Friday, May 30, 2014

What is a hoof pick?

A hoof pick is any device that's used for cleaning the underneath of a horse's hooves.

A horse's hoof has two pits on either side of the frog that can collect dirt and even foreign objects. Shod horses can also get foreign objects caught between the edge of the shoe and the hoof. It's very important to clean out the hoof so that these objects don't bruise the horse's sole.

There are three different kinds of hoof picks in common use:

1. The traditional hoofpick is made of metal or plastic and has a loop and then a hook at the end. Metal hoofpicks are more expensive, but tend to last a fair amount longer.

A traditional metal hoofpick (Image source: BLW). As you can see, it's been used a fair bit. The loop is the handle.

2. A hoof pick and brush combo, as can be seen at this link: This is the most popular kind of hoofpick in modern America. The brush on the other side has very stiff bristles and is used for removing dirt and mud from the hoof.

3. A folding hoofpick, as seen here: Trail riders carry this kind - there's no risk of the pick end causing injury if you fall and it fits neatly in a pocket.

The pick is always used from the rear of the horse's hoof to the front to avoid poking the frog.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What Is A Sweat Scraper?

A sweat scraper is a blunt metal or plastic blade that's used to remove excess water from a horse.

Despite the name, you don't just run a sweat scraper over a horse that's sweaty. The sweat scraper is actually used to remove water after bathing a horse or hosing it down (horses, like humans, appreciate a cold shower after a workout on a hot day).

There are three basic types of sweat scraper:

1. A plastic handle with a plastic and rubber blade set at right angles to it. This kind is most commonly seen in Europe.

2. A long curved plastic stick with one end slightly rounded. This is by far the cheapest kind.

3. A metal loop with a wooden or leather handle on either end, the handles tied together with a leather strap. This kind has shallow, blunt teeth on one side. The flat side is used to remove water. The toothed side is used to help shed out excess hair. Because of this, these are also called "shedding blades."

A shedding blade. Source: BLW via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Is A Body Brush?

A body brush is a soft bristled brush that, as its name suggests, is designed to be used on the "body" of the horse. However, the bristles are soft enough to use on the head and legs. Some people also use the body brush to brush out the mane and tail as they believe a comb will thin the hair. (Some people also use the kind of human hair brush that has the thick plastic "knobs" instead of bristles, which works quite well on tails).

Like the dandy brush, the body brush can come with natural or synthetic bristles. A lot of people who have synthetic dandy brushes will pay the extra for natural bristles on the body brush. More expensive body brushes have leather backs/handles.

The body brush also sometimes has a strap on the back to insert the hand through. It's used to do the real work of grooming, remove fine dust and add shine to the coat.

(I apologize for the lack of good images. I can't find any, oddly enough).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What is a dandy brush?

Going to talk some more about the equipment we use to groom a horse.

You might hear somebody say around a barn that they're looking for their "dandy" brush. A dandy brush is a stiff-bristled brush that's used to get mud off. (Generally, with a really muddy horse you use a rubber curry first, then the dandy brush). It's used only on the body and neck of the horse, never on the head, legs, or belly - many horses are sensitive about having their tummies touched, especially near the boy or girl bits.

Most modern dandy brushes are made with synthetic bristles and a wooden or plastic back. Natural bristles are more expensive and don't last as long - some people are willing to pay the extra, but if you're at a lesson or string barn you'll probably only see the plastic kind.

The dandy brush is always used before the "body" brush, which I'll talk about tomorrow.

Natural and synthetic dandy brushes. Source: BLW via Wikimedia Commons. The grooves in the side of the handle are to improve the groomer's grip.

Monday, May 26, 2014

What is a curry comb?

You'll sometimes read or hear about people "currying" a horse or using a "curry comb." What exactly is this?

Here's a selection of modern rubber curry combs:

(Source BLW via Wikimedia Commons).

You might also see harder metal or plastic curry combs.

The rubber curry comb is used to remove large amounts of dirt from a horse's coat. It's also a very useful device when a horse is shedding out - it cleans out the loose hair, which can otherwise get quite itchy, especially under saddle or harness. It's used vigorously with a circular motion.

