Friday, December 31, 2010

Waterworks and New Year's Eve Ride

It really warmed up last night to the low 50sF, and it rained overnight and again this morning, so the snow and ice have rapidly vanished.  It's supposed to drop into the 20s overnight, so I took advantage of the thaw after feeding, sheeting and turning out the horses this morning to work on Pie's paddock.  All the old poo piles that had been hidden by the snow were revealed, including some that looked as though they dated back to Blackjack's tenancy.  I was able to remove all the scattered accumulations of old hay, allowing the ice underneath to melt.  I've started a compost pile of old hay in one corner of his paddock - I'd like to use the soil it will produce to improve the footing.  We're also planning on getting a load of pea gravel for the lower end of his paddock in the spring - the drainage at that end is poor and this would raise the ground level and provide good footing as well as varied surfaces to keep his feet healthy.  Since we can't do this now, I did some channel-digging with a hoe to allow the water at the bottom of his paddock to drain, and used a broom to push the water on its way.  That way when things freeze up tonight, he  won't have a lake of ice at the bottom of his paddock.

* * * * * *
After lunch, the rain had eased up so I managed a year-end ride on Pie.  As we were tacking up, Jill arrived to clean her stall and ride Scout.  While she was getting done with her chores and getting Scout ready, Pie and I went on a quick solo trail ride.  We did a lot of trotting away from the barn, and worked a little bit on our softening at the walk as we returned to the barn.  We met up with Scout and did a longer trail ride with a fair amount of trotting.  The limestone trails were very nice as they had thawed.  Pie got to meet two nice, well-behaved dogs and was very interested in saying hello to them.  He and Scout also encountered a piece of trail-grooming equipment by the side of the trail (for cross-country ski trails).  Scout was snorting and Pie was very alert, but approached and sniffed it - brave boy!  After that Scout came up and sniffed it too, and was still keeping an eye on it.  Once Pie had investigated it, he was fine with it.  The only excitement (which was pretty funny) was when Scout mooched a tall grass plant by the side of the trail and pulled the whole thing out by the roots - it whacked him in the belly and he spooked and dropped it.  We got rained on a bit on and off, but since it was so warm that really didn't matter.

Since I got Pie at the end of October, we've had 26 rides, including 7 in December - that's pretty good for our part of the world.  Today would be what I call a good New Year's Eve!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year In Review

2010 was quite the year in my horse world - many changes and developments.  Here's a summary of some of what happened.

In January, the weather shut down any riding.  I started riding Maisie again in March, and did some ground work with Dawn starting in April - I had started doing a little work with Dawn the year before.

I did this post back in April, expressing my doubts about my work with my horses, and the suitability of the horses I had for me at this point in my life - "I'm Losing the Thread . . .".

In June I did this post - "Day of Delight and Mystery" - talking about how my work with Maisie was going - much better - and about finally getting back up on Dawn.  Working with Dawn has been an enormous challenge for me, and not always one I'm sure I'm up to, but we've made some good progress together, step by step (see the post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . " for some of the work Dawn and I have been doing and the challenges this has presented me).

In July I audited a Mark Rashid clinic and learned some new and interesting things - see the sidebar for the clinic write-ups that I did.  I spent a lot of time thinking about where I was in my horsemanship journey, and where I wanted to go and did several posts about that - see the sidebar Steps on the Journey for more about that.

And then at the end of July, I lost my sweet Noble at age 30 after a brief illness.  He was the horse who got me back into riding as an adult, and I owe everything that has come after to him and his sweetness and intelligence.

By August, Dawn and I were really making some good progress in our arena work.  Maisie was on-again/off-again lame and finally in September we determined that the extent of the adhesions and scarring in her hind tendons and ligaments was such that she would never be able to stay in work and reliably sound.  I make the decision to retire her at age 13 to Tennessee to join Lily and Noble at Paradigm Farms.

In September, Dawn ran into a fence and had some minor injuries, and then in October she had a brief lameness episode - probably a tweak in a front leg.  Then in December she somehow managed to cut her tongue.  In between these episodes, we continued to get some good work done.

Once Maisie was retired, I started to think about a new horse - here were my thoughts in early September:  "My Next Horse".  And then I was off on the great horse search, which took a lot of time and effort, and numerous phone calls and several visits to see horses (search the label "horse search" for the extensive and tedious details).

The end result of my search was Pie!  He came home at the end of October.  Since then, we've gotten in more than 25 rides, mostly just getting to know one another, including a fair amount of trail riding.  He's exactly the horse I needed and wanted - smart, mostly calm (although still a very young horse at age four) and sound - and I really like him, more every day.

Now, other than occasional rides on Pie as the weather permits, we're into deep winter here and riding time will be limited until spring.  I'll be waiting to work with and ride Dawn again until the weather permits - the challenges she presents me are best addressed with frequent work sessions to allow us to build consistency and mutual confidence.

I'm sure that 2011 will give me the opportunity to continue to work on my horsemanship, which for me is primarily about my relationship with my horses and learning how we can better work together.  Pie and I have lots to do and enjoy together, and Dawn and I will continue our work and see where it takes us.  In May I'm planning to take two horses to a Mark Rashid clinic.  And I keep thinking about Drifter . . . a horse I looked at and passed on (somebody please slap me! - but use the search box for "Drifter" if you're interested in his story).

A very happy and healthy New Year to all of you and your equine companions!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Late December Ride

Pie and I took advantage of the good weather - sunny, 38F with a wind chill of 31 - to take a ride.  We've only been able to ride 7 times in December so far, and hadn't ridden in almost a week.

We started our ride on the slope behind the barn, doing some figure work with cones.  Then we had our moment of excitement - Pie is still very young: he's only four and can sometimes get scared of things.  We were riding up the aisle between the paddocks on our way to one of the large pastures, when Charisma suddenly appeared out of her shed, rattling her hay feeder in the process.  Pie did a swift rollback followed by springing away into a few steps of bolting.  I was a bit surprised that I stayed on - I was riding in my close contact saddle on a loose rein and there was at least a moment when no part of my seat was in contact with the saddle and I had a passing thought that I might be gone.  But I kept my stirrups and, although I got thrown a bit to one side, kept my balance and stayed with him - I didn't get behind the motion and my stirrup that was taking most of my weight was underneath me.  I was able to ask him to stop after a few steps of his bolt.  Then we turned around and made our way back to the pasture we'd been heading for.  His job out there was to ride the fence line with me - the pasture is about 4 acres or so.  I thought he'd appreciate having a real job to do - we found one fence board that needs repair.

When we were done with that job, we headed past Charisma and her shed again and went back to the slope behind the barn to do more cone work, including a bit of trotting.  I took advantage of his being pretty forward today to start our softening work at the walk.  As they start softening work, sometimes horses which have always been ridden on a loose rein may interpret the ask to soften as an ask to slow or stop.  Since Pie was so forward already, I thought he might do well today and avoid this confusion - I didn't want to use a lot of leg.  He did really well - he got three steps of soft walk very quickly and consistently.  We were in the sidepull today, and I expect everything he learns to translate pretty quickly to riding in the bit.  Due to the work requiring him to use his core, it is very hard physically for him due to having to overcome his usual upside down posture where he hasn't been using his core, so that's all we did today.

Then we went up the trail for a hundred yards or so, stopping from time to time to watch and listen to the children on the sledding hill.  To finish up we went back up the aisle past Charisma's paddock again and back down to the barn.  I told him what a good boy he was and unsaddled and turned him back out.  Good Pie!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Managed a Ride

Pie and I managed to get in a short ride today.  We've only had five other rides this month so far, and the last time we rode was over a week ago.  I groomed and tacked in the barn - the alarm company (we have smoke/fire detectors in the barn) guy was there fixing something, and climbing up and down the ladder into the loft and walking around up there.  Pie was wiggly, but stayed calm throughout - some horses find this very alarming (no pun intended).

There wasn't all that much we could do, because the trails are very icy, sometimes under a deceptive layer of snow, and the areas that aren't icy are covered with crusty snow - not enough of a crust to cut the horses' pasterns when they break through, but very crunchy and the footing didn't feel great to me or Pie.  We did crunch around on the field behind the barn for a bit, including some cone work.  Then we rode up to one of the pastures we're not using right now and crunched around in there for a bit.  Pie didn't like the footing, so we turned back.  Then we did some work in the aisle leading to the pastures - at least the part that wasn't too icy.  There was a section about 50 feet long that had been trodden down where the footing wasn't bad.  We walked and trotted, and halted, did turns on the haunches and threw in some backing.  We worked on our transitions - their precision and softness.

