Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can horses eat bread?

After all, bread is, well, made of grains and oats, which horses eat. So, is it fine to feed your horse a slice of bread?

Yes...if you're being reasonable about it. Bread is rather rich (for a horse) and can make them put on weight if you feed them too much - especially if they're already having insulin resistance problems. (In fact, some people feed "poor keepers" bread because it IS so good at putting weight on them). Some horses don't like it, though.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Can horses eat milk?

Adult horses, like most other animals (Caucasian humans are a rare exception), are not normally lactose tolerant (this goes for cats too - please don't give your cat the classic saucer of milk. They will regret it...and so will you).

Adult horses can get diarrhea if given milk or milk powder.

Foals, of course, drink their milk - ideally straight from the source. Hand raised foals are generally taught to drink from a bowl or bucket right away - easier in horses than other animals and less of a pain than bottle feeding. Cow's milk, though, is not very good for foals - it's got too much fat in it and can give the foal diarrhea. Goat's milk is better (assuming mare's milk isn't available). In fact some people have actually managed to convince a goat to nurse a foal, giving the goat a platform to stand from.

Commercial foal milk replacers are available in modern eras.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Can horses eat meat?

Horses can and will take meat if offered it, even though they wouldn't eat it in the wild. As far as we can tell an occasional bite of hamburger won't hurt a horse.

However, they aren't evolved to digest it and it's likely that at best it won't give them any nutrition, at worst it might make them uncomfortable. (Horses don't have gut bacteria to break down meat protein, so it's certainly not going to do them any good).

Personally, I don't recommend giving your horse a bite out of your ham sandwich. He'd rather have an apple or a carrot, after all.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When do horses teeth?

I mentioned teething in the last post. So, do horses teeth? At what age?

Foals are born with no teeth at all. Their incisors appear within a week, and the full set of baby teeth is present by the time the animal's six months old (the order is central incisors, intermediate incisors, premolars and then corner incisors).

The young horse sheds these baby teeth in the same order they arrive, starting when he's about 2 1/2 years old. A horse is not through teething until four and a half or so (I had a horse who was five and still hadn't got his full corner incisors in). The baby teeth are pushed out by the permanent teeth (occasionally, baby teeth don't shed properly and a dentist needs to remove them).

So, foals under six months are teething and so are adolescent horses between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years old. As horses of that age are often ridden, teething issues have to be watched. And, like any other animal, a teething horse appreciates something to chew on.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why do foals chew tails?

Because...sometimes they do (Occasionally the habit is seen in older horses).

Truth is, we aren't actually sure. It might be teething related, it might be play, in some cases it might indicate a nutritional deficiency (this should always be considered if it's an older horse).

It's easy to identify which foal is the culprit - it'll be the one who's tail hasn't been chewed (they can't reach their own). The usual "treatment" is to regularly wash everyone's tails with a bad tasting shampoo - that usually stops the behavior in its tracks. (If that doesn't work, some people use hot peppers, but you have to be careful to keep that away from the sensitive under-tail areas).

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How can you tell if a mare is pregnant?

The answer is not easily. If you ask most experienced horse people, you'll find almost everyone has woken up to one more horse than they thought they had.

You can't always tell just by looking at her belly. Maiden mares (first pregnancy) often don't actually drop their belly that much - most cases of surprise foals involve maidens. A well conformed mare will already have a slight drop. In any case, mares don't "show" pregnancy until about the eighth month. Mares that have been bred a lot often don't "get their figure back," especially if they're older.

In general, you can't tell if a mare is pregnant until she's within a couple of months of giving birth.

The signs to look for are:

A slightly distended belly.

Visible movement in the belly - sometimes if the foal shifts you can see it. And it's also possible to feel the foal kicking if you rest a hand on the mare's belly.

Two to four weeks before the mare is due her udder will increase in size. One week before, the teats will increase in size and start to look waxy.

A pregnant mare may also lose endurance and tire more easily. She can get cranky in the last couple of weeks - probably tired of carrying around that extra foal weight - and many mares refuse to have their belly groomed or touched. Colic like symptoms in a mare who otherwise eats, drinks, defecates and urinates normally can be a sign she's about to go into labor - and can sometimes be the first sign you get. Also, there's a testosterone peak about 90 days into pregnancy which can cause a mare to act "studdy" and try to mount other mares. (This is sometimes mistaken for heat behavior). The sex of the foal doesn't seem to affect this.

