Friday, November 28, 2014

What is a horse's action?

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Are there really a lot of one eyed horses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Are there any deaf horses?

First, a mea culpa.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Is JEB?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 21, 2014

What is lavender foal syndrome?

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

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

Affected foals are generally euthanized.

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

Picture courtesy of PLOS Genetics and Dr. Yael Giora.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why are cowboy boots pointed?

It's not a matter of fashion.

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Is Cutting?

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What is reining?

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

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

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

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

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


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

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

What is a coronet?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What are stockings?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Are Socks?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What Is A Bald Face?

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Is A Snip?

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What Is A Star?

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

A rather "smudged" star on a black horse.

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

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Is A Stripe?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What Is A Blaze?

No, I don't mean a stable fire.

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

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

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

Monday, November 3, 2014

What Is EPM?

EPM is Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.

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

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

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

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

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

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