Friday, October 30, 2015

Do horses grieve?

It's common wisdom that animals don't understand death and don't experience grief.

With horses, at least, that's absolutely...incorrect. Obviously, we don't know if horses "understand" death - we can't ask them. However, after the death of a stablemate, horses often demonstrate behaviors that are not dissimilar to human grief reactions. Depression and loss of appetite are common. (In fact, it's not unknown for a horse that loses a very close friend to pine to the point where they become sick or even die). Depression and loss of interest in activity can last for an extended period of time.

I've even witnessed a horse perk up, then glance in the empty stall next to her and wilt again, just as if she was turning around to say something to the occupant of that stall and then remembering.

However, they don't show similar reactions if a horse is simply removed. They may show signs of missing them, but not of grief. I have definitely seen more extreme misery expressed by horses when the deceased animal died on the property. So, maybe they understand something.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Can you ride a blind horse?

Horses can and do suffer from vision loss. This can be bilateral or unilateral.

A blind horse is not completely useless. You can certainly ride a blind horse in an arena or on all but particularly challenging trails, once they've adapted to their condition. They may, of course, be more spooky.

Blind horses should not be expected to jump or do other tricky obstacles. (Some blind horses can jump, but it's rare). They can be taught to go over most trail obstacles by a specific verbal or tactile cue. Some blind horses, but not all, prefer to follow a sighted companion on the trail.

Many well adapted blind horses do very well at dressage, where they are worked in a level arena and expected to follow the rider's cues exactly. One horse, Valiant, competed successfully at fourth level despite being totally blind. I've also found stories about blind horses running barrels.

Unilaterally blind horses - those blind in one eye - can do anything a fully sighted horse can do, although they may need more help judging when to take off for a jump.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What is an Irish martingale?

I talked a while back about running martingales. An Irish martingale is...literally just a strap with two rings on it that connects the two reins.

The Irish martingale is also sometimes called the semi-martingale. It is most commonly seen on racehorses and its primary purpose is to prevent the reins from going over the horse's head (which can be dangerous) in the event of a fall. Unlike the running martingale, it does not affect the horse's head movement. Thus, it is generally used on horses that won't tolerate the action of the running martingale and, sometimes, by riders that feel martingales interfere with the horse too much.

Irish martingales are also considered a bad idea for dressage as they hold the reins together and prevent some aids from being used.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What is a cooling sheet?

There was a horse show recently and it was quite, quite warm for the time of year and the fact that the horses were starting to grow their winter coats.

So, why were some of them wearing blankets?

A cooling sheet or "cooler", which may be solid or mesh, is designed to wick sweat and moisture away from a horse's skin and help them dry off after exercise or if they're in a situation where they might break out into a sweat (some horses do so when nervous or when on the trailer). They are often called "anti-sweat" sheets in the UK - they don't stop the horse from sweating, but they make sweat more effective by pulling the water away from the skin.

Some show people also use them to keep the horse clean in the time between grooming and getting into the ring.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What is a "string" of horses?

A string of horses is a group of horses owned by the same person or organization and used for the same purpose. So, you can have a string of pack mules, a string of lesson horses, a string of racehorses, etc.

It's an American term - in Britain we tend to talk about having a stable of horses, which makes a certain amount more sense.

Friday, October 23, 2015

When you steal a horse, what's the best way to discourage pursuit?

Thank you +Nobilis Reed for the question.

So, your hero is trying to get out of a sticky situation. He steals one horse from a big stable.

How does he stop the bad guys from grabbing another horse and chasing him? Or at least slow them down?

The first cliche is to set fire to the stable, but this is the hero, we don't want him doing something like that.

The second is to run the horses out - the problem with this is that half of them would just go back to the stalls. (Including, horses sometimes being quite, quite determined to wreck their own survival if he then sets fire to the stable).

So, what could he do?

1. He could sabotage the tack. Most tack in a stable is kept in a tack or harness room. Slashing through the cheek pieces on every bridle in the place would force any pursuer to ride in a halter - a much more challenging proposition. For good measure, he could do the girths as well. (Reins are too easy to jury rig with rope, etc).