It was great - Pie was outstanding.  We were in the sidepull and I couldn't have asked for better responsiveness.  His backing is getting much softer - he doesn't duck any more and softly steps back without rushing.  His walk/trot and trot/halt transitions were really nice.  (And when he backs in hand in the halter, he's now immediately soft - this is a big improvement despite the fact that we haven't worked much on this.)  I'm so glad I rode - we made the best of our circumstances and got some decent work done.

I suspect we won't get any more rides in for a few days due to all that's going on over the holidays.

A very merry Christmas and Happy New Year from all of us to all of you, your horses, other pets and families!

Reading Poo Patterns

I seem to be writing a lot lately about horse manure - perhaps because that's my main interaction with my horses right now, other than some grooming.  The weather's been pretty comfortable - 20sF without a lot of wind - but the packed snow/ice conditions aren't very good for riding.

One of the things I always try to pay attention to in the mornings when I feed is poo patterns in the stalls - I also pay attention to amount and appearance as that's a good indicator of digestive health.  This is also a good way to get to know what each horse's "normal" is. If a horse is usually neat, but the poo that morning is strewn all over the place and trodden into the bedding, that can be a sign of worry or some other difficulty.  And the opposite applies too - if a horse that is usually messy has clearly been standing in one spot all night, that can be a sign of pain or depression - or maybe just that the horse was tired.

As I've been cleaning Pie's night-time paddock, which is about 40 feet by 60 feet, and has a three-sided shed, over the past several days his poo pattern has changed.  The first days he was out there, most of the poo was close to the fence line nearest the barn - he'd been walking up and down that fence line a lot or staying there in the night.  But yesterday the poo was evenly distributed around the paddock - although he keeps his eating area completely clean.  This morning most of the poo was at the top of the paddock - the area Lily used to use as her "lookout" - it's the highest point in the paddock, between the shed and the water tank, and has a clear view over all the pastures as well as back to the barn.  And for the last two nights, Pie has clearly had a good sleep - there were sleep marks in the snow (large, slightly melted patches), and those were at the top of the paddock too although in areas clear of poo.  That could also be why his hock sore was a bit worse this morning - it was really almost healed yesterday evening and this morning it was somewhat irritated again - he's been spending more time lying down.

It's clear from reading the poo patterns that he's becoming more comfortable in the paddock each day, which is very good to see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Darkest Night

Enjoy the darkest night - it leads to the light.
Enjoy the cold - it leads to warmth.
Enjoy and celebrate life, as the world turns back to the sun.

Crunchy Snow

We had a couple of inches of new snow last night, followed by a bit of freezing rain.  The result was the most amazing snow - there was a thin crunchy layer of ice on top of the soft snow.  Walking on it makes a wonderful sound.  The ice wasn't thick enough to make walking hard, and it didn't leave sharp edges as you broke through the crust.

Pie had ice dreadlocks in his forelock and mane this morning - I wished I had brought my camera, but it was still misting a bit and the camera wouldn't have appreciated the moisture.  The temperature was about 35F so all the horses went out without sheets or blankets - they really enjoy this, particularly those like Dawn and Fred who often wear blankets.  Dawn thought the crunching sound was alarming at first - she picked her feet up very high and was snorting.  Once loose, she did a lot of trotting around and running with her tail in the air.

All the horses were excited - there was running, bucking and chasing for a little while before everyone settled down to the round bales.  Even Fred galloped from the gate.  Horses seem to really enjoy snow, particularly fresh snow.  Pie had a nice roll - all the way over.  He got up and shook himself and sauntered back to eat hay.

A very good day in the world of horses!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Equine Digestive System 6 - Large and Small Colons, Rectum and Anus

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)


Although it may take as little as 7 to 8 hours for the contents of the digestive system to reach the large intestine, or colon - with most of this time spent in the cecum - those contents reside in the colon for as long as 48-65 hours.  The large colon has a length of 10-12 feet, with a capacity of 80 quarts, and the small colon also is about 10-12 feet long and has a capacity of about 14 quarts.  The large and small colons together constitute about 45% of the digestive system, and together with the cecum, 60%.

As the food exits the cecum, it carries the cecal microorganisms with it, and during its stay in the large colon, the food continues to be digested and fermented.  The colons are primary sites for absorption of water, electrolytes and volatile fatty acids produced by fermentation.  Very little protein is absorbed, although proteins are produced by fermentation (ruminants, with the rumen in front of the small intestine, do benefit from the proteins produced by fermentation).  Up to 95% of the fluids absorbed by the digestive system are absorbed in the cecum, large colon and small colon.

The food within the upper parts of the colon is moved both by peristalsis (contraction of muscles that move from front to back of system) and by anti-peristalsis (food is moved back in the direction it came from).  This is a main reason why the food takes so long to transit the colon.  It is theorized that the nervous system of the colon can sense the size and consistency of food particles, and since food particles can move both in the normal direction and also retrograde, digestion is thereby maximized.

The structure of the colon is complex - there are several distinct segments:  right ventral colon, left ventral colon, left dorsal colon, right dorsal colon, short transverse colon (all these parts constitute the large colon) and descending (or small) colon.  Due to the many turns the large colon makes and abrupt narrowing of its diameter midway through its course - at a point where a turn in direction also occurs - the large colon can be a site for impaction colic.  It is also not attached to the abdominal wall during part of its course, which can result in displacements or torsions.

The descending, or small, colon, is where fecal balls are formed.  Both the small colon and the rectum are delicate in their structure and easily damaged, and rectal exams for pregnancy or for impactions should only be done by qualified veterinary professionals, and even then injuries can occur.

Finally, the fecal balls exit the digestive system through the anus.

To summarize, the equine digestive system is perfectly suited to a diet composed of small, continuous meals of forage that is not too high in non-structural (easily digested) carbohydrates.  Healthy functioning of the digestive system is facilitated by free access to clean water and salt, and by the movements the horse makes while foraging.  Any significant divergence from this - infrequent, large meals or meals that are too high in easily-digested carbohydrates, too little forage in the diet, too little time spent moving around, or inability to access clean water and salt, can seriously disrupt the equine digestive system, leading to such conditions as improper tooth wear and TMJ problems, choke, ulcers, colic and laminitis.  In many respects, many of the ills our horses are subject to are really problems created by our feed and stabling practices.  Although keeping horses invariably involves some compromises, the closer we can come to keeping our horses in a way that maximizes their healthy digestive functioning, the better.

The end!

Picky Poo Picking

This morning, it was about 11F with no wind when I turned Pie and Dawn out.  Pie's naked and Dawn's in her heavyweight Rambo, and they're both comfortable in their own ways.  Since it was a pretty nice day and since I was dressed already for outdoor work - our barn is unheated - I decided to give my long-suffering husband some help and poo pick Pie's paddock (nice alliteration there if I say so myself!).  He usually does this, since moving the manure cart through the snow can be a bit of a physical challenge, and the poo is frozen to the ground.   This morning, though, the snow was pretty packed down so I thought I'd do it.  I use a hoe to free the poo from the snow and frozen ground and then pick it up with a rake.  Not really too hard, although it's about like picking up small rocks - they make an amazing clatter as they hit the manure bucket.

Pie's turned out to be less neat in the bathroom department than I had expected - the poo piles were pretty well-distributed around the paddock, with a few in the shelter.  He was probably so neat in his stall because he wasn't moving around much and the stall was pretty small for him.  I must say the boy is no slouch in the manure production department - there were an amazing number of piles for less than 24 hours - but then he's no slouch in the hay-eating department either.

I've always enjoyed the parts of horse ownership that relate to making my horse comfortable - the feeding, stall cleaning, poo picking, changing out water buckets (although that's my least favorite chore, especially when Dawn makes a "deposit" in hers), and grooming and blanketing, and even things like paste worming and veterinary after-care.  It's nice to contribute to the welfare of happy horses, and I'm picky enough (no comments from family members about this point, please) about the quality of their care to enjoy getting it as right as I can.

I was really pretty happy up there in Pie's paddock this morning picking poo, and watching the horses in their dry lots.  When I was done, I went out and gave Pie a nice hug and scratch.  He was glad to see me, but even happier to get back to eating hay.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Equine Digestive System 5 - Cecum

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)

After the food exits the small intestine, it enters the cecum.  The equine cecum is an anatomical equivalent of the human appendix, but in the horse it is an essential organ of digestion, being a fermentation and break-down vat for the digestion of the tough, structural carbohydrates such as cellulose that compose such a large fraction of the ideal equine diet.  The cecum is a large, muscular organ with its entry from the small intestine and exit to the large intestine at the same end.  It constitutes approximately 15% of the total digestive tract, is about four feet long and holds 28-32 quarts.  Unlike the rapid transit of the foregut - esophagus, stomach and small intestine - the food matter stays for up to 7 hours in the cecum to allow sufficient time for mixing by the muscular walls and fermentation by the bacteria and other microorganisms that reside there.   The breakdown and bacterial fermentation of structural carbohydrates like cellulose produces, among other things, certain fatty acids which are an essential source of energy for the horse.

