Friday, May 29, 2015

What is head shaking syndrome?

Head shaking syndrome is a disorder that causes the horse to shake its head horizontally or vertically to the point where it interferes with being able to ride the horse.

The occasional shake or toss of the head is normal, and is often caused by insect irritation or annoyance at the bit or rider.

Chronic head shaking is often caused by allergies or ear mites. The latter can easily be diagnosed - a horse with ear mites will also react violently when the affected ear or ears is touched, and may continue to do so for some time after the problem is cleared up.

Head shaking can also be caused by poor riding (I know one horse who shakes his head if not ridden in the way he prefers - and he's quite picky about it), tooth or mouth problems or a bit that is too harsh or uncomfortable for the horse.

In some cases, a cause for the problem can't be found. The horse may need re training or it may have some kind of nerve or light sensitivity problem that's not easily fixed.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Can horses get diarrhea?

Unfortunately, yes. I've talked before about colic, which is often caused by constipation. Horses can get diarrhea, from any number of causes.

They can get diarrhea from a bacterial infection or overgrowth (stomach flu), parasites, inflammatory bowel disease, antibiotics, stress, a change in feed or eating something toxic. Some horses are prone to chronic gut imbalances and may need to be regularly fed probiotics to stop them getting the, shall we say, trots. In some cases, there's no way to actually cure the diarrhea, just make it less severe (It's rare).

It's not uncommon for horses to get diarrhea for a couple of days right after moving to a new barn, especially if you have to change their feed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why do horses like peppermint?

The majority of horses love the taste of peppermint - and some will do pretty much anything for it.

So, why?

Horses have a very fragile digestive system - and mint is very good for the digestive system. It's likely that they instinctively know it's good for them. In fact, if a horse is being picky about their feed, adding fresh mint will often get them to eat it (or mask the taste of medicine they don't want to eat).

As long as you don't give them too many, mint flavored candies are okay for your horse. (I jokingly call mint horse chocolate).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Do horses get seasonal allergies?

They can. Horses can be allergic to pollen, just the same as we can - I even know a horse that I suspect may be allergic to the same kinds I am.

Respiratory allergy symptoms are rarer in equines than breaking out in hives.

There are no good antihistamines for horses - treatment consists of corticosteroids or desensitization shots (if the allergen can be identified).

Increasing, reducing, or changing the time of turnout can also help.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Why do horses put their head on a handler's head or over their shoulder?

I ride a horse that likes to do this.

Too many people push away horses that attempt this behavior. It's actually the closest a horse can get to putting his head and neck over your neck or back - as if you were another horse. Usually you'll see it when you approach a horse to pet it.

They're actually showing affection back and trying to "pet" you in return - it's rather like affectionate licking in dogs. (A dog that licks the hand that pets it is petting back).

So, it means they like you (but can be quite disconcerting!)

Friday, May 22, 2015

What is a blue hen?

A "blue hen" is a racing term for a mare that consistently produces high quality foals, often regardless of the stallion she is bred to. Blue hens are often considered more valuable than a good stallion, because of the high level of consistency in their offspring.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Do we ever muzzle a horse?

Yes. There are definitely occasions when you want to muzzle a horse. Here they are:

1. If dealing with a chronic biter. Some horses will take a chunk out of anyone who goes near them and don't seem to want to train out of it - in that case you might put a muzzle on them for grooming, etc.

2. To reduce/slow grass consumption when turning out a horse that's inclined to end up overweight.

3. To prevent cribbing.

4. To prevent eating when being ridden, especially on the trail. This is often seen when horses and mules (mules can be even worse) are being trail ridden by inexperienced riders who don't have the skill to stop them from stopping to graze.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What are side reins?

Side reins are fixed reins that run from the bit to the front of a saddle or to a strap around the horse (surcingle). They're used when lunging horses to teach a horse to give to the bit.

Unfortunately, side reins don't have the feedback a rider does - and because of that a lot of trainers feel they do more harm than good, especially on young horses. They're often considered an "old fashioned" thing - in the bad sense.

Side reins are also sometimes used when riding, often to prevent a pony from pulling a kid over his head by the reins. (I personally prefer to use a very loosely fitted bearing or overcheck rein for this).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Do horses get epilepsy?

