Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What was a Palfrey?

I had somebody ask at the con what the difference is between a palfrey and a rouncey - so I'm going to explain the four common Medieval horse terms in the next four posts - palfrey, rouncey, destrier, and garron.

A palfrey was, quite simply, a high quality riding horse. Knights would ride palfreys when not in battle (warhorses were used only for battle and tournaments). Most palfreys were what we would now call gaited horses. They were bred as a means of transportation, but also for hunting and parades.

So, basically, a palfrey was an expensive horse that would be ridden by a rich person. The spiritual descendants of the palfrey include the English park hack and the American Saddlebred.

Wealthy Medieval riders. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

And a modern American Saddlebred. (Source: AkimaDoll via Wikimedia Commons).

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What Is A Horse's Fetlock?

The horse's fetlock is the joint (on all four legs) that appears to be the horse's "ankle." It's actually part of the foot. In a resting position, it angles forward to place the hoof firmly on the ground, but it bends backwards when the hoof is lifted off the ground - as shown by our Fjord mare.

The ligament that supports the back of the fetlock is called the suspensory ligament - and injuries to it are one of the worst things that can happen to a horse. (Extremely painful and recovery time of up to a full year). The fetlock joint is also prone to swelling if it gets banged on something, so it's quite an important and fragile part of the horse.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What Are The Withers?

The withers are the little bump you see at the base of the neck on a horse. What they actually are is a series of bony spines that extend upwards from the vertebrae in that area.

Withers are unique to domesticated horses.

As you can see, this zebra's back is completely flat - no "bump." (Source: D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons).

Same with this donkey. Both animals have a completely flat back. (Source: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons).

And again, Przewalski's horses - wild horses - no withers. (Source: Ancalagon via Wikimedia Commons).

So, the wither is something we've bred in to our horses. Why? Is it to hold the saddle in place? Not...entirely.

This Norwegian Fjord mare has a dip in her back for the saddle, but only the slightest hint of withers.

This is a foundation Quarter Horse, with distinct withers.

And this is an Akhal-Teke, representing a breed that's the ancestor of the Thoroughbreds, and clearly showing the "shark fin" wither classic of racehorses. (Source: Artur Baboev via Wikimedia Commons).

Draft horses and ponies have very low withers. Racehorses have very high ones, which should clue you in. The spines actually anchor the top of the shoulder muscles. This increases the reach of the front legs, which increases the length of the stride, which...makes the horse faster.

So, no, they aren't to hold the saddle on - in fact shark fin withers make saddle fitting just as tough as what we call "mutton" withers (when the horse has little or no wither height).

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Is A Horse's Frog?

You'll hear horse people talk about a horse's frog. What is it?

A horse's hoof is basically its toe nail, wrapped around the outside of the foot.

Image source: Alex Brollo via Wikimedia Commons. (Excuse the annotation, it was the only pic I could find - if anyone has one they could let me use...otherwise I'll have to stop by the barn with my camera).

The concave area is the horse's sole. The triangular shape is the frog. It's a spongy structure that acts as a shock absorber, kind of like a dog's paw pad. Note the deep groove on either side - this is where stones and other objects can get stuck, especially if the horse is shod. The frog should touch the ground in soft footing - if it doesn't, the horse can actually develop circulatory problems.

Why is it called a frog? No clue. The etymology of that term appears to have been lost.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where Is A Horse's Knee?

One of the most confusing things about horses is that they stand on their toes - so their leg joints are in funky places compared to ours.

A human knee is the main joint of the leg...but a horse's knee is found on the front leg.

Our Fjord mare is stepping backwards. As you can see her right front leg is reaching back. The knee joint is the one that's flexed. It's called the knee because it bends the same way as the human knee, but it's not.

It's actually her wrist. The joint that looks like the wrist, the one above the hoof - called the fetlock - is part of her foot...that entire bottom of the leg is her foot and the "foot" is a toe. Her elbow is right at the top of the leg, tucked up against her belly.

