Friday, July 28, 2017

Do horses smile?

Sort of. Horses have a facial expression that resembles a smile - and is sometimes taught as a trick.

However, an equine "smile" with the teeth visible and the upper lip curled is actually the flehmen response, which a horse does to get a better sniff, particularly of another horse. It does not mean the horse is happy.

In fact, an actual horse "smile" - which any regular rider can identify - is the ears either softly pricked forward or tilted back, depending on where their attention is, and a softness around the eyes and jaws.

This horse is relaxed, happy, and interested in the camera - or, more likely, the possibility of treats.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

How many facial expressions do horses have?

A remarkably high number - 17 discrete expressions have been identified. This is three more than chimpanzees, but fewer than humans (27).

Which means they can be quite communicative with those long faces.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How do you weigh a horse?

Horses are big animals that can range from under 800 pounds to over 2,000. How do you weigh them? I mean, where do you find a scale that big?

The answer to the latter is rural weighbridges, but not many horse people have access to those. In fact, horses are generally "weighed" as a calculated estimate based on the heart girth (immediately behind the elbow and withers) and sometimes the length. Also, very experienced horse people can often eyeball a horse's weight with surprising accuracy. (And no, height is not in there).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why do horses like sweet things?

Horses have a sweet tooth - but why? It's because the freshest grass with the highest nutritional value is also the sweetest.

(Needless to say, horses should not get too many sweets).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Can horses tell men and women apart?

Likely, yes. In particular, horses are definitely going to notice if a woman handling them is menstruating (although it doesn't seem to bother a properly trained domestic horse much). They have a good sense of smell and are very good at reading body language.

Some horses do appear to be prefer to be handled and ridden by one sex over the other.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Can horses hold grudges?

Yup. It's common belief that horses don't understand delayed consequences and therefore won't stay "mad" with their handlers, but this is not entirely true. (Actually, it's that given the communication barrier between the species, horses tend to assume that they are in trouble for the most recent thing they did).

I've had a horse grump at me for an entire ride because they were annoyed that I made them walk out of the barn on their own, or otherwise do something they didn't want to do. And they definitely remember people who didn't treat them well (and people who did). So, yup, they can hold a grudge. How long, well...that depends.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What is the guttural pouch?

The barn I ride at just had to get rid of a new pony because he turned out to be a chronic strangles carrier.

This happens when the bacteria gets into the guttural pouch, from which it is nearly impossible to extract using antibiotics. You and I don't have guttural pouches - they are found in equines, rhinoceri and tapirs, as well as in some bats, hyraxes and one species of mouse. They connect the middle air to the pharynx. So, they're kind of part of the inner air.

The purpose of the guttural pouch is to cool the brain during extreme exercise - a useful adaptation for a being that relies on running for defense. But when it becomes infected, it can be very hard to treat.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Why are most male racehorses not gelded?

Two reasons.

The first is to give them a chance to prove their worth through actual performance.

The second is that the natural aggression of intact males can be channeled through training to give them a stronger desire to win (geldings, on the other hand, tend to perform more reliably).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Can two horses pull more than twice as much as one horse?

It depends. An experienced team (pair) that gets along well and is trained correctly can pull well over twice what each horse can pull separately.

A green or ill-matched team can't pull much more what one of them can as they get in each other's way.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What is a "prophet's thumbprint"?

A prophet's thumbprint is an indentation in a horse's neck, most often found in Arabians. It is associated by the Bedouin with unusual loyalty and trainability - most likely the trait was found in a genetic line that was particularly good and became associated with it. However, it's still thought to be lucky by some people.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Can you get a horse to open its mouth by pinching its nostrils?

I've seen this in books too.

No, you can't. Horses do not have a cross-connection between the windpipe and the esophagus like we do. They cannot breathe (or vocalize) through their mouths. You make them open their mouth by sliding your thumb into the bare gum between their molars and incisors and pressing gently.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Are ponies actually evil?