The cecum has very much the same function as the rumen in ruminant animals, although its location in the equine hindgut (rather the foregut as in ruminants) has some important implications for the horse's diet and digestive efficiency.  Since the fermentation process occurring in the cecum occurs after the portion of the horse's digestive system where most nutrients are most easily absorbed - the small intestine - the horse's digestive system is not quite as efficient at extracting nutrients as a ruminant's is. 

Also, because the cecum is in the hindgut, if a meal is too large or has too many non-structural (soluble) carbohydrates (from grasses that are higher in sugars or fructans, or from grain) are ingested, the size of the meal or the amount of the carbohydrates may overwhelm the capacity of the foregut and cause undigested food to spill into the cecum and large intestine.  The hindgut is not well-equiped to deal with this, and the bacteria in the cecum may produce excess amounts of gas from digesting food components - particularly easily-digested carbohydrates - that should have been digested in the foregut.  The result of this gas can be pain and colic, and also the balance of the digestive microorganisms in the hindgut can also be disturbed with unpleasant results including diarrhea or colic.

The microbial population of the horse's hindgut is specific to the horse and its diet - this is the main reason changes in diet have to be made slowly and carefully - it can take the microbial population up to three weeks to adjust to a substantial change in diet.  And when a horse has been on antibiotics for any length of time, this may adversely affect the microbial population and feeding probiotics (essentially supplemental microorganisms like those that exist in yoghurt) may be necessary to begin to restore an appropriate microbial population.

There are a number of different microorganisms that participate in fermentation in the cecum - bacteria, some protozoa and even some fungi.  This population is also affected by the acidity/alkalinity of their environment - the cecum ideally maintains a relatively neutral pH, in contrast to the acidity of the stomach and the alkalinity of the small intestine.  Certain potentially harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, are inhibited by the normal pH balance of the cecum.  Disruption of this balance often increases the acidity of the cecum, leading to the death of desirable bacteria and the proliferation of potentially harmful bacteria.  It is these changes, including the release of endotoxins by dying bacteria, that can lead directly to colic and complications such as laminitis.

Once again, making sure that the horse's diet is primarily composed of high-quality forages, is fed continuously or in frequent small meals, and has appropriately low levels of non-structural (easily digestible) carbohydrates, is the way to optimal equine digestive health.

Once the food exits the cecum, it passes into the large intestine, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

Pie Adjusts

Pie's been out in his paddock now for two nights.  He clearly wishes he had another horse out there with him.  On the first night he did some running and calling, although not a lot, and on the second night he spent some time pacing up and down the fence line.  But he's settling down, and I expect each day will be better, although he's very grateful to be back with the others at turnout time.  The weather's been pretty cold, with wind chills below zero at night, and there's some evidence that he's been using his shed, and he's drinking well from his heated water trough.

The paddock had some grass and weedy (non-toxic) stuff under the snow, and the first night he spent quite a bit of time digging in the snow and eating the bits he found.  That, plus the anxiety of the first night, gave him some loose manure, but that had cleared up by the middle of the next day.  This morning, his manure was normal and he'd eaten his hay almost completely, which means he wasn't eating as much of the grass/weeds - I wouldn't put it past him to be smart enough to associate what he'd been eating with not feeling so well and to have decided to eat the hay instead.

This morning his hock sore was dry and scabbed over - I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that.

So far so good!

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Equine Digestive System 4 - Small Intestine

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)

After the food exits the stomach, it enters the small intestine through the pyloric valve.  The best way to think about the horse's digestive system as a whole is that the foregut - mouth, esophagus, stomach and small intestine - is "rapid transit", and the hindgut - caecum, large colon, small colon and rectum - is "slow boat".  The small intestine is very long - up to 70 feet with a capacity of about 48 quarts - and the food moves through it rapidly - in 30 minutes to an hour.  The small intestine has three parts - the duodenum, jejunum and ileum.  Due to its length, it is intricately folded within the abdomen - see in particular figures 7 and 8 in the article linked in the previous paragraph.

It is worth noting that in horses the foregut constitutes only about 40% of the digestive capacity of the total digestive system by volume, whereas in ruminants, the foregut, including the rumen, constitutes 70% of the digestive capacity.  Due to the rapid transit and small capacity of the equine foregut, it is easy for its capacity to be overwhelmed by infrequent large meals or by meals with too high a content of non-structural carbohydrates - undigested food and easily-digested carbohydrates are then passed into the hindgut with often undesirable consequences.

The small intestine is a major organ of digestion.  In the first part of the small intestine, the duodenum, bile and salts from the liver (an organ that has over 50 functions including the production of bile) together with pancreatic enzymes  are added to the food and major digestion of carbohydrates and proteins as well as emulsification of fats occurs.  Unlike humans, horses do not have a gall bladder for the storage of bile, rather bile enters the small intestine directly and continuously from the liver.  Bile also has an important function of buffering the highly acid contents of the stomach. (It is amazing, although it really shouldn't be surprising, how many features of the equine digestive system work much more effectively with a diet of small, frequent to continuous meals that are relatively low in non-structural carbohydrates - e.g., forage - and how easily this system can be disrupted by large, infrequent meals or meals that have too many easily-digested carbohydrates.  For more on the topic of equine nutrition in light of this, please visit safergrass.org.)

Although they aren't digestive organs per se, both the liver and pancreas are essential to digestion.  The pancreas is an amazing organ and produces insulin as well as digestive enzymes - insulin resistance in horses is a topic beyond the scope of these posts but is often induced/related to diet, much as it is in humans.

The small intestine is the place in the digestive system where most of the soluble (non-structural) carbohydrates, together with virtually all amino acids from protein breakdown, are absorbed.  It is also a conveyor passing along the less-easily digested structural carbohydrates, including cellulose, to the hind gut.

Due to its relatively small diameter, relative lack of expandability and great length, and the way it lies folded within and is attached to the abdominal walls, the small intestine, particularly the second section, the jejunum, is subject to a variety of problems, including twisting, displacement or entrapment.

Next up is that truly amazing equine organ, the cecum.

Pie Moves Outside

Since Pie joined us at the end of October, he's been turned out all day and stalled at night, like all the other horses at our barn.  Since he was ranch bred and lived outside as a foal and yearling, and also lived outside year-round at his prior owner's, coming in only briefly for feeding, he's never been all that comfortable in a stall.  Our stalls are also fairly small - 10'x12'.  Some horses are comfortable in stalls, like Noble was and Dawn is - they consider them safe havens and are horses that were or have been stalled for most of their lives.  Also, Dawn is extremely cold-sensitive and when she did live outside (briefly when we first moved here), she had to be blanketed, and even double-blanketed, most of the time.

Also, the more I learn about horse health - digestive, hoof and respiratory, and mental welfare, the more I felt that Pie should live outside, with the freedom to move around.  He clearly wasn't very happy in his stall - no stall vices or pawing, but I just got the feeling he didn't like it much and felt constrained.  I think that, although he couldn't tell me this in words, one thing that bothered him a lot was that he had to lie in his own waste - he's a very neat, fastidious horse and managed to keep the manure to the edges but there wasn't much he could do about the urine.  And despite using deep pelleted bedding, his hock sore (that clearly developed because he was stalled) is still bad (it's now Pie 2 - Hock Shield 0) and he often is slightly damp in the morning from lying in pee spots.  He also doesn't drink all that well inside, despite the fact that we have heated buckets.  And his feet seemed to be getting a bit softer from standing in soiled bedding.  Also, when I get to the barn in the mornings, the air inside is very close and dusty, although we do everything we can to maximize ventilation our barn is poorly ventilated - not good for lungs and I'd like to keep him healthy.

When Lily lived here, since she had heaves, she lived outside in a nice-sized paddock with a run-in shed and a large heated water tank, as well as a large salt block.  As soon as we can get things set up, perhaps as early as tonight, Pie is moving out there.  He'll still be turned out for the day with the other geldings.  I expect he'll be a bit lonely for his friends inside the barn for a night or two, but he's pretty adaptable and I think he will enjoy being able to have a separate bathroom area so he can lie down in a clean spot.  He'll be able to have access to hay for most of the night, and can walk around, and he'll be able to see the night sky and all around - the paddock's at a high point with a view of the pastures and barn.  I often would find Lily in the morning surveying things - I think she enjoyed that and I think Pie will too. In the spring, when things begin to thaw up, we'll add a truckload of pea gravel to the lower end of the paddock to cut down the mud, improve the drainage and give Pie some different surfaces for his hoof health.

