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Summer Riding

Heat Index chart

It has been a particularly hot summer here in New Jersey. Listening to the weather channel indicates we are not the only ones setting a record number of days above 90º. During the summer the barn conversations invariably roll around to getting all the rides done early in the morning. As I listen to the schedules and look at all the gear on the horses I find myself to be the eccentric rider. But all my antics have a factual basis for them, I am mindful, however, that I don’t always work the fact right.

From my youthful wanderings around the country I know that humidity prevents effective evaporation and evaporation is the body’s major cooling mechanism for humans and horses. I also know that air movement aids in that evaporation.

Every location’s climate is different, but here in the Garden state our humidity is always higher in the morning hours, dropping around 11 am and staying lower until the day is almost evening. Lower is relative, a Jersey summer day can start out with 80-90% humidity in the early hours and drop to 60% by lunch. Dry by Louisiana standards and a sopping mess by New Mexico’s numbers. The stillness of the morning almost always gives way to a 4-7 mile-per-hour wind by lunch, adding another cooling dimension.

So, despite the rise in the mercury bulb during the summer, I often find the boys and I are more comfortable riding a bit later in the day when the morning humidity drops and the afternoon breeze sets in.

I’ve tried to explain this to friends but get tongue-tied and lost amidst explanations of evaporation, convection, conduction and radiation as forms of heat transfer. (maybe it’s a “tion” thing) And the “heat index” or “real feel” temperature given with the weather report is just a mathematical equation based on a subjective study. Wind is rarely mentioned as a cooling effect in the summer, but we get a daily wind chill report in the winter. Why the weatherman discounts the wind’s affect on heat is beyond me. How do they think the idea of fans came into being?

Then there is the ride itself. My summer rides follow the shady side of the path or the forest edge of a field. Working near a river is sure to have a cooler microclimate – nature’s air conditioner. Avoiding fields with vegetation above 18 inches allows the horses’ bodies to feel breezes and keeps the bugs down too. Tall grass works like its own little insulation factory. I run through the sun and slow in the shade. Sometimes the shade of an indoor doesn’t compensate for the higher humidity lurking inside; a contribution from each horse ridden in it over the last 24 hours. California and Florida have simple roofs over their rings to abate the sun - what a great idea.

River walking is a special delight as the horse comes out cooler than when he went in. I was once fortunate to have a solid-bottom, shallow river by me and the boys and I spent many days walking a mile or more in the cool water. Great work for their muscles and their work-out was their cool-down for the day.

If the summer humidity is below 60% I will wet my horses down before I ride them, being careful to scrap all the excess water off. Odd thing water, it cools the veins, yet can generate an insulation effect if left to soak on the horse and weigh the hair coat against the skin trapping in the body’s heat, or robbing it in the winter. But then I’ve never understood why ice floats. Water is nature behaving oddly. And all of my friends think the saddle and pad will fall off if I place them on a wet horse. It’s a trick I learned from endurance riders and they are not known for their saddles sliding wrong side up. I did work with an FEI instructor once who knew this trick with horses and used it on her students as well, sponging us down as we listened how to perfect a movement.

rubbing alcohol by the gallon

When the humidity gets high I use alcohol baths to rinse the boys off. Alcohol or Vetrolin in a bucket of water sponged on and scraped off, evaporates quickly leaving them to be put away cool and dry.

The boys are good travelers so I dispense with leg wraps during summer travel, preferring bell boots to protect heels if there is a short stop. The major blood vessels running down each leg are a significant heat transportation highway- no use making the horse hotter than the day already will. I eliminate polo and other leg wraps for the same reason unless there truly is an orthopedic risk without them. I dress down myself in the summer and do the same for the horses.

Taking note of how the sun and shade, moisture and air swirl around you each day may give you new ideas of when and how you ride. Summer doesn’t always mean you have to be a morning person. Here’s a link to some good extension articles on keeping horses out of danger in the summer.

