Friday, July 31, 2015

What is a spade bit?

A spade bit is a bit used in the vaquero tradition. It has long, straight shanks, often highly decorated. It also has a straight mouthpiece with a high piece in the center (called a port) and a spoon plate fixed to the port.

Spade bits are used only by skilled riders on highly trained horses (it takes five years of training before a horse is even considered to be remotely ready for a spade bit). It's not the same as a regular curb bit. For any more you'll have to talk to a vaquero, but it's very similar to the full bridle - used only by a skilled rider on a skilled horse.

(For worldbuilding, consider something like this as a fine tradition of equestrianism instead of going with the bridleless trope).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What is a bridoon?

A bridoon is a special kind of snaffle bit that's used with a full bridle. Bridoons are narrower than normal snaffle bits (so they can fit in the mouth with a second bit) and thus are a little harsher. (They are never used alone).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What is a weymouth bit?

In a full bridle, the weymouth bit is the curb or leverage bit, to which the "bottom" rein is attached. A weymouth is never used on its own (although it's similar to some western curb bits - western people ride differently and use different bits).

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Are bats good to have in a barn?

Bats like warm places to roost - and sometimes they'll pick the rafters of a barn. Fortunately, bats are actually good to have around horses. (They can carry rabies, but it's fairly rare).

One exception is that in Australia, flying foxes can carry Hendra, which can infect horses - you don't want them in your barn or apasture.

Normal insectivorous bats, though? Good guys. They're handy for insect control and because they flap around at night, they aren't likely to spook your horses (or you).

Ironically, horses are more genetically related to bats than they are to cows!

Monday, July 27, 2015

What is a Tom Thumb bit?

A Tom Thumb is a fairly popular western bit. It's a short shanked bit with a jointed (or broken) mouthpiece.

It's a very controversial bit - because a lot of people think it is a very mild bit, but it's actually a very harsh one. (Which is a problem - because if you're riding and think your bit is milder than it is, you can annoy or even injure your horse).

Yes. I don't like Tom Thumbs. Occasionally a bit of opinion slips in here. I particularly don't like that they're often sold with cheap western headstalls.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What are action devices?

An action device is used on a gaited horse for one of two reasons - to either encourage the horse to stay in gait or to help develop muscles.

They come in two kinds - chains and stretchers. Chains restrict the motion of the horse's legs. Stretchers apply resistance on the grounds that when the stretcher is taken off, the horse's motion will be easier (just the same as human resistance band training) and thus more active.

There's a lot of controversy about their use. Some people think all gait or action devices are cruel. Some people think stretchers are alright and chains aren't. Or that chains are fine up to a certain weight.

I'm personally inclined to lean towards chains no, stretchers yes as long as they aren't over-used (which any training device can be).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What is soring?

Soring is a controversial practice that involves using caustic substances to "enhance" the gait of a gaited horse. It's most often seen with Tennessee Walkers (which has sadly given the entire community surrounding the breed a bad reputation, even though the majority of TWH owners aren't involved).

Soring is also sometimes done by "pressure shoeing", which means nailing a shoe tightly onto a closely trimmed food. (Shoeing is not normally painful for horses, although some do show signs of being annoyed by it).

Soring is illegal in the US, but the law is poorly enforced. Fortunately, the movement against it is strong and the practice is becoming rarer all the time.

A Tennessee Walking Horse performing a natural gait - image source Kersti Nebelsiek via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What is sweet iron?

Slight note first - I avoid baseball, but I was informed that neatsfoot oil is also used on baseball gloves.

Sweet iron used to mean low carbon wrought iron, from the Spanish "hierro dulce." These days it's used to refer to cold-rolled mild steel or low carbon steel.

It's used in bit mouthpieces, mostly by western types, because a lot of people think the slight rust that forms encourages acceptance of the bit. (That's not why it's called sweet, but is why the term is generally used over "mild steel"). In other words, like copper, it appears to taste better and be more accepted by some horses over stainless steel.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why are some bits made of copper?

Most horse bits are made of stainless steel, but every so often you might see a bit with a mouthpiece that is all or part copper. Why?

It appears that copper...tastes better. Some horses that are reluctant to take a steel bit will be quite happy in a copper one. Some trainers also prefer to use copper mouthpieces on young horses for exactly this reason.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What is neatsfoot oil?

