Thursday, April 30, 2015

What if you have to leave your horse in the wilderness?

Thank you, +Nobilis Reed for this one.

You're exploring ruins for a portal. If you find it, you don't intend to come back. You have horses - and you can't take them through. What do you do?

If you tie the horses up, they'll starve.

One common trope is to tie the horse up loosely so it will break free if you don't come back. Unfortunately, this is actually pretty dangerous - the horse will be left with a rope dragging from its head and they can easily break their neck by stepping on it.

The answer? You just turn the animal loose. Most horses won't leave their source of grain and treats to wander off into the wilds for quite some time, especially if they have a good relationship with their handler. I've turned horses free into the wilderness and gone to sleep and they've been there the next day begging for breakfast. Although horses are nomadic creatures, the likely outcome is that they'll hang around the outside of the ruins for quite some time - long enough for the search - before wandering off. these guys. Are they going anywhere? Nope. Good grass and they know where the rest of the "herd" is.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Do horses get rabies?

The answer is: Yes.

Fortunately, there's now a vaccine for horses - the shot is generally given annually.

Also fortunately, most horses with rabies do not become as aggressive as, say, dogs that get the disease. Rabies takes two forms - "furious" and "dumb" - and only the furious form results in the extreme aggression. Horses are more likely to get the dumb form (but they certainly can get the furious form, which can result in extreme behavior changes).

The first symptom of rabies in horses is often colic and depression.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Do you ride a horse with a blanket over its back?

Thanks to the wonderful person who showed up to my presentation at RavenCon.

Normally, you ride with a saddle blanket, which provides some padding between the horse and the leather saddle.

On occasion, you might actually have a blanket or sheet over the back. These are called "quarter sheets" and are used when exercising or training a horse in cold weather, and not planning on working the animal hard enough to keep it warm.

Quarter sheets may also be used as equine "rain slickers" - horses generally get quite miserable if they get too wet.

You might also use a quarter sheet as part of a costume or uniform.

This police horse is wearing a quarter sheet with "Police" on it as part of his uniform. (Image source: Radomil via Wikimedia Commons).

Monday, April 27, 2015

What is a round pen?

A round pen is a fairly small circular enclosure, usually fifty or sixty feet in diameter, that is used to train horses, usually at liberty.

Round pens are used when working with green or difficult horses. They allow the horse to be kept in a relatively confined space whilst still giving enough distance for the handler to get out of the way if needed.

Some designs are portable and may also be used to corral horses overnight at a trailhead or similar.

Friday, April 24, 2015

What about grabbing the bridle to stop a horse?

This is another thing you see written about a lot - somebody stepping out and grabbing the bridle to stop a rider.

It's fine when the rider is stationary.

If they are moving? I'm going to tell a story.

This happened at a small show in England. A very small show. The rings were set aside only with ropes, and the trailer area, spectator area...pretty much it was just a big field with roped off areas. In one of the rings, a rider and horse had an argument about going over a jump that ended up with the pair slamming into the jump "wing" or support and parting company.

The horse panicked and ran. It ran straight through the ring ropes and into the spectator area. At this point, somebody stepped into its path and tried to grab the bridle.

It ran straight through them. It didn't stop running until it had reached its own trailer.

They had to be medevaced and the paramedics said they were very lucky to be alive. (Not helped by the fact that the bridle had been severed by the initial accident so there was no bridle to grab, but...)

Grabbing a running horse by the bridle, with or without a rider, is something we're taught not to do - because it's highly dangerous. I've seen video of people successfully stopping a running horse, but it's not something I would attempt. When I rode in the wilderness and there was a risk of a loose horse getting onto a road, the wranglers carried lassos. In an enclosed area, we're generally taught to get out of the way and let the horse run itself out.

Doing it from another horse is a lot safer if you know what you're doing. But yes...generally, don't have your characters do this. Unless you want them to end up with a broken collarbone, several broken ribs and internal injuries - which can be fun, of course.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What is a bridle path?