No, the nasty mark on my chin was not caused by a human punching me. It was caused by a pony...

There are all sorts of sayings about ponies being evil. My favorite is this one:

"The closer to the ground, the closer to..."

You can guess which word I'm redacting there.

Here's the thing about ponies.

Ponies are not as genetically altered from wild stock as horses. This has its good aspects - they live longer, tend to be healthier, can carry or pull quite a bit more weight in proportion to their size, often have better hooves, etc.

However, they also tend to be just a tiny bit less...uh...cooperative in natural personality. And many of them seem (I stress seem) to have a wicked or even actively malicious sense of humor.

What happens then is that because of their small size they are often given to children to ride and handle. No matter how talented, children will never have the perseverance, maturity, emotional control or experience of adults (Yes, I know some teenagers who are more mature than many adults, but the smallest ponies are being dealt with by pre-teens).

If the adults around aren't on the ball and working with the kids, then it can rapidly degenerate into a situation where the pony is in charge - and you've created "a monster that will not obey."

A spoiled horse is bad. A spoiled pony is terrible - and there are far more spoiled ponies. Ponies need to be fairly regularly handled, and if large enough ridden, by adults so they don't think they can get away with, oh, I don't know...

...pulling people off over their head by the reins. (I was actually surprised he was strong enough to get me that way - usually I laugh when they do that :P).

And sometimes, of course, they get away with stuff, like little dogs, because they're just this cute. (Neither of those two are evil to my knowledge).

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Do jumping horses know not to knock the fences over?

Definitely. Horses are very good at picking up when their rider is pleased and displeased. And, of course, hitting a pole is kind of annoying. A good jumping horse will do his level best to leave all the poles in place.

Of course, I swear some horses knock them over on purpose...

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What can you do with hoof parings?

Not much. The only thing I've ever seen them actually be good for is chew toys for the barn dog, and a lot of people don't think that's a good idea either. They tend to throw them back up.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why do some horses chew their buddy's tail?

It's a big problem - a horse comes in with its tail chewed up, and a pasturemate is responsible. Why do they do this?

It's a bad habit that's most commonly caused by boredom. It's most common in foals (who get bored easily), but definitely happens in adults. The culprit I know is old and retired. It can also mean they need a mineral supplement. It can be cured by separation (except that can cause other bad habits) or putting something foul tasting on the oh-so-tasty tail. You can identify the culprit usually - the only one without a chewed tail (although the one I know only chews the tail of one of his pasturemates...for some reason. That one *points down*. Poor CeCe...

Friday, July 7, 2017

Are horses ticklish?

They can be - and it can be quite annoying when trying to groom them. Horses are most often ticklish around their flanks and under the belly.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Where do movie horses come from?

A lot of people think that there are big ranches where movie horses hang out between films. This used to be true in the heyday of the western, but it's no longer quite true.

While some of the horses you see in movies are owned by the "livestock coordinator" - the person hired to make sure the movie or TV show gets the horses they need - these are mostly elite trick or stunt horses. Stunt horses in particular are extremely valuable. And yes, there are a few ranches. The Devils' Horsemen in Buckinghamshire provides the horses for Game of Thrones - and when not filming the horses give lessons, mostly to actors. The Dent family also has a big ranch, in Hertfordshire - the biggest. And yes, those are in England.

The majority are not. In some cases horses may be purchased for a production and then sold afterwards (resulting in those feel-good stories about the actor or stuntman who bought the horse they were working with - these horses don't generally end up in bad places if sold as they're by definition good tempered and if they weren't bombproof before...) TV shows that need horses for season upon season generally do buy their horses. Mr Ed, for example, was played by two horses - Bamboo Harvester was the actual actor (who was trained to move his mouth on cue by using his favorite treat) and Pumpkin was the horse's body double.

