Friday, August 29, 2014

Why Do Western Saddles Sometimes Have Two Girths?

The girth or cinch is the strap that secures the saddle to the horse's back.

So why do some western saddles have two of them?

You often see a western saddle with both a primary cinch and a rear or back cinch.

The back cinch was invented for roping. When you rope from horse back, you secure the rope to the horn. This pulls the front of the saddle forward and down when the cow protests. The back cinch prevents the saddle from tipping too far forward.

Back cinches are also seen when doing serious trail riding, such as mountain work, to stop the saddle (and rider) from tipping forward when going down steep hills. A lot of barrel racers use them (because you need everything to keep the saddle stable during those turns).

Many cowboys will also put a back cinch on a horse that is prone to bucking, as it can make it easier to stay on.

Other people prefer to avoid the use of one as much as possible - if not correctly fitted they can annoy the horse into bucking, and some horses absolutely hate them. To keep the rear cinch from slipping back, a "cinch hobble" is used to secure the rear cinch to the main cinch.

So, that's what the second girth is for.

 (You can clearly see the rear cinch on the roan horse).

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Is Rain Rot?

Rain rot sounds absolutely horrendous. It's also called rain scald. It's a bacterial infection of the skin.

Rain rot, from the name, is obviously associated with rain - the most common trigger for the condition is being out in wet conditions for extended periods of time. Very high humidity can also cause it, as can a lot of insects - and those two things, of course, often go together. These factors compromise the skin and give entry to the bacteria that causes it.

The infection causes inflamed skin lesions and hair loss. The lesions eventually scab over.

It's treated by bathing the horse with an antimicrobial shampoo and then immediately using a soft curry to remove the scabs. (If it goes untreated and worsened, the horse may need antibiotics). It's not as horrible as it sounds, but does tend to occur in areas you want to put saddle or harness. It's also contagious (to other horses, but not to humans or other animals).

Rain rot is prevented by regular grooming and keeping horses dry as much as possible. It's one of the reasons you'll often see horses in wet climates such as northwest Europe wearing "coats" outside - they're actually equine rain slickers. (Horses can take a lot of cold but don't like getting wet).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Is A Crupper?

A crupper is a strap that runs back from the saddle and is then looped under the horse's tail.

Some styles of harness include a crupper. Cruppers are also used on riding horses that have a low or flat wither, to prevent the saddle from slipping forward. This is most often an issue with ponies. Cruppers are also seen on donkeys and mules (although in really rough terrain, saddle breeching is used). Some outfitters use them on horses in rough terrain.

Because the crupper goes through a particularly sensitive part of the horse's anatomy (the skin under the tail is very soft), horses have to be trained to use one and they have to be kept very clean and well oiled or they will annoy the animal. A lot.

Source: Una Smith. This horse is set up for endurance racing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What is breeching or britching?

The breeching (sometimes called britching) is the part of the harness that goes over the horse's hindquarters.

It's seen quite clearly here, with the front part of the harness removed. (This is a training harness). The breeching is, in fact, part of the braking system. How does that work?

When the horse stops, the cart or carriage doesn't - right away, anyway. The shafts then pull the breeching forwards, into the animal's butt. The horse then applies pressure to the breeching, which helps stop the cart. Sometimes with very light show carriages you won't see breeching used, as the cart is so light the horse can stop it from the shafts and saddle alone.

Breeching is almost never used or needed on saddle horses (if a horse is prone to the saddle slipping forward, a crupper is used - I'll talk about those tomorrow). This isn't an exception - these aren't horses! Mules have flatter withers and it's not common to use breeching, as shown here, on saddle mules in rough terrain.

Monday, August 25, 2014

What Are The "Lines"?

Pretty much everyone knows that the strap between the bridle and the rider's hands is called the "rein" or "reins." (It's plural even though some English reins are a single strap).

So, what are the lines?

When driving, you don't call the strap between your hands and the bit the "reins." You call it the lines - perhaps due to its much greater length. (This is a common mistake made by writers).