Pie's also pretty cold-hardy - the wind chills are about 15F today but he's the only horse out without a blanket and is perfectly comfortable, despite there being no shelter in the dry lots.  He will need blanketing or sheeting from time to time, but I'm around to see to it or can get one of the other boarders (or my long-suffering husband) to cover for me if I'm away.  I expect he'll enjoy his new digs once he gets used to them, and I certainly will feel better about it.  He'll still have an inside stall if it's needed for any reason, but I hope not to have to use it.  I'm not sure why I took so long to realize that this was a better option for Pie, but sometimes I'm a slow learner.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pie and Scout Play and Pie Visits With the Chiropractor

It's a pretty nice day - mid-20sF with little wind.  All the horses - even Dawn - are out without blankets and seem to be enjoying themselves.  I made a trip to the barn, hoping to get in a brief ride on Pie before the chiropractor came for his appointment - I'd noticed during grooming that his lumbar area seemed a bit tender.

As I went to get Pie from the dry lot, I saw that he and Scout were playing - much pawing, face tag and even some rearing.  When Pie first got here, he didn't play at all but has recently decided that playing with Scout is OK. I had my camera with me, and hoped to get some pictures of them playing, but instead I got this (Scout on the left, Pie on the right):





They stopped playing and had to come say hello!  And here's a Scout "play face":


Pie's wondering what I'm up to:


I had brought him into the barn and groomed and was about to tack up when our chiropractor, Dr. Alice Marold, showed up.  So no ride today, but that was OK.

Pie had a very good session with the chiropractor - this was his second.  He seems to really understand what it's all about now, and was very clear with her about what needed doing.  He was also very clear with her when she was doing something that made him feel better - there was lots of stretching, yawning, and when she was all done he gave himself a big shake all over just like a dog.  All of Pie's chiro issues arise from how he carries himself - his core isn't strong and he tends to travel somewhat inverted with his topline shorter.  He has the confirmation to carry himself using his core, but just hasn't learned to do that with a rider.  As a result, the ligaments that run from the poll to the withers and then back to the tailhead are tight, as are his top-line muscles, and since he's using his top-line muscles to support himself instead of his core, those top-line muscles get sore.

He had some soreness in his neck, and Dr. Marold showed me how to massage the muscles supporting the vertebrae in the mid to lower neck in order to release the tension and cramping.  He also had a noticeable hot area at the point of his rump (sacral joint), which I will be keeping a hand on to see how it does.  We also have a program to do some belly lifts and tail tucks as well as carrot stretches - particularly downwards ones that will stretch the ligaments and muscles on the top of his neck.  We'll be doing some pole and cavelletti work, which strengthens the core, and working on getting him to stretch down whenever possible.  Work up gradual inclines is also very helpful for this.  Gradually working on softening will also make a big difference.  (For a very good discussion of why work stretching down and forward is so important in developing the core and the ability of the horse, particularly the young horse,  to lift its back and use itself correctly, see this article by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, DVM - he is also the author of a number of works that deal with the damaging effects of rollkur (or hyperflexion - they're one and the same in my opinion) and how it produces incorrect muscle development.  This thinking, and the article, should be of benefit to all horsemen and women, regardless of the English or Western discipline they ride in.  Stretching down and forward, as Dr. Heuschmann recommends, is not at all the same as "low, deep and round" that is another euphemism for rollkur or hyperflexion.)

I'm not too worried about any of this as it will come right as his core muscles are strengthened, allowing his top line to relax and lengthen, as we progress with our work.  We got Dawn when she was 4 off the racetrack, and she was if anything more inverted than he is now, and she now uses her core really well to carry herself with softness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Beautiful Winter Day

This morning when I got to the barn around 6:30 a.m. it was 1F, but there was no wind.  The air was very still, and the sky was a beautiful rose and apricot as the sun rose.  Every tree, bush and grass stem was coated with a thin layer of frost - just beautiful.  It was supposed to warm up to around 20F, and the wind was supposed to stay away (very rare for us), so the horses went out without their blankets, except for Dawn, who's in her medium-weight Brookside turnout blanket.

I'll be doing a full product review post on the Hock Shield after we've used it for a while, but suffice it to say that last night it was Pie 1 - Hock Shield 0, although I think this may have had something to do with how (not sufficiently) tightly I put it on.

In the afternoon, when it was as warm as it was going to get (22F), Pie and I took a short ride with Charisma and her owner.  While Charisma was getting tacked up, Pie and I did some cone work on the grassy slope behind the barn.  I had moved the cones out of the arena, which is pretty much full of ice under the snow.  Pie was pretty feisty, doing some head shaking and wanting to scoot away from his reflection in the barn windows, but settled down to his cone work after a bit.  I had him in the sidepull. We walked from cone to cone and did the tightest circles we could around each cone.  We also threw in some backing and turns on the haunches - he's got some lateral work already that just needs refining.  The footing wasn't bad up there with a thin layer of snow over grass.

Then we went on a brief trail ride around the pastures.  The trails were pretty icy, particularly down the center.  We were able to stay to one side pretty easily in most places, with Pie leading the way with a much more forward walk than he usually has.  There was one spot as we were coming back to the barn where the ice was worse, and all the horses in the dry lots started running, and Pie spooked a bit, slipping some, so I dismounted and led him down the safest part with Charisma following.  A couple of hundred feet further down the trail, I remounted (from the ground!) and he stood perfectly still on a loose rein.  As we got back to the barn, we had to avoid part of the trail and the parking lot, as those areas were completely iced over, and Pie led the way as we bushwhacked a trail through the tall prairie grasses, around a tree and safely back to the barn.  Good Pie!

The Equine Digestive System 3 - Stomach

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)

Once food has passed down the stomach and through the cardiac valve, it enters the stomach, which has a capacity of 8-15 quarts.  The stomach is located fairly far back in the ribcage, fairly high up and towards the left side.  In the horse, the stomach is a transit point - most of the contents leave after a very short time - 15 minutes or so - after minimal digestion by hydrochloric acid, muscular and enzymic action.  Some particulate matter may linger longer, but once again this portion of the digestive system works best with continuous ingestion of forage, rather than occasional ingestion of larger pelleted meals.  This is due both to the rapid emptying of the stomach and also the fact that the horse's stomach essentially produces acid on a continuous basis.  With a continuous incoming supply of forage to digest, together with the buffering effect of the saliva produced by chewing the forage and which is swallowed with the food, the horse's stomach works without problems.

One of the reasons horses are prone to gastric ulcers is the way we feed them.  As soon as a horse does not have access to forage on a continuous basis, and particularly if the horse's diet has a high proportion of pelleted feeds to forage, the stomach cannot function in the most effective way.  Since the horse is not chewing forage continuously, saliva isn't produced continuously in volume, and cannot buffer the continuously-produced acid in the stomach.  And the rapid emptying of the stomach after food enters means that the stomach lining is more vulnerable to the acid.

When I was first learning about gastric ulcers in horses, I was surprised to find out how common they are.  To treat them, essentially we provide artificial buffering to the horse's stomach acid (or in the case of severe ulcers, block the production of acid for a time to allow healing).  Horses with ulcers can exhibit a variety of behavior changes, including pain and misbehavior during grooming, tacking or riding.  It is sad to think that many horses are punished for behaviors that arise due to treatable pain.

When the food exits the stomach, it passes through the pyloric valve into the small intestine.  If there is some blockage of flow through the rest of the digestive system, food can back up into the stomach (gastric reflux), resulting in distention and severe pain.  As I understand it, this is one thing vets look for when they pass a nasogastric tube into the stomach during treatment of colic - if the contents of the stomach are under pressure due to gastric reflux, this will be apparent when the tube enters the stomach, and removing some of the contents of the stomach may relieve the pain.  Gastric reflux is also a sign of blockage further on in the digestive system.

Stay tuned for the small intestine . . .

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Little Warmer and Some Visitors

This morning, the temperature was 7F and the wind chill was -7F when the horses went out.  Dawn managed OK with an extra layer - I put on her polarfleece cooler under her extra heavy Rambo turnout blanket.  When I went by to check on the horses mid-morning, Dawn was nestled in the hay on the protected side of the round bale having the first of her daily naps.  Pie, of course, could have cared less about the cold - he says this is nowhere near as cold as he's experienced in Montana and Minnesota.  When I let him go at the gate, he heads straight for the round bale and pretty much stays there eating all day, except for forays to the water trough and occasional moments of play with Scout.