Neatsfoot oil is made from, uh, the feet of cows. It's traditionally used as a preservative on horse tack. (Some people prefer to use synthetics, but most people still use neatsfoot). It's also good on your shoes and boots.

The name comes from the old English "neat" - cattle. So it's just "cow's foot oil." The hoof is not used.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What is saddle soap?

Saddle soap is a leather cleaner - in either bar or liquid form - that's used on saddles and tack. (It can also be used on other leather goods - it's particularly good on long boots).

It contains a mild soap and various oils that are good for leather, as well as lanolin.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Why would a horse just drop dead?

I'm in mourning right now. One of the horses at my friend's barn, a 23 year old Quarter Horse mare who was retired from giving lessons (due to a soft tissue injury, not her age) dropped dead. Unexpectedly. She was in good weight and otherwise healthy, showing no symptoms of any disease.

Why would something like this happen?

One possibility is toxins. (In this case highly unlikely - she was being very well looked after and not allowed to get into anything she wasn't supposed to). But there was a high profile situation in 2009 when 21 polo ponies dropped dead after being given a vitamin supplement that had been mixed incorrectly - they had a selenium overdose). Toxic plants can also cause sudden death, usually a few hours after the animal ingested the plant.

More likely in this case, though, was an aneurism. As mentioned, horses don't get heart disease the way we do. What can happen, though, is an aortic rupture - a break of the major artery above the heart. If somebody says an old horse died "of a heart attack," then that's most likely what they mean. Older horses can develop a thinning of the arteries that can lead to an aneurism, most likely in the arteries near the heart, but sometimes in the brain (it's rare, but it does happen). This thinning generally shows absolutely no symptoms until one day - the horse just drops dead - often, but not always, during exertion. (In fact, horses can and do drop dead under a rider - sometimes resulting in the injury or death of the rider. Good riders are taught how to get clear if a horse goes down for any reason, but you don't always have time). There's generally no warning and nothing the horse's owners and carers can do.

R.I.P. Cascade...I'm going to go back to being quite upset now. She was a truly special one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is Cerebellar Abiotrophy?

Answer: A horrible genetic disease found almost exclusively in Arabians. It's a recessive condition.

Affected foals are born normal, but within the first few weeks or months they lose brain cells. This leads to a tremor that affects only the head and ataxia - lack of balance. The affected horses move in an exaggerated manner, find it hard to get up if they lie down, startle easily and tend to fall.

They're often euthanized, because it's unsafe to ride or work them, and they tend to get hurt a lot. (Milder cases may be kept alive as pets - but in a world where horses are needed for work, it's rather likely that affected foals are going to end up, well, in the pot).

There's now a test for the gene that causes it. Thankfully.

Image source: Ealdgyth via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What's with rainbow reins?

If you see pony rides being given (other than on the carousel things you sometimes see at fairs) or little kids being taught English style riding, you might see rainbow reins.

They're rubber covered reins with colored panels - the exact colors vary, but they're generally bright primary colors.

The purpose is to help kids learn to hold the reins in the right place and develop contact. It's a lot easier to tell a kid to keep their hands on the blue bit or the red bit, after all.

They're also kind of cute.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why might a halter be padded?

I'm not talking about "padded" leather halters, but you might see a horse with sheepskin rolls on the cheeks and over the top of the head.

This is done when a horse is being shipped to reduce the risk of injury to the eyes and ears and also to the poll (the way a horse's skull is designed, they can get a concussion very easily from a strike directly between the ears from the top.

The fleece also stops the halter from rubbing during long trips - which is why you'll sometimes see every part of the halter wrapped.

Friday, July 10, 2015

What are polo wraps?

Polo wraps are cloth "bandages" that are sometimes wrapped around a horse's legs for protection and support while being ridden. Some show jumpers use them. The name comes from the fact that they are used in polo to protect the horse's lower legs from being hit by the mallet.

Polo wraps cover from the knee or hock to the fetlock joint - i.e., the horse's "shins." They are sometimes applied over fleece padding. Usually, they're brightly colored (and often coordinated with saddle blankets). Kids' ponies might even wear ones with superhero logos or flowers on. White polo wraps are sometimes used in dressage demonstrations or clinics to make the movement of the horse's legs more obvious.

