Posts Tagged ‘behavior’

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.


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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.

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The Way We Were

Can you imagine what hoof prints will do here

The geldings’ winter break is over and now I have to fight the wet ground conditions. Don’t have an indoor and the boys hate the small outdoor ring so if the trails are too wet to ride upon well, it’ll be a long spring.

I can not help but wonder about riding in times when that was the main form of transportation. Horses were generally shorter and stockier back when our country was forming and even on through the early decades of the 20th century. Were their feet, in general, wider? A wider foot doesn’t sink as far into the ground. How did people deal with well used paths and erosion?

The differences go further. Since the Garden State has become so urbanized I see a lot of changes occurring in the reaction of our horses. With 3 major airports within an hour’s drive and numerous small airports in the vicinity there is always the sound of a motor in the air. The dirt road the barn lives on has become much busier and noisier in the past 15 years. UPS, FedEX, and USPS trucks all have outrageously noisy engines. The grain man bought a new huge, noisy truck, more kids up the road-equal more school busses. New hay tractor with a Harley Davidson rumble. And all these vehicles are large boxes: walls that move past the horses and box them in.

Put a loud engine on this- how would you feel when it passed

Oh, let’s not forget the landscapers, I am the only one I know of that still cuts her own grass. Everyone else has a lawn service with a tanker truck for spraying, a tag-a-long for mowers and blowers and often another truck for crew. And the audio pollution from those mowers even hurts MY deaf ears.

The guys have become increasingly uncomfortable on their home road with all these new, noisy boxes. I am a lot more uncomfortable in bi-ped mode myself on these roads. It is more than just the amount of traffic, it is the size and sound of the vehicles as well.

I am finding more friends my age turning to hacking. Economics and age make us turn to the cheaper sport of trail riding. It should be a bit safer too, but all to often we are using the competition horse as the trail horse. It is what we have in the barn and we have a love and rapport for the animal. It might not be the best animal for negotiating the sights and sounds on today’s trails.

Again I think back to the style of horses used in our country when hauling, hoeing or hunting were the main uses of these animals. Slow and steady surely would have been valuable characteristics. Can you imagine posting 5 miles to town on the movement of an FEI horse? Suspension has its place, but it isn’t on a ride to school everyday.

How about John Adams riding all the way to Philadelphia through the winter snows on a reining champion? I don’t think he wanted any short stops and starts.

Today’s “grade” horse that most people walk past may have been the more valuable horse back in the day, and that day may dawn again. But there are limits to what any animal can comfortably cope with in its environment. This spring if your horse seems a bit more “up” then normal, take a look at the changes in the sights sounds and smells in the surrounding area over the past year or two. The poor beast may have hit his set-point. If we are to be good stewards for all our animals we need to be thinking about the total changes in everything in their environments not just the feed and hay.

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New Hampshire Red

Have you heard the story about the little red hen that wanted to make a cake? It’s an old story and in summary form runs like this:

Hen wants to bake a cake

Hen asks friends to help

Friends all have an excuse

Hen bakes cake all by herself

Friends come to ask for a piece.

Hen has a few choice words for friends.

I am starting to feel like that hen: already have the chicken legs going, am known for flapping my wings and I

Chicken legs, big belly

look great in red. But it isn’t cakes that interest me, it is the use, health and welfare of our horses. Being in New Jersey, we are the sentry for what will eventually occur throughout the country. We are in regulation mode, losing real estate mode, losing horses and services mode.

As an industry we are diverse, non-cohesive and therefore non-threatening to politicians and non-important. We grumble when regulations come down to affect us, but we just wad up the notice, kick the dirt and spit. Wow, that really got a lot done. We are not proactive nor reactive, but very involved in the animal that is the target.

There are a lot of reasons for this problem, I’d like to tackle many of them in some of my future blogs. And they are valid reasons. But if we are going to control our own destiny we have to understand the reasons for this malaise and work to solve them.