Tonight Pie gets to start wearing his Hock Shield.  We'll see how that goes, and I'll report the results.

* * * * * *
We put black oil sunflowers out on the ground for the birds, just behind the house.  We've been having some extra visitors lately - they also drink out of the bird bath.  I think they're a family - there's a stag:


A doe:


And a yearling (doe I believe):


We don't have that many deer around here since we have only a few wooded areas.  These deer look very healthy and in good weight.  They also seem to enjoy sunflower seeds!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Equine Digestive System 2 - Esophagus

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)


The second part of the equine digestive system is the esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach.   This tube is approximately 4 feet long and terminates with the cardiac sphincter, which seals off the bottom of the esophagus from the stomach.  After the horse has sufficiently chewed food and moistened it with saliva, the food is swallowed and passes down the esophagus to the stomach.

When humans choke, this usually occurs before swallowing, above the junction of the trachea (leading to the lungs) and the esophagus, leading to a blockage of air.  In horses, choke almost always occurs below the junction of the trachea and esophagus, after swallowing.  This is the reason that horses can continue to breathe even though they may have an obstructed esophagus.

Choke is almost always the result of rapid consumption of small particle feeds rather than forage, although it can also occur as a result of ingestion of a large object such as an unchewed apple or carrot section.  It can also result from ingestion of beet pulp that has not been soaked in sufficient water for a long enough time (the one choke experience my horses have had resulted from this).  Choke can also occur in senior horses with poor or absent dentition.

Choke, unless it resolves in moments, is a veterinary emergency.  The horse will exhibit characteristic behaviors and will usually be in obvious distress, stretching out the head and neck and often gagging.  In some cases, food and saliva will come out of the mouth and nose.  Sometimes gentle massage of the esophagus - it is a somewhat delicate structure so a lot of pressure should never be used - can help.  The esophagus lies along the jugular groove on the left side of the neck - if you observe closely you will be able to see food or water passing down the esophagus as the horse swallows.  A signifiant risk of choke is aspiration of food and saliva into the trachea and then the lungs.  This can lead to aspiration pneumonia, and all horses who have had an episode of choke should be watched carefully for signs of pneumonia, such as fever and depression, and treated accordingly.  A horse with choke that has not been treated for a day or more will often be seriously dehydrated and depressed.

One reason immediate veterinary assistance is needed for choke is that the delicate structure of the esophagus can be damaged by the pressure of the obstruction, possibly resulting in scarring and even stricture, which will predispose the horse to future episodes of choke.  The choke is usually resolved by the passage of a nasogastric tube and lavage with warm water (mineral oil is not used because of the risk of aspiration).  If there is an obstruction that cannot be resolved with gentle pressure of a nasogastric tube and lavage, surgery may be required.

* * * * * *
Many people know that horses do not vomit - but why is this?  There are a couple of reasons.  First, the cardiac sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus, joining it to the stomach, is unusually strong, and second, the stomach of the horse is not located in the abdomen near the abdominal muscles (which in other species put pressure on the stomach when the animal vomits).

Horses are more at risk than many other species if they ingest something that is toxic or unhealthy - they cannot vomit and they also do not have a rumen, which serves a detoxifying function in many species.

Colder Than . . .

Yesterday was one of those days when the temperatures fell from the upper 20sF into the upper teens by the end of the day.  That wasn't so bad, except that the wind was steadily blowing at 25-30 mph with gusts to 45mph.  That made things pretty nippy.  Dawn, despite her very heavy turnout blanket with the insulated neck (only the best for the "fragile flower", as we sometimes call her) was ready to give up and come in by 8:30 a.m. after being out for about 2 hours.  Pie and the others stayed out until about 11 a.m. We've had much colder weather than this, often for a week or more at a time, and this cold snap is supposed to be easing up by tomorrow afternoon, so I'm grateful for that.

This morning things were a bit better than expected - the temperatures was about 5F with a wind chill of about -10 - they had expected -20.  At those temperatures, Dawn wouldn't have been comfortable even for a short time, so I gave her a 10-minute hand walk in the aisle of the barn.  She didn't seem too upset about not going out - I always let her stick her head out the barn door so she can see for herself what things are like. One of the downsides with our facility is that when the horses are in the barn due to the weather - our dry lots and pastures have no shelter and they're very exposed to the wind - or ice, there's no indoor to turn them out in, so hand-walking's your only option.  Pie was able to go out for a few minutes and probably would have stayed out a bit longer but I wanted to head home after cleaning my stalls.  I'll turn him out at noon for a bit if things warm up.  Depending on how things are, Dawn might go out for a minute then or else get another hand walk.

(I added to the overview post on equine digestion (see sidebar) a link to this article, which has beautiful illustrations of the equine digestive system and how the various organs are placed relative to one another.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Equine Digestive System 1 - Mouth

(I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be added to the sidebar.  Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.  Also, you may find it helpful to visit this article, which has excellent pictures of the digestive system and the location of the various organs.)


The first section of the equine digestive system is the mouth.  Horses are very selective grazers, with very flexible and adept lips.  Grasses and other forage are sheared off by the incisors, which must align properly to do this job well.  Then the tongue moves the food to the premolars and molars for side-to-side mastication - again, proper lateral movement of the jaw is essential to good chewing.  Horses have three pairs of salivary glands, and produce up to 10 gallons of saliva a day - that's over 80 pounds - which is necessary to deal with their coarse forage diet.  The saliva contains enzymes that begin the digestion process.  The tongue then forms the chewed food into a bolus that can be swallowed.

Horses' teeth are truly a marvel.  The mature horse has 12 incisors, 6 up and 6 down, and has 3 premolars and 3 molars on each side of the lower jaw matched by an equal set on the upper jaw, for a total of 12 premolars and 12 molars.  Male horses usually have 4 canine teeth - these teeth can be very sharp and do not directly align.  They are a fighting weapon in stallions, and may need rounding off.  Mares sometimes have a single pair of canines.  Some horses of both sexes have wolf teeth, which are small vestigial premolars located on the bars - these often have very shallow roots and are usually removed as they can cause serious problems with the bit.

Young horses have a set of baby (or deciduous) teeth consisting of the 12 incisors and 12 premolars - they do not have molars.  As the horse matures, the adult teeth erupt from under the baby teeth, which continue to sit on top of the adult teeth and erode (they become what are called "caps") until they become thin enough to simply fall off.  By the time a horse is 5 years old (this process may take longer in some warmblood breeds), it will have all of its adult teeth, although they may not all be evenly erupted, and only about 1/4 inch of the full tooth - which is 4 1/2 to 5 inches long - may be exposed.  In an young horse, the roots of the premolars and molars occupy most of the mandible and the sinus cavities of the horse's head and add significantly to the weight of the head - studies have apparently been done that show that a horse's head may weigh 7 pounds more at age 4 than at age 15.  This is why serious dental work (say removal of a cracked or abcsessed tooth) on a younger horse may require surgery rather than just work by a dentist.  As a horse gets old - older than 25 - it may begin to run out of tooth surface and even have teeth fall out due to the increasingly short roots.  This one reason that dental work on elderly horses must be done with extreme care.  An elderly horse may have very little tooth to work with and no more root to erupt to replace tooth that is too smoothed off by aggressive dental work. And an elderly horse with teeth that are too smooth will have difficulty chewing properly.

The functioning of the temporomandibular joint - the joint that connects the jaw to the skull - is critical to proper chewing - in older horses these joints may have arthritis or severely worn cartilage, which will require the dentist to use care not to open their mouths too long or too far - a good dentist will close the speculum to give the horse a rest (any horse, not just an older one - it's just common courtesy).  In all horses, if the functioning of the TMJs is impaired they may cause pain that will sometimes seriously affect performance.  As discussed below, the diet many horses eat can affect how their teeth wear and how their jaws can move, which affects their TMJs as well.

Here's what a young adult horse's teeth and skull look like (it looks to me that this horse's incisors needed dental work!):


Horses do not have teeth that grow continuously from the root (like rodents), but rather have teeth that erupt continuously. The reason a horse's teeth need to continue to erupt throughout his life at a rate of about 1/8 per year is that they are designed to wear away at the biting surface due to the very abrasive, high volume diet horses in the wild eat - grass has a very high silica content and is therefore very hard on the teeth, as is the environmental grit that is also present.  The horse's teeth are constructed to wear in this way - horses have what are called "hypsodont", or folded teeth.  The folded, layered, multi-ridged surface of a horse's teeth is composed of dentin, which is harder than bone, and which forms about 1/2 the bulk of the tooth and forms the characteristic ridges which give the tooth its structural integrity; enamel, the hardest tooth material, in veins through the dentin, and cementum, which fills the area between the ridges and also anchors the teeth to the jaw.  It is the yellow of cementum which gives the horse's teeth their characteristic yellow color - our teeth are white because we have enamel on the exterior.

