.

Monday, November 3, 2014

What Is EPM?

EPM is Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.

It's caused by Sarcocystis neurona, a parasite that affects the central nervous system. Most horses carry the parasite without problems, and it has a secondary host - generally an opossum, a cat or a raccoon.

The infection causes lesions in the brain or central nervous system as well as inflammation.

Horses infected by EPM can suffer permanent damage and it can be fatal if untreated. Treatment is a relatively recent thing and consists of antiprotozal drugs to reduce the parasitic load and anti-inflammatory drugs to control inflammation and reduce damage.

The worst thing about EPM is the long list of symptoms, many of which are common with other neurological diseases. The first symptom is usually facial paralysis, an ear drooping, or difficulty chewing and controlling the tongue.

Other symptoms include uncoordinated movement of the rear feet, generally worse on one side, intermittent lameness that may move from one leg to another, hind end weakness, and problems balancing when a hoof is lifted. Muscle atrophy may also be seen, the affected horse might lean on something for balance, not stand square, and drag a hoof when turning. The back may be sore, the horse might sweat up for no reason or carry his tail crooked. Changes in vision, tilting the head to one side, and behavioral changes are also observed - and any of these may become permanent. Horses with odd personality traits, rear end problems that aren't quite bad enough to make them lame, clumsiness and even anxiety may be animals that, at some point in their life, had EPM...but there are all sorts of other things that can cause it.

(In other words, consider using this as a simple explanation for equine neurological problems, but bear in mind it's most commonly carried by opossums and is rare outside areas they exist in).

Friday, October 31, 2014

Can You Just Get On An Untrained Horse And Ride It?

It's a favored western trope. The cowboy ropes the wild horse, puts a saddle on it, gets on and rides off into the sunset.

How realistic is that?

With a horse that has never been handled - not very. In reality, when cowboys did that, they would have to deal with the animal's violent objections, which often involved somebody getting hurt.

With a domestic horse that has a calmer temperament, has been treated well and handled her entire life, then it actually is possible. Colored cobs (what Americans call gypsy vanners) and some lines of Quarter Horse are known for being "born broke." I personally know a mare who's first ride was a random teenager and who's second ride was a total beginner (She was so good her owner did not know she was not trained).

Most horses, however, will show some degree of annoyance when saddled and ridden for the first time, ranging from trying to walk away from the tack to violent bucking. So, if you want to use this trope?

With a wild horse, make sure you talk about how difficult a task it is and how the horse needs to be "bucked out" and honestly...wild horse breaking generally involves letting the horse be mad until it's too tired to keep fighting and behaves.

With a domestic horse, make mention that the animal has a good temperament, or is from "good lines" that are known for being easy to train.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What Is Grass Sickness?

Grass sickness is a nasty disease that mostly affects animals in northern Europe, especially Great Britain. It affects all equines, not just horses. (A similar disease effects rabbits and hares).

Grass sickness generally affects younger horses between 2 and 7 years. Older horses appear to develop resistance to the disease. It almost always affects horses on pasture, hence the name.

We have no idea what causes it. It might be a deficiency (it seems to be associated with high nitrogen contact of soil) or, the current lead theory, a soil bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. It's not contagious, but several cases may occur if multiple horses are in the same pasture.

It causes partial or complete paralysis of the digestive tract and is almost universally fatal in the acute form. The symptoms of acute grass sickness include constipation, a distended stomach and partially digested food coming out of the nose - and the horse usually dies within a couple of days.

Subacute grass sickness is less severe, but is still fatal. Chronic grass sickness, which has symptoms that include rapid weight loss, is survivable and some cases can be treated with nursing and special high energy feed.

Grass sickness is horrible and there's no way to prevent it other than not using pasture associated with the disease for grazing horses in spring and summer. (US people, yes, grass sickness is all but unknown in the US, with only a very occasional case diagnosed and as it can sometimes be confused with other forms of colic...)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Are Chestnut Horses Crazy?

Nope. Pure myth. I've met some crazy and "hot headed" chestnuts and also some calm ones, including a mare who let a beginner ride her the second time she was ever ridden. The best trail horse I've ever ridden was also chestnut, and her only temperament flaw was the exact opposite - she was just a bit lazy.

The only possibly supported link between temperament and color in horses is a possibility that pinto horses may be calmer than solid horses due to the link with domestication syndrome.