I propose that there are three major hinderances to getting people engaged in the workings of the horse industry: Fear, Ignorance, and Time

My personal guess is that Fear is the largest factor. People are afraid to be involved. That fear has a lot of different bases and if you asked someone he/she would deny it vehemently, except for the perceptive individual who understands what makes themselves tick. Fear doesn’t come from just the monster in the closet. Fear comes because of the unknown, commitment, or anticipation of  negative consequences. When we ask for someone’s help we are asking them to help with the unknown.

We are the great flexible, adaptable society. The dark side of that is the fear of anything that might affect those attributes. What if I commit to making a phone call and it’s a sunny day and I want to ride instead. Well, we do commit to things, to paying the mortgage, going to work, taking the kids to soccer practice. How do we overcome the fear of commitment when it comes to involvement with horses?

Let’s say I ask Bill to call a few people about holding a horse show. Bill has agreed the idea is a great one, and is very enthusiastic, offers to sponsor a fence and the use of his tractor. But he won’t make the phone calls. Why? Because there is fear. How much time is that going to take, what if the people called say no- rejection is a powerful force, will I be mired-in and be asked to do more things that I don’t have time for. Bill is afraid. He would never think that, he just thinks that he doesn’t have enough time. The truth is he is afraid of the unknown, of what this effort will mentally cost him, of losing time, of being rejected.

We are in an era where we are all VERY busy, we are too busy. That is not going to stop, so we need to determine methods that are easy for a very busy person to work with. How do we organize an effort so that it is in a digestible time-bite? Perhaps part of it is supplying all the needs. If I need you to cut out circles, here’s the paper, the scissors, the circle stencil, and I’ve timed it, should take you about 1 hour. Now it is known, a beginning and end, and I have an idea of how long it will take- and it’s not too long!

Then there is the great Unaware. The majority of equestrians who own horses don’t own the place where the horse lives. They are ignorant of how regulations affecting the property owners will eventually affect them. They are ignorant about how regulations affecting veterinarians, feed mills, etc will affect them. How do we engage these individuals to understand their voice is needed to ensure there is property to house and ride their horse, etc. In this case we need to educate them, but then we also have to deal with the fear of involvement as above.

We are not at a loss of problems facing the horse industry, but I believe the number one problem is the engagement of the horse riding and loving population. And for that engagement I think we have to overcome the Fear, Ignorance and Time constraints.

To wit; lack of youth involvement – Ignorance (less kids know or experience horses), Time (pack in between their already jammed schedules)

Boarders raising their voices about land and use issues: Ignorance, Time, Fear

Support for industry sectors such as racing: Ignorance, Time, Fear

I can keep going, but I suspect you’ve got the point.

What do YOU think are the major issues preventing people from becoming active in the expansion, use and regulation of horses? Better yet, what ideas do you have to help change this, to overcome these three or more obstacles? And who is the chicken that is going to do all of this? Where are the leaders for our industry? Where are the FUTURE leaders of our industry?

You can start to see the complexity of the issue. Life in today’s world is complex. Writing computer programs and developing financial instruments and fighting terrorists is complex. Yet, we do that every day. So we CAN handle complex situations, we just have to be willing to.

Hey, who's been eating my cake?

Oh, oh, oh, what’s that? Hey, the oven timer just rang, I’ve got to pull the cake out. Anyone interested in helping put on the frosting?

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thumbnail.aspxWe have a lot of deer in New Jersey. Odd to hear, I know. Most people think we just raise asphalt, oil refineries and corrupt politicians. But New Jersey actually has more deer now than it did in colonial times and our property has more than its fair share of the white tails. Although in an old neighborhood near town, we have a bachelor herd of 12 (their antlers are getting REALLY big), and a harem of about 15, that trade tracks throughout the day and night. So I’m pretty comfortable with the creatures. I almost have to push them out of the way to get to my door.

But I wasn’t comfortable today, when T-man stopped dead and slid sideways on the trail. Mokes came up short behind. I looked up and saw a buck with a “Hartford Insurance” size rack on him. In fact I’m quite sure the rack was glistening white from being sharpened and all the tips were pointing at me.