Confused yet?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What Do We Mean When We Say A Horse Is Bridle Lame?

If you hang around with horse people long enough, you're likely to hear "He's just bridle lame."

What does that mean?

A "bridle lame" horse is one that appears to be lame or in pain, but is actually just off balance, crooked, lazy, or evading the rider's cues in a way that throws him off balance or crooked. It's often caused by a poorly fitting or harsh bit - or a bit the horse simply finds uncomfortable. The other common cause is laziness, a horse that refuses to step out properly under saddle.

Bridle lameness is a training issue - fixing it depends on the cause. It may require a change of bit, it may require work in ground lines to encourage straightness. I know one horse who is bridle lame unless you kick his butt to make him work (And has been known to pretend to be lame too - yes, some horses are smart enough to think of that).

Bridle lameness can sometimes fool even an experienced rider. If pushing the horse forward with the reins released evens out the stride, though, it's almost always bridle lameness.

Monday, April 21, 2014

What Are The Most Common Causes Of Lameness?

So, you need your character's horse to be lame - what would be the most common problems?

Most lameness in horses can be traced to the foot. Their feet and hooves are surprisingly fragile and are weight bearing structures - they're easily damaged. But lameness can also have a number of causes. Here, in no particular order, are the most common:

1. A foreign object "in" the foot. This is more common in shod horses. An object, most often a stone, becomes caught between the central structure of the foot and the hoof wall. If you've ever had a stone in your shoe, you'll understand. A stone or other object can cause dramatic lameness - which usually goes away immediately once the problem is removed. This is why good horsemen don't go out riding without a hoofpick. If the object stays in there too long, though, it can cause a "stone bruise" - an area that remains sensitive for a while.

2. A hoof abscess. Horses kept in humid conditions are particularly prone to infections in the hoof structure. Abscesses cause sudden, severe lameness, but the horse generally recovers quickly. (Stalled horses are also more likely to get them.

3. Pulled muscles. Just like humans, horses can pull or sprain muscles. (Yes, we keep equine ice packs at the barn).

4. Strained, pulled, or torn tendons. If you need a horse out of action for a long time, sprain or strain the suspensory ligament - this can render an animal useless for over a year. (It holds up the back of the fetlock).

5. Stocking up. This is a generalized inflammation that's caused by overwork or by immobilizing a horse for extended periods of time.

6. Thrush. Horse's hooves are prone to infection by thrush (Most kinds of equine thrush will not infect humans, but it can happen).

7. A sore back. Pain in the back can manifest as lameness. If you want to mystify your hero as to why his horse is lame, put the problem in the back. (If you really want a tricky problem, hind end lameness has been known to be caused by soreness in the tail).

8. Cuts, etc. A painful cut can also cause lameness - but is, of course, easy to find.

(There are lots of other causes. These are just the more common ones).

Friday, April 18, 2014

What Do We Mean When We Say A Horse Is Lame?

"That horse is lame." Modern riders may also say a horse is "off."

A lame horse is one that is showing sign of pain when it moves, either with or without a rider. This can mean limping, or it can mean a much more subtle unevenness of stride. Experienced horsemen can tell instantly if the horse they are riding is lame.

A horse may be "trotted up" to assess lameness. If a horse has a sore front leg, it will drop its head when the opposite leg touches the ground. In the back, a much less prominent dropping of the hip is visible.

A good horseman will not continue to ride a lame horse (outside of some sort of life and death emergency) - both out of concern that the animal is in pain and because they may make the injury, whatever it is, worse.

Lameness is a symptom, not a diagnosis - I'll talk about the most common causes next week. Some can be fixed on the spot, others are far more serious.

I'll also talk about another term you might hear - "bridle lameness."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How Fast Does A Horse Travel?

So, we talked about safe distances of travel - but just how fast is a horse?

Here's a handy little table/list:

Walk - about 4 mph
Trot - 8.1 to 12 mph
Canter - 12 to 15 mph
Gallop 25 - 30 mph.