In this picture, for ground driving, the lines are tucked through the "saddle" - yes, the thing resting on her back is still called that.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What Is The Cantle?

The cantle is the back of the saddle.

As you can see, the cantle slopes upwards some degree. The amount varies according to saddle, and whether the rider needs more freedom of movement or more support. These horses have their riders' rain jackets tied to the back behind the cantle.

In English, dressage saddles have higher cantles than those used by jumpers (who push their butt backwards). In western, barrel racers use high cantles to help them stay on the horse, whilst cutters use lower ones so they can brace better when the horse does that "dance" they do (look up a video of a cutting competition to see what they mean).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What Is A Saddle Bow?

Technically, the saddle bow (which can be one word or two) is the curve at the front of the English saddle which, these days, is a very small "loop" over the withers.

Older saddles, though, had a much more pronounced bow - which evolved into the western horn. Medieval falconers would often use a saddle bow designed to provide a perch for the bird, either to free their hands or to carry heavy birds such as eagles longer distances.

(OOC: I am looking into the broken pictures. I think I'm having an issue with Picasa).

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Is A Pommel?

Most people think of the handle of a sword. In horseriding terms, however, the pommel of the saddle is the upper front of the saddle. Western people call this the "swell" or "fork." In a western saddle, the pommel or fork supports the horn.

In an English or saddle seat saddle, the pommel forms a loop over the horse's withers. It should not touch the horse's withers - in fact I have seen a situation like that cause a horse to rear, which can be very dangerous.

The pommel also supports a saddle bow, which I'll talk more about tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why Do Domestic Horses Have Withers?

A horse's "withers" are the small bump where the neck and back meet. The withers are actually a series of spines that extend upwards from the vertebrae.

This is a zebra. (Image source: Joachim Huber via Wikimedia Commons). As you can see, she has no withers.

This is a Quarter Horse. Withers.

Equines that have never been domesticated do not have much in the way of withers. The zebra has the very beginnings of them, but it's nothing compared to that of the Quarter Horse.

So, why is this?

There are two possible answers, which have worked together to create the withers.

The spines of the withers provide an elevated and stable anchor point for certain muscles in the shoulder. The higher withers of the domestic horse (and this can be seen in the unusually high "shark fin" withers of racing horses) raise the shoulder muscles, increasing the reach of the forelegs, which increases stride length and thus short distance speed. This is not an advantage over longer distances and may even be a slight disadvantage, explaining why wild horses, that rarely sprint, have never evolved high withers.

The other reason is deliberate selection for higher withers (within reason - those shark fins are actually a pain). A moderate wither height anchors the front of the saddle, except on gaited horses, helping prevent it from slipping sideways. Little or no wither is considered a fault, especially in riding horses - in the US this is called "mutton withers." With horses that have no wither, and this is more common in ponies, extra straps are often needed to ensure the saddle stays in place. Donkeys tend to have lower withers, in no small part because donkeys are seldom used for speed work and are more commonly used for harness work than for riding, so there's less selection pressure.

Monday, August 18, 2014

How Big Is The Smallest Horse?

The world's smallest horse is officially Thumbelina, who is (full grown) only 17 inches tall and weighs just 57 pounds.

Unfortunately, Thumbelina is a bracycephalic dwarf.

(Image Phil Konstantin via Wikimedia Commons).

As you can see, she has exceptionally short limbs, a bulging forehead, swollen knees, a pot belly and a very flat back as well as a short neck - all characteristics of dwarfism in equines. Many dwarfs have joint problems, premature arthritis, back issues and organ defects...some are sterile. Because of this, dwarfism is considered a curse in miniature horse breeding...

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Would Somebody Sit On A Horse's Head?

If you read older horse books or watch a lot of videos, you'll eventually see, or see mention of somebody sitting on a horse's head.

This is not some peculiar act of cruelty. When a horse falls all the way down, its immediate instinct is to get back to its feet as quickly as possible. This can be a problem if, for example, the horse is tangled in harness, or part of it is under a jump or other obstacle.