Plastic and metal curry combs are very harsh and are not used on the horse - they're used to clean shed hair out of grooming brushes. I prefer the rubber curries. Note that the two bottom ones show quite a size difference - the smaller one is sized for a child or a small woman to use, but might also be kept around for use on ponies.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Do horses like beer?


Horses love beer. Also, thanks to their body mass and the way their gut works, they can't get drunk on it.

Even today in Ireland, half a bucket of stout is considered a healthy treat for a horse that's just put in a hard day's work (Beer, incidentally, is actually a surprisingly good thirst quencher). The famous racemare Zenyatta apparently agrees. She likes a pint of Guinness. And only Guinness - she won't drink anything else. Beer is also anecdotally good for horses that suffer from anhydrosis or other overheating issues.

In some cases the beer is mixed into a bran mash.

The one thing you do have to watch for - horses really, really like beer. Given half a chance, trust me, they'll really, really like your beer. Some horses even work out how to drink it from the bottle.

I wonder if they let the Budweiser Clydesdales sample the merchandise...

(I'll take the carrot, but got any cold ones?)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What kind of treats do horses like?

A more lighthearted post for today.

People ask a lot what they can give a horse as a treat, or if it's okay to feed a horse certain things.

Horses are herbivores. They should not be given meat - it probably won't hurt them, but it is not very good for them and might even cause intestinal distress. Horses should also never be given lawn clippings - there's something about the way cut grass ferments that can give them colic.

So, what should you offer a horse as a treat?

1. Tack stores generally sell horse biscuits/horse cookies. These come in a variety of flavors and often include vitamins and other nutrients. They can be expensive, though. A cheaper option is to make your own - searching on horse cookies or horse treats will bring up a slew of simple recipes.

2. Carrots and other root vegetables. Horses should not be fed too many of these, but they do like the occasional one. Carrots are, of course, the classic "trope" of horse treats - but they definitely like them. I once knew a horse who would pretty much do anything for a carrot.

3. Apples. The other "trope" horse treat - but again, quite accurate. Horses can also eat the apple core - being much larger than humans the tannins don't affect them. I've often been on a day long trail ride, eaten an apple, and then fed the core to my trusty steed. Also, horses enjoy crabapples - humans generally find these too bitter, but horses enjoy them straight from the tree.

4. Watermelon. This one's not on the trope list, but horses like watermelon. And they will even eat the rind. The actual body of the watermelon is a good treat for a horse that's so old it doesn't have many teeth left.

5. Grapes. This is another good treat for toothless old nags. (Horses should not, however, be fed raisins, currants, or other dried grapes).

6. Hard peppermint candy. Every horse I have ever known has loved peppermint. I'd question the horse-ness of one that didn't. It's perfectly safe to give horses hard candy in small quantities. (They should not be given soft or "gummy" candy which can stick to their teeth with results not dissimilar to humans eating too many sweets). Every Christmas I like to go around our barn with a small bag of candy canes.

Tomorrow's post will be about something else people feed horses that might surprise you.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What kills old horses?

So, yesterday I talked about how horses don't get heart disease. What do old horses generally die of?

Obviously, in fiction, you don't have to be specific. "Old age" is as good as anything. And, depending on your culture, horses may not get to die of old age anyway - even growing up in England I saw old horses sent to the "hunt" - to be fed to the hounds. That practice isn't as common as it was, but...

But let's say your hero has put his beloved steed out to pasture behind his castle to live out his days? What's most likely to carry the old equine off.

1. Getting so arthritic he can't move or lies down and can't get up. Horses, like many large quadrupeds, will actually die from pressure on the internal organs if they stay down for extended periods of time. In modern times, sick horses are sometimes put in a sling to prevent that from happening. This would likely be a common fate of war horses, especially destriers, who worked hard in much the same way as modern sport horses. I've personally known about five animals this happened to. Once a horse gets to this point, the kindest thing to do is euthanasia. Sometimes you can get them up, but they often just go down again.

2. Colic. Colic, which I'll discuss separately, is the number one killer of horses of all ages. Old horses are less likely to recover.

3. Choke. I've already said that old horses lose their teeth. This makes it harder for them to chew their food. This means they're more likely to choke on it - which can easily be fatal in an animal with no gag reflex.

