How well do you know your horses? Researchers have been discovering some interesting things about our equine friends. Neil Clarkson reports.
Hay’s OK, but where’s the really tasty stuff?
Horses have eaten hay for about a thousand years, ever since we figured out how to make the stuff. With all that munching, you’d think it would rank as their firm favourite – behind a nice paddock of grass, of course.
But Dr Cecilia Müller and Dr Peter Udén from the Swedish University of Agricultural Science in Uppsala have found that horses actually prefer baleage.
Plastic-wrapped baleage is the end result of fermenting grass in the absence of oxygen – a process called ensiling.
Horses in the study were given free choice of a moister mix of baleage, a dryer mix of baleage, and hay.
The moister baleage went down the hatch first, followed by the dry mix. The hay was a sorry last in the preference stakes.
Before you sell your hay and buy in baleage, remember you can feed too much of a good thing. Baleage must be good quality, with the poor stuff carrying a risk of clostridial poisoning. It’s acidic and is best fed along with hay. Introduce any feed change gradually.
The need for speed
A fuss unfolded in Britain over research by scientists at the University of Edinburgh that suggested spending lots of money on racehorse stud fees may not bring the rewards people might expect.
The researcher suggested up to 90% of a horse’s lifetime winnings can be attributed to how the horse is reared, trained and ridden. Only 10 per cent was put down to its parentage.
The researchers compared the stud fees, winnings and lifetime earnings of more than 4000 horses used for racing and breeding since 1922.
Dr Alastair Wilson put it this way: “The offspring of expensive stallions might tend to win more money, but not necessarily because they have inherited the best genes.
“It is likely that those breeders best able to pay high stud fees are also those who are able to spend more on care of the horse, how it is trained, and who rides it – all of which will contribute more to how much it will win.”
British breeders argued about the outcome – but many would think that 10% coming from breeding still counts for a lot, in any case.
Nevertheless, there is a clear take-home message: paying higher stud fees does not necessarily buy access to the best genes around. The thoroughbred yearling in your back paddock with lesser-known bloodlines could still be a Group One winner …
Danger lurks in the dung
Horse owners have just been given one more reason to compost their animal’s manure – antibiotic-resistant genes.
Researchers at Colorado State University found that composting reduces the number of antiobiotic-resistant genes.
Assistant Professor Amy Pruden-Bagchi showed that drug-resistant DNA is an environmental contaminant.
Apparently, even if cells carrying antibiotic-resistant genes have been killed, some of their DNA still winds up in the environment just waiting to find its way into other living cells.
Pruden-Bagchi says these genes are a major health concern and we need to get composting to kill them.
The magical powers of lucerne
Anyone who cashed in their gold bullion over summer and invested the money in lucerne hay would be doing very nicely about now.
They might be about to add another couple of dollars to each bale with recent news that lucerne hay has been found to combat stomach ulcers in horses.
Stomach ulcers are a common problem in performance horses. Up to 90% of racehorses and more than 50% of arena performance horses have ulcers of varying severity.
Feeding grain, confinement, exercise and stress are thought to cause them. Affected horses don’t eat as well or work as well as healthy horses.
Researchers from Texas A&M University, in a study involving 24 quarter horses, found feeding lucerne to horses with high-performance potential either prevented stomach ulcers or was helpful in treating them.
“Something in alfalfa [lucerne] hay tends to buffer acid production,” said Dr Pete Gibbs, extension horse specialist at the university.
“Based on what we know right now – for horses that are kept in confinement, eating feed and getting forced exercise – it makes sense to consider some alfalfa as part of their diet,” he said.
How much? About 500g after a meal of grain, he suggested.
Riding hats take on akubras
Hardened Aussie stockmen work on their horses in the toughest of conditions, battling the searing Outback heat. It’s hard to imagine a stockman without his trusty wide-brimmed Aussie hat, called an akubra.
The stockman’s image took a bit of a knock, however, when some of the larger pastoral companies decided their stockmen should be wearing riding helmets when out on the range.