Yup. It's pretty rare, but equine epilepsy definitely exists - and a 1000 pound animal having seizures is dangerous to everyone.

Epilepsy can be caused by brain tumors or infections and some parasites. It can be managed in horses with modern medicine and some foals that have epilepsy grow out of it.

The Arabian breed carries a genetic fault that causes neonatal epilepsy - fortunately, these foals almost always grow out of it by the time they're yearlings. These foals have cluster seizures and can sometimes hurt themselves pretty badly - but they grow into normal adults assuming they can be kept from, you know, banging themselves on the fence too hard.

There are anti-seizure medications for horses, but (as in humans) no cure - and horses that suffer seizures regularly should, obviously, not be ridden or driven.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What about horse flies?

Yeah. Horses attract biting flies - which can cause all kinds of problems for their riders.

Horse flies and deer flies are between 3/4 and 1 1/4 inches long. Horse flies seldom bite humans, but may accidentally bite riders (they can't always tell where one animal ends and the other begins). Some other biting flies will target humans, but they tend to prefer the blood of large grazers.

Bites are painful and can on rare occasions become infected. Modern riders use insect repellent to try and keep them off. (At a lower tech level, herbal repellents might be used). We also sometimes put a fly mask on a horse (previously mentioned).

Fly predators - a species of wasp that lays its eggs in fly eggs - are sometimes released around barns and can produce a significant reduction.

Flies are more likely to annoy your characters...and their wetland areas, or near lakes or rivers.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Can horses be fed silage or haylage?

It used to be that the answer was no, never, ever. Silage (UK) or haylage (US) is hay that is wrapped and then fermented after harvest.

I grew up being told silage was okay for cows but would kill horses.

Silage made for cattle should not be fed to horses - it's simply too rich for them and will give them indigestion.

On top of that, silage always carries a risk of botulism - and horses are more sensitive to that toxin than cattle. Botulism is usually fatal in both horses and cattle.

Haylage that is intended to be fed to horses is made in smaller bales and designed for the equine digestive system. Also, we can now vaccinate animals against botulism. (Haylage should not be fed to horses that have not been vaccinated).

So the common "haylage kills horses" wisdom is much more complicated than it once was.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Is it mean to make horses jump?

Several of the activities we do with horses involve making them jump obstacles - in the arena as a sport or on the trail just because something's in our way.

So, is it mean or even cruel to make horses do it? Especially in an arena when, surely, a sane horse will go around an obstacle rather than over it?

The answer is actually: It depends on the horse.

Some horses hate jumping and will do anything to get out of it. Others love it and think it's a fun game to play. Needless to say, good jumping horses that compete at higher level shows generally love their job - because you'll never get them to that level if they don't.

In fact, some sport horse farms select horses by turning weanlings or yearlings out in a paddock with low jumps in it and picking the ones that try doing it on their own.

Image source: Ronald C. Yochum Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Can horses eat lawn clippings?

Absolutely not.


Horses have been made quite sick by well meaning suburbanites throwing lawn clippings into their pasture.

First of all, lawn clippings contain a high level of the wrong kind of carbohydrates. Horses ferment their food. If they ferment it too quickly, then they can get acid in their gut - basically indigestion - which can then cause laminitis.

Second of all, they tend to bolt them, which can result in food getting stuck in their throat - choke.

Third of all, lawn clippings may contain plants toxic to horses. The overall smell of the cut grass will mask the smell of individual plants...

Fourth of all, toxic weed killers may have been used on the grass.

So, nope. Horses should never be fed (or allowed access to) lawn clippings.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Are there any wiry or curly-haired horses?


There are two genes that cause a wiry or curly coat in horses. (And, like poodles and some other curly haired animals, they're hypoallergenic).

The first of the two genes is dominant. In homozygous form, as discussed under hairless horses, it often results in a thin mane and tail that may shed out altogether in the summer.

The second is recessive and shows up primarily in the Missouri Foxtrotter breed, resulting in an unexpected curly coat (recessive genes can hide for generations).

Curly horses are more common in America, where they have been bred into a specific breed, the American Bashkir Curly (Which has no connection to the Russian Bashkir horse - the name comes from a mythical breed connection that has since been disproved). It's also bred to have a quiet temperament and be easy to handle and an easy keeper. The American Bashkir Curly does not have a specific, settled type, and the registry will accept anything with a curly coat, but the actual ABC type is a cobby animal in the 14 to 15 hand range.