Over a sprint distance (a quarter of a mile or so) a horse has been known to reach over 50 miles per hour, but they can't keep it up. Harness racers can trot or pace at the same speed regular horses gallop.

One of the things you'll notice is the much greater variance at the higher gaits. All horses walk at close to the same pace, but at the faster paces speed is affected by conformation and breeding. A draft horse is never going to gallop as fast as a Thoroughbred. (Yes, draft horses are perfectly capable of galloping, they just aren't built to do it very well!).

For normal travel, riders and carriage drivers tend to alternate walk and trot, hitting an average speed of 6-7 mph.

In mountainous or rough terrain you will probably be traveling mostly at a walk. The same if leading pack horses.

The ambling gaits are about the same speed as a trot, but can be kept up for longer by both horse and rider. To give some idea, I've spent 5 hours at a walk on a normal horse and regretted it the next day. I spent 5 hours on an Icelandic, mostly at the tolt, and couldn't even physically tell I'd been on a horse at all...

Horses should not be asked to canter or gallop for extended periods of time. Post riders would alternate between trot and canter. (There's a reason we talk about "posting" the trot - I'll talk about that tomorrow).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What Are The Gaits Of The Horse?

First of all, I apologize. A post that was supposed to go out a month from now accidentally went out today - so if you're wondering where it is (and why it didn't make as much sense as usual) I put it back in its place.

So, today, I'm going to follow up by talking about the four gaits of the horse. Well, of most horses.

The standard four gaits all horses can do are:

1. The walk. The walk is a four beat, lateral gait. Horses walk most of the time - they only go faster if they have a good reason, although that good reason can include play.

This pack horse is walking off towards...actually, he's going back to the ranch with the trash.

2. The trot. The trot is a two beat, diagonal gait. That is, the left front hoof and right hind hoof move, then the other pair. Because of this, there's a lot of up and down motion in the trot. I'll talk about "posting" the trot in a specific post. A horse can keep up a trot for quite some time - it's a comfortable gait for them. The western jog is a slightly slower trot - and stock horses are bred to have a low, smooth gait.

A Quarter Horse mare trotting - one diagonal is on the ground the other is elevated.

3. The canter. The canter is also diagonal, but has three beats. A horse moves the right hind, then the left hind and right fore, then the left fore. Or the other way around - this is called the canter lead. Riding horses are trained to always canter on the "inside" lead, which means, paradoxically, moving the outside hind first. Wild horses will tend to canter on the lead they prefer. Western people call the canter the "lope". The canter also has a distinct moment of suspension.

Both of the ponies in this picture are cantering. The pinto in the lead is right in the "moment of suspension" with not one hoof on the ground.

4. The gallop. The gallop is just a canter extended until it has four beats. Right hind, left hind, right fore, left fore - or, again, the other way round. The gallop is the fastest gait for most horses, and most horses can't keep it up for very long.

These Thoroughbred racehorses are galloping. The middle horse is in the moment of suspension, the lead horse is in the fully extended phase of the gait. Source: Softeis via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, there are the "extra" gaits.

1. The foxtrot. This is a four beat diagonal gait - essentially a "broken" trot. Right fore, left hind, left fore, right hind. Because the pairs are broke, the foxtrot is smoother than a normal trot. It's classic of the Missouri Foxtrotter.

A Missouri Fox Trotter. Source: Kayla Oakes via Wikimedia Commons.

2. The amble. The amble has several breed specific variants - it's called, for example, a running walk in the Missouri Foxtrotter, the singlefoot, the tolt in Icelandics, and the revaal in the Marwari and Kathiawari horses of India. Each amble is slightly different, but it's basically a sped up walk. And is very comfortable - at least the tolt is. Horses that ambled used to be prized as riding horses, but the trait is now limited to only a few breeds. Do your characters a favor - have the riding horses amble. Trust me.

An Icelandic horse demonstrating the tolt. Image source: Dagur Brynjolfsson via Wikimedia Commons.