Some felt they were uncomfortable and hotter than their regular akubra.
A little science was called for. Researchers at the University of Wollongong stepped up and ran a study which involved, among other things, exercise and heat lamps beating down on the heads of stockmen in hot laboratory conditions.
It was pretty much a draw, with one particular helmet, the Aussie 21, keeping heads at pretty much the same temperature as the akubra.
The only remaining question is where to hang the corks on a riding helmet.
The trouble with pooping in the great outdoors
Scientists have been busy collecting horse dung along the first 400m stretch of the Lower Piney River rail in western Colorado.
About 500 horses poop their way along this stretch of the trail each year.
The dung samples were lovingly nurtured as only scientists can and the horrible truth emerged – in the form of 564 seedlings covering some 20 plant species.
Some 85% of the seedlings were described as “alien”, which sounds terribly worrying, but pretty much means weeds.
Their conclusion: horses have the potential to disperse a large number of seeds from a wide variety of plant types. Horses needn’t feel picked upon, however. Car and motorbike tyres, as well as the fur and digestive tracts of other animals, also do a pretty good job in spreading weed seeds.
For the record, an average of 47 seedlings emerged per sample, with one managing 192 plants!
Jet-setting horses know how to beat jetlag
Forget about first class and those fancy reclining seats with all the leg room. No matter what creature comforts you pay for, the horse in the freight hold will still be better off than you.
Horses are better at coping with jetlag than people, a study at the University of Kentucky in Lexington reveals.
With jet lag, it’s not just the length of the journey that’s important. A key factor is the rapid crossing of multiple time zones. Jet-lagged humans suffer from disturbed sleep patterns, loss of appetite, lack of concentration and lethargy.
Dr Barbara Murphy and her colleagues took some healthy horses and messed about with the light/dark cycle in their barn to simulate jetlag.
They found levels of the hormone melatonin, a key driver of the body’s daily rhythms, reset much quicker in horses than it did in humans or rodents.
We simply have to accept that horses make better international jetsetters than we do.
Your horse nose best
A United States horse trainer is showing the world that scent-detecting horses can take their place alongside dogs in search and rescue operations.
Terry Nowacki, of Minnesota, has been running courses for the last seven years showing how horses can be trained to follow scents – anything from people to narcotics.
“It works so good it is unbelievable,” says Nowacki, who recently completed a course for search and rescue personnel in British Columbia, Canada.
Nowacki, a horseman with 48 years of experience, says riders generally take more training than the horses. Horses quickly learn through reward-based training what to do, but up to 80% of the effort goes into teaching the riders.
“To horses this is just a game,” he says. “They have known all their lives how to follow scents. What we do is show people how to read the signs and allow the horse to follow the scent.
“The reason it hasn’t caught on is that people don’t understand how to read the horse correctly. This is the whole key to it.”
Nowacki says it is important to distinguish between ground scent, which the likes of bloodhounds are trained to follow, and air scent, which is the horse’s forte.
“In traditional horsemanship, we make them do what we want,” he says, pointing out that riders of air-scenting horses need to drop their reins and let the horse get on with the job. “It kind of goes away from traditional horsemanship.”
Horses in normal conditions have an effective scent range of up 60m, more than enough for finding people alongside forest trails, or in long grass or brush. The range can be nearly 400m in ideal conditions.
As easy as 1,2,3
A study in Britain proves horses can count as well as 10-month-old infants.
Researchers allowed horses to watch plastic apples being placed out of sight in buckets. The horses were then given a choice and found to opt for the bucket holding the most apples.
The researchers, from the University of Essex, used fake apples to ensure horses weren’t making the judgment through smell.
Dr Claudia Uller and Jennifer Lewis used 57 untrained horses belonging to local owners and a riding school for their experiment.
“The result absolutely proves that horses are more intelligent than people think,” says Dr Uller, who enjoys horse riding.