Gently pinning the head is the easiest and safest (for both the horse and the person doing it) way to prevent a horse from rising if you need it to stay down. With a big draft horse, this can take all or most of the person's body weight, hence "sitting on the head."

As horrific as it sounds, pinning the head can save a horse's life.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How Big Is The Largest Horse?

The largest living horse is Big Jake, a Belgian gelding who measures 20.2 hands - in non-horseperson terms that means his withers are about 6'8". The largest horse record is normally held by a draft breed, because they're bigger in general.

The largest horse in recorded history was a Shire called Mammoth, born in 1848 in Bedforshire. He was originally named Sampson, but his name was changed when his owners realized just how huge he was. He was four inches taller than Big Jake, making him over seven feet tall.

Fortunately, most horses don't come that big (unless you're in a fantasy world and want them to, of course.

(This Belgian is rather smaller than Big Jake...)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

What Does That Ribbon In That Horse's Tail Mean?

Tail ribbons are a tradition that came into use in the English hunt scene and, for a while, were also seen at horse shows in Europe and America. They're still sometimes seen in both the hunt field and at horse shows - and I personally would like to see more of them.

Four tail ribbons are generally used:

1. Red. A red ribbon means the horse its attached to can't be trusted - the horse is likely to kick or bite. It warns other competitors and riders not to "tailgate" the offending animal or otherwise get too close.

2. Green. I mentioned green ribbons when talking about green horses. A green ribbon is sometimes put on a young animal or one that hasn't been to many shows. (Regardless of age, I would always put a green ribbon on a horse that had not shown before). Green horses are less predictable than well-trained ones.

The other two colors are seen less often:

1. Blue. A blue ribbon is traditionally put on a stallion. Stallions can be harder to handle than mares or geldings and may, again, do something a bit unpredictable (or very predictable if you know just how testosterone-fueled stallions are).

2. White. A white ribbon is sometimes put on a horse that is available for sale or lease.

I've also heard of pink ribbons for a mare in heat, but these days that's just as likely to mean the rider supports a breast cancer charity...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What Is The Difference Between The Canter And The Lope?

The canter and the lope are both three beat gaits...


This is a trick question, but a lot of people do think they are different things. The difference between the canter and the lope is the saddle strapped to the horse's back. The word "lope" is used by western riders and rodeo people, but the rest of the English speaking world uses "canter."

In the same vein, western people call the "trot" the "jog." (Jog also means to lightly work a racehorse).

Although there's some difference in the way of going between English and Western horses, the gaits are basically the same.

So. No difference at all.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Didn't We Domesticate Zebras?

National Geographic was talking about this today here.

The zebra group (there are several different species) are the only true wild equines remaining with the exception of the endangered Przewalski's horse.

A (quite pregnant) Grevy's Zebra mare. Source: Joachim Huber via Wikimedia Commons.

Zebras can be trained and ridden. Some circuses use them. There's a small market, especially in the US, for "zorses" - zebra/horse crosses, with the idea being that the resulting animal gets pretty zebra stripes and a horse temperament. However, because they are not a domestic species, they are harder to train and more aggressive than horses.

This has led to the myth that zebras were never domesticated because they are "too aggressive." The National Geographic article addresses this quite nicely.

Zebras were simply not the equine species that lived where people in Africa domesticated equines - their range was further south. Instead, they domesticated the ass - the ancestor of the modern domesticated donkey - as northern Africa dried out and cattle herders had to travel longer distances. However, zebras may have given us one thing - it's probable that natural interbreeding that occurs between zebras and wild asses where their ranges overlap gave humans the initial idea behind creating the mule.

An African wild ass. Source pats via Wikimedia Commons.

Asses were domesticated independently of horses but zebras, thanks to geography, escaped that fate.

Friday, August 8, 2014

What Is A "Girthy" or "Cinchy" Horse?