It's more common, though, for these horses to be leased or rented for the production. If a producer needs a horse that can carry a 70 year old actor who can't really ride for a scene or two, then the wrangler is likely to call up a lesson barn or dude ranch and borrow a horse. (I knew a lesson horse who also did quite a bit of film work). Horses for racing scenes might be rented from trainers. The 1969 western Undefeated required 2,500 horses - the most ever - and the majority of them were rented from local ranches. Some "specialty" stunt horses are also owned by private individuals.

Finally, sometimes a production will put out a call for mounted extras - in this case, the riders bring their own horses. This is more common for very simple scenes or, for example, if filming at a horse show then the other riders may be local show people.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Why do sleighs have bells?

"Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way..."

Sleigh harnesses traditionally have bells on them - why? It's actually for a very obvious reason. A horse on soft snow pulling a sleigh doesn't always make enough noise for people to hear them coming.

And, of course, tradition.

Note the bells on the saddle there. (Image source Pete Markham via Wikimedia Commons).

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Do horses like watermelon?

It's hot - and I want some watermelon. Horses, as it happens, also quite like watermelon (and aren't bothered by the seeds). In fact, given their dentition and digestion, horses will eat and enjoy the rind. So...time to share!

Monday, July 3, 2017

Can horses manage with three legs?

Not really. Dogs and cats can both survive fine in captivity with a missing leg - it's harder for cats.

Horses, because they are designed to be on their feet all the time, can't. A three legged horse requires a prosthetic to survive. Because this is extremely expensive, it's not always an option - and some horses can't recover. (Minis, because of their smaller size, often have a better chance). 3D printing has made equine prosthetics much easier to make and fit. Hind end prosthetics are easier than front end.

Horses with a prosthetic leg generally can't carry the weight of a rider or work. So, it's only generally done when the animal is a beloved pet. Mares suitable for breeding are also candidates - although they can't often carry the weight of the foal, embryo transfer is routine in horses.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What eye colors can horses have?

Most horses have brown eyes. If lack of skin pigmentation includes the eye, then the eye can be wholly or partly blue (parti-colored eyes are also seen in some species of dogs). This can also lead to heterochromia (one brown eye, one blue).

Blue eyes are also seen on double dilutes. Single dilutes - buckskins and palominos - often still have brown eyes, but they are lighter in color.

The champagne gene turns the eye blue-green at birth and hazel or amber at maturity. Paso Fino horses also carry a gene that produces an amber eye.

Green eyes are extremely rare in horses. They are found in horses that carry the pearl gene (a rare dilute gene) and very, very rarely on homozygous cream or cream and champagne - but in all these instances the eye is more commonly blue, amber, or hazel.

Normal brown eye (source AnemoneProjectors via Wikimedia Commons).

Blue eye on a paint horse (Source: Kalike via Wikimedia Commons).

And a hazel eye. The mottled skin is another clue that this horse is a champagne. (Source AnemoneProjectors via Wikimedia Commons).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Is there such a thing as a "long haired" horse?

Not the way there are long haired cats or dogs. Some breeds grow longer and shaggier winter coats than others, but pretty much all horses have fairly short fur.

However, there IS a long-haired breed of donkey, called the Poitou, which has dreadlocks similar to those seen on Puli dogs. The long-haired trait is dominant so it shows up in part breds. It does not, however, show up in mules bred from Poitou donkeys.

A Poitou donkey with a full coat. Image source Remi Jouan via Wikimedia commons.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How do horses "know" when to grow their winter coat?

Horse people joke that horses can tell when it's going to be a bad winter and grow more fur. That's not true, although it sometimes seems to be.

The actual trigger is light levels - which is why show horses kept under lights don't grow as thick a winter coat (this is often desirable in horses that are working hard through the winter, as otherwise you have to start shaving them so they don't overheat). Horses grow their winter coat when the days get shorter and shed it when they get longer again.

Actual winter coat length is dependent on light levels (which happen to nicely equate to temperature) and genetics - some horses will grow almost no winter coat and others become very shaggy when kept in the same conditions. Thoroughbreds and Arabians (and some Quarter Horses with a lot of TB or Arabian blood) tend to grow very thin coats, whilst ponies, like this Shetland, get very fuzzy indeed.

