Archive for September, 2009

sitting on artillery in Iraq

hot and tired in Iraq

On warm days a good nose can tell which stall the smell of ammonia is coming from. Today it’s in T-man’s and Moke’s. We’ve had spring-like pasture all summer and I just got a load of new hay. The combination tipped the scale on protein. For once my mind didn’t hang around grazing with the horses, instead it shot to the container of protein supplement I just sent my soldier son in Iraq. His unit is always working out and trying to build muscle so he bought out the store when he came home for his two weeks R & R.

His unit is stationed in the south of Iraq and has lived the summer in 120-130 degree heat. Add in 50 pounds of full battle-rattle and their socks are soaked with sweat running down their body before they walk out the door. Dehydration is a serious enemy where they are.

maxing out the thermometer

maxing out the thermometer

And do you know what your body does with most of the excess protein you eat? It gets rid of it, washes it right down the toilet.  So I’m concerned about my son taking a protein supplement in the heat and becoming dehydrated. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to educate him about protein and heat and that brought me back to the horses.

Because they handle protein a lot like we do.

Some excess protein goes into fat, but most excess protein is broken down in the kidneys and excreted in the urine. One of the elements protein breaks into is ammonia. Anytime you get a strong ammonia smell in the barn, someone is most likely gobbling more protein than they need. It’s a pretty effective indicator.

Normally I don’t obsess about that. But thinking of my son made me realize I need to do a better job of regulating my horses’ protein through the hot summer months. The Army can and does mandate how much water my son needs to drink each day in the field. But I can’t do that with my horses. Unless I syringe the water into them, I am at the mercy of their thirst indicator and urinating doesn’t always trigger the idea to drink more water.

My guys lose buckets of water in sweat during the summer. Being Icelandics with thick skin and deeply embedded veins, there are weeks when they are drenched in sweat just standing still in the shade. I rinse them off, put them under fans, elect not to work them on “Bermuda High” days, ride in the cool of the day, ride in shady routes, and ride in the river. I do everything I can to cool their body–– yet I never think about the excess protein they are eating and how much liquid they are urinating because of it.

I’ll keep it simple. Just imagine their body as a big bag of water. If water is oozing out through microscopic pores AND through a small hole in the bag, the end result is less water in the bag at a faster rate. Now the bag needs a certain volume of water in it to make it function at its maximum. All that water loss compromises the bag’s function. Not even going to think about the way that changes the concentration of electrolytes and blood ph.

I don’t know of too many riders, aside from the endurance folk, who even think about dehydration as a contributing factor to a poor performance in the ring or on the trail. A number of riders add electrolytes when their horses are sweating. I sure do, and do you know how I add those electrolytes? I add them with a cup of high protein grain so the boys will eat it. I feel my head molding to the shape of Homer Simpson’s –– DOLT. I just gave them a supplement to help them keep and retain water in a supplement that will make them eliminate water.  ( for the science bent- I am well aware of the other functions of electrolytes- I’m just dealing with hydration at the moment.)

We are heading into our cold months here in Jersey. Indian Summer will keep the grass strong and growing for another 2-3 weeks and then the rich green will die off and the smell of ammonia will dissipate. I’ll have the whole winter to ponder the problem. A lot will depend on the climate. Another great growing season means I really have to do something. If the rains stop early and the sun dries up the grasses, I’ll be able to skate by. Whatever the outcome, I am putting “Hydration” on my list of suspects next time my guys just aren’t “right.” I hope my son does too.

Feeling worn out in Iraq

Feeling worn out in Iraq


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One of the vivid memories from my childhood shore vacations is the little weather prediction cards sold at any shop within two miles of the beach. These cardboard cards were about the size of a 3 X 5 index card. The center held a flocked picture, usually of a ship with sails or a lighthouse. Through the miracles of science (a hydrometer?) the flocked area would change color to indicate fair, changing, and rainy weather. In our terms, sunning all day, get your sun in when you can, or don’t bother getting up.

I don’t see those cards anymore–– don’t look for them either. But I think of them about every fall when I’m contemplating whether to clip my horses.

Clipping the winter coat a universally referred to subject, but it only applies to horses living and working in cold climates. If you are working your horse in the winter, the animal invariably starts to sweat. Sweat is a real problem in the winter. Think of a time when you’ve run around with a parka on, got your undershirt wet and then sat out in the cold. Few things will chill you to the bone faster. That’s pretty much the situation with a horse sweating under his winter coat and then standing still in a stall.  The ying and yang of hair coats, they protect things from reaching the skin, but they prohibit the flow of dirt and moisture reaching the coat’s surface as well.

If you clip you have to replace the hair coat’s warmth mechanism with a blanket. Sometimes lots of blankets. In some climates or barns blanketing goes on even when the horses aren’t clipped.

So when I start thinking about clipping I start thinking of the little weather prediction cards from the shore. Deciding when, what and how many blankets to put on a horse on any given day is worth an entire coffee conversation, at least two false starts, and one possible trip to reverse the decision. It can take years off a caretaker’s life!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone invented a “climate strip” that could be sewn into every blanket? Blue would mean cool, heavy moisture, put this blanket on as the outer shell, it might sleet or snow tonight. Red might mean it’s going into the minus-teens, put it on with an outer layer covering. The descriptions could go on and on.

The complications are endless. After all, is this a thin-skinned Arab, a thick-skinned Percheron, a fully clipped horse, trace clipped, no clip? At some point the human mind has to engage and take responsibility. And what would mud or laundering do to the strip. Yes, the problems go on and on as well.