A girthy (or cinchy) horse is simply one that objects to having the girth or cinch tightened. This is more common in mares (because, perhaps, of their slightly different belly conformation). A girthy horse will pin her ears and may bite or kick. Others will push their stomach out so that you think you have the girth tight when you don't.

Girthiness can be caused by poor handling (rushing tightening the girth, etc). Some horses develop it as part of an overall objection to being ridden - either because they are bored, lazy, or fed up with their rider.

It can also be a sign that the saddle is not fitting correctly. Girthiness can also be cured by changing the girth - in some cases I've seen it fixed simply by changing girth material or changing to a girth with stretch panels in it. Some girthy horses start to behave if an old fashioned string or rope girth or cinch is used...many horses seem to prefer these even though some kinds look like torture devices.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

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

Horses don't lie down very often. They generally have to be very relaxed to do so - although they do need an hour or so of REM sleep every other day.

It's sometimes, thus, a bit of a concern if a horse is unexpectedly down - and one of the worries is that the horse may have become "cast."

A cast horse is one that has lain down and is now unable to get up. This can happen if a horse attempts to lie down in a standing stall, but is most commonly caused by lying down too close to a wall or a fence. The horse may end up in a position where its hooves are between its body and the wall and it can't push them out to get up.

An arthritic horse may also become cast because its too stiff to move its legs in the correct direction - and if this becomes a regular thing it may indicate that euthanasia is recommended (horses can and will die if they stay down for too long).

A cast horse requires assistance to free itself. Usually, this means gently wrapping ropes around the horse's legs and pulling it over so that its feet are pointing away from whatever obstacle it has got itself wedged agains. A horse stuck in a standing stall may require using the stall walls (which generally don't go all the way up to the roof) as pulleys and sliding ropes under the horse's body to literally pull it up - a process which generally takes three or four people. I've had to do it once and I never want to do it again. Ever. I think it's the most physically demanding equine task I've ever been involved in.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What is a "Green" horse?

No, it's not a white or grey horse that's got into the dye.

A green or "greenbroke" horse is one that is not yet fully trained and doesn't yet know its job. A green horse may know the basics of stop, go, and steer, but nothing more. Often, they have not yet learned to balance themselves correctly with a rider (or pull efficiently in harness).

In traditional hunting attire, a green horse has a green ribbon tied around its tail to warn other riders that it may act in a less predictable manner than a more experienced animal.

Sometimes show classes are limited to "Green" horses, although "Novice Horse" is a more formal term that is often used.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why Are There No "Floppy" or "Lop" Eared Horse Breeds?

Just about every other domesticated animal has some breeds with "floppy" or "lop" ears. Nubian goats, spaniels, Scottish Fold cats, you name it. The lop ear mutation (actually a cartilage deficiency) is part of "domestication syndrome" and associated with tameness.

So, why are there no lop eared horses?

Actually, there are. The lop ear mutation does exist in the horse - follow this link to see Eeyore, a flop-eared horse.

However, unlike in other animals, the mutation has never been bred for and, indeed, any horses with flop or lop ears are culled out and not bred.


It has to do with equine communication. Horses are so dependent on their ears for communication that a lop eared horse is unable to properly communicate with other horses. The mustang pictured was thrown out of his herd and beaten up because he could not send the right signals.

This might not seem a huge problem in a domestic animal, except that communication with your horse is a two-way street. Horses are large, dangerous animals, and their primary back off ear position. So, a lop eared horse not only can't communicate with the rest of the herd, he can't properly communicate with humans, making him dangerous to handle.

Hence. No lop eared horses.

(This horse's ears are saying "Hi. Do you have any treats?")

As an ironic note, I found out today that somebody spent money on a study to prove what every 8 year old Pony Club kid knows - that horses talk with their ears. Sigh.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Are Some Terms You Might Hear On The Race Track?

Here's a short selection of racetrack jargon:

Broke down or breakdown - a potentially career-ending injury (note this includes but is not limited to life threatening injuries - many racehorses break down and come back sound for less high pressure careers or for breeding).

Broke maiden or break maiden - won a race for the first time.