Image source: Miles Wolstenholme via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Are there any hairless horses?

There are no "hairless" horse breeds (like, for example, sphinx cats). However, the Bashkir Curly breed, which has a curly coat, can sometimes be close to hairless in the summer if the animal carries two copies of the gene.

Also, some horses will lose their winter coat before their summer coat grows all the way in, resulting in bald patches.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Are any horses naturally tailless?

Rarely. There is one Austrian Thoroughbred stallion, Shellscrape, who was retired from stud duty after 20 percent of his foals were born with shortened, crooked, or missing tails.

However, there is no "bobtail" gene in horses (or draft breeders would have made use of it to produce naturally short tails). A lack of a tail or a shortened tail is symptomatic of a spinal deformity (or it means the tail was cut off either for "tradition" or because it was damaged and had to be amputated). It can be a symptom of spina bifida.

A docked Clydesdale (image source Kersti Nebelsiek via Wikimedia Commons).

Appaloosa horses often have short tails, but the actual tail (the dock) is full length - they just don't grow much in the way of hair on it.

Donkeys are more commonly born with a short or missing tail, and its possible there is a bobtail gene in donkeys, but it has never been bred for if so.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Do riders generally hang onto the reins when they fall?

It's actually a bit of a bone of contention - and the answer is "It depends."

Holding onto the reins during a fall can potentially injure a horse's mouth and poll. It can also result in you getting tangled in the reins and dragged or pulling the horse on top of you.

On the other hand, letting go can result in a loose horse running onto a road or similar.

Most of us are trained to let go unless there's a good reason to keep hold.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What is "jackstock"?

Jackstock is a term donkey breeders use for the best stock that they reserve for making more donkeys (rather than making mules which, particularly with larger breeds, is the most common use for donkeys in the west these days).

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What is a "Jerusalem donkey?"

Most donkeys (except for some breeds, such as the Mammoth Jack, which have had it bred out) have a cross on their backs.

It's a pretty legend that the cross was given to the donkey because he carried Christ to Jerusalem - hence the term "Jerusalem donkey."

The "arm" of the cross is clearly visible on the grey donkey in the foreground. Although the black one likely still has the marking, it is not visible against its much darker coat.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is a "catty" horse?

A "catty" horse is an agile horse that turns quickly - it's normally a term used by cowhands to refer to horses that are able to go after a cow easily. It also implies that the horse is surefooted and less likely to fall.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Do old horses get hard of hearing?

Yup. Age-related hearing loss can start to show up at 15, sometimes younger in horses that are exposed to loud sounds a lot (some show horses and horses used in battle reenactment are at risk - think about this for your writing. Artillery horses are likely to end up deaf!).

They generally compensate pretty well for it, though, and horses are less reliant on high frequencies than some animals, so may not even notice the first stages of hearing loss.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Do horses get ear infections?

Not as much as dogs or cats. Middle ear infections are more common than external ear infections. Horses with an ear infection seldom experience ear drum rupture - unfortunately, this is because the infection tends to go down the long head and into the skull, sometimes causing joint fusion in the jaw (ow) and partial facial paralysis (extra ow).

Fortunately, this is pretty uncommon. Horse ears are generally pretty healthy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Do horses get ear mites?

Ugh, do they. Horses can and do get ear mites, although they are rare. The most common culprit is Psoroptes cuniculi, a mite more commonly found in rabbits (and presumably transmitted by wild rabbits that wander into the pasture).

If a horse does get them, though, it can be a real pain. Because their ears hurt, they don't want to let you near their ears to kill the mites - they often have to be sedated. I know at least one horse who had a major infestation and still doesn't want to let anyone near her ears. And I heard of another that got so ear shy as a result they have to be bridled like a mule!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What is "buttress foot"?