But it can be really hard to tell - as most horsemen will verify.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What is contagious equine metritis?

Okay, this one is very NSFW - because contagious equine metritis is an equine venereal disease.

It's transmitted sexually (including by on farm artificial insemination, where workers may touch both animals with their hands or instruments).

Stallions can carry CEM without any symptoms - sometimes for years. In mares, the disease causes inflammation of the uterus and discharge from the vulva. Some mares may be asymptomatic and carry the bacteria for, well, months.

Mares are made temporarily infertile by the disease, although if they're already pregnant it rarely causes miscarriage. Unfortunately, it can take months for a mare to recover, and there's no good treatment for the uterine inflammation. On top of that, only mares show testable antibiotics.

External cleaning of the genitals with detergent and antibiotic ointment for several days is, however, effective at removing the bacteria from the outside (and is obviously the treatment for carrier stallions).

The disease exists in modern Europe but not in the United States (except for occasional outbreaks associated with imported stock).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Do horses have high cholesterol?

Not in the same way we do. High cholesterol in horses is not a condition of itself but a symptom, usually of something serious. (Foals under three months naturally have elevated cholesterol, probably due to rapid growth and chemicals in their mother's milk).

High cholesterol in ponies, miniatures and donkeys is a symptom of hyperlipemia syndrome, which is associated with obesity combined with stress) - but it's often not a noticed symptom as the condition is also associated with more obvious symptoms such as depression, fetid breath, diarrhea and colic.

Bile duct obstruction and liver disease can also cause high cholesterol in horses, as can sepsis. But the kind of chronic high cholesterol we see in humans doesn't exist in horses because of their diet.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why might a horse have yellow gums?

Gum color in horses is a good indicator of certain health conditions - partly because it's quite, quite easy to look at a horse's gums.

There are two reasons why a horse's gums might look yellow - one serious and one amusing.

The serious reason is liver problems (liver failure is a very common cause of death in older horses) - jaundice in horses often shows up on the gums.

The amusing reason is too many carrots! Alfalfa can also turn a horse's gums slightly yellow. Both foods have a lot of beta carotene, and this can cause a tint of yellow on the gums.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What is Congenital Stationary Night Blindness?

Congenital stationary night blindness is a vision problem found most often in Appaloosas. It's a sex linked recessive (and thus occurs only in male horses, but can be carried by mares). There also appears to be a possible link between CSNB and the Lp gene (if homozygous).

It's called "stationary" because it doesn't get worse as the horse ages. The horse has normal vision during the day time, but extremely poor night vision. (Very rarely, the horse does develop daytime vision problems as it gets older). There's no treatment or therapy and horses with CSNB shouldn't be bred. It's a neurological problem in the retina.

They can be used normally, but should be stalled at night - some horses with night blindness will stand still all night and not eat or drink, which isn't very good for them. Some owners even provide the horse with a night light. Needless to say they shouldn't be ridden or worked in low light conditions. (Imagine your character's new horse throwing them because they tried to ride into the night and didn't realize it couldn't see).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Can horses get glaucoma?

Yes, but it's rarely hereditary as in humans - it normally develops as a symptom of moon blindness. Laser therapy can help (although it's not always worth the expense in lower value animals).

Until fairly recently, glaucoma was not really recognized or diagnosed in horses, and its possible some older animals with mysterious blindness that developed with age could have glaucoma. Glaucoma not associated with moon blindness is most often found in Paso Fino horses.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Can horses get cataracts?

Yup. In fact, all mammals can get cataracts. Uveitis can cause cataracts, as can age. Juvenile cataracts are congenital and fairly rare in the horse.

Cataract removal is trickier in horses than in other animals, especially in adults. Also, there's no way to replace the lens functionality in such a big animal, at least not yet. The chance of any vision is only 50/50 in adult horses.

Because of this, cataracts in adult and older horses are not often removed surgically. Cataract removal can also cause all kinds of complications...including moon blindness. It's often better to just let the animal go blind in that eye. Foals who have had lenses removed often grow up to be serviceable (but should not be bred as this is usually a genetic condition). They may need special training because of compromised vision.