3. The rack. The rack, also called the paso largo in the Paso Fino or the flying pace in Icelandic horses - is basically the amble sped up to a canter or gallop speed. It's harder to achieve. (For example, all Icelandic horses tolt, but not all can handle the flying pace).

A Saddlebred horse doing the rack or fast gait. (Note how far back the rider is sitting - this is correct for gaited horses, who need their shoulders free to move properly). Source: Heather Moreton via Wikimedia Commons.

4. The pace. The pace is a two beat lateral gait. You. Do. Not. Want. To. Ride. A. Pacer. Your kidneys don't want you to anyway. In modern horses, the pace is most commonly seen in harness racing breeds, because it's faster than the fastest trot. In gaited breeds being "pacey" is a fault and the pace is bred out of most horses (rack = four beats. Pace = two beats). Because your kidneys don't like it. (Camels also pace and people have been known to be motion sick on them!).

Harness racers at the pace. Source: MagicFlute1983 via Wikimiedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How Far Can A Horse Safely Travel In A Day?

Assuming your heroes have a horse each, how far can they travel in a day without damaging the horses?

The American Endurance Ride Conference allows 12 hours to complete a 50 mile ride, and 24 hours for 100 miles. However, these horses are not covering this distance for days on end. They're rested after the race. It also can take several years to properly train and condition horses for 100 mile races.

A more reasonable figure, thus, would be about 30 miles a day - assuming a fit horse on reasonably level ground. In mountains, you might be doing well to cover 15 miles in a day. And this is staying in the saddle all day, which might not be feasible in any given situation.

Obviously, if your characters only have to cover 100 miles or less and are in a hurry, you could assume they could do it in less than 24 hours. The horses would need to be rested afterwards (and so would the riders, trust me), but it could be done safely for the horse.

For a normal, leisurely trip, such as the Starks going from Winterfell to King's Landing, I would generally apply a ballpark figure of about 20 miles a day.

On the other extreme, post riders can get a message from one end of a continent to another very quickly. The Roman post rider system averaged 50 miles a day and the famed Pony Express hit 75 miles a day. How? By using a relay system. The rider would change horses at regular intervals. Over longer distances, post riders would cover a specific shorter route and hand off letters to a different rider.

Hopefully, this gives some idea of reasonable travel times. (Obviously, if your characters are in dire straits and don't care about ruining a good horse...)

A good horse after a long day's work. (I know, I know, I keep showing this girl, but she really is a very nice horse).

Monday, April 14, 2014

What Are The Three Kinds Of Horse?

Equus caballus is split into three broad types. These types represent different wild populations that were absorbed.

1. The steppe horse. This was the first horse to be domesticated and originated on the Asian steppes. The steppe horse refined into the modern Turkemen and Akhal-teke horses, the Arabians and Barbs of north America, and reaches its ultimate form in the Thoroughbred. The descendants of the steppe horse are refined, light, and very fast. They have fine coats and tend towards sparse manes and tails. They are often called "hotbloods." (Contrary to popular belief, the three founding sires of the Thoroughbred were not all Arabians - at least one was a Turkoman. The purest remnants of the original steppe horse are the Tarpan and the Caspian, although Icelandic horses closely resemble the Tarpan and may also be close to pure "steppe."

A modern American Thoroughbred is "walked out" after a race (it was blistering hot that day).

2. The forest horse. Originating in central Europe, the forest horse is a stocky, heavy horse with much more "hair" on it than the steppe horse. Forest horses have feather over their hooves. The forest horse has been bred up in size. And up. And up. The modern descendants of the forest horse are the various draft breeds, which include the biggest breed of horse in the world - the Shire. Draft horses are also sometimes called coldbloods.

A roan Belgian carries her own harness...she's about to be loaded onto a trailer. This is a fairly small draft horse.

3. The hill horse. Originated in northern Europe. Small, smart, and scrappy, hill horses are tough, survive on minimum forage, but don't breed up in size well at all. Like the forest horse, they tend to have a lot of hair. Actually, they often have even more hair. The modern descendants of the hill horse are all the various pony breeds - tough, often difficult to handle, but easy and cheap to keep.