2. In a more modern setting, he could run the horses out into a pasture and then padlock the gate and make off with the key. (Many people padlock horse pasture gates on both the latch and hinges end to prevent rustling).

3. He could use a drug, potion, or spell on the remaining horses to make them sluggish, lethargic, or alternatively aggressive and unwilling to be handled.

4. He could feed the horses extra grain - then anyone who rode after him immediately would risk killing the horse. (Of course, this would only work if the bad guys cared about that...)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

How hard is it to mount a horse with only one hand?

Thanks to Lhipenwhite from Absolute Write for the excellent question.

I went to the barn and did a little bit of experimentation. Generally, you do use both hands to mount. However, with practice it would not be that hard to mount with only one hand - providing the hand you had is the one closest to the horse's neck (otherwise you couldn't hold the reins).

So a rider who had lost his right hand would need some practice learning how to mount again, but could manage (except possibly with a giant horse). A rider who had lost his left hand would probably need to mount from the right, normally incorrect, side of the horse. Definitely a detail worth remembering.

Additionally, it is actually harder to learn to dismount without the use of one hand, again, especially on a large horse. Dismounting would be a struggle...but with practice, again, the rider could adapt.

The horse would also need to be trained to neck rein so it could be easily controlled with one hand.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What is malignant hyperthermia syndrome?

Malignant hyperthermia is a muscle condition found mostly in stock horse breeds. The condition is rare - but often the animal appears normal until subjected to either extreme stress or anesthesia. It's most likely seen after the latter.

Then, the heart rate elevates, the body temperature and blood pressure shoot up, the muscles become rigid and, in many cases, the horse dies. It's caused by a gene defect that affects calcium release.

Fortunately, there's now a genetic test for the mutation that causes it, and medication that can be given prior to anesthesia that mitigates the symptoms. They can also use anesthetic agents that are less likely to trigger an attack.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Can horses be bow legged or knock kneed?

Foals are not uncommonly born either bow legged or knock kneed. In fact, newborns are normally one or the other, but they rapidly grow out of it in most cases.

Crooked limbs are more common in twins or premature foals. In some cases the problem is not congenital, but is caused by a play injury or nutritional imbalance. Knock kneed is the most common. Some minor angular limb problems - back at the knee and toeing out are common - can't be corrected but, fortunately, have less of an effect on the animal's problems.

Both knock knees and bow legs are treated the same way. Very minor cases are treated by trimming the hooves in a way which encourages the legs to grow straight. Therapeutic glue-on shoes are also sometimes used. Some foals respond well to physical therapy (I personally don't fancy giving that to a rambunctious foal, but...)

In extreme cases, surgery might be needed - generally periosteal stripping, which is routine and has a very high success rate as long as it's done before the growth plates start to close, setting the legs in their crooked position. This usually means before the foal is three months old. The surgery involves cutting part of the tissue that protects the bone on the "tight" side, which encourages extra growth on that side for the few weeks it takes the periosteum to grow back.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Do horses like mac and cheese?

Eating mac and cheese at the barn - and somebody asked me if horses like it.

The answer is...not so much on the cheese. Dairy products aren't very good for horses - their system isn't meant to take any animal proteins other than milk, and that before weaning, for all that some racing people used to swear by eggs as an equine "pick me up."

The mac part, though? Sure...but they'd prefer it uncooked. Horses love uncooked pasta and it's a great treat for them. In moderation, of course.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What is wry nose?

Wry nose is technically called "deviated rostral maxilla and associated nasal septal deviation."

In layman's terms - it's a crooked muzzle. The upper jaw and nose is turned to one side, while the lower jaw remains straight. This results in breathing difficulties and misalignment of the teeth. Severely affected foals may be unable to nurse from the source and may have to be bottle fed.

It appears not to be genetic, and is suspected to be caused by poor position in the uterus. The first sign is often a difficult birth - the twisted nose can be severe enough to get caught in the birth canal. Some foals with wry nose also have other deformities, including cleft palate.

Mild cases often don't need treatment. Severe wry nose is treated with surgery in modern times, but it's expensive and doesn't always result in an animal that has normal appearance and function. Some foals with a severe deformity can die because they can't breathe well enough. However, when the surgery is successful you sometimes can't even tell there was ever a problem.