A bridle path is...two completely different things. It can refer to:

1. A trail set aside primary for equestrian use.

2. A strip shaved or cut from the mane behind the ears in order to make it easier to get the bridle on and off.

(Usually, fortunately, context makes it clear).

This Arabian has an excessively long bridle path, common for the breed. (Image source: Montanabw via Wikimedia Commons). In general, English riders cut a shorter bridle path (just enough for the leather) and western people prefer a longer one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What about dwarfism in horses?

There are three kinds of dwarfism in horses:

1. Skeletal atavism. This is seen in Shetland ponies - it results in short legs, a stocky body and a pot belly. Shetland ponies are the only dwarf breed of equine.

This Shetland pony looks even fatter due to being out in the middle of winter (source: Miles Wolstenholme via Wikimedia Commons). The pic clearly shows the short legs and pot belly (it's possible this is also a pregnant mare, so it's a wee bit exaggerated).

These horses are perfectly healthy - they're simply a dwarf breed. In fact, there may be a connection between skeletal atavism in equines and longevity - Shetland ponies are well known for being long lived. (Not to mention being strong enough to pull twice their own weight).

2. Achondroplastic dwarfism. This is a completely different thing and the bane of breeders of miniature horses. It's caused by one of four different genetic complexes, all of which are recessive. (They can now be tested for).

This is an achrondoplastic dwarf (image source Phil Konstantin via Wikimedia commons). As you can see, she also has the pot belly and short legs. However, she has a bulging forehead and weak hind legs.

Achrondoplastic dwarfism is associated with early pregnancy loss. Surviving foals may have breathing problems, malformed mouths and abnormal bone growth. Responsible breeders often euthanize dwarf foals.

3. Osteochondrodysplasia. This form of dwarfism is found in Friesian horses and is also associated with health problems, specifically weakness in the tendons in the legs.

(Sadly I was not able to find a good picture).

I will be at RavenCon in Richmond this weekend and will be doing a short presentation related to this blog (thank you convention admin). It will be in the boardroom at noon on Sunday.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What is a "dummy" foal?

You might hear horse people talk about a "dummy" foal as a less than desirable breeding outcome.

Dummy foals act very oddly immediately after or a few hours after birth. They often have difficulty suckling and seizures. They seem disoriented and irritable. Sometimes these foals don't survive (in the past they seldom did, and treatment may involve IV feeding and oxygen).

If treated, they eventually return to normal. The technical term is "neonatal maladjustment syndrome."

Monday, April 20, 2015

Can/Should You Ride A Pregnant Mare?

Pregnant women are told to do and not do all sorts of things, so the knee jerk reaction most people have to this is "No! Of course not!"


Most horsemen will continue to ride and work and even show mares until they are about 6 to 8 months pregnant. Reasonable exercise during pregnancy (obviously, riding a mare to exhaustion might threaten the foal) is actually beneficial and helps the mare be fitter to handle labor.

After that point, the fetus grows rapidly and affects the mare's balance, plus it becomes rather unfair to ask her to haul around the weight of a foal and a rider. Saddle fit can also become an issue. Mares that have had at least one foal tend to "show" more and sooner than first timers. (In fact, the horse world is full of stories of people riding a mare, turning her out, and then arriving the next morning to a foal they had no clue existed).

Friday, April 17, 2015

Is horse racing cruel?

It's actually a fairly common belief - amongst people who don't know horses - that racing them is inherently cruel.

Racing is actually the least unnatural of the various things we ask horses to do. Not all horses enjoy a race - but most do. If you line horses up at one end of a field, look at the other and yell go, they'll race - and they'll get quite competitive.

Running bred horses are, of course, selected for this competitive instinct. A quality racehorses knows his job and enjoys his job - getting around the track first. Horses are a flight animal, and race "play" probably prepares them for outrunning predators.

(This is not saying there aren't abuses in the racing field, but inherently, asking horses to race isn't cruel at all - it's natural play for them. They'll do it turned out in the pasture).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Do horses have thick skin?

It's common wisdom that horses have thicker skin than we do - they're big animals, after all. (And this is sometimes used as an excuse to beat them).