A Shetland pony in a standing stall. His mane has been trimmed because it gets so hot here - it should be all the way down to the bottom of his neck.

All of our modern breeds of horse, every one, are descended either from one of these three types or from specific interminglings of the two.

Most light horses are "warmbloods" - created by mixing coldblood lines with hotblood ones. This includes the modern American stock horse - the most popular breed of horse in North America is the Quarter Horse - as well as sport horses and the highly refined, carefully bred Warmblood breeds of Europe. (Note that warmblood, small w, can be any light horse, but Warmblood, large w, should only be used to refer to a horse registered with a Warmblood registry).

A Dutch Warmblood stallion doing high level dressage. Source: Fotoimage via Wikimedia Commons.

Draft ponies such as the Haflinger, the British colored cob and its Irish equivalent (often called "gypsy" or "tinker" horses), and the Norwegian Fjord are a mix of coldblood and pony blood.

A classic "draft pony" - the Norwegian Fjord.

Sports ponies are often made by crossing ponies and hotbloods - pony/Thoroughbred crosses are popular in Britain. Some riding pony breeds, such as the modern Welsh Pony, have a fair bit of Thoroughbred in them.

Me riding a pinto sports pony, probably a Paint/Welsh cross. (Yes, I am that short. That is really a pony.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What Kind Of Teeth Do Horses Have?

I promised I'd go more into teeth, so here it is.

Horses are grazers. They primarily eat grass and herbs. This gives them very different dentition from humans (who are omnivores).

(Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

Here's our horse skull again. We have a long, narrow jaw with six sets of molars, two sets of incisors, and one set of canines. No premolars.

A horse eats by cutting the top of the grass with its incisors and then using its tongue (which is quite large) to pull the grass up to those great big molars, which grind it into itty bitty pieces before swallowing.

The canines - which as you can see are small and not in opposition to each other - serve no purpose in feeding. In fact, about 25% of male horses and 75% of females don't have canines at all. Wild male horses might use their canines in fights, but they aren't even much use for that. Given more evolution, horses may lose their canine teeth altogether.

Premolars are a different matter. This horse, as you can see, has no premolars. Some horses do have one set of premolars - which we call "wolf" teeth (figures vary from 50% to 70%). In 90% of cases the wolf teeth exist only in the upper jaw. Many horses have "blind" wolf teeth - they never erupt through the surface of the jaw. Wolf teeth - especially blind ones - are often considered a problem. They can come into contact with the bit, causing unnecessary pain for the horse. Many horsemen automatically have the wolf teeth removed. Others elect to use bitless bridles with animals that have wolf teeth that are causing them problems. The wolf teeth are completely vestigial, and removing them has no long term effect on the horse.

Horses have open-rooted teeth that continue to grow throughout the animal's life. However, horses tend to outlive their teeth somewhere in their twenties and start losing them - it's possible to keep a "toothless old" horse healthy, but it requires special food, feeding soaked hay, etc. I've seen a horse stay in good weight with precisely one canine and about half a molar left in his mouth, so it's certainly possible.

Domestic horses may have their teeth grow faster than eating wears them down. We correct this by filing the teeth - called "floating" in the US and "rasping" in the UK.

Horses do not often get dental caries, but it does happen - especially if they're fed too many simple sugars. (Sugar lumps are fine occasionally, but bad in excess). Tooth abscesses and tooth loss can occur. In an animal that has lost a tooth, regular floating is even more important to prevent the opposite tooth from growing into the empty socket. (Bunny owners are familiar with the problem).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Where Does The Bit Go?

Another question I'm sometimes asked is where the bit goes. "Don't they have teeth in there?"

As you can see horses have a rather long head. This serves two purposes: It allows them to see over long grass while feeding and it gives room for their quite impressive array of teeth.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

This is a horse skull. As you can see, the horse has no less than six sets of molars. Grass takes a lot of breaking down to make it digestible. At the very front of the mouth you see two sets of incisors and one set of canines.