Skull of a horse with fairly severe wry nose. Source: Malcolm Morley via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Does polydactyly exist in horses?

We've all heard of "Hemingway" cats with extra toes. Does it happen in horses?

Yes, if rarely. Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus, was supposed to be polydactyl.

In the early 1900s a horse called Norfolk Spider had extra, vestigial hooves on both front feet. He had a common form of equine polydactyly, in which an extra toe grows from the splint bone (which is what's left of a toe) on the inside or outside. Extra hooves also sometimes depend from the fetlock.

These days, extra digits are generally surgically removed, as they cause nothing but problems for the animal. Some, however, are so vestigial they may not be noticed, especially on horses that carry a lot of feather.

If you encounter a mention of a "horned" horse in literature, it means one with extra toes not a horse with a horn (although some horses do have highly vestigial horns). In some cases, this caused confusion and people thinking the "horned" horse was, in fact, a unicorn.

Extra toes are more common on the front feet than the hind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What is lordosis?

Lordosis is also called sway back. It can be the result of a birth defect or can develop later in life. The obvious symptom is a deep dip in the back - but surprisingly, horses with lordosis often perform normally (although fitting a saddle to them can be challenging). In other species, this level of spinal deformity would result in disability.

The difference is that a swaybacked horse still had a spine that follows a more or less smooth path, meaning the spinal cord isn't affected.

Congenital lordosis is genetic. Lordosis in older horses is most often caused by a long, weak back that eventually dips under the stress of work or, in the case of mares, carrying foals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

What is patellar luxation?

More common in dogs, patellar luxation is when the kneecap - which in horses is the stifle joint - isn't located quite where it's supposed to be.

In equines, it's caused by a recessive gene that's most common in Shetlands and miniature horses (probably coming from the Shetlands, as they're often used to breed miniatures). The symptoms are an unwillingness to flex the stifle and stiffness in the rear, sometimes to the point of the foal crouching.

The prognosis, even with surgery, is poor - affected foals seldom have an athletic career and some people may have them euthanized. (Although given the small size of most of the affected animals, a good proportion end up as pets).

Monday, October 12, 2015

What is parrot mouth?

Parrot mouth is a term used for an overshot jaw in horses. The overshoot, when severe, often resembles a parrot's beak when the lips are pulled back.

In general, it's not visible in newborns, but becomes apparent between 1 and 6 months of age. It's not directly heritable, and is as often caused by trauma or illness stunting growth of the lower jaw as by genetics. When caused by genetics, it's a result of breeding horses with very different skull shapes together, rather than a faulty gene.

Parrot mouth can be very minor or it can result in the incisors not meeting at all. This causes the incisors not to be worn down properly and then grow into the opposite jaw (as can sometimes happen with rabbits). They can also restrict the normal forward and background motion of the jaw, which causes problems eating and interfers with the action of the bit. It's also common for there to be problems further back in the mouth.

Parrot mouth is fixed by specialist dental care while the horse is still growing. This can, in severe cases, include braces. (Yup. Braces for a horse - but they're very expensive and not all breeders can afford them). If not treated it can shorten the animal's life by increasing tooth wear.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why would a foal's eyes run constantly?

There are several reasons why a foal might have tears running from its eyes constantly - including an infection or allergies (Yes, horses can have runny eyes from allergies, including to pollen and, worst of all, hay).

Another possibility is "atresia of the nasal puncta" which is another way of saying the tear duct between the eye and the nose is blocked. (I had a dog with this). It's uncommon in horses, but far from unknown. These days it can be fixed with simple surgery - the vet will apply anesthetic and then make an appropriate hole.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Can horses have a cleft palate?

Yes - the symptom being milk draining from the nostrils.

It usually affects the soft palate, and sometimes the hard palate. Cleft lip does occur, but is rare. Pneumonia is common in affected foals, and they tend not to thrive. (Very mild cases, however, are sometimes not detected for weeks or months).

The cure is surgical repair, which is a major surgery that tends to take forever to heal. It's harder to treat in horses than in humans and dogs because a horse's mouth doesn't open very wide. The prognosis is guarded even in the best cases, and even those that survive tend not to be fit for showing and competing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What is SCID?