4. Nutrition failure. Best way I can put it. Between their teeth disappearing and their digestive system aging, old horses sometimes just become malnourished and starve to death. With modern care there's no excuse for this to happen - we now have special feed designed for ancient horses and there's ways you can make their life easier without teeth. But at lower tech levels, this would have happened all the time.

5. Liver or kidney failure. The liver is often the organ that goes first in old horses because their diet - and the supplements we give them - puts quite a bit of strain on it.

6. Cancer. Horses get cancers of various kinds just as much as any other species. Grey horses have a particular problem. The greying process is not a lack of pigmentation in the hair so much as all the pigmentation being concentrated in the skin. This results in a high incidence of "grey horse melanoma" - skin cancer. In most cases, grey horse melanoma just results in unsightly lumps, most commonly around the tail head, but it can spread into internal organs.

So, there you have it - a few problems your old nag might have. Note that the equine lifespan has increased dramatically in the last twenty years or so, with more and more horses surviving into their thirties.

In his twenties in this shot, Cowboy is now 35 years old and still teaching little kids to ride.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Can horses have heart attacks?

The answer is: Not very often.

Horses do not generally get coronary artery disease ("heart disease"). Herbivores are simply not prone to this condition, even if overweight. Overweight horses get other heart problems, but they don't get heart disease.

Therefore, they don't get heart attacks (myocardial infarction). It simply doesn't happen.

However, the term heart attack is also commonly used to refer to animals (and people) who die from Swale syndrome or sudden death syndrome.

Swale syndrome is the defect that often goes undetected until it strikes down young, apparently healthy human athletes. It occurs in horses as well. Just as in humans it's seen in the athletic, in horses it's seen in actively competing sport horses and race horses. The famous show jumper Hickstead who collapsed and died in the middle of a round at a major show was one recent example.

There's no way to predict the disease (Feel free to use it as a plot device) and it's generally not possible to save the animal.

But if you're looking for ways to kill off old horses, heart disease isn't it. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why do saddles have trees?

"Tree" seems a strange term for a part of a saddle - until you realize it's traditionally made of wood.

The saddle tree is the framework of the saddle. Again, it's traditionally made of wood - but fiberglass and rubber are also used in modern saddles. Saddle trees date back to about 200 BC in Asia and the first century BC in Europe.

Some modern saddles are treeless - and some people swear by them. However, the purpose of the saddle tree is to aid in proper distribution of the rider's weight and to prevent the rider (or pack) from resting on the horse's spine. It's much, much more comfortable for the horse.

If a saddle is thrown, stepped on, or rolled on by the horse, the tree may break. This is pretty much the end of the saddle's life - a saddle with a broken tree must never be used as it's bound to create a pressure point (a saddle sore) on the horse. Repairing the tree involves taking the saddle apart and putting it back together. It's usually easier just to get a new saddle at that point.

This is why riders are very careful with saddles. Saddles are always placed on a saddle rack (which can be as simple as a thick wooden bar raised off the ground) or placed front down against a wall. A saddle should never be put flat on the ground without support - this shortens the life of the tree. (So if you want something for an inexperienced stable hand to be yelled at about). Because saddle trees were invented so early, they're likely to be around at most tech levels.

Friday, May 16, 2014

What Health Issues Do Fat Horses Have?

Yesterday, I talked about how to tell if a horse was underweight or overweight.

Now I'm going to talk about fat horses.

(Image source: sannse via Wikimedia Commons).

Here's our obese Shetland again. Poor little guy.

It's as unhealthy for a horse to be fat as it is for a person - but the implications are different. Herbivores do not get heart disease (Horses can have heart attacks, but they don't get clogged arteries) or diabetes - although horses can become insulin resistant, it doesn't produce the same symptoms as it does in, say, humans or dogs.

An obese horse is, by definition, unfit. They are unable to put in a day's work, run fast, etc. I have also noticed that obese horses can become somewhat depressed - "fat and miserable." Horses that appear to be lazy when overweight can perk up a lot once the extra lard has been removed.

The most significant problems however, are insulin resistance, thyroid problems, and laminitis. Insulin resistance is like diabetes, but less severe. Overweight horses can also become hypothyroid - a vicious cycle as the thyroid problems slow the metabolism further.

Laminitis or "founder" is the most common and significant disease of obesity in horses.