Sometimes animals are subtle with their body language, but that wasn’t the case today. The buck was out for bear. He eyed us and advanced. Oh, yeah, it’s rutting season in New Jersey. (here’s a link describing  seasonal deer behavior )

While I was thinking, “uh-oh, we have trouble,” T-man and Mokes had taken matters into their own hands and had us already headed back the way we came. I turned to witness the buck continue to stalk us. I was not in a good situation, everyone who knows me can attest that I should never be depended on in an emergency. I tend to freeze and just focus on how bad it’s going to hurt or how dead I’m going to be. In this case I was attempting to rouse myself to thought, as I was responsible for another human being who was severely limited in sight. Thinking the only thing I had to use was my flimsy dressage whip, we turned a corner and the buck let us be.

After the adrenalin relented I started to consider the boys’ reactions. They stopped and turned around, but there was no fear or panic in their bodies. Their pace only quickened slightly, which it always does on the way home. I had a lot of fear going and they could clearly smell that and feel my tension. But it seemed not to upset them very much.

thumbnail-1.aspxThe same is not true for the time we came into bear territory. At that time I had no fear because I didn’t know anything was afoot. But T-man stopped dead, tensed every part of his body and started darting everywhere. Mokes, the cement in every relationship, was just as unhappy. We dismounted and went another way and never saw the bear in person, but saw evidence of it.

So what sets a horse off about other animals? I can understand the bird and the squirrel’s quick movements distract an eye design to pick up predators prowling. But they aren’t fearful of the foxes and coyotes that pass through the pasture, or the deer jumping in and out. Bears set them off no matter what and it would appear that a buck in rut is nothing to get excited about. Are there certain animal smells that warn of danger to them. If so, why not the buck? Clearly, during rutting season bucks are laying down scents full of testosterone.

There is photographed documentary that animals of prey and predator can gather at a water hole in sight of each other. Does location make a difference? In the animal world is there “neutral” territory, and if so how is it learned or designated? Do my horses not worry about animals in their pasture because they figure the animal knows it’s their territory? Or do the boys not care because they know they are free to run? Is it the other animal’s reactions? If so why didn’t my guys panic, because clearly the buck was following us. Or are they just used to deer, bears have just re-entered the territory in the past two years.

Perhaps they knew better than me. Perhaps they knew the buck did not have the intent to kill, just to confirm we really were leaving. The bear episode was in the spring, did they smell the alertness of a mom for her cubs?

How much of an animal’s reaction is due to territory, smell, sight, and/or interpretation.

The latter gives great pause for thought. To make a distinction due to place or body posturing indicates a higher level of thought than most of us would assign to our beasts of burden.

When you start looking at cognitive function, making distinction according to time or place is a different brain function than just instinct.

deerWell, the boys and I are deciding to ride only in mid-day when most of the deer are scarce, (yesterday was late in the day.) And I must admit I will travel with a new level of awareness and a new interpretation for the phrase, “The buck stops here.”

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Mares are looking at the stallion, looking at the dog, and we're looking at the dog, not what's about to happen

Mares are looking at the stallion, looking at the dog, and we're looking at the dog, not what's about to happen

We see a scene and then we focus on a specific element and miss some really important stuff. I took my dog to a trainer and at one point, while the dog was barking hysterically, and I was focused on calming her down, the trainer pointed out that the dog was afraid, “Look at the ear position and her eyes are dilated.” Her eyes were dilated! I missed all that; turns out it’s really important.

Same with my horses. I can sense they are getting tense before an explosion comes, but then my focus goes to control and calming and I miss all the other body signals and instigations.

Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

So it made me take an afternoon in thought when I read in the doggy book, Inside Of A Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz, about eyes. (it’s a really interesting book if  you’re into your dogs.) It seems, on a cellular level, rods and cones in the retina take up the “picture” of the world and send that to the brain. But then the cell has to get rid of that picture and take up the “new” picture in front of it, otherwise our view would never change. The cell refreshes on routine, not just when something in the picture has changed and this takes time. A miniscule amount of time, but time just the same. Horowitz called this the “Flicker-fusion” rate although I’m betting there is some other super long scientific name we can’t pronounce. The book, after all, was written for real folks, not the scientific community.

Well, the flicker-fusion rate is different for different animals. Humans have a F-F rate of around 60 refreshes or flickers per second. I’m betting the superstar ball catcher may actually have a higher flicker-fusion rate, but now I’m wandering again. Dogs have a F-F rate of about 70-80 refreshes or pictures in a second. That doesn’t mean they will see more detail, but they will see movement faster. Hence, frisbee champions.  Apparently, the canine eye also refreshes fast enough to see the individual frames in the TV video instead of a smooth flow and this might explain their disinterest in watching Lassie. If your dog loves Rin-Tin-Tin then you might wonder if Poochie has a slower F-F rate than its litter-mates.

But you’re interested in horses. Well, so am I. And the flicker-fusion rate made me wonder about horses. What is their refresh rate and how does it affect what we do in their environment and what they see?

Turns out, I checked with a nationally known equine ophthalmologist, the horse’s flicker-fusion rate hasn’t been studied. It is assumed it’s probably similar to a dogs. I’m betting it’s even higher because they are prey and susceptible to minute movements.

Doesn’t it make you pause to think about the florescent light flicker? We seem to be aware of it on a subconscious level because it is almost identical to the human flicker-fusion rate. Those office headaches are often attributed to the florescent light flicker. The horse probably sees the light as a real ANNOYING flicker. If we have a stressed animal in a barn, do we ever think about the flicker effect of the lights? How about those fans? Bet fans are like a strobe light to horses. Some adapt, but that one guy who stays in the corner, turns away, etc, could it be to get away from the fan?

How many times do we wonder why the horse acts the way it does and we can’t see any reason. Maybe the reason we can’t see is because we have a slower F-F rate and we don’t see the movement the horse does. Is the trickle of water that looks like a stream to us a series of individual dots to the horse?

a stream or droplets- depends on the flicker-fusion rate

a stream or droplets- depends on the flicker-fusion rate

I’ll certainly be looking at my horse through a new set of eyes in the future. I wonder if his eyes dilate when he becomes afraid, and would I ever be able to see that?

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The Villain

The Villain

I hate my horse today. Do you ever have a day when you just hate your horse? It happens to me once or twice a year. The truth is always, of course, that I want something to happen and it doesn’t- usually in a really big way.

Today I wanted to trailer to a friend’s to hack. Today I also had three interviews to do and needed to pack. Today it rained when there was suppose to be sunshine. Today the dogs wouldn’t come in.  Today was not the day to take T-man.

Awww, but he needs the exercise, and it would be so good for him to ride with Patchwork, she’ll get his engine going. No one to help load today. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

What did he do? Nothing. NO THING. No movement. You have to move to get on the trailer. He did not move. I’m pretty good at getting a horse to move. I’ve been working with a stubborn horse for years. I know how to offset balance to create movement; if you push here it will move there; join-up, on and on and on. But when a long-backed, gumby, 900-pound horse plants his feet and grows roots there is a sense of finality to the moment.

Ever notice the more upset you get the more obstinate your horse becomes. Ever notice when you need your tools they are never around. No one at the barn, long purple guaranteed-to-walk-right-on lunge rope is gone, Carrot stick is just a stick, and the horse he stalks day and night is watching with a smile on his face swishing his tail.

Nope, not happening. Finally, he does move a little. He has earned the name Gumby for a reason. “Look I can do circus acts! I can bend in half. I can turn inside out.” And while I’m contemplating dragging the 200-pound mounting step to block one trailer side I’m not sure if it is my mind or his that is saying, “Are you sure you want to do that? A leg can step right into the underbelly and get caught