SCID is Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. It's a defect found in Arabians (and horses with a lot of Arabian breeding). The foals appear normal as long as they get colostrum, but later prove to have no immune system, for all intents and purposes (they are unable to produce key white cells). They usually don't survive more than, at most, six months. The symptoms initially resemble any one of the minor infections common in foals, and conclusive diagnosis requires blood tests.

SCID is a recessive defect and there's now a genetic test to detect carriers. So, it's possible to avoid by not breeding two carriers together.

There's no treatment, let alone cure.

Image source: Montanabw via Wikimedia commons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Can horses have club feet?

Horses have a disorder that is called club foot. It's a deformity of the coffin joint - the joint in side the hoof - which results in an uprighthoof with long heels and a prominent coronary band - the top of the hoof sticks out.

Club foot is actually quite common in horses and can be congenital or acquired. If its acquired it's sometimes caused by an imbalanced diet and excessive exercise, or by an injury in young foals. The foal's diet should not have too much energy content (in some cases, club foot corrects itself on weaning, indicating the mare's diet is the problem). Club foot can cause permanent lameness and secondary conditions as the horse matures.

Treatment generally consists of limiting the foal's exercise (not fun for foal or owner) and adjusting the shape of the foot with a therapeutic trim. These days it's also common to give an intravenous antibiotic which has a side effect of relaxing tendons - this can cause the foot to drop back into a normal position. The limb is also often wrapped. In extreme cases, they may partially cut the check ligament. Adult horses with club foot often require special shoes and pads, and seldom perform well.

Severe club foot on a Quarab mare. Image source: Eadgyth via Wikimedia commons.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What is entropion?

Entropion is a deformity of the eyelid in which the skin folds inward and brings the eyelashes into contact with the cornea, causing eye irritation and potential vision damage. (It also occurs in humans, cats, and dogs - it's particularly common in short nosed dog breeds).

In horses it is seen most often in newborn foals as a congenital defect (but it sometimes develops in adults that have had a chronic eye problem). It's a hereditary problem, although generally not considered worth culling otherwise good lines. The most obvious symptom is excessive tearing. Usually, it's treated by suturing between the skin and the eyelid to pull the eyelid into a normal position, although sometimes more complex surgery is required. An antibiotic eye ointment might also be needed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What is meconium?

Meconium is the first manure a newborn foal produces. It's all the crap the foal swallowed while in the uterus, and it builds up in the colon - it's not expelled until birth. (All mammal infants produce meconium, including humans).

However, horses are more prone to difficulty passing the meconium (in humans, this is often the first sign of cystic fibrosis). Because horses are more prone to impaction in general, meconium impaction is pretty common, especially in colts. It's so common that some breeding farms just give a warm water enema to every single foal without waiting to see if they're having problems. The enema used is usually soapy water with a bit of mineral oil or lube. And, of course, giving a foal an enema is not exactly an easy task and has to be done very carefully.

The worst problem is that sometimes these foals lose their appetite, and end up dehydrated or don't drink the colostrum (essential for immune system health). Rarely, surgery is necessary.

Meconium is dark hard pellets, whilst a foal's "milk" manure is yellow and rather runny.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What is locoweed?

Locoweed is not one specific plant, but it's one of a number of species that produce a toxin called swainsonine. It's also called crazyweed.

As you would expect from the name - locoweed poisoning makes horses (and other livestock)...crazy. Specifically, it makes them depressed and withdrawn, although some animals may become anxious or even violent. Locoweed also causes malnutrition because the animals become too lethargic to bother to eat and often lose their sense of direction, and it can cause irregular gait, loss of libido, and infertility - including miscarriages. Birth defects are often common.

Some animals recover, but permanent neurological damage is not uncommon and horses that are "loco" are often no longer useful as working animals - and may be sterile. Also, for some reason, an animal that's sampled locoweed once tends to go back to it. The stuff is apparently tasty. There's no treatment for it, either - the only solution is to keep animals away from it, especially if there's no other good forage. It is possible to spray with modern herbicides.