This graphic, from Wikimedia Commons, shows a normal horse hoof - specifically an unshod hoof. The grey pointed bone is called the "coffin" bone and supports the hoof. The red line around it is the laminae. The laminae is the soft tissue that attaches the hoof to the bone. Laminitis is any inflammation of the laminae (it can also be caused by excessive work on hard surfaces).

This is a section of the hoof of a horse with severe laminitis. The word "founder" means to sink, and you can see here that the coffin bone has "sunk" downwards, distorting the shape of the hoof. The condition is extremely painful. In some cases, the coffin bone may even emerge through the hoof. It generally affects both front feet - laminitis in the hind feet is unusual).

The treatment for laminitis is painkillers, nursing care and, above all, a strict diet to get the horse's weight back to normal. Many horses do make a full recovery, but extreme founder such as that shown often results in permanent lameness and many horses with this level of laminitis are euthanized because they will never be able to even walk again. Once a horse has had laminitis once, they are extremely prone to getting it again - most survivors have to be on strict diets for the rest of their lives.

So...somebody put that Shetland on a diet now? Please?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How Can You Tell If A Horse Is In Good Condition?

How your characters treat their horses can be indicative of their personality, morality...and income level.

A horse person can often tell if a horse is being treated well just by looking at it. How can a layman tell? (And can you tell if that carriage ride you're about to go on is okay or borders on horse abuse?)

In other words, how do you tell if a horse is in good condition, starved, or the other extreme - fat?

Let's start with an underweight horse.

These Mustang mares (Image from the Nevada BLM) are underweight - to the point where they've been pulled off the range to let it and them recover (This was an emergency roundup due to drought conditions). The bay mare in front shows the classic appearance of a partly starved horse.

As you can see, her ribs and spine are prominent. Her neck is "inverted", showing a definite concave profile on top. (This can be caused by conformation, but combined with the others, it's a sign that she's underweight.

If somebody's working a horse in this condition they either don't care - or can't afford to care. If they're working one in this condition...they're probably desperate.

This photo is from the great famine in the Ukraine in 1932-1933. (Source: Wikimedia, public domain). This horse is extremely emaciated and literally about to drop dead. In addition to the prominent ribs and upside-down neck, the hip bones are also prominent. (Note that prominent hip bones on an otherwise well-fleshed horse are a sign of old age). Particularly sad is how large the collar is for the horse. It probably fit him once... Tossing in a description of something like this might well make your massive drought seem more colorful.

So, it's pretty much common sense. Prominent ribs and bones = starving horse.

What about the other extreme?

(Image source: sannse via Wikimedia Commons).

Shetlands are chubby. They are not ever supposed to be this chubby. The thick neck, fat deposits across the belly and hindquarters, and lack of any muscle development tell the entire story. This pony is fat, even obese, and headed for health problems as a result. Ponies are more likely to end up overweight than horses.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Do Some Horses Have Short Manes?

So, yesterday I talked about why somebody might cut off a horse's tail, but what about the mane?

Some breeds are traditionally turned out with a "full" mane. This includes the Arabian and all of the British "native" pony breeds.

This Icelandic mare has a full mane, correct for her breed. Horses kept in cold climates also benefit from having a full mane. It keeps their ears warm! (Literally - the ears are pulse points - if they're cold, the horse feels cold).

Most horses have their manes shortened. The length varies. Stock horses, for example, usually have shorter manes than Thoroughbreds and sport horses. The mane is not shortened by cutting it (which makes it bushy) but by pulling out the long hairs using a comb.

This Paint/Draft cross has a medium length mane. Stock horse breeders generally trim to about half this length.

Finally, in some cases, the mane may be shaved off completely. This is called hogging in the UK and roaching in the US.

Hogging or roaching is traditional for English hunting cobs, Norwegian Fjords, and mules (In the last case, mules tend to grow very sparse manes). An owner may also roach the mane for temperature control, such as if keeping ponies in very hot climates, or pure aesthetics. The forelock may be left on or may also be clipped (Some people believe that leaving the forelock on helps keeps flies away from the horse's eyes).

These saddle mules have had their manes roached completely, including the forelock - again, mules tend to grow very sparse manes and generally look better "shaved."