So, if you're going for a ride and they offer you a chestnut - don't worry. They're not crazy.

In her Paladin's Legacy series Elizabeth Moon assigns a similar superstition about gray or white horses to one of the cultures in her books. So, when worldbuilding, do think whether people in your world have ideas about specific horse colors. But be aware that if your horses are at all realistic, those ideas should be demonstrated to be very, very false.

I mentioned the mare who let a beginner ride her when she wasn't even trained? Here she is.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Do Knights Ride White Horses?

In video, this is sometimes an example of white hats versus black hats - in early westerns, especially black and white, the filmmakers would put white hats on the good cowboys and black hats on the evil ones as a quick visual distinguisher that appears tacky today.

But white or white-looking grey horses are special in fantasy fiction. Gandalf rides Shadowfax. The Companions in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar are white. Over and over again, western authors put the special hero, the king, etc on a white horse.


Plain and simple, white horses have a mythological significance all over the world. The Celtic mother goddess is sometimes portrayed as a white mare. Pegasus is also white and Odin's eight-legged steed Sleipnir is generally considered to be grey.

White horses have been sacrificed and used in divination ceremonies. At some Hindu weddings the groom arrives riding a white horse and accompanied by the youngest male member of his family (No matter how young). In this case, the white horse symbolizes the hoped-for fertility of the match.

So, the plain truth of it is that white horses are a trope because they have always been a trope - and there's nothing wrong with using it. Just be aware that it is a trope (and therefore ripe to be subverted).

A true white Thoroughbred, courtesy of Kersti Nebelsiek.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What is a zebrass?

A zebrass, zedonk or zedonkey is the cross between a zebra and a donkey.

Unlike with horses, it is possible to breed a zebra hinny (the chromosome numbers are closer together). Additionally, interbreeding between zebras and wild asses, despite the fact that the offspring are not fertile, has been witnessed in parts of Africa where their ranges overlap. It's possible that this may have given people the initial idea to create mules. (Horses and donkeys do not have naturally overlapping ranges).

Like zorses, zedonks resemble the non-zebra parent in body type, but have zebra stripes. Zebrasses have been intentionally bred as work animals, partly in the hope that they would inherit the zebra's resistance to sleeping sickness.

A "zedonk" at Colchester Zoo. Source: sannse via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What is a zorse?

Some years ago one zoo in the UK sold another a surplus miniature pony for the pregnant zoo.

When the second zoo discovered the pony was pregnant, they called the first zoo.

The first zoo's response: She can't be. We don't have a stallion on the premises.

The foal came out with stripes.

Apparently, the first zoo didn't consider that she'd got in with the zebras...

A zorse is a zebra horse hybrid. Zorses are generally small and often lack any kind of prominent wither. Like zebras (which are, after all, wild animals) they're known for being hard to train - although zorses have successfully competed in the show ring both under saddle and in harness, over fences and even in dressage. They definitely resemble horses more than zebras.

However, zorses are readily distinguishable from pure horses because they always have some degree of striping. Specifically, they have black stripes on a base of a familiar horse color, such as this bay or dun zorse:

(Source: Kumana @ Wild Equines).

If the zorse has pinto markings, the stripes do not carry on across the markings and they can be more subtle, but a zorse will always have stripes.

Sometimes the offspring of a zebra and a pony is called a zony.

Zebras have a much different chromosome number from horses - horses have 64 and zebra species range from 32 and 46. Like mules, zorses are infertile. Also, because of the much greater chromosome difference compared to horses and asses, zebra hinnies are almost never produced. When they are, they seldom survive to adulthood. Also, zorses are prone to dwarfism.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is a hinny?

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.

A hinny is the opposite - bred from a stallion (male horse) on a jennet/jenny (female donkey).

Hinnies are not always possible to distinguish from mules - if in doubt, the animal is referred to as a mule. They're also considerably rarer because it is, for reasons that are presumably to do with the chromosome numbers, much harder to breed the cross successfully. Mule breeders will generally only make a hinny if they really want a particular cross.

Hinnies tend to look a little bit more like horses than mules do. Anecdotally, some muleskinners claim that you can tell whether an animal is a mule or a hinny by turning them out in a field which has a couple of horses and a couple of donkeys in it - a mule will go hang out with the horses and a hinny will seek out the donkeys.

Mule ears. Just because.