And no premolars. Because of the length of the horse's head and the absence of premolars, there's a substantial gap between the canines and the first set of molars - and that's where the bit goes. There's nothing in that gap but bare gum. We refer to this as the "bars" of the mouth. I'll talk more about horse teeth tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Why Are Most Male Horses Gelded?

A quick look through horse ads and you'll see that most of the male horses advertised are geldings.

The vast majority of male horses are neutered. This practice may date back to very close to the beginnings of domestication. The Lapps capture, neuter, and release many of the male reindeer in the herds they follow.

Gelding is not done to limit the number of foals produced per se. You can only reduce population growth in a harem breeder species by removing females - despite the fact that some people promote geld and release as a way of controlling Mustang populations (it won't work).

We geld most male horses for two reasons:

1. To remove inferior males from the breeding pool.
2. To reduce aggression and make the animals easier to handle.

Male horses produce a lot of testosterone. Stallions have a high libido and are very aggressive. They are harder to train than mares and can be dangerous to handle at times, especially if not properly trained and socialized.

Castration just makes them much more mellow, even, and easy to deal with - to the point where many horsemen prefer geldings to mares (not all - I actually have a fondness for a good mare myself). Castrating before puberty can also cause a slight, but noticeable increase in adult height.

Most domestic horses are gelded at a year. Some people believe in gelding at a younger age, but this is controversial. Ideally, though, you want your riding or work horse to be gelded prior to puberty, as horses gelded afterwards can retain some stallion-like behavior.

The exception is the racing industry, where colts are often kept intact until they can be tried on the racetrack. As performance is the only thing these horses are judged by (sometimes to the expense of soundness and temperament) it makes sense to keep them as entires until they've raced a few times. This does mean that some male Thoroughbreds can be a little studdy...I've had one go into display behavior on me because a strange gelding went off on a trail ride with a mare he fancied. He's a gelding, but he clearly wasn't "done" until after puberty.

Miniature horses are often kept entire because people think they're easier to handle because of their size.

A Paint/Draft cross gelding.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is the cycle of pregnancy in a horse?

Equine gestation is about 11 months. Anecdotally, draft mares tend to have slightly shorter pregnancies.

Horses breed in the spring or summer. The normal cycle is that the mare comes into heat about a month after giving birth and, if all goes well, conceives and gives birth in 11 months - thus, one foal a year, about a year apart. (Horses can conceive twins, but I'll talk more about that later).

Horses are harem breeders - meaning a group of mares is bred by one resident stallion who, under normal circumstances, keeps those breeding rights strictly to himself. It's probable that mares occasionally sneak off and are bred by a different stallion - this happens in most harem breeding species. In some cases, two stallions may work together to keep their harem. (Other harem breeders include lions and elk).

A mare will come into season about every 3-4 weeks until she gets pregnant, but only comes into season during the summer months. This is triggered by day length, not temperature. Mares generally don't look pregnant until fairly close to due - many is the story from horse people, often with decades of experience, of getting a surprise when the first they knew a mare was pregnant was when they had one more horse than the previous day!

It's even harder to tell with mares that have had several foals...their bellies don't always return to a nice flat state afterwards.

A few days to a couple of weeks prior to foaling a mare will "bag up." That means her udder becomes full and swollen and there may even be some leakage of milk. When foaling is imminent, the muscles of the tail and croup relax noticeably. The mare becomes restless and may paw the ground, pace, and stare at her sides - probably an indicator of feeling contractions.

Horses can actually control the onset of hard labor! A mare will not give birth if she knows there are predators around or if she feels threatened. In the days before close circuit cameras, mares were notorious for waiting until their owner stepped out to get a cup of coffee and giving birth in their absence - even a trusted human still counts as a predator.