Buttress foot is inflammation of the front of the coronary band, causing pain and eventually effecting the shape of the foot. It can also cause bone chips to develop. Buttress foot is generally caused by excessive strain (such as galloping on hard surfaces) and can also be caused by damage to the tendon in front of the cannon bone. It is more common in the hind feet and is treated by complete rest and sometimes removal of bone chips. Some horses never recover.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What is Potomac Horse Fever?

Something very nasty - it's a bacterial disease that horses sometimes get when pastured next to a body of water.

It's relatively easy to treat, but can be fatal in extreme cases. It causes diarrhea, stomach ache, fever and loss of appetite - so, it's basically stomach flu. It can also cause miscarriage in pregnant mares. There are vaccines, but they are not completely effective (as is common with bacterial diseases). PHF is a new world disease and can also affect dogs and cats, but not humans. It is not directly contagious - it's caused by the horse eating the bacteria along with their grass.

Monday, June 12, 2017

How did they safely have those horses fall on the beach in Wonder Woman?

Stunt horses are well trained - and often they and their riders risk injury. If you watched Wonder Woman, you'll see a couple of horses "die" on the beach.

Traditionally, they used to ride horses into pits and intentionally trip them. Needless to say, this often resulted in injured horses (and sometimes riders). Or they would use something called the "Running W" - again to trip the horse.

In the 1940s, things started to change. Modern stunt horses - "falling horses" are literally trained to go down on command. They normally soften the ground - which might not have been done on the sandy beach, as it was already soft). It's done using a special rein cue.

A trained falling horse is very valuable - not every horse has the combination of athleticism and willingness to do it.

Here's a video of a trick rider practicing the stunt so you can have a better idea how it's done.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Do horses get strokes?

Yes, they can - just the same as humans. Symptoms include an awkward gate, lethargy, difficulty eating, staring into space and difficulty or inability lifting the head.

Just like in humans, some animals recover completely, some have lingering symptoms and some die or have to be euthanized.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What is "contracted foal syndrome"?

Contracted foal syndrome (CFS) is a common birth defect in horses. The affected foals are unable to straighten one or more limbs and may be unable to stand. Some may also have a twisted neck, wry nose or scoliosis. CFS can also cause birth complications. Foals with severe CFS are often euthanized. Those with mild CFS or only one limb affected can recover with surgery or splinting of the affected limb(s).

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Why do horses sleep standing up?

Horses are known for being able to literally sleep on their feet.

It's a trait they share with other large herbivores including elephants, giraffes, moose, rhinos and bisons. Cows can also sleep on their feet, but tend to lie down more than horses do.


Most of the animals (some birds also do it for other reasons) that sleep on their feet are large prey animals. If they were cornered by a predator while lying down, then they might not be able to get up before it was on them (smaller herbivores such as deer have a higher power to weight ratio and can spring to their feet faster).

So, horses mostly sleep standing up, and only lie down to sleep when somebody else is watching - if you watch a herd of horses (or cattle) you might notice that you will almost never see all of them lying down at once.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Can horses sit like a dog?

Yes, but it's not the most natural thing and they don't generally do it unless some human has taught it as a trick. Sometimes old horses might rest in that position for a while while getting up because it's tricky for them to get up in one motion. It can also indicate a neurological problem.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What blood types do horses have?

Humans have A, B, AB and O - what about horses?

Horses have 7 blood types - A, C, D, K, P, Q, and U. That sounds bad enough, but humans only have one factor - Rh - want to guess how many horses have? More than 30! You'd think the omnivores would be more complex ones.

Oh, and they develop antibodies to donkey blood too. Can't be simple, right?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why do dressage arenas have letters?

Because dressage is very precise - the letters are used to help the riders know exactly where to make transitions or aim for.

Correctly, the change of gait should happen as the rider's shoulders reach the letter.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is a daisy cutter?

A daisy cutter is a horse that moves without lifting its feet much off the ground - it's considered a desirable trait in stock horses because it allows for a much more efficient stride at speed. Some Thoroughbreds also "daisy cut."