Being a mutation, the curly gene occasionally shows up in other breeds.

This picture of an American Bashkir Curly clearly shows the "rough" looking coat, curly (almost dreadlocked) mane and curly hair inside the ears. (Source: Penella22 via Wikimedia Commons).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Are there any hairless horses?

We have hairless dogs and hairless cats. Do we have any hairless horses?

The answer is: Sort of.

There is no harmless gene that causes hairlessness in equines, allowing the creation of a hairless breed. A hairless horse can result from the following:

1. Naked Foal Syndrome or Hairless Foal Syndrome. This is a condition associated with the Akhal-Teke breed (which is bred to have a very sparse coat). It's similar to JEB. The foals are born completely hairless and may have abnormal tooth growth. They have frequent digestive disorders, are highly prone to laminitis and almost never live past their second years. The vast majority die within a few weeks. (In equines, coat and hair problems are often linked to digestive problems).

2. Patchy hair loss is sometimes seen in horses kept in very hot weather, most often on the face or under the mane. This is harmless (if cosmetically annoying). Some horses will also shed out patches of coat before the new coat has grown in.

3. Skin infections such as ringworm. In very rare cases a skin infection can cause permanent hair loss (I've seen this once).

4. Any condition that causes itching can result in the horse rubbing hair off, especially the mane and tail. These are often related to insects or allergies. (Or allergies to insects). Mange is rare in horses, but does happen.

5. Selenium toxicity - caused by excessive selenium in the soil.

6. One specific breed, the American Bashkir Curly horse has a gene that when homozygous can cause loss of the mane and tail and patches of body hair in summer. (i.e., it sheds out and then never grows back in).

But there's no hairless horse breed. The only genetic cause of hairlessness in horses is a fatal recessive.

Friday, May 8, 2015

What about winged horses?

Winged horses are a fantasy staple - and who wouldn't want to ride one?

They are, of course, anatomically impossible - but that shouldn't stop fantasy writers.

However, there's another very big problem with a winged horse - the only place to put the wings is where the rider sits.

If you sit behind the wings, your weight will end up on the animal's groin. If you sit in front, you'll be on the neck. Some artists get around this by putting the wings forward on the shoulders, but it's most common to see Pegasus or his kin drawn with the rider hooking their legs around the wings.

Which, of course, won't work either - and in fact is probably the worst solution, as it would restrict the poor guy's ability to flap his wings) I'd suggest drawing the wings slightly forward and down and putting the rider behind them, then giving the horse a bit of a longer back so that the rider is not on the groin or but. Horses have a joint in their spine in front of the hind quarters that makes for a weak point.

Also, really, give your pegasus rider some kind of harness instead of thinking he can cling on with his knees. It's hard enough to do that with no saddle when your mount isn't flying!

This statue of Pegasus is located on the roof of the Poznan Opera House. Image source: Radomil via Wikimedia Commons).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why do horses kick?

You really don't want to get kicked by a horse - they have a lot of strength and those hooves are hard.

Why would a horse kick its handler?

A horse kicks another horse, in general, to warn them. Unfortunately, even horses can be injured by a kick (or, in rare cases killed). Smaller humans are much more at risk.

Kicking is, thus, considered a particularly dangerous habit or vice. Generally, they threaten to kick because they really, really don't want to do what you're asking and are trying to intimidate you into giving up and letting them alone. Horses normally kick backwards with their back legs. Mules can actually hit you with their back legs - when you're standing in front of them. Occasionally a horse will try to kick forwards like that, called cow kicking, but they generally can't get much force behind it.

The other reason a horse may kick out is if they're startled by something behind them, which is why novice riders are told never to walk behind a horse.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How bad are head injuries in horses?

Horses are less vulnerable to traumatic brain injury than we are. A lot less. In fact, brain injuries are vanishingly rare in horses.

Why? The shape of their skull acts like a crumple zone...or, really, a built in helmet. Horses can hit their head very hard and not do any damage to their brain (which is also smaller than ours and rather less complex).