A Research Army

Reading through some of my posts it is pretty obvious that I lean towards research topics. I have no scientific background and can’t pronounce most of the terminology used in scientific reports, but my mind tends to always be asking questions and that runs it into the world of research papers. Through scientific endeavors we know a lot more about horses these days then we knew in the past, but there are still an awful lot of topics left on desktops with no funding to initiate.

Research on horses is expensive and most horse studies use a very small population because of the expense. Think about it; it is pretty expensive to have a hundred or more horses around for a research project: land, feed, labor–– Cha-ching, cha-ching. There are also rules that have to be abided by. Most research is done through academic organizations and they have ethics boards on how the animals can be handled or treated and they are very susceptible to lobby groups. So if you wanted to do a study where you tested the reaction of a horse to a tap on the nose by your finger, you might not be able to get that approved. A finger tap could be defined as cruel in some interest group’s vocabulary. And there are things that we, as a society in the West, just won’t tolerate. You can do all sorts of nutrition tests on pigs because pigs are a food source. You test protein and you can put the pig down and necropsy it and look for findings. The pigs life is limited anyway. You can’t really do that with horses, certainly not on a research scale.

Yet, it is through research that we find stuff out, learn to eliminate harmful things and incorporate beneficial things for our animals. Just doing chemistry equations doesn’t really work; if it did we would have an answer to all the world’s diseases. Just play a game of chemical bonds between the bad-guys-disease-makers and the medicines. The pharmaceutical libraries are full of papers on what should happen, but what in fact did not happen.

But now we have the Internet. My son has his extra CPU power harnessed by Stanford for a gnome project, gamers are connecting and creating whole fantasy societies and people are connecting to share ideas around the world. What if we all could share a research project?

I first started thinking about this when I heard a podcast by the Science Times (New York Times) on Moebius Syndrome. A researcher connected into that particular population affected by this syndrome and asked for volunteers to take a survey. She got a really good response. Cornell is doing a study on skeletal variations of the horse and they put ads in horse publications and sent packets to horse owners for measurements. And just this week I received a survey from a Ph.D. candidate doing a project on horse personalities. (You can participate through a link below)

Now putting surveys in the hands of untrained scientists can be a can of worms. But let’s be optimistic and say you could develop a survey that allowed you to detect the outliers and wild cards. Going to the masses might give enough information that would make a follow-up project much more informative and meaningful because you would have already narrowed down a focus through those survey results.

I’ll bet every vet has a few clients in his or her practice that they feel confident in. They are the clients that the vet knows really follow the instructions: the wound is hosed twice a day for 20 minutes-really. The eye drops are put in every three hours around the clock- really. The horse is walked 1 hour a day for 10 days – really. Why couldn’t these individuals be asked to join a “survey army”?  We are talking about basic research, but let’s say you want to do research on horses drinking after work in hot weather. Wouldn’t it be great to get 300 inputs to that question instead of 15? It could be done. Yes, lots of work and effort to come up with a standardization procedure, but think of the payouts. And once a procedure has been developed it can become an industry standard and used throughout. Think of the potential world-wide. There is a lot of information and a lot of variances that could be discovered.

The fact of the matter is that we really are at a point where this is being done by researchers. We just need to expand our horizons and get more equine researchers thinking this way. We can participate in helping to discover the magic that makes up a horse.

If you have 20 minutes why not try your hand at being part of a research army. Rachel Kristiansen at the University of Mississippi is conducting a survey about horse personalities. Take Ms Kristiansen’s survey and become an active member in helping to help your horse.

staying in the summer shade

staying in the summer shade

It’s been awhile since I have written anything. Put it down to the start of the lazy days of summer. There is always a transition period of feeling the heat and lowering the energy levels; working in the shade, walking by the rivers, slowing down the thoughts. Do thoughts create heat? While I slow down in the summer, I actually ride more. Many of those rides are walking in the river and workouts in the woods. My horses rest in the winter.