Technically, this is true - a horse's skin is slightly thicker than hours. Recent research, though, indicates that they have a thinner epidermis. As horses communicate by touch, this probably compensates for the layer of fur.

My personal opinion is that their skin is effectively about the same as ours - I have certainly encountered horses that are ticklish. This is particularly common, for some reason, in Thoroughbreds. (It usually manifests as an objection to being groomed too lightly, especially on the belly).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why do horses roll?

It's one of their more frustrating habits. You groom a horse, turn it out, and it promptly goes to the muddiest or dustiest place in its field, lies down, and rolls over.

Horses roll for two primary reasons:

1. To scratch an itch they can't get at any other way - especially if there isn't another horse (or even a friendly human) to ask to do it for them.

2. To intentionally cover themselves with mud or dirt. This has a warming effect in cold temperatures and a cooling one when its too hot - it's basically insulation. This is why they pick the dirtiest spot they can find.

Seeing a horse get dirty right after you cleaned it might be frustrating - but they do it for their own comfort.

This horse has found something even more interesting to roll in - the ocean! (He's probably too hot). Image source: T353&4 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How high can a horse jump?

The answer, of course, partially depends on the size of the horse.

The official world high jump record for a full sized horse is 8 feet and 1 1/4 inches, which has stood since 1949. (The horse that holds it was named Huaso).

Most full sized horses can jump 2'6 and most ponies can manage 2'. (The horses you see routinely jumping 4 and 5 foot fences are both specially bred and specially trained for the task, and have riders that know what they're doing.

Incidentally, mules are jumped differently - from a standing start and without a rider (Horses struggle to jump from a standing start and generally find it easiest to jump from a canter). The record height for a mule "coon jumping" is 6 feet.

This horse is competing in a Puissance competition - a test of pure jumping height traditionally conducted over a wall (the fence is not as solid as it looks - each of those top bricks is very light). Image source: Don Carey via Wikimedia Commons. The wall in this shot is 7ft 2in high.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why do jockeys ride the way they do?

If you watch a horse race, you'll see that jockeys ride in a very different way from anyone else who mounts a horse.

They balance on the stirrups, crouched above the horse's back. A lot of people think this is to reduce drag - however, a crouched jockey is not actually any lower than a person sitting on a horse normally. The answer is more biomechanical.

The modern jockey seat was invented in America in the late nineteenth century. It was created by trial and error - jockeys discovered that it gave their horses a 5% speed boost. Of course, once a few jockeys started doing it, they all had to.

The trick is that they zig when the horse zags. When the horse's back comes up, the jockey crouches lower, when the horse's back drops, he rises a little more. This is much harder work for the jockey - but it means that the horse is not lifting the jockey up and down - the jockey is. The horse's back moves up and down 6 inches, the jockey only moves 2.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Why do jockeys mount at the walk?

If you've ever watched a horse race, you'll see that the jockeys are basically tossed into the saddle as the horse walks past (This becomes frustrating when retraining racehorses).

There are two reasons why they do this:

1. Speed. Basically, they're putting ten or twelve jockeys up in a limited period of time. Stopping each horse and carefully legging the jockey up takes longer.

2. It's actually easier on the horse. We make horses stand to be mounted for our comfort, not theirs. (And safety, especially in the case of less experienced riders). Racehorses are young horses that are still growing and don't need any extra strain on their back, so they're mounted at the walk, when they can compensate for the jockey's sudden arrival by moving forward.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What do we mean when we say a horse and rider partnership "clicks"?

"They really seem to click."

Riding a strange horse is a difficult (and on occasion dangerous) proposition - in fact, many trainers have a kid with good stickability and the ability to bounce get up on the horse first. Just in case.

Even if nothing goes wrong, it can often feel as if you're flailing around looking for the horses "buttons." Ironically, it can be even harder with a horse that's at a higher level of training.

But sometimes, you can get on a completely strange horse and almost immediately everything flows together and works. "Clicking" is one of the terms we use for that. It's also used in other situations where a horse seems to go much better for one person than another.