Friday, June 12, 2015

What is moon blindness?

"Moon blindness" is the most common cause of vision loss in horses. It was named because people once thought the horse's vision came and went with the phases of the moon.

The technical term is "equine recurrent uveitis." It's most often caused by a bacterial infection that then causes the immune system to keep flaring back up. The barrier between the eye and the bloodstream becomes compromised causing inflammation of the eyes, especially around the iris. In some cases the bacteria stays in the eye - and antibiotic eye drops may be used.

Moon blindness is normally diagnosed if a horse has had two or more episodes of inflammation. Stress can make the animal worse. There's no magic treatment and it's not uncommon for horses with moon blindness to lose their vision in one or (much worse) both eyes.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What is HERDA?

Hereditary equine regional dermal asthenia. It's a nasty little recessive that causes a defect in collagen. The horses appear normal, until you try to put tack on them - which then causes their skin to tear off (and not heal).

Most affected horses are put down as they can't be ridden or bred and damage has often been done before the disease is noticed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What is a shavetail?

If you read military historicals, you might have come across the term "shavetail" for a green officer. So, where does it come from?


It wasn't uncommon for a new cavalry officer not to be a great rider (I actually once watched the changing of the Horse Guard in London and, uh, they still weren't great riders. Tighten your girths, people). So, during training, they would put the new officer on a calm, older horse that would help teach him.

These horses were marked out by having their tails trimmed short or shaved. This allowed everyone else on the drill field to easily spot the rookies who might, you know, do something stupid, fall off, lose control of their horse, etc.

Obviously, they became known as "shavetails." (Tail shaving on mules, which I covered in another post, means something quite different).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Why do knights earn their spurs?

Fantasy novels often have a squire receiving spurs when he or she becomes a knight. However, the most common vision of the knighthood ceremony involves "dubbing" with a sword.

The spurs, however, were the actual symbol of knighthood. The spurs received in the ceremony were highly ornate and decorative (and probably worn only during tournaments due). A knight's spurs were gold, or at least gilt (his squire wore silver). Spurs were sometimes taken as trophies and if a knight was disgraced, his spurs would be deliberately broken. In some countries a knight who forgot to take his spurs off before entering a church (thus potentially damaging the floor) had to pay a fine to the church.

Modern cowboys often still wear highly ornate spurs at shows, although silver is a more common decoration than gilt. (In fact, some of these decorative spurs are short and have very blunt rowels, and are not really there to encourage the horse so much as to look good).

As a side note, some motorcycle clubs award decorative spurs to their members, continuing the tradition of earning one's spurs.

Straight (14th century) and roweled (15th century) medieval spurs located in the Somerset County Museum in Taunton. Image source Gaius Cornelius via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why do the police still use horses?

Some police forces still have mounted officers. This makes sense for park rangers (in some terrains, a horse is still way more efficient than a vehicle - and on a related note, the Denali rangers still use dog sleds). But on the city streets, it might seem that horses are, well, an old fashioned liability.

Police horses are used on the mall in Washington DC, on the streets of London, even in Los Angeles (mostly in parks). What's the value of a horse for policing?

First of all, in parks and rough terrain, being on a horse gives you a much better view than being on foot or even on an ATV. The horses tend to attract positive public attention and help the image of the police.

The other reason is that horses are one of the best weapons for riot control there is. A mounted officer can easily break up or scatter a crowd without anyone getting hurt (the horses are specially trained to be able to step or jump over downed people without touching them). Many forces use only large horses (and some only horses of a specific color). Oh, and people don't like to hurt horses - which often makes suspects back down.

Horses are also highly visible in a crowd situation.

A London police officer and his mount pass Buckingham Palace during an event. Image source: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why do horses splash in water?

So, when you ride a horse into a stream or the ocean, he'll often splash. Is he just having fun?

There's actually two reasons a horse may splash water.

1. Play behavior. I.e., just having fun. One way to identify this is...I once knew a horse who would intentionally splash other horses, and would switch the splashing hoof in order to do so. He wasn't very popular when he insisted on doing this in the middle of winter.