Still, it would be intriguing to have a changing climate strip sewn into the blanket that related to the weather conditions the blanket is good for. After all, when a blanket is purchased the little throw away brand-tags detail the degrees and weather conditions the blanket is good for.  I assume there is some standard they use for this.

For now, I’ve solved my problems by making my last clipping of the season in October and having it a really low trace clip. Just the sweat lines are clipped and the hair is full and wooly across the face, legs and top half or more of the body. Under my particular conditions it gives me an easy out. Less sweat and no need to blanket. But if someone would come up with an indicator strip, hmmm, I do miss dressing the boys in the latest style.

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I’ve had my fingers stuck to the keyboard tapping out some promised material to a client. This meant giving the barn a fast sweep and the boys promises of great grooming sessions to come. Time makes us notice changes we sometimes miss everyday. Such was the case when I stripped off Moke’s fly sheet for that promised spa session.

I still remark every fall and spring on how his coat changes color. After 10 years you would think I would stop marveling at a brown coat turning red-orange.

T-man goes from shinny black to dull brown.

My horse friends put it down to the sun fading the coat color, in fact there are shelves in tack stores full of anti-fade products, now. But it just doesn’t sit right with me.

I had a black lab and he was just as black in September after spending every summer afternoon on the porch. But, I could hasten his seasonal shed by pulling out his “brown” tufts of hair. Those were the tufts that where already released from his skin and about to make their way to my carpet. His coat would be black except for those brown tufts ready to roll away.

This makes me wonder about the horses, if the color change  isn’t related to the release of the hair shaft in preparation of the old coat sloughing off and the new one growing in. I’ll bet there is a scientist out there with the answer, how would a Google search find him?

Hillary Pooley’s book, “Your Horse’s Skin,” shows some detailed diagrams of the horse’s hair follicle. The hair shaft grows out of the hair follicle and, despite its tiny nature, it is surrounded by a sweat gland (yup, every single hairshaft), a sebaceous gland and an erector muscle called the arrector pili muscle. That’s the little muscle that makes their hair stand on edge in the cold or lie flat in the heat.

When they change their coats the new hair follicle pushes out the old. Just using some human logic (which admittedly doesn’t always hold for animals), the old hair has to release its attachment to the arrector pili muscle, in fact its attachment to the entire follicle.

I play with this idea because Moke’s coat color doesn’t change until just a few weeks before I start to see the first hairs being shed.

So when his coat changes from brown to red-orange I’m wondering if those hair shafts have already been cut off from life support, no longer attached to the arrector pili  and just waiting to be pushed out of the way by the upcoming new hair shaft.

The hair is reflecting the light spectrum that hits it. That’s why we see any color at all. And we’ve all seen subtle changes in color when the angle of the light source changes. So if the hair shaft isn’t attached to anything and it’s just “hanging in there,” couldn’t that affect the reflective nature and its color?IMG_2861

Or maybe it is just the sun fading the coat. But then how do I explain the three different colors during three different clippings. It’s April and the bottom trace clip shows his new dark brown coat coming in. The second lighter red-orange is his undercoat (vellus hairs), left over from his trace clip last October. And the top color is his full winter coat with guard hairs in tact.

Whatever the reason, it always provides opportunities to talk about my little guys when people stop to ask me about the odd, striped coloring of my horse. A bit of a tie-dyed pony for sure.

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T-man had a fabulous roll in the summer dust. He has perfected the roll to an art. He rolls his side, he snakes his neck, he grinds his face. His little hooves dangle awkwardly in the air as his body gyrates; to the city visitor it looks like my horse is having an epileptic fit. He spends a good minute on each side and is deliberate enough when he rolls to the side untouched to fully scratch the roots of his mane.

Watching this show brings an internal giggle, oh to be a kid in mud again, and a quick check under his face mask to see if he hurt his eye during this dramatic act.

This week he did. The eyelid did just what it is suppose to do and saved his eyeball, but it had a nice spot of nudity on it. Off with the fly mask for a couple of days ’till the hair grows back, no use tempting fate – I’d rather meet my vet at the deli for coffee than in my barn on a call.

I watched T-man go into the paddock to greet his fellow masked aliens. People stop by farms all the time to ask about why the horses are wearing these masks. Is it just for flies? I wonder.

I pondered this when I donned my own Rite-aid 2-for-the-price- of-one specials. I always feel cooler with my sunglasses on. Perhaps I’d be better to describe the feeling as “less hot.” I feel that way too when I put a brimmed hat on that shades my eyes. I don’t know if I actually am a bit less hot, but I feel that way when I’ve cut the sun’s intensity from my eyes.

I haven’t done any serious research on this, but I’m pretty sure I’ve come across literature indicating that the sun striking our retina does more than produce pictures. It stimulates chemicals in our brain. So much so that there’s a portion of the population that suffers depression with the seasonal shift of the sun and daylight hours.

If I feel “less hot” with sun glasses on, I wondered if my horse feels “less hot” with a fly mask on. I’ve wrapped it around my own face to check visibility and found a shade effect as well. I don’t know how you would even be able to check that. And there is always the question of reality in the brain. Do you THINK you feel less hot or are you REALLY less hot. And even if you think you feel less hot, can’t we control our body temperatures to some degree through meditative direction. Perhaps our eyes are telling the brain to cool down a bit. It isn’t a concept without merit.DSC02390_2

I wonder if there are any studies on this for humans or animals. But I haven’t the time to look into it now. It’s a prime fall day and the face mask is washed. Time to put on my own sunnies and reapply T-man’s so he can be the cool dude he thinks he is.

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