As the horse's teeth wear, the harder enamel is exposed as the softer cementum and dentin are worn away by abrasive forage.  It is in fact this exposed and rough surface that allows the horse to shear long-stemmed grass material - if a horse's teeth are too smooth it cannot effectively do this - some sharpness is necessary, which is at variance with much standard horse dentistry practices.  (See this post for more information on this topic.) Then the exposed enamel is also gradually eroded by the extremely abrasive forage diet, as more dentin and cementum are also eroded. Here is an example of the surface of a horse's teeth (this is either a premolar or a molar):


When chewing grass or forage, the horse's jaw moves in a typical side to side shearing/grinding motion.  Interestingly enough, the diet we feed our horses can adversely impact how their teeth wear. This is partly because of the structure of the horse's jaws - the lower jaw is narrower than the upper jaw:



This means that, since the teeth do not precisely align, for the teeth to wear evenly, the horse's jaw must move in a full lateral range to both sides, which only occurs when the horse chews forage.  Modern pelleted feeds are easier to chew than forage, and the horse's jaw does not make the same full lateral motion when chewing pelleted feeds.  This leads directly to uneven wear, which can lead to even further restriction of lateral motion when chewing, and also to strain on the TMJs.  As the proportion of pelleted feeds rises, and the proportion of forage falls, in the horse's diet, and if forage is not available continuously, dental problems increase.  So, once again, many of the issues our horses have with their health, and in this case their teeth, are directly attributable to how we feed and house our horses.

(Some of the illustrations and information in this post are from a couple of good sources for information about horse dentition:  Tour Your Horse's Teeth, and Equine Dentistry: Anatomy.  For an extremely interesting article on the evolution of the modern horse, including the very important transition from animals that browse in the forest to grazers of grasses, and the implications this has for equine dentition, see: The Evolution of the Horse: History and Techniques of Study, by Deb Bennett, Ph.D.)

Fred Makes a Break For It and Pie Snuggles

This is Fred:


Fred is in his mid-20s, and is a TB.  He's a sweet boy, but can be very silly, and is also, as we say, not the brightest bulb.  In his younger days, he could be quite a handful when leading to turnout and when playing in the pasture - he was know for his ability to leap and rear on the lead line when excited.  Now that he's older, he's somewhat better behaved, although he still likes to play a bit of mouth tag with Fritz - they have the same owner and have been together for many years - and also with Pie, and will try a little rear from time to time.  He's at the bottom of the gelding pecking order.  Fred is still mobile, but he no longer can move or run well - when he canters, he does a bunny hop with his hind legs.  He's got degenerative suspensory ligament desmitis in all four legs and his pasterns are heading for horizontal, particularly in his hind legs, which puts a lot of strain on his legs and also his hooves.

But Fred still manages to get around and enjoy life.  Yesterday, two round bales were delivered - I wasn't there but my husband was to help with the unloading.  To deliver, the truck with the round bales first made its way into the mares' dry lot, and then the gate between the mares' and geldings' dry lot has to be opened to let the truck through.  (Don't get me started about the poor design decisions made by the people - not horse people - who designed our barn and pasture layout 15 years ago:  gates in the wrong places and too small, no proper equipment access to a number of the pastures, etc., etc.).

When this gate is open, things can get tricky.  Yesterday, the person at the gate (not my husband) wasn't paying attention and Fred snuck through into the mares' dry lot.  My husband said he looked more interested in the hay than the mares, but Dawn was backing towards him - whether with amatory or aggressive intention we don't know.  Then, since the gate tender apparently still wasn't paying attention, Fritz slipped through - my husband said he looked like he was wanting to guard Fred.  Before things got dicey, my husband threw snowballs at Fritz and Fred and got them to go back in their proper pasture.

Pie, being a sensible horse, had stayed well clear of all this stuff.  When my husband went into the geldings' dry lot to help unload the bale there, Pie came up to him and stuck his nose into my husband's shoulder and stood there for several minutes while my husband rubbed his neck and shoulders.  Pie seems to really like my husband - perhaps he reminds him of the old man. My husband isn't much of a horse person, but says he really likes Pie.  Good Pie!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dawn Is Healing and Pie and I Have a Nice Ride

I think the cut on Dawn's tongue is healing up well - she had her last dose of antibiotics and Banamine tonight.  She's eating well and seems pretty comfortable.  The vet said it could take up to two weeks to heal.  I've started her on some probiotics to replace some of the intestinal flora that may have been killed off by the antibiotics.  She's been off her Mare Magic since Monday (it's got bits of raspberry leaves and stems in it and I was concerned that the bits would irritate her tongue wound), and perhaps it's just coincidence, but she's in heat tonight - and not just a normal heat - in raging heat.  In Dawn's case this involves plastering her hindquarters to any solid or semi-solid object - fence, side of the aisle, etc. and lots of peeing, kicking the wall and squealing, with the whites of her eyes showing.  She hasn't had a heat like this since she went on Mare Magic.  So, she's back on it as of tonight.  I'm not working with her while she's like this, and I'll need to be careful in her stall and when picking her feet, since she's may be too distracted to pay attention to where I am.

Pie and I had a very nice trail ride today with Charisma and her owner.  The weather today was really beautiful for December - about 35F with only a little bit of wind, sunny and with a couple of inches of snow still on the ground and no ice underneath - just about perfect winter riding weather.  I rode Pie in the sidepull - he goes very well in it and I may just keep riding him on the trail in it.  We were out for over an hour, and Pie was very well behaved.  We did quite a bit of trotting to catch up with Charisma's long stride at the walk.  He's careful about his footing, which I like, watching for holes, culverts, drop-offs and icy patches under the snow.  As we were heading back to the barn, Charisma was wanting to speed up too much and fretful because she couldn't - lots of bit-chomping and even a few half-hearted small leaps forward, so we put Charima behind Pie to help slow her down.  Pie even took it upon himself to "herd" her - as he was walking he would turn diagonally across the trail and block her path when she was trying to pass him.  If she switched sides of the trail, he would switch sides as well to stay in front of her - I didn't have to direct him to do any of this - Charisma's owner found this very helpful and Charisma calmed down a bit and stopped champing on the bit.  From time to time he would turn his head and look at her, as if to keep an eye on what she was up to.  I'd love to have him do some proper cow work - I think he would be very good at it, partly due to his experience and partly because of his intelligence and willingness to step up and do a job that needs doing.  Good Pie!

The weather's going to start deteriorating tomorrow - we're supposed to have cold driving rain (temperatures just above freezing) tomorrow afternoon, with rapidly falling temperatures, sleet and then snow.  Then it gets even better - an arctic blast, with wind chills of 20 below zero F expected by Monday morning.  I think the horses may have to come in early tomorrow - we have no shelters in the pastures - and may be inside for most of Monday and Tuesday.  At least we got today!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed . . . Or How Cones Focus the Mind

Last night at bring-in time there were kids going down the sledding hill nearby, so I took Pie on the lead over that way.  We didn't get that close - they were still about 50 yards away - but he did a lot of staring, and didn't seem too concerned about it.

* * * * * *
I'm not really sure what I was thinking trying to work with the horses this morning - by the time I got home the temperature was up to 17F (-8 C) with a wind chill of 9F (or -12C) - and trust me it was colder while we were working earlier.  But I actually do know what I was thinking - we've got a storm coming Saturday night into Sunday with an arctic blast to follow - the type where the highs struggle to get above zeroF (or -17C) and the wind chills are as bad as -20F (or -28C).  Not much opportunity for working with the horses in that type of weather, so I'm trying to squeeze in a few work sessions before I'm shut down for a while.  This was not necessarily a good idea.

Today was one of those days where you make an attempt to do something, it doesn't go so well, and then you try it another way and maybe you manage to turn things around just a bit, at least enough to end on a good note.  All the horses were super frisky this morning - lots of running and bucking at turnout - and Dawn and Pie were no exception.  I thought I'd give Dawn a little bit of attention and do some ground driving - she was wearing her turnout blanket and that was OK.  Only Pie had been turned out at that time, and all the other horses were still in the barn.  We made it a little ways and then I got some head-shaking, scooting and small bucks.  She was also calling.  It was pretty clear nothing good was going to come of this as I'm not all that fond of out-of-control horses on the long lines - I've dealt with that before (with Lily) and can't say I've enjoyed it much although the horse and I survived.  I also almost never work Dawn first thing in the morning and she may have been disturbed by the change in routine as well as excited by the cold.  So I decided to abort our session and we successfully ground drove back to the barn, doing lots of turns to help her contain herself.  I'm feeding this evening, so I may try another session with her then just to have a somewhat better result, and will likely use the cones set up in the arena to help her focus as we do patterns. (Update:  this didn't happen - just too cold and it was snowing.  Not fair to her or to me to try to work in these conditions.)