So, what causes it?

1. With a strange horse, the "click" often happens if the new rider is similar in size, build, and riding style to the old one. The horse adapts more quickly (and relaxes more quickly - a lot of horses are very tense when a strange rider gets on them). It can look "mystical" but it just means that the rider's natural way of riding is closer to the way the horse was trained.

2. Sometimes horses really do like one person better than another. This can also relate to size and build - just as a rider is more physically comfortable on some horses, a horse can be more physically comfortable with some riders. Or they prefer how that person rides. Or...sometimes they can just take a liking to you (or a dislike, which can result in a disaster - I've known horses that are actively picky about who they "let" ride them).

To an outsider or a novice, though, it can look almost magical. "How come that horse won't do that for ME?"

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What is a stargazer?

A stargazer is a horse that carries its head excessively high when being ridden. The head is often close to horizontal and the horse is looking up at the sky.

Stargazing is often associated with the horse hollowing his back away from the rider - uncomfortable for both individuals. It can be caused by a bit that is too harsh, a poorly fitting saddle or a rider with heavy hands. It's also often seen in unfit animals that are struggling to carry the rider's weight.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Is sugar bad for horses?

It's pretty classic - the little girl gives her pony a sugar lump. Popular wisdom, though, says sugar is bad for you.

So, is it bad for horses? The jury's out. Some vets say sugar is every bit as bad for horses as it is for us. Others say a lump or two won't hurt.

The general consensus is that sugar lumps and candy (horses enjoy peppermint candy) are not very good for horses - but aren't going to cause huge problems if fed in moderation. Horses already take in a lot of sugar in their natural diet - that sweet tooth is actually how they pick the best grass.

Horses with insulin resistance or cushing's should not be fed sugar. And before giving somebody else's horse a treat, it's best to ask if it's okay first - some horses will bite if offered treats.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Do horses have whiskers?

Yup! They don't have really long whiskers like cats, but horses do have a set of whiskers on their muzzle.

One thing horses can't see very well is the end of their nose. Their whiskers are what they use to find their food and avoid bumping their nose on things like rocks or tree roots. And, of course, they use them to avoid objects in the dark.

Some people trim off a horse's whiskers - but good horse people know that it's a really bad idea and never to cut the whiskers. They do actually use them for something.

Friday, April 3, 2015

What is proud cut?

The vast majority of working male equines are gelded (this includes all male mules).

Horses can either be clean cut when castrated or proud cut. Proud cut means that the epididymis - the place sperm is stored - is left in the body. Traditionally, this has been associated with retaining stallion like behavior after gelding. In fact, circus people used to do it on purpose because they believed a proud cut horse would "sparkle" more in the ring.

Stallion like behavior in geldings is actually more often caused by a retained testicle (a "ridgling"). It is also often seen in geldings that were not castrated until after puberty (one of the reason ex racehorses have a reputation for being difficult is that they are often castrated late enough to have developed stallion behavior).

Leaving the epididymis in has no effect on hormone levels and is now almost never done intentionally. (However, if you're setting a story in the past, the "proud cut" thing may still be believed).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What do we mean when we say a horse broke early?

When a horse changes from one gait to another we call it "breaking" gait.

A horse that breaks early is changing gait, up and down, before the rider or driver asks. A lazy horse may drop out of canter or trot, whilst a more active and lively one may anticipate an upward transition. (It can also mean that the rider inadvertently asked the horse to stop or misjudged a balance request).

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What is an overgirth?

I've mentioned it before - the worst thing that can happen to a rider is a broken girth. If the saddle comes off - so do you.

Therefore, in some extreme riding sports, riders use an overgirth. This is an extra strap that goes over the saddle rather than being attached to it - you most often see this on eventers and racehorses. The theory is that you would have to be extremely unlucky to have both billet straps and/or the girth and the overgirth all break at the same time.

This polo pony, who looks half asleep while waiting for his chukka, is wearing an overgirth - the black strap seen running over the saddle. (Source: RRukat via Wikimedia Commons).