The amount of rest we give our animals often depends on how we use them, or don’t use them. As a rider/owner with lint-filled pockets, my horses always get a winter rest. With frozen ground and no indoor, I have to wait until a snowfall to cushion the concrete characteristics of my frozen earth. Rather than wait for the snow, I just hang up the spurs for three winter months. The boys get checked every day, but their stall time amounts to a draught of water and munching some hay. They spend those vacation months walking around, stretching out, sleeping, playing and just being a horse with no agenda.

I envy my friends who go to Florida for the winter months or have access to an indoor. Their horses are in work and ready to go when the first show opens for the season. Many even show through the winter. But there are some benefits to my exile.

I remember listening to an older vet give a presentation on lameness. This particular vet owns one of the premier clinics in the state and has a long list of famous equine clients. His presentation was on the latest technologies, surgeries and therapies available for soundness issues and was followed by the usual Q and A period. The first question asked revolved around the success rate of all these modalities. I found the vet’s reply intriguing. To paraphrase, he said the surgeries and treatments are usually successful but the horse needs a proper amount of recovery time. The animal can move soundly, but everything is still healing and held together with weak links. Very few people really allow the full recovery time needed by the horse and, if they do, they often rush the rehabilitation of the animal’s structure.

Here he paused, then continued. “Horses used to get the winters off, their bodies would recover and they suffered less soundness issues because of that rest. Now horses are worked year around and it shows in their bodies.”

winter's rest

Well, in a way, the horse is going to get its rest one way or another. How many of those horses that are in work year around develop an issue that requires time off for healing. My guess is quite a few.

So we might want to consider: we can choose our timing and give our animals that month’s vacation, or we can wait for the horse to break down and be forced to put it on a month’s stall rest. The latter never comes at the right time and is always expensive. Either way, it seems the horse is going to get its rest.

Ever notice that sometimes you bop along oblivious to things and then BAM –– in a two-day period you get hit with the same concept five times and a light bulb dawns. The light was there all the time, you just never saw it.

I had that light bulb turned on for me recently.

First comment was by a neighbor:

Her daughter’s event horse is not made for dressage. But put the little guy in a warm-up ring full of dressage wanna-bes and he starts outperforming himself. I always put this down to the rider being more relaxed, yet inspired in the warm-up ring. Hmmmm.

Second comment was by a friend:

Pokey never coughed in her life until she went out with a horse that is known to have allergies. Quite a fuss was made over the allergic horse’s cough: coos and concerned looks all focused on the beast with a sensitivity. Soon Pokey was trying out a cough of her own. Got no response and gave it up. Hmmmm.

Third comment was at a meet of Icelandic horses:

“He only tolts when he’s in a group of Icelandics.” I must digress a moment to explain that Icelandic horses have a special gait called the “tolt.” While they may tolt away in a field, when they are put under-saddle they often need help to learn how to rebalance their body for tolting. Some riders have trouble with this rebalance and can’t get their horse to tolt. But, put a bunch of non-tolting Icelandics along side of  some tolters and the buggers will tolt for miles. Hmmmm.

I can’t help but wonder about the horse’s ability to mimic things on its own level. I’m sure there are different explanations for why each of the above occurred. It would be near impossible to make a controlled study to  prove things one way or another. I’m inclined to give my equine a nod towards the higher order of thinking and suspect there is some imitation going on. Hearing  these three stories in sequence really made me think about this phenomenon and suddenly I see horse-aping behavior all over the place.

And just in case you aren’t convinced I’m including an except my friend wrote about her aping Arab.

She has my number by Zoe English

Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 4:03pm

So yesterday I went out for a beautiful trail ride on Pokey with my dear friend Holly and her horse Patchwork. Pokes was a gem, very well behaved, brave over the high and echoey bridge, happy to plunge into the river and wade up and downstream. I was proud of her. Smart, brave filly.

Smart, I soon find out, as in calculating.

Poor Patches has allergies. As we’re strolling down the road at one point, Patches stretches her neck down and out, and starts to cough. Holly and I are instantly sympathetic –”Poor baby. Poor Patches.” Holly strokes her neck. Patches coughs. I make cooing noises. Pokey has her little devil ear cocked sideways, her eye slightly turned back to me.