Once hard labor begins, the mare will go down onto her side. The foal, like most babies, comes out head first, nose on top of hooves. Horses get it done quickly - if the foal is not out within twenty minutes of the mare going down it means there are complications - more on that later.

The foal is born with little soft caps on his or her hooves - this prevents the developed hooves from damaging the uterus or vagina. Foals stand immediately and suckle as soon as the mare is finished with the afterbirth and on her feet. (They often fall over a few times to start with, but the instinct to stand is very strong).

A wild foal will stay with his or her mother until the next foal is dropped, at which point they are driven out of the herd completely. Colts join all-male groups called "bachelor bands" - fillies are generally welcomed by a nearby harem. Unlike many other harem breeders, both sexes are expelled - this way a strong resident stallion can stay with the herd for several years without covering his own daughters.

Domestic foals are generally weaned at about six months - more on that later.

A domestic breeding herd of several mares and foals in Iceland. This was August, and the mares either had newborns or were heavily pregnant - Iceland has a brief summer and foals are born at its very peak.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Don't We Ride Cows?

City folk tend to see horses and cows as essentially quite similar animals. They're similar in size and they both eat grass.

However, they are quite different in many ways.

Cows (and sheep and goats) are ruminants. They have a four part stomach and they eat each item of food twice. It's partially digested, regurgitated, chewed again and swallowed into a different part of the stomach - a process called "chewing cud". (Rabbits, incidentally, perform the same process by a slightly different mechanism - coprophagy - they produce two kinds of dung, one of which goes through again).

Horses are hind gut fermenters. They have a relatively small stomach and a massive gut, and they handle grass by digesting it for a long time in a large gut that ferments it extensively. (This, by the way, means it is very, very hard to intoxicate a horse, even a small one.)

Cows have cloven or divided hooves. This means they stand on two toes of the original five.

Horses stand on one toe - a single hoof.

These differences are key to our different uses of these animals.

Cows have been used as work animals in the past, because it is easier to create a pulling harness for oxen than for horses. Oxen can pull using a yoke, which is similar to the yokes used to increase the lifting capacity of men. Horses, because of their longer and more flexible necks, can't. But as soon as people come up with a good way to use horses, they mostly stop using oxen.

An ox team pulling using a yoke. Source: Allen Drebert via Wikimedia Commons.


It comes back to that chewing the cud thing. A cow's digestive system has to stay constantly active. She has to have enough fiber in the rumen (first stomach) for it to stay active and healthy. This means that a cow has to spend at least eight hours a day, every day, chewing cud. If you feed cows high energy feed to reduce the amount of time they spend eating, you can damage their rumen - a balance dairy farmers battle with.

Horses, in the natural state, spend about 20 hours a day grazing. However, you can give a horse high energy feed - grain, carrots, apples - a couple of times a day and reduce that grazing time down to a few hours a day...meaning you can work a horse for 8-10 hours a day and have it stay healthy. It's better for them to spend all day grazing, but they aren't going to get sick off of spending less time eating and more time working alone.

So, you can only realistically work a team of oxen for four hours a day - and you can work a team of horses for eight. Which gets your fields plowed faster?

Hence, we don't ride cows.


Because there are exceptions to everything - a rodeo cowboy trying to ride a bull.  Source: Cszmurlo via Wikimedia Commons.

There are also a few people riding and even jumping cows out there. I wasn't able to find a legal-for-use picture, sadly.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Don't We Use Horses For Dairy?

Actually, some of the steppe people do use horses. They ferment mares milk into a drink called kumis, which reduces the lactose content and replaces most of it with alcohol - but most modern kumis is made with cows milk (with added sucrose, as mare's milk has more lactose than cow's milk). There's also something of a market for mare's milk - which is satisfied by a few small producers, but it's considered a luxury food.

In other words, we do not use horses for commercial milk production. Why? It's because of a peculiarity of ruminants (cattle, goats, and sheep). Ruminants will keep producing milk even after the offspring it is intended for is removed, as long as a pump is applied regularly.