Then I got Pie out of turnout to work with him.  He was much fussier than normal while I was tacking, and doing some young horse stuff like pawing.  I got on, and he quickly told me he wasn't that interested in being cooperative - lots of head-shaking and wanting to veer towards the other horses, although fortunately nothing worse.  We did one very short excursion up the trail, but he felt pretty bunched up underneath me, so we did some circles and serpentines on the field behind the barn.  That wasn't going as well as I'd liked either - he still wanted to veer back towards the other horses and was still doing a lot of head-shaking to express his annoyance.  We did manage to work our way onto the field a bit, and then I decided to try something a bit different.  I took him back to the barn and took off his bridle (we were in the snaffle).  We went for a short trail walk with me on foot, including some standing around work (where his only job is to stay out of my space - I don't care if he moves his feet).  He was still distracted.  I tied him briefly - there was some pawing and I untied him when he stopped.

I wanted to end on a somewhat better note with our mounted work, so we went back into the barn and I got the sidepull out.  I really didn't want him in the snaffle at this point if we were doing tight circles and turns and we haven't done that much work in the bridle.  I put on the sidepull and we went to the arena - I thought the visual barrier between him and the other horses might help the veering, and I wanted to use the cones.  This session went much better - all we did was walk patterns using the cones, going from cone to cone and doing small circles around them in various directions.  He did do some head-shaking, but much less.  We worked for about 10 minutes or so, and he finally relaxed a little bit.  I was able to ride him on a loose rein and he was much more responsive and focussed.  I considered moving up to trot, but considering his energy level and that I wanted to maintain his calm, decided to save that for another day.

When I turned him out, he went galloping off, shaking his head, to tell the other horses how badly he'd been mistreated!

Unfortunately, in our part of the world, with no indoor, we're getting to the part of the year where opportunities to work the horses become few and far between.  Just part of life, I guess - the horses don't care too much so long as they have enough hay to eat.

The Equine Digestive System: Overview

I've always been fascinated by all things equine, including their anatomy and how their various body systems work.  As a project to learn more about these amazing animals, I've decided to do a series of posts on the equine digestive system.  As these come along, they'll be put in a new sidebar.  (Please keep in mind that I am neither a vet nor an expert on these topics - if you have corrections and additions or resources to direct us to, please put that in the comments.)

Before getting started on a discussion of the equine digestive system, it makes sense to talk about the diet that goes with that digestive system and that makes that system work best.  Many of the problems our horses have with their digestive systems, including many dental issues, choke, ulcers, colic, laminitis and other hoof problems, relate to the mismatch between how the digestive system works and how we feed and house our horses.  The horse's complex digestive system is designed to accommodate almost continuous intake - think conveyer belt - of a high-volume variety of quality forage selected by the horse that is high in structural carbohydrates (and abrasive silica) and relatively low in non-structural carbohydrates (think sugars, although that isn't he exact definition), and that contains an appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals from the soil in which the forage grows.  The functioning of that digestive system is enhanced by the ability to access fresh, clean water at all times and to continuously move - movement improves the functioning of the digestive system - while foraging in the company of other horses - being safe in a herd reduces equine stress. (Note: for those of you who are technically-minded, non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) may or may not be the correct term to use as thinking on these topic develops, but think easily-digestible carbohydrates.  I will use the term NSC in these posts.  For more information on these topics, please visit safergrass.org - this site is an excellent resource.)

Many horses, including my two that live with me, have conditions that only approximate what is required for the optimum functioning of their digestive systems.   They are stalled at night, and do not have the opportunity to eat or move continuously.  They are on a low NSC diet and do have free-choice access to high-quality forage all day and for most of the night.  Our grasses are too profuse in the summer resulting in over-consumption of too easily digestible non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) and weight gain, to which some horses are more sensitive than others.  But my horses are better off than some who are stalled almost continuously and fed higher-NSC diets, often from large amounts of small-particle grain concentrates.  Most of the ways we handle and manage our horses are a compromise between the needs of the horse and our convenience, and this is a fact of life for many of us and our horses.

Horses are also very choosy eaters, unlike many other grazing animals.  They search out and eat only the forage and browse that they find palatable - not only grasses, and their choices may vary based on nutrient needs and season.  Our horses will often selectively graze high vitamin C forage - like dandelions and emerging thistles - when it is available.

The equine digestive system is a marvel - its structure and functioning cope effectively with a high-volume, extremely abrasive and hard-to-digest forage diet.  There's a lot going on inside your horse as he eats and digests, so I'll be dividing these posts into a series covering separate parts of the digestive system.   Here's a list of the components of the digestive system:

Mouth - including lips, teeth, tongue and salivary glands
Esophagus
Stomach
Small intestine
Cecum
Large colon
Small colon, rectum and anus

You'll notice there's something in this list that looks odd - cecum.  Horses are what are know as post-gastric fermenters - most of the hard work of digestion takes place in the hind-gut, particularly the cecum and large colon.  This is unlike ruminants like cattle, which have the rumen available for pre-digestion and even detoxification.  (This is one reason horses may be more sensitive to toxins than cattle - they don't have the rumen for detoxification functions.)  The digestion/fermentation in the hind gut not only produces calories and nutrients for the horse, it also serves an important heat-production function - there's some truth to calling horses "hayburners" - the digestive process serves as a furnace.

Here's a diagram of the equine digestive system:


Here's another diagram that is useful:



This article has excellent images showing where the various digestive organs lie in the horse's body, and the spatial relationships of these organs one to the other.

The next post in this series will be on the equine mouth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More In-Hand Work and Dawn Stakes a Claim

I just got back from the barn - the temperature is up to 15F with a wind chill of 3F (that would be -16C).  After doing my chores, I got Pie out of the turnout so we could do some more in-hand work, his second session after several days off.  Pie was in his turnout blanket and I was bundled up with no fewer than four layers over my sensitive ear and side of the face, so we were both quite comfortable. We were doing these exercises again.  As I had suspected might happen, his responses were almost immediately much better and more consistent - he'd clearly retained what he'd learned and in fact started out almost better than he finished up last time - I've found this quite often happens over a break between work sessions as the horse processes what he's learned.

His backing in the halter was much improved.  When I stood on his right, he immediately was able to back with softness.  When I stood on the left, he was initially a bit sticky - he had really struggled with this side in our last session, but after a minute or two he was able to do it.  We repeated both sides just a couple of times, with walk-arounds between.  When I'm on the left, we still need to refine his consistency while backing and he's not yet at a point where he'll do it immediately when first asked.

His soft backing in the bridle was almost perfect with me standing on either side.  It's interesting that when he backs in the halter, he never does the ducking/curl-up thing he does in the bridle, which probably means that he was taught to back that way in the bridle.  He did try to duck a time or two while we were backing in the bridle today, but was easily able to adjust and do it the way I was asking.  His "baby gives" with the halter and bridle were perfect on the first try, so we didn't repeat them, and I'll probably never do them again.

After we did our work with the bridle, I went back to the halter work with me standing at his left shoulder - it was immediately much better, so we stopped there.  Our work session couldn't have lasted more than 10 minutes, but it was very productive.  I think after a small amount of polishing up that I'll be able to start my mounted softening work.

The left side of his back is slightly sensitive when grooming, so he's having another chiropractor visit next week.  I also need to order him a wool felt pad - as he would wear under a Western saddle - as our chiropractor recommended it for him to improve the fit of my close contact saddle.  I'll also be able to use it when I get him his Western saddle once he stops growing.  Any good recommendations for online places to order a good quality wool felt pad?

After our work session, Pie and I went for a 15-minute walk on the trail around the pastures.  His leading was perfect - he stayed an arm's length behind me and I had the lead loosely draped over my hand, with no tension on the lead, and never once had to close my fingers.  When I stopped, he stopped an arm's length behind me.  When I stood still for a bit, he stood still and looked around not moving his feet at all.  We said hello to the goat - he's still a little worried about the goat but was able to choose to come up and stretch his nose out to sniff it.  There was one tiny spook/startle while we were walking on the trail, but he barely moved his feet and instantly relaxed.  Good Pie!