I am familiar with this look: I call it the Kitten Face. It is cute and endearing, with expected benefits. She uses it when she is, to her mind, richly entitled to a reward for some extraordinary feat, like allowing me to pick her hind feet without kicking me, or not breaking out of the crossties when I sling the saddle on her back. Many clicker trained horses have perfected this look.

But here? I dismiss it and Holly and I pay careful attention to Patches, who seems okay. A few yards further down, she coughs again. I send sympathetic kisses in her direction. Holly rubs her neck and murmurs softly. Patches coughs loudly, then seems okay.

Pokey takes a deep breath, puts her head down, her ear swiveled back toward me, and coughs loudly. She raises her head and sends the Kitten Face over her shoulder. Deliberately and unavoidably. Rinse and repeat, just in case I missed it the first time.

Pokey does NOT have allergies. She has not eaten anything on this ride. I have never heard her cough, not recently anyway, and she is turned out in a field with every imaginable form of pollen producer.

“Give it up, sweetheart,” I tell her. I roll my eyes. “Not working.”

She flicks her head sideways and blows me a raspberry.

She does not cough again, not during the entire ride, not since.

My next horse will be taking an IQ test as part of the vetting, and there will be a very firm, nonnegotiable upper limit cutoff.

David W. Horohov Ph.D., Maxwell Gluck Equine Research Center, University of Kentucky

I love the “wow” factor in associations and reminded myself of that experience when I reviewed the tape I made of Dr. David Horohov at the 2010 Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference.

Horohov reminded us of the complexities of disease and the circumstances of fact-finding. He gave a talk on rhodococcus equi, a nasty foal disease, but he wove in stories of HIV, the hygiene theory, and the wire walk of how to jump-start one system while leaving another alone.

Rhodococcus equi (RE) is a disease that plagues foals, usually under 2 months, and is known for its distinctive diarrhea and its production of pneumonia. It has veterinary, time, labor and worry costs associated with it and it can kill. Just like the human population, diarrhea and dehydration go hand in hand and little bodies dehydrate pretty quickly; and if the runs don’t get them the lungs drowning in fluid might. Pneumonia is always serious.

The little bugger that causes this disease is ubiquitous. It is everywhere in the ground. Yup, you too are stepping on RE somewhere on your farm. It’s just like ants, if you don’t have them, chances are nothing around you is breathing, including you.

Some farms are plagued more than others and for years the general direction has been cleanliness is akin to healthiness.

Taking a look at RE the first thing that jumps out is that this everywhere-in-the-air disease doesn’t much affect adults. In fact, it is pretty unusual to have an adult with RE.  Turns out the adult horse population has immunity to this little bugger. So the thinking was that the younger horse population had no immunity. And so the thought went until the medical community identified rhodococcus equi in AIDS patients. Huh? The medical community thought the same thing so they started looking into this. (told you the bug was ubiquitous) Human medicine has funding and the results found in that sector were scooped up by the equine medical community.

It was discovered that the foals had immunity, but the immunity just wasn’t kicking in yet. Their bodies had to be “sensitized” to the bacteria, rather like the act of a vaccine. To take a sentence from Horohov’s extract “While most cellular components of the immune system are present at birth, in many cases these cells can be considered immature or lacking full functional capability.”

How do you get an immune system to “grow-up”? One theory (I always want to make sure that people realize we are talking about the discovery phrase, not the we-know-it-for-sure phase.) is that the immature immune cells grow-up to be productive members of the organism by being challenge. This gives some strong meaning to the aphorism, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

How do you sensitize a foal? They actually “challenged” their immune system by bringing them into a less than pristine barn for four hours everyday (with mom). This is a scary thing to say because I always worry how others interpret the statement. The foals were getting good management, nutrition, and the barn didn’t have 3 feet of manure in the stalls with no ventilation. It was just dirty, maybe not all the manure and urine out of the stalls, maybe not all the dirt swept from the aisles.