It can be a problem when the horse is asked to move through deep going, however.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Do horses know their own name?

Yes - many horses can be trained to recognize their own name. However, unlike dogs, they don't get "set" about their name. It's much easier to change it, and I know at least one horse who responds better to her nickname, "Chicken" than to her proper name - because she hears it more often. They will quite quickly get used to a new name.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Can horses open doors?

Oh, can they. Fortunately, it never occurs to most horses to open their stall door - but when one works it out precautions sometimes need to be taken such as changing the latch, adding a clip to hold the latch down, etc. Some horses will even let the entire herd out!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Do horses sleep walk?

No. When horses sleep standing up, which adult horses do most of the time, they actually lock their legs in place so they can't fall over - which also means they can't move. When they lie down they are in REM sleep - and sleepwalking does not occur in that stage of sleep.

So, no, horses can't sleep walk - although they can certainly walk around while dozing - watch pony ride ponies and you'll see some half-lidded eyes because, well, it's not the most interesting job in the world even for a horse.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Do horses get nightmares?

Had to - mostly for the pun. The answer is - probably. Just like us, horses need REM sleep - dreams - to stay healthy.

Of course, we don't know what our horses dream about, but we do know that horses sometimes seem to panic while asleep and wake up shaking - symptoms similar to night terrors in humans. So, we can assume that our horses, just like us, have at least the occasional bad dream. Probably about being chased...

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Do vets sometimes prescribe marijuana to horses?

Actually, marijuana has been used in horse medicine for a long time - it used to be used all the time to treat colic. And there's a growing body of evidence that marijuana can be a good alternative to bute (which eventually wrecks the liver) for chronic pain in horses. It can also be used to stimulate appetite and, in a slightly higher dose, induce sleep (some horses do get insomnia).

There's now a campaign to restore the use of medical marijuana in horses. I'd definitely like to see a study on how it works as a colic treatment or, again, as an alternative to bute.

Why do horses suddenly collapse?

Sometimes a horse will just collapse - and most of the time? Most of the time it's sleep deprivation. Although horses mostly sleep standing up, they need to lie down to dream. If they don't do this at least once every two weeks (normally, they do it every two days) then they can get narcoleptic.

Why do horses get sleep deprived? Anxiety is the most common reason - the horse simply never feels secure enough to lie down to sleep. This is more common in dominant animals (They don't want to leave anyone else watching the herd) and in animals kept completely alone. Other reasons for sleep deprivation in horses include noise pollution (just as with some humans), sleep terrors/nightmares (We don't know what horses dream, but we can see them freak out), muscle or other conditions that make it painful for the horse to lie down and/or get up or being kept in a stall which is too small. In some cases, the departure of the lead mare can cause the entire herd to be sleep deprived until the hierarchy sorts itself out.

Other reasons for horses collapsing include heart problems or narcolepsy.

Sleep deprivation in horses is most often treated with anti-anxiety drugs, but melatonin can help some.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Why did "Thundersnow" refuse to run in the Derby?

If you saw this year's Kentucky Derby, you might note that one of the horses wanted absolutely nothing to do with racing.


While I'm not familiar with the horse, I could tell immediately why the horse refused to compete and tried to toss his jockey. And no, he was not hurt.

The track was basically a swimming pool - it was deep mud - and some horses just won't run on mud. He slipped a bit coming out of the stall and apparently decided that no, he was not risking it. His jockey made the sensible decision not to push the matter.

The ultimate reason: All of the horse's previous dirt track experience was in the UAE. Where, ya know, it doesn't rain very often.

Here's the official video so you can see a horse saying NO with all its might for yourself.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What are windswept legs?

Windswept legs are a deformity of the legs in foals that make the foal look as if he's being blown to one side. It's a rare disorder that affects either both front legs or both hind legs. It's believed to be caused by poor positioning in the womb or inadequate nutrition. Some foals recover on their own, but some require minor surgery to straighten them out.