2. Cooling off. Horses know that getting wet cools you down, so on a hot day horses will stop and splash in a body of water. They'll also put their head in water, including a trough or bucket, and shake water over their head. (Horses have pulse points behind the jaw and their ears are also very heat sensitive - if you want to cool a horse off quickly and don't have much water, you splash their ears and their armpits).

A horse that's splashing water on a hot day should be allowed to do so - they're doing it for the sake of lowering their body temperature, and horses are more prone than humans to overheating.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Why do horses "paw" the ground?

You've seen the image of the horse pawing or stomping the ground because he's eager to go. Is this really the case?

It can be, but there are several reasons horses may paw, stomp or dig:

1. Eagerness to get moving/frustration with having to stand still. Some horses seem to get bored very quickly if obliged to remain stationary.

2. Begging. Horses may paw or stomp in order to request a treat (This is not behavior that should be rewarded as they can damage their stall doing it). Some horses will invariably start pawing or stomping when feeding time approaches (and they know. To the minute).

3. Checking the ground in preparation for rolling. Horses will generally paw at the ground before rolling - they're making sure they're not about to lie down on something that might cut them.

4. Aggression - the paw or stomp may be threat behavior coming from an animal that feels insecure or in danger.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Can horses get PTSD?

One of the most frightening experiences of my riding life was being on a horse that experienced what I can only think was a panic attack. He was rearing, bucking, thrashing around - and I could not even safely bail. (I never rode that horse again - he clearly had a "screw loose"). I don't know what was "with" that horse - but he didn't seem to be in the present at all. Could he have had a flashback to some traumatic experience?

Horses are very strongly programmed - even more than humans - to avoid a repeat of a situation which proved to be dangerous.

For example, many years ago I knew a horse named Anglo Starsky in the UK. He was a multi Stakes winning Standardbred gelding, a pacer. The only reason they didn't keep him intact was because he was cryptorchid (which can be genetic).

In his last race he tripped, fell, and ended up underneath and tangled with the sulky. He was not seriously hurt...but he would never go between the shafts of a vehicle again. He was retrained as a saddle horse and had a good life, but if he so much as saw any kind of horse drawn vehicle, he would freak out to a dangerous degree.

PTSD in humans results in flashbacks to the original event triggered by something that reminds them of it. Starsky would melt down when he saw a cart or carriage because it reminded him of the original accident. Was it PTSD? It's hard to tell - we can't ask a horse if he's having flashbacks - but a horseman can tell if a horse's mind is "with" them. Dissociation may not be something we can ask the animal about, but it's something an experienced horseman can sense.

So, can horses get PTSD? I lean towards yes...but it's not something we can, as of right now, prove one way or the other.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Can horses get depressed?

You can't really ask a horse how he or she is feeling - but they do do their best to communicate with us.

However, there's strong evidence horses can suffer from depression - and suffer from it in the same way as humans.

A depressed horse will stand still for long periods of time with the head and sometimes ears drooping. They often show indifference to both humans and other horses, and may ignore "interesting" objects. Studies indicate that lower blood cortisol levels are also associated with depression.

Also, depressed horses will often go off their feed and may show a lack of interest in treats they normally like or activities they normally enjoy. Just like humans!

Depression can be a sign of mild illness or pain. It often occurs after the loss of a long time buddy (pining). It can also be caused by forcing horses into activities they don't enjoy or by not letting them do things they do enjoy. (Sometimes the cure for depression is to go out on a nice trail ride every week or so). Horses that are kept entirely alone are almost guaranteed to become depressed (with rare exceptions).

Monday, June 1, 2015

Do horses get nose bleeds?

Yes - in fact they're fairly common, enough that there's a racing term "bleeder" for a horse that gets nose bleeds after a race.

Nose bleeds at rest are rare, and can be caused by foreign bodies or trauma to the nose, fungal infections, cancer, sinus disease and infections in the guttural pouch (again, often, fungal in nature).

Most commonly, as mentioned, the horse "bleeds" after strenuous exercise. This actually comes from the lungs - horses are prone to rupture of small blood vessels when they work particularly hard. (Abscesses and pneumonia can also cause this). Bleeders are generally treated with a drug called lasix - but it's banned in some countries as it also enhances performance and many trainers put all racehorses on it whether they bleed or not.