In slight contrast, this Norwegian Fjord mare has had her mane roached and then allowed to grow out partially - giving her a "manehawk." This is traditional and correct for the breed and is done to show off the two-toned mane that's a breed characteristic. The forelock has been left long.

So, all kinds of different "mane-dos." For worldbuilding, traditions in mane length could be used to demonstrate different cultures. (For example, real-world Romany tend not to trim or shorten the manes of their horses).

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why Do Some Horses Have Short Tails?

Docking tails is a controversial matter today. Actual amputation of the tail is illegal in Britain, Norway, and Australia (it has been illegal in Britain for over 40 years, meaning that if you're writing something contemporary and you have a horse there with a docked had better be an import). It's now considered cruel.

This Clydesdale has had his tail docked extremely short. (Source: USDA).

The usual reason given for docking tails is to prevent the tails of working horses being caught in the machinery they are pulling. Another reason is to keep the lines of a driven horse from ending up under the tail. Tradition, however, is a big reason - in fact, in the 19th century, most riding horses also had their tails docked.

Most work horses these days don't have their tails amputated (although there are exceptions). Instead, the tail is kept trimmed very short to avoid the problems listed above. The actual bone of the tail is left intact, and the groom simply takes shears to it right below the tailbone (called the "dock" of the horse).

Many, especially in the UK, believe even that is inhumane (horses use their tails to keep the fly off). So, instead of docking, they put the tail in an updo. Polo players do the same thing, to keep the tail from hitting another pony or player in the face in tight quarters.

This polo pony's tail has been taped up. Draft horses often have elaborate braids for showing, but the end result is similar. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Note that two harness breeds - the American Cream Draft and the Gypsy Vanner (more correctly called the Colored Cob or Irish Cob) are always shown with full, loose tails.

Finally, mules traditionally have their tails trimmed in layers. A straight trimmed tail indicates a green mule. One bang indicates a mule for pack usage, two bangs a mule suitable to be ridden by employees or guides, and three for mules suited for use by guests. This practice was created as a way of managing huge strings and is still perpetuated by the Grand Canyon mule stables.

Grand Canyon string mules - you can clearly see the three layers or "bangs" on the nearest mule's tail, indicating that this is a fully trained mule suitable to carry guests - even ones who can't ride.

Tomorrow I'll talk about why some horses have short manes.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Why Are Stirrups So Important?

Modern riders use stirrups almost all of the time. Why?

The first reason is that stirrups do make riding more comfortable. They help provide a bit of extra balance - although a competent rider does not rely on them. (A good rider can do everything without stirrups they can with and carry on as if nothing has happened if one of them breaks). The exception is racing - jockeys use stirrups to support themselves above the horse's back. This doesn't literally make them lighter, but it allows the horse to have more spinal motion and thus run faster.

The stirrup was invented in China, with the earliest recorded depiction being in a Jin Dynasty tomb dating to about 322 AD. In order to have stirrups you also have to have a solid treed saddle (which were invented in 200 BC, again in Asia). Stirrups did not find their way into Europe until the 6th or 7th century.

Prior to the stirrup, riders rode without, although "toe loops" that provided some support appeared in India in the second century BC. The Sarmatians used one stirrup, but only to make mounting easier (another good use of stirrups).

So, if a good rider can manage without stirrups, are they just for comfort?

No. Stirrups spread across the world for a reason - they made mounted combat much more practical. A mounted archer with stirrups is far more accurate than one without. Melee combat on horseback is also much harder without stirrups.

The Medieval joust requires stirrups...the rider stands up in them as he takes the shock from the lance. Without them he would have no chance of staying on. (This, of course, makes the idea of mounted lance tourneys being conducted by King Arthur's round table in the 4th or 5th century a major anachronism - King Arthur, if he existed, did not have stirrups!). It's even argued that Medieval feudalism could not have evolved without the stirrup.

Prior to the stirrup, chariots were used instead of cavalry. The chariot eventually went out of use - chariots are only useful on very flat, open battlefields, whilst a mounted warrior can handle a much greater variety of terrain.

Stirrups are also vital to the cowboy for the same reason they're vital to the knight - they provide a stable platform for roping.

This trail horse is hitched to a trailer fully tacked, clearly showing the western-style "wooden loop" stirrups.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Does Shoeing A Horse Hurt It?