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Last night I had both Dawn's and Pie's stall guards up, and was in Pie's stall grooming him when Dawn made her opinions known.  I had suspected she was jealous, and I think I got that right.  I had just finished rinsing Dawn's mouth out with the 50/50 solution of Listerine and water, and earlier had given her the paste Banamine, neither of which she'd much enjoyed.  But she put up with it after a moment or two of approach/release work with the tubes. (Dawn used to be terrible about being pasted - she would fling you around the stall and even rear - but my younger daughter did a lot of work with her and she's much better now, although from time to time a refresher is needed.)

Pie's stall isn't directly opposite Dawn's - he's one stall down on the opposite side.  They both had their heads in the aisle.  Dawn gave him a look that would have killed, and squealed and struck with a front foot several times.  She's not in heat, and was clearly saying to him: "if this stall guard wasn't here, I'd come over there and kill you!"  Pie looked a little concerned, as well he might! She's also started doing this in the pasture whenever he approaches their shared (electrified) fence line - she doesn't do it to the other geldings.  Poor jealous Dawn - I'm trying to be sure to give her extra (pleasant as opposed to nasty medicine) attention.  I remember when I first got Promise, Noble was jealous as well - he would pin his ears and buck in his stall if she were nearby, so it isn't just a mare thing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Are You Like Your Horse, Or Is Your Horse Who You Want To Be?

Sometimes it's said: Show me your horse, and show me who you are.  I think there's some truth to this, at least when it comes to how our horses behave and the emotional aura they project.  A nervous worried, rider often will have a nervous, worried horse - their worries reinforce one another.  A calm, confident rider will often (ultimately) have a calm, confident horse.  A horse that's been handled by someone who is aggressive, impatient or angry will often show those same characteristics.  And it's also true that almost all the behaviors our horses display when we're handling them or under saddle are what we've taught them (often without intending to) or behaviors they display because we've failed to provide them the leadership they need, leaving them to fill the gap with their own decisions.

And I think sometimes in an odd way we get the horses we need at certain points in our riding lives.  This is the corollary of the principle that people sometimes come into our lives for a reason.  And often the horses and people this is true of are difficult to deal with, challenge our assumptions in an upsetting way or require us to develop and change in ways that may be hard for us or that may require us to rise to the occasion.

Sometimes we choose our horses and sometimes they choose us.  Sometimes we may choose horses that have traits that we wish we had - aspirational horses, I guess they would be called.  I've been thinking about my horses and how they have reflected my personality or not over time, and what effect that's had on our relationship.

I got Noble in 1997.  He was already 17 by that time.  I think the thing that attracted me to him - I was just getting back into riding after a 20-year layoff - was how responsive and willing he was.  He always tried to get the job done, even if he were worried about something.  He was reliable, although he was also often nervous and even emotional, and he wasn't the bravest horse.  He had a good work ethic and would always try his best for you.  I had an immediate affinity with him - in hind sight he was a lot like who I was at that time.

Norman came along in 1998.  When we got him, he was mean, mean, mean - we believe he'd been abused.  But he was also extremely smart and was a star - he loved to show off and he loved being looked at and admired - he was  a performer.  He and my younger daughter developed a close and strong relationship - she was 8 when we got him and competed on him until she was 12 - although he was never sweet he grew to trust her.  My daughter enjoys performing music and acting, so maybe some of his outgoing, performing traits rubbed off on her?

I found Promise in the spring of 2000, just as I was getting ready to retire.  She was a strong, confident horse who was reliable and never worried, knew her job and did it well, and she was also affectionate in a self-possessed, not fawning, way.  I'd say she was an aspirational horse for me - she's just who I wanted to be at the time.  She gave me confidence, rather than the other way around, and was with me for far too short a time.

Lily and Dawn came along at the same time in 2001.  Lily was originally my horse, and I selected her because she was very interactive - the first thing she did when I met her was to come up to me and breathe in my face.  She also would reliably jump anything you pointed her at.  But the more I rode her, the less good the fit was for me - she was a very dominant, ultra-competitive horse with an aggressive jumping style, and extremely hot and reactive - hard to ride and not well suited for the hunters.  In an odd way, Lily's personality mirrored who I'd become as a person at the point of my retirement - actually not who I wanted to be which was one of the reasons I retired.  But my older daughter, who was 13 at the time, wanted to do jumpers, so that worked out well for them as Lily excelled at that.  They became great partners when doing that job, but Lily was always a difficult horse to ride and handle.

Dawn was originally my older daughter's horse, but my younger daughter took her over soon after we got her.  When we got Dawn, she was very young - only 4 - and recently off the race track.  She was gangly and awkward at that point.  My younger daughter was 12 at the time she started riding Dawn. As their relationship developed and they grew up together, they came to show a number of common traits - athleticism, fearlessness in taking risks, sweetness combined with fierceness, great intelligence and a love of speed on the trail.  They are very close and have great confidence in one another - my daughter says that Dawn is her "soul horse".

I've been working with Dawn since my daughter is away from college and only home on occasional breaks.  Dawn is, I think, not an ideal match for me personality-wise, and at points I've doubted my abilities to work with her, but we've learned to work together.   I think Dawn is one of those horses that comes along at a certain point to help you refine and develop how you work with horses.  She's been a real challenge for me and I've had to rise to the occasion in a number of ways by developing my thinking and ways of working with horses.  I've also had to step up and provide her with confident, consistent leadership, which I haven't always found easy.  She's made a real difference, I think, to my horsemanship - she's stretched me in ways that weren't and aren't always comfortable - and I am grateful to her for that.  I also just plain admire her - she's completely herself: dominant, bold, an athlete and extremely intelligent.  She's also become increasingly affectionate with me as we've worked together, which is a compliment - she's not a horse who bestows her affections lightly.

Maisie came along in 2002.  In hindsight, she was a complete personality mismatch for me.  She can be fussy, impatient, and easily frustrated, and she is a slow learner.  It took us a long time to develop a working relationship, and her frequent physical problems really limited what we could do together.  But she was also very sweet - I got her primarily for her looks and sweetness.  She taught me a lot - she came along at a critical point where I was just starting to change how I thought about my work with horses.  The fact that she could be frustrating to work with helped me learn to be more patient and to break tasks down more effectively into smaller pieces.

You know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, where the porridge was either too hot, too cold or just right?  Well Pie is both an aspirational horse for me and one that's in many ways already just right.  I knew the moment I set eyes on him and handled him that he was going to be the one - it was much like the immediate good feeling I had about Noble and Promise.  He is very smart, willing to work hard, has a lot of try, is basically calm and sensible and already has real presence for such a young horse - he's friendly and outgoing but almost noble in his bearing.  These are all traits I'd like to have more of - I hope he can teach me some of that.  It also doesn't hurt that every time I see him in the pasture, I love his overall solid, balanced look and his beautiful color, and his rugged, handsome face!

Is your horse like you (or are you like your horse), or have you got (or had) horses that either were challenges you had to rise to or even horses that were or are "aspirational" horses that you'd like to be more like? (If you decide to do a post on this subject, feel free to put a link in the comments so we can find it.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Some Answers and a Couple of Avian Visitors

The vet has come and gone.  Dawn was sedated and the vet took a good look inside her mouth.  No damage to her teeth, which is good news, but she does have a 4-inch long laceration that's pretty deep - into the muscle - on one side of her tongue.  No wonder there was so much blood.  We'll never know for sure how she managed to do that while at the gate waiting to come in from turnout.  The vet said it should heal up really well in 10 days to two weeks, without stitches.  She's on Banamine for the swelling for a few days and also on a course of oral antibiotics (Uniprim - which is sulfadiazine and trimethoprim).  I'm also supposed to rinse her mouth out with a 50/50 solution of Listerine a couple of times a day to flush particles out of the wound.  We'll soak her pellets and add the powdered antibiotics (which are apparently apple-flavored, so here's hoping she eats them).  No riding except in a bitless bridle (if she's comfortable with that) for two weeks.  She's in her stall recovering from the sedation, and I'll go back in an hour or so to check on her and feed her dinner and her hay.

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We feed birds over the winter from a variety of feeders.  We get lots of American Goldfinches at our thistle feeders - they're in their olive-green winter plumage.  Recently, though, we've had another visitor who joins the usual goldfinches - he's on the right in the photos that follow:



He's a European Goldfinch, and one of our local birdwatchers says he's been around for about two years or so.  He could have somehow made it over here from Europe, or more likely he's an escapee from captivity - in any event he seems to be thriving.  His black and white and red face is distinctive, and he's larger than our usual goldfinches.

This morning we also had another visitor to our feeder area - but one not interested in seeds but in the bird life at the feeders:


I believe that this is a Cooper's Hawk.  We often see him swooping over the feeders, and from time to time he catches a bird.  Today he had no luck and flew off after a few moments.