Horses won't. If you take a foal away from a mare, the mare will lose her milk almost immediately. Applying a pump doesn't help. (I'll talk about the other differences between horses and ruminants over time, including explaining why we don't ride cows). So, you can only take the surplus from a mare over what her foal needs - now, mares have successfully raised two foals, so you can get quite a bit, but it's nothing like the production from cattle.

Because of this, the few horse dairies in existence are horse breeders producing the milk as a sideline. Usually draft mares are used - being larger they have larger udders - and the male foals are sold at weaning to draft horse enthusiasts. Mare's milk is primarily used in cosmetics rather than being drunk because of the large amount of lactose in it.

So, that's why we don't use horses for commercial milk production? For worldbuilding purposes, though, you may well want to have a culture that uses it to make kumis or similar. True horse people will use horses for everything - transportation, racing, meat, milk and leather.

Image: An Icelandic mare feeds her foal.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

When And Where Were Horses Domesticated?

Although we can't know for sure, we have a good answer for this one.

We know that the modern horse, Equus caballus was descended from a wild horse, Equus ferus (now extinct) that existed all across Asia and Europe.

We know that most of the male lines of the modern horse came from somewhere in central Asia - with a wide variety of female lines that suggested people were augmenting their herds by catching wild mares.

Archaeological evidence also points this way. For example, in Botai, in northern Kazakhstan, we have evidence of established horse domesticating dating back to at least 3100 B.C. The evidence? Skeletal changes caused by being ridden, marks on the teeth that clearly came from bits, and traces of horse milk on pottery.

Horses were, thus, first domesticated by the people of the central Asian steppes, who used them (and still use them) for transportation, meat, and even dairy. (I'll address why we don't often use horses for dairy in another post).

For worldbuilding purposes, you could easily pin the domestication of horses down to any steppe or plains-related human group. Horse riding was probably invented as a way to go faster than your own legs could carry you in open areas.

This Icelandic mare represents a primitive and isolated breed and is probably very close to the first European domestic horses in size and build.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where Did Horses Come From/Evolve?

I'm talking specifically about horses here. The modern horse evolved on the American Great Plains, then crossed the land bridge into Asia.

It then became extinct in the New World (possibly as a result of human hunting). The horses in Siberia and Mongolia fared better and equines (both wild and domesticated) spread outwards from there.

The donkey, on the other hand, originated in north Africa and spread into the Middle East.

It's worth remembering that horses are cold climate animals whilst donkeys and zebras are hot climate ones. Donkeys are a desert animal - hence the ears!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why Do We Use Saddles?

This post is to address a very common trope - for which I entirely blame Tolkein.

The trope is the super magical horse being ridden with no tack - usually, but not always, by an elf. It's either because the super special magical horse won't take harness or to show off some kind of amazing magical natural horsemanship.

I am pretty sure everyone who writes this has never ridden bareback.

There are three purposes to the saddle (and these hold regardless of the saddle style):

1. Safety - to reduce the risk of a fall.
2. To make riding more comfortable for the rider.
3. To distribute the rider's weight better, most especially to keep the rider from direct contact with the horse's spine, in order to make things more comfortable for the horse.

So, any sane sentient, magical horse would want their rider to use a saddle. Mercedes Lackey gets this right in Valdemar - although Heralds train bareback, they always saddle their Companions for battle or lengthy rides. The same goes for demonstrations of fancy horsemanship. In addition - and I'll talk more about this in another post - stirrups are very useful if you're fighting from the saddle.

Now, you might not use a bridle - that's a different matter. A sentient horse probably won't want to wear a bit - although a mounted warrior might still use a bridle or headstall of some kind to support head armor. And bridleless riding is used as a demonstration of amazing horsemanship and/or training routinely to this day.

But bareback is something riders generally wouldn't do for more than short periods - it is useful for training stickability and everyone's hopped on their horse for five minutes without a saddle at some point. You just don't want to do it for long periods of time - it's simply not fair on the horse.

Trail horses saddled and ready to go.