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Archive for the ‘Horse Health’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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