This horse is wearing red polo wraps to match its saddle pad. (The stuff over his eyes is a fly fringe). Image source: BS Thurner Hof via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What is a half pad?

A half pad is extra padding sometimes put under English saddles - some people believe it makes the horse more comfortable.

The half pad goes over the horse's back under the saddle, but only covers the "seat" of the saddle and not the flap. They're traditionally made of sheepskin or cotton, but these days you can also get memory foam. Sadly, some people use them so they can continue to use a saddle that doesn't fit properly. They are, though, helpful for horses with more sensitive backs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

What is a peacock stirrup?

A peacock stirrup is a stirrup that is open on the outside. The gap is filled with either a rubber band or a leather loop.

Peacock stirrups are most often seen when an English trained horse is being ridden by a child. Some lesson barns also use them. The point is that if the rider falls, the loop will quickly release their foot from the stirrup, preventing dragging. Experienced riders almost never use them. (Also, if the band comes off it could land anywhere and then apparently they're impossible to find).

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why do stirrups sometimes have rubber pads in them?

Stirrup pads are often used - you'll almost always see them on lesson horses. They have a simple purpose - they increase the grip between your boot and the stirrup, making it less likely for your foot to slip out of the stirrup at a key moment. Racing stirrups often have integral pads with even more grip, as jockeys rely on them so much to stay on.

English style "Fillis" stirrup with pad. Image source Horlicks via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What happens if a horse breaks its tail?

It happens - the tail sticks out, after all, and can sometimes end up getting caught in or against something.

A fracture in the tail can sometimes cause mysterious hind end lameness - a lot of people forget to examine the tail. A horse with a broken tail may also hold it crooked. If not properly set, a broken tail may heal crooked, resulting in a permanently crooked tail. Otherwise, a broken tail generally heals fine - it's painful for the horse, but seldom causes any kind of long term impairment. In rare cases, the tail may have to be amputated. I've also heard of cases where the skin heals across the break and part of the tail is lost.

In some cases, the horse may, while the tail is healing, have problems lifting it to poo - resulting in manure in the tail which case, the horse's handler may shave the tail. This can take weeks to grow back.

Friday, July 3, 2015

What is a tongue tie?

A tongue tie is a strap that's used to restrain the tongue and hold it in the lower part of the mouth when a horse is being ridden or worked. They are designed to prevent the horse from getting its tongue over the bit or otherwise interfering with the bit action. (It's also often said they help keep the airway clear, but I'm not sure how as horses do not breathe through their mouths).

Tongue ties are commonly used in racing (when control is paramount). They're illegal in many other sports and often frowned upon as they can cause severe injury to the horse's tongue if not fitted correctly.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Can horses get cavities?

Yup. They don't get them as much as we do - and because they have open roots, cavities on the top of the tooth simply wear down and disappear. Although some people think horses need fillings - nope, there's no sign that they do. Cavities on a horse's teeth tend to be small and they don't seem to have any pain from them.

Horses can get tooth abscesses, however, which can be serious and can result in the need to pull teeth.

Cavities in horses are caused by excessively sweet food - don't feed your horse too much candy - but they aren't nearly as much a problem for them as for us, partly because a horse's teeth are just so much bigger.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Can horses really smell fear?

It's a trope that a horse can "smell your fear" and may act up as a result.

The truth is that horses absolutely can tell when a handler is afraid. Some horses will act up. Others will actually try to calm the fearful person down (the best lesson horses).

However, there's no evidence they do this by "smelling" your fear. It's vaguely possible that domestic horses can pick up on and identify human fear pheromones...but this is not normal across species.

So, how do they tell?

Horses can easily read the body language of another horse. Domestic horses readily learn to read human body language and tactile cues - that's how we train them, after all.

Horses can't smell your fear - but they can feel the tension in your muscles if you're riding them, see your body language if you aren't and also hear your heart rate. It might seem that they're smelling your fear - actually, you're telling them you're afraid in signals that might as well be shouting in "horse."

(If you're handling or riding a horse and think it's picking up on your fear, try slowing your breathing - which will help both of you calm down).