Across the board - a bet on the same horse to win, place, and show. A way of "hedging your bets".

All out - a horse running as fast as it is physically capable of without regard for tiring out.

Allowances - reductions in the weight a horse carried, for example if an inexperienced jockey is riding or when fillies race against colts (in general, male horses are faster).

Apprentice - an inexperienced jockey. Sometimes called a "bug."

Backside or backstretch - the stable and employee area at a racetrack. Backstretch also refers to the straight part of the track furthest from the stands.

Front stretch - the straight part of the track closest to the stands and the location of the start finish line.

Bearing in or out - deviating from straight, usually unintentionally (i.e., without signal from the jockey or because the horse is misunderstanding a signal).

Distaff - a female horse, especially when discussing breeding. For example, "He goes back to Lady Isabel on the distaff side."

Heavy track - a very wet track.

Juvenile - a two-year-old horse.

Pony - a horse used to lead a racehorse to the gate. (Not all countries use ponies).

Maiden - a horse or jockey who has not won a race.

Morning glory - a horse that performs better in training than in an actual race.

Bute - a common NSAID used as a painkiller in horses.

Rabbit or pacesetter - a horse entered into a race solely to set the early pace and improve the chances of a stablemater.

Rail - the barrier on either side of the track.

Scratch or scratched - remove from a race prior to the start.

Second dam - a horse's maternal grandmother. Grandam is usually used to refer to the dam of the horse's sire.

Claiming race - a race in which any entry can be purchased for a set price. These are the lowest level of officially recognized horse racing.

Sloppy - a track that has standing water on it.

Stall walker - a horse that frets or paces in its stall.

Trifecta - a wager in which the person picks the first three horses in exact order. Very tough to do.

There are lots more!

Friday, August 1, 2014

What superstitions are there about horse colors?

A lot!

I've already mentioned that it's sometimes believed that pinto horses are more docile (there's some evidence this one might be true). The Roma prefer them. Some Native Americans also believe spotted horses (both pinto and Appaloosa) are lucky - and, in fact, this is the origin of the Paint and Appaloosa breeds, as the superstition spread to white cowboys and made the colors desirable.

In England, horses with blue eyes are thought to have vision problems or to be blind - this is not true. There is also no known association between eye color and hearing problems in equines.

Also in much of the English speaking world, chestnuts, especially mares, are viewed as more hot and reactive, perhaps an extension of the superstition that human redheads are hot tempered. But there are still horsemen who will not buy a chestnut mare, especially if she's Arabian or Thoroughbred. However, there are a lot of chestnut Arabians because the Arabs apparently believed they had more courage. The Arabs also believe that a "bloody shoulder" mark, sometimes seen on grey horses, is a sign that Allah's favor is on the horse.

Another one is that dark or striped hooves are stronger than light colored hooves - there's no actual difference other than pigment, according to science, but I have to admit I've seen more hoof cracks on the light hooves if a horse has both, so...

Oh, another good one: "One buy him, two try him, three look well about him, four live without him" - which refers to white socks or stockings and is connected to the myth that light colored hooves are weak. It's most often heard on the racetrack. Another variant is "One sock, buy 'em. Two socks, try 'em. Three socks, deny 'em. Four socks, don't buy him!" (Dressage people, however, try to avoid horses that have a sock on only one side because it can make the horse's action look uneven and cost points).

White horses are lucky in some cultures and unlucky in others. In some Hindu marriage ceremonies the groom goes to his fate riding a white horse accompanied by the youngest male in his family. Modern western weddings sometimes have the bride arrive in a carriage pulled by white or grey horses. But in Britain, white or grey horses are sometimes seen as "fetches" - omens of death.

(I realize most of these are British - it's where I grew up). The racing industry is, as mentioned, prejudiced against horses with too many white legs, but it's also believed in some places that white hairs in the top of the tail, called a "skunk tail" and associated with rabicano, make a horse faster.

Anyone got any I don't know about?

(A very not crazy chestnut mare).