She says the ability may have an evolutionary origin, with the option of going for more food possibly being a trait hardwired into the brains of all animals.
“It’s a very basic, rudimentary capacity,” she says of horses. “An obvious question is whether they’re going for more numbers, or more something else, say mass or density.”
Those who know horses might think greed plays a pretty big part.
Eat here, eat there
Horses prefer to fossick about for their food – even in their stables. That’s what Dr Debbie Goodwin found in her study of horse eating habits.
Most stabled horses are given hay in only one place, she points out. This limits their natural patch-grazing behaviour.
How would they behave if they had a choice of locations, she wondered?
Dr Goodwin and colleagues conducted a small series of trials to evaluate what stabled horses did if given the chance to choose between two locations – one providing a single forage source and the other multiple forage sources.
The horses tended to spend more time in the stable with the multiple forages, some moving between the stables several times.
The trial was repeated, this time using the horses’ favourite forage as the single offering in one stable. Even though their favourite was available, horses still moved from one stable to the other.
The researchers suggest that this may indicate horses are motivated to move between foraging locations regardless of the tastiness of what’s on offer. They decided it may be beneficial for horses to offer them a variety of forages in different places.
There you have it: the way to make your horse happy is to provide a full buffet service.
The magic of mint?
Could garden mint play a part in fighting laminitis? British researchers are running a trial to see if agents in the herb could be useful in treating the crippling and painful disease.
The research, funded by The Horse Trust in Britain, and is being led by Professor Sue Fleetwood-Walker, who is no stranger to mint research.
Mint-based products have long been used for pain relief, and its properties were well known in Greek and Chinese medicine.
Professor Fleetwood-Walker’s earlier research found that cooling chemicals which have the same properties as mint oil had powerful pain-killing effects when applied to the skin and were likely to prove ideal for patients with chronic pain who found conventional painkillers ineffective.
Mint oil and related chemical compounds acted through a recently discovered receptor – a protein capable of binding with these chemicals – found in a small percentage of nerve cells in the human skin.
Heat your home with poop power
Could your horse manure heat your home? Sigrid Kusch and colleagues at the University of Hohenheim in Germany have been investigating the methane-producing potential of horse dung.
They found they could ferment the manure to produce gas, which could be used for heating.
Their laboratory study used small-scale digesters, each holding about 50 litres of straw and dung. It was successful and they worked out that a larger-scale operation could produce 20 cubic metres of biogas for every cubic metre of dung.
And let’s not forget the dung gets to heat you twice: first, when you collect it by shovel in your paddock and then when you burn the gas.
Mounting blocks help your horse
Michigan researchers created a saddle pad with an array of pressure sensors and set about seeing what forces were exerted on a horse’s back when a rider gets on.
Measurements were taken as 10 experienced riders mounted the horse. The same horse was used in all cases, with a properly fitting saddle.
Unsurprisingly, heavier people exerted more pressure on the back when getting on.
The pressure was found to be considerably lower in all cases when riders used a mounting block.
Dr Hilary Clayton and her colleagues at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine recommended heavier riders use a mounting block wherever possible, even if they considered themselves quite agile.
The study showed that the horse’s withers played a big part in stabilising the saddle as the rider mounts. There was a marked downward force in the left stirrup as the riders right leg swung upwards.
Interestingly, the forces recorded during mounting were actually slightly lower than those recorded when the horse was ridden at a walk, and much lower than during cantering.
However, the forces experienced during mounting are asymmetrical – concentrating the pressures on localised areas at the right side of the withers.
Riders blame themselves
Recent Australian research into eventing accidents over a five-year period found that most riders blame themselves for falls.
Denzil O’Brien and Raymond Cripps, both from Research Centre for Injury Studies at Adelaide’s Flinders University, asked riders to fill out a questionnaire about the circumstances surrounding each mishap.
Among the 611 riders who felt their fall was preventable, 90% put the mishap down to their own riding.