So. We shoe horses.

Which means that we nail strips of iron to the bottom of their hooves. Often strips of heated iron. The layman looks at this process and goes "How come that doesn't seem to bother the horse?"

The answer is quite simple. A horse's hoof wall is made of keratin - the same stuff as hair and fingernails. When we trim the hoof - which we also do with domestic horses in order to get what we call "good angles," that is to say a hoof shaped correctly to stand up to work and to prevent the hoof from growing faster than it's worn down - it's no different from trimming and filing your own fingernails and, indeed, uses similar tools. Larger, but similar.

When we nail on the shoe, the nail is driven entirely into the outer hoof wall and through it, then tapped down to secure the shoe in place. Unless the farrier screws up, the nail goes through only dead tissue. The horse probably feels something - tap on one nail with the other and you might get a similar sensation - but they rapidly get used to it.

Now, sometimes the farrier messes up and the nail hits the laminae - the tissue supporting the hoof. We call this "quicking" a horse. It's very rare for this to happen - a trained farrier knows what he (or she) is doing and the horse will very quickly let you know if you're putting any pressure on. Usually, the farrier will then withdraw the nail and place it correctly. A quicked or close nail left in can cause a hoof abscess. So if you want to cause a bit of drama...and a lame horse.

Quicking can also sometimes be caused by a poor quality hooves or by the horse being an idiot while being shod. But it's still very rare and, if anything, is rarer in lower tech societies where really competent farriers are more common.

A note for people setting their stories at the race track: Racing "plates" as they are called are made of aluminum or even plastic to make them lighter. Many trainers also reduce the weight further by getting rid of the nails and glueing the shoes on. Some riding horse owners have also moved to glued on shoes because they feel that the hooves are healthier without all those holes in them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What is a garron?

Sometimes horse people will cringe over something nobody else notices. In the Game of Thrones series, Martin establishes that the rangers north of the wall ride garrons.

In the TV show they're riding...uh...I THINK those were Quarter Horses?

This, my friends, is a garron.

(Source: Confuselefu via Wikimedia Commons).

Specifically, this is a Garron Highland Pony, the larger type of Highland pony bred on the mainland, but the term used to refer to any larger (by pony standards), stocky, shaggy pony type - well suited to working in frozen and mountainous country such as you might expect to find north of the wall.

The descendant of the garron would be what we now call a cob - so the film makers should probably have gone and raided a Highland Pony or maybe Welsh Cob stud for mounts. Garrons would be used for riding, farming and general work in tough climates and rugged terrain - they weren't and aren't the most comfortable of mounts (although the Icelandic Horse, which is beautifully gaited, arguably qualifies) but they'll carry you all day where a higher quality horse would falter.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What is a courser?

In modern times we tend to think of a hunting dog (or the online university with a similar name). The term comes from 'cours' - to 'run'.

In this context, a courser is a warhorse. The etymology was probably from the Italian 'corsiero' - 'battle horse'.

Coursers were used for hunting and for hard battle. While the destrier was a bit of a diva and most commonly used for jousts and single combat, the courser was much more like the modern cavalry horse. It was a lighter horse more suited to maneuverability on a battlefield.

The courser most closely resembled the modern hunters of northern Europe, but those lines almost certainly also went into the creation of the stock horse.

A "half-bred" hunter begs for a treat - although taller, this horse is probably not so very different from the medieval courser.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What Is A Destrier?

First, a mea culpa. I had a brain barf, got distracted, and wandered off into stirrups and hooves. No excuses (well, except that I've been sick for a week). So, I'm going to finish the series on Medieval horses and then get back to shoeing on Friday.

So, the destrier. Some of you may recall this as the name of Prince Caspian's horse - which, ironically, was almost certainly a courser, not a destrier.

The destrier was the finest, strongest, and most expensive of warhorses, sometimes called the Great Horse. It's often mistakenly thought that modern draft horses are descended from destriers (not true - draft horses were bred up from cobs and garrons). This same misunderstanding leads to the image of the huge warhorse that the knight had to be helped on - while knights probably did need and use assistance when mounting, their horses were not that large. Surviving Medieval horse armor showed that they were between 15 and 16 hands.