The findings were that these foals didn’t get the disease at the same rates their pasture counter parts did. A lot more work needs to go into this, a lot more blood pulled, conditions researched, etc. But it took the first step in saying maybe these foals need a little challenge in their life. (Horohov discussed the pivotal immunity thruster, interferon gamma, and how it kicks in, but you need lots of cups of coffee to deal with that story.)

It also makes sense in light of the “hygiene” theory.  Human studies that show kids who aren’t exposed to animals, flora and fauna early on in life are much more susceptible to developing allergies later. I see this in the Icelandic horse population where a horse imported from pristine Iceland has a 30% chance of developing summer eczema (allergy) when it hits the states; yet, the domestic-bred Icelandics don’t show this propensity.

If further research confirms these initial findings and theories, the equine community can look into how to beef up immunity faster. It is there, just start the engine earlier. Is there an intra-nasal spray that can be used, a vaccine, a probiotic to feed? But in interfering with a foal’s immunity system can you end up damaging the immunity that mom has passed on? Questions that won’t be answered for a while. But the first step is taken- knowing a bit more about the little bugger and the system it attacks.

Meanwhile, I am starting to see the value in the adage “ you need to eat a pound of dirt before you’re 12.” There just might be something to that.

You can blow the dust off a piece of paper, but how do you blow the dust off of computer writing? Perhaps letting your fingers absorb the pent-up electrical charges. If so, then it would have to be with fingers vibrating that I write this entry, as it has been a long time between utterances.

Back in the U.S.A.

Not without good reason–– My son came home from Iraq!

But that simple event also required a 2500-mile drive to El Paso. It required stops in Lexington, Kentucky to rubberneck at the border of white and black running board fencing along the highway. Fencing to keep the grazing broodmares and babies from a disastrous highway drift. It required a look across the Mississippi River remembering Tom Sawyer and cogitating on whether there were any horses in his story. It required a stop in Oklahoma City to view an art fair and look at a bevy of beautiful paintings representing the West, and pining after the oils of Michael Swearngin’s cowboys. (Contemporary Cowboy) It required a stop at the Fort Worth Stockyards–– thank you Wildstorm at Backroads Photo Blog for giving me the idea.

Back from the cattle drive

The Stockyards, Fort Worth, and Texas made me feel like I could stretch out on a horse. In New Jersey I always feel contained. By accident I stopped in at Tesky’s in Weatherford, Texas, the cutting horse capital of the world. I picked up a several pairs of great leather gloves in even greater colors. (Why don’t we find these things back East?)

My simple trip was really a journey. It was not only a journey of miles and friendship (My sister-in-law kept me from falling asleep at the wheel.) it was also a journey of ideas. It is good to open the windows of the mind and let the air blow in the sights and smells of the world outside your own. It is good to let your mind play with those senses and add the spices of information you have stored along the way and come up with new mixes and new ideas.

One of those ideas was from a podcast I listened to during those five days of travel. Simon Sinek on TEDTalks, 5/4/2010 (here’s a link) gave a great talk on what makes leaders. And, of course, great leaders get things done. We need a lot of great leaders in the world of horses right now. Race tracks, trails, competitions, living space, rules and regulations are all presenting problems to people in the horse industry and one of the biggest frustrations I see is getting others to listen and understand the concerns we have. I thought about Sinek’s talk for many miles. I am still thinking about it. I’m thinking we could make better progress if we didn’t talk so much about what we do with our horses and talked more about why we do it. Why we ride, why we like to groom, handle, smell and stand next to them. There are probably as many whys as there are people. Sinek used a phrase, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Think about why you ride and the next time someone asks you about your riding consider telling them why you ride, not what you do when you ride.

Raymond Geor, BVMS, College of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

Dr. Raymond Geor, a veterinarian and researcher at the College of Veterinarian Medicine at Michigan State University, gave one of the first presentations I heard at the Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference.  His talk had big 6-syllable scientific terms- all delivered with the measured pace of a scientist. He packs a lot of information in his talk, and as a layperson I usually come away thinking, “What was he talking about?”