Head injuries in horses, thus, generally don't affect the brain.

However, a cut to the head - just like a cut to the human head - will bleed copiously. A cut above the eye can look particularly bad...and can also make the horse panic because it can't see properly. It looks worse than it is - once cleaned up, the torrent of blood often comes from a small slash that may not even need stitches. (I do, however, know a horse who cut his eyelid so badly he actually lost part of the inside - although you'd never know anything had happened).

Other head injuries in horses include:

1. Facial bone fractures. Yes, a horse can break its nose - but its bone, not cartilage. In some cases the horse may need surgery. I once knew a horse with a broken nose - the injury was quite visible, but didn't affect his breathing or usefulness as a riding horse.

2. Tongue lacerations. Tongue injuries generally heal well, even if untreated.

3. Ear lacerations. Horses' ears stick out. I also know a horse with a permanent notch in one ear, presumably from an injury. Severe ear wounds can cause the ear to curl up and may require a skin graft and to actually splint the ear.

4. Damage to the salivary gland and duct. You can tell when this has happened because saliva will pour from the wound. This ranges from minor damage to heal on its own to wounds so severe that one of the glands has to be destroyed (horses manage fine with only one).

5. Lower jaw fracture. These generally have to be wired or plated. But fortunately, they're pretty rare.

6. Nerve damage. I've actually known two horses with nerve damage caused by head injuries. One only had full feeling in one side of his mouth - which did cause problems when he was ridden, although the rider was able to compensate. (He was an English horse in England - in this country, I'd recommend that a horse with an injury like that be ridden mostly western and neck reined). The other...well, when she's relaxed, and when being ridden, her tongue lolls out of her mouth. She can eat and swallow normally, so its mostly a cosmetic problem.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why do horses have salt licks?

If you look in the stalls at a barn you might see that at least some of the horses have big blocks of either white salt or a red substance in their stalls.

Horses are given salt licks for two reasons. The first is that they're a good way to get minerals into horses, who tend to consume just as much of a lick as they feel they need (they're pretty good that way).

The second is that having a lick helps keep a stalled horse from getting bored - it's kind of a toy for them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

What's with American Pharoah's bit?

So, yup. The Derby. This year it was won by a horse named American Pharoah.

If you looked closely, you might see he was wearing a rather unusual bit. It appeared to have a rubber mouthpiece with spoon-shaped pieces on either side.

This bit is called a - wait for it - rubber dexter ring bit. The mouthpiece has a single joint, but is covered in rubber, which is generally used on a horse that doesn't take a metal bit well. It's actually milder. The spoon shaped cheeks help steel. The ring at the bottom is generally put on a horse that is a little spirited and difficult when being led.

So, if you noticed American Pharoah's odd bit - now you know!

This German racehorse is wearing a similar bit, but in this case with a metal mouthpiece. Image source Softeis via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 1, 2015

What are wolf teeth?

Horses only have incisors, molars, and sometimes canines (the last more common in males). They have long since lost their premolars.

This is what creates the gap we put the bit in.

However, about 70 percent of horses have vestigial premolars - we call these "wolf teeth". Why? Because traditionally wolves are bad.

Wolf teeth generally erupt between 5 and 12 months of age and they're positioned right in front of the first molar in the upper jaw. Wolf teeth in the lower jaw, however, tend to come into contact with the bit, often causing discomfort for the horse. Blind wolf teeth, that have not erupted or only erupted partially, are usually further forward and cause even more problems.

Because of this, wolf teeth are generally removed when the animal is a yearling, before ridden training starts. Blind wolf teeth, however, may not be recognized or identified until the animal is trained to a bit - and they tend to cause the worst problems.

In modern times, wolf teeth are extracted with local anesthetic and standing/conscious sedation, and by cutting the gum and removing the tooth with forceps - it's slightly more complicated than tooth extraction in humans because the tooth is so vestigial. In colts, it's not uncommon to remove wolf teeth at the same time as castration.

In older times, they were removed by banging at the root of the tooth with a hammer until it falls out - a method now considered cruel, but if you're writing a more historical piece it might be the only way to do it.

If the horse is already in training, they generally need seven to ten days of not being worked in a bit so their gums can heal. (Some people use a bitless bridle rather than resting the horse for that long).