Destriers were used by mounted knights and in jousts and tournaments. They were extremely expensive - the majority of mounted warriors rode coursers or rounceys not because they didn't want destriers, but because a good, trained destrier was so expensive. For the price of one trained destrier you could, at times, buy seven less expensive horses. So, only the wealthiest of knights would have them - and often the wealthiest knights were those doing the tournament circuit. It's possible that many of these valuable horses never actually saw real combat in their lives but were used solely in tourneys.

The exact genetic mix of the destrier has been lost - as mounted combat changed, so did the horses bred by the cavalry. The Friesian is often cited as the closest survivor and is popular with modern tournament jousters (as are small draft horses).

A Friesian stallion. Source: B0rder via Wikimedia Commons.

I would argue, however, that the true spiritual descendant of the destrier is the modern warmblood - the specialist, highly bred and extremely expensive animals seen competing at the highest levels in dressage, show jumping, and eventing.

A modern Hanoverian and his rider give a dressage demo.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why Do We Shoe Horses?

So, why do we take a piece of metal and nail it to the bottom of a horse's hoof? Part of the answer is - we don't always. Many working horses, especially ponies, do their jobs fine without shoes. And some modern horsemen prefer to put hoof boots on only for work and leave horses unshod the rest of the time.

The actual answer? There are three reasons we put a shoe on a horse's hoof:

1. To prevent the added wear and tear of work - from the weight of a rider or hard surfaces - from wearing the horse's hoof faster than it can grow. This is why many ponies and mustangs aren't shod. If a horse's hoof can handle the wear without shoes it's generally better (and cheaper!) not to shoe.

2. To give a horse extra traction when working. Specialist shoes are designed for different disciplines and some horses are shod with studs - these screw into the hoof or are permanently attached and stick out a little bit. Carriage horses are shod with road studs designed to improve grip on tarmac. Jumpers have studs put on their front hooves to help them "dig in" after a jump and basically stick their landing. Racehorses are also shod with studs to help them get better traction at speed.

3. To correct hoof and foot problems. Special shoeing (called surgical shoeing) can be used to help ease the pain of horses with certain conditions, most especially navicular syndrome (which deserves its own post) and also to correct issues with a horse's action. Club foot can also be partially corrected by trimming and shoeing when the horse is still a foal.

But, again, many working horses never have a shoe put on their feet. I'll talk about how we can nail a shoe to a horse's foot without bothering it tomorrow.

Draft horses like this Belgian often have special shoes designed to increase traction when pulling.

Friday, May 2, 2014

How Do You "Hold A Stirrup"?

The tradition of a woman holding her husband's stirrup when he went off to war is part of Medieval chivalry - and thus sometimes shows up in Medieval fantasy (and, of course, in historicals).

However, most people have an image of the woman standing decorously at the horse's shoulder and turning the near side stirrup so the man can put his foot in it.

This is completely wrong - as any horseman knows. It's a great image - and it looks good to see her looking up at him with love - very romantic.

It's just not how you hold somebody's stirrup. A stirrup holder stands on the off side of the horse, firmly grasps the stirrup and pulls downward as the person mounts. If I'm mounting a tall horse from the ground, or a horse with no withers, I'll have somebody hold my stirrup. When teaching beginners, we normally hold the stirrup until they know how to get on correctly.

It's to prevent the saddle from slipping when all of the rider's weight is in the left stirrup. This makes mounting safer - and more comfortable for the horse.

But it's something a lot of people get wrong.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What Is A Rouncey?

So, I explained palfreys yesterday. The other very common Medieval horse term is rouncey - so, what is a rouncey? And what is the difference between the two?

The difference is quality. A palfrey is a high quality, expensive horse. A rouncey is, well, an ordinary, common riding horse. A rouncey was also more versatile - in a pinch, you could use one as a warhorse, although they weren't as good as specialist animals. Rounceys were also commonly used as pack horses - and thus, were stockier and more solid than palfreys.

Typically, the knight when off duty would ride a palfrey and his squire would ride a rouncey and lead the war horse.

I'll explain destriers, coursers and finally garrons (mentioned in Game of Thrones) next. Oh, and hobbies. Mustn't forget hobby horses. Which didn't originally mean stick horses.

The modern Quarter Horse is very much a spiritual descendant of the rouncey, as is the versatile Morgan.