I am fortunate to have a tape recorder to help me keep track of the stuff I miss. The more I listen to his talk, the more I can skate around the moguls of language and studies: And the more I can see the landscape he is describing. There were no bunny slopes in sight; the good doctor took us to the top of the Matterhorn and it was an hour’s speed race the whole way down to the end.

The verbal description of his talk was only two paragraphs long. It stated that there are anecdotal impressions by veterinarians of a relationship between obesity, insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. The second paragraph stated Geor would review the current diet and nutrition management for reducing the risk of laminitis in these animals.

ah, the miracles of photoshop

We start with a wee background from last year where Dr. Nicholas Frank gave a presentation that I summarize as “ Obesity in a horse is a good clinical sign that you are courting problems.” This is where Geor picks up and in a nice way says- it has been noted that the observable characteristic of obesity often indicates a predisposition for pasture-induced laminitis in horses. This, then, would be the laminitic phenotype. These horses seem to respond to changes in dietary and environmental conditions differently than other members of their herd.

We were also reminded of the fact that at the heart of laminitis is inflammation that disrupts life in the laminae resulting in its death and, in some cases, severe coffin bone rotation and the demise of the horse as well. Furthermore, there is a pretty good hunch that there is a connection between a pasture-induced laminitis episode and disturbance in the animal’s hind-gut brought on by rapidly fermenting carbohydrates that in some way (death of microbes, toxin release, gut leakage?) causes an inflammatory response in the horse that takes it over the threshold into laminitis.

Currently there are three main theories scientists are working on.

  1. there is an underlying inflammatory condition in these horses and ponies.
  2. Insulin toxcity
  3. A perfect storm of multiple colliding factors

Why would a fat horse or pony be more susceptible to laminitis? Ah-ha. That’s a good question that has no answers. But, there have been some recent discoveries in other species (us humans for one) that merit consideration (and therefore research) for the equine species.

It would seem that fat, once thought of as a simple collection of  storage cells, actually is ALIVE! ( the monster within- I sense a movie in all of this.) Adipose tissue is very metabolically active. It regulates things like pro-inflammatory cytokines, which makes the scientist wonder if the obese horse is in a constant metabolic state of systemic inflammation. If so it would be easy enough to understand why anything that would contribute more inflammation would tip the horse over the laminitic threshold.

Wondering what insulin looks like?

In other species fat seems to have a pretty strong affect on insulin. Interestingly insulin actually has two pathways, one is use (sensitivity) and the other is production. Fat appears to decrease the use of insulin while increasing the production of it with the result that there ends up being a large concentration of insulin in the blood stream (hyperinsulinemia.) That’s a very bad thing for the circulation and results in vaso-constriction: in other words tissue (such as the laminae) starvation and death.

Then there is the perfect storm theory, fat, inflammation, insulin, gut mobility, gut bio-environment, gut motility, gut permeability, forage composition factors other than carbohydrates, genetics, climate, life-style. Whew. Oh, and what about the obese mom that predisposes her foal to metabolic disorders? Happens in humans – could the same be true in horses?

And here’s my own wild card questions. How about how the whole digestion process works in these laminitic phenotypes.  Does their system empty slower or faster than their healthy counterparts? There is always talk of the role of  GI micro-organisms in creating laminitis.

coprophagia: foal eating mom's manure

Well, perhaps the genetic pre-disposition component is the foal eating mom’s bacteria laden feces.Mom could have “laminitis-making-bacteria” in her GI track. Maybe it’s not a gene, maybe it’s being in a stall with predisposed, obese, laminitic mom and the foal’s natural and needed coprophagia.

So many of these conditions are tightly intertwined that it will be a galactic challenge to investigate. And, of course, there is very little money to support this research.

I have an insulin resistant horse and another overweight pony. After listening to Geor’s presentation I renewed my efforts to reduce their weight as I have seen and heard the devastation of laminitis.

And, personally, I’m going on a diet lest I become even more inflammatory in my remarks.

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