The 10% who blamed other factors put their accident down to poor course or jump design, spectator distraction, illness, the weather, and equipment failure. One uncharitable rider even suggested their horse was too fat.
The ultimate showdown
Horse owners like to think they know what they’re doing in making breeding decisions, but are they smarter than the forces of nature?
In a kind of unofficial experiment, 13 wild horses have been plucked from obscurity in Western Australia and now find themselves living in air-conditioned stables in Dubai, complete with personal grooms, where they are being trained to compete in endurance.
The animals were selected by Alan Post, who is the personal Australian veterinarian to Dubai’s deputy ruler, Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Post found a website built by Broome woman Libby Lovegrove to alert the world to the plight of wild horses in the broad expanses of the Kimberley.
Lovegrove’s research showed many of the horses in the area were descended from Arab bloodlines brought to the district in the 1930s by priests of the Balgo and Kalumburu missions, who planned to breed and sell them.
Thoroughbred and andalusian bloodlines are also in the wild mix.
Post captured 13 horses around the Lake Gregory area and they are now in training for what many will see as the ultimate showdown: whether generations of natural selection in the tough wilderness of Western Australia is any match for generations of selective breeding choices made by people.
Forget the ‘evil eye’ theory
Your horse refuses to be caught in its paddock. Did you make eye contact?
Sarah Verrill and Sue McDonnell, from the University of Pennsylvania, decided to check out the whole eye-contact question.
A total of 104 horses and ponies were approached for catching at pasture by the same human handler in a standard manner, maintaining human-to-animal eye contact in half the cases and avoiding it in the other half. They repeated a similar exercise three weeks later but in reverse order.
In the end, they found no real difference. “Human-to-horse eye contact may not be an important influence on catching pastured horses,” they said.
In other words, if your horse doesn’t want to be caught, no amount of eyeballing is going to make any difference.
Monkey see, monkey do
Stabled horses are in danger of learning bad behaviour from their neighbours, a study reveals.
Stabling a horse next to one that’s cribbing, wind-sucking, weaving or box walking can increase the likelihood of similar behaviour in the other, the study involving 287 horses at nine Hungarian riding schools found.
Such behaviours are seen are in up to 5% of horses.
Head author Krisztina Nagy said these bad habits are difficult to change once established, so need to be nipped in the bud.
The solution is not always easy – simply moving away a troublesome horse can increase their social isolation and make matters even worse.
“This process is reversible by environment enrichment, but only at early life,” she said.
Feel the rhythm of the beat
A British study on 526 race-fit thoroughbreds found that those with heart murmurs did not appear to perform any differently to those without.
The study, led by Dr Lesley Young, an equine cardiologist in Suffolk, explored whether “cardiac valvular regurgitation” negatively impacted on race performance.
Cardiac murmurs associated with valvular regurgitation are common in conditioned performance horses but their association with athletic performance is unknown.
The 526 thoroughbreds used in the study were engaged in both flat and jump racing, over distances from 1000m to 6400m. The horses underwent testing of their cardiac and race performances.
The researchers found no pattern to suggest the heart murmurs affected how well they ran.
HelmET, phone home
From our Bright Ideas Department comes the effort of Brycen Spencer, who has developed a helmet that automatically calls for help if the wearer is knocked unconscious.
His new technology has been built into motorcycle helmets so far, but there is nothing to stop its adaptation to horse riding helmets.
The engineering student at the University of Massachusetts believes the innovation could help save the lives of many outdoor sports enthusiasts involved in accidents each year.
His Wireless Impact Guardian, or WIG, signals for help even when the wearer is unconscious.
The helmet is activated when you buckle or clip it on. “If you fall and hit your head, the helmet will detect that and beep for a minute or so,” he explains. “If you don’t turn it off, WIG sends for help, either directly to [emergency services] or to a third-party service that relays the emergency call.
“Included with the message will be a GPS location giving your geographical coordinates so the emergency team knows precisely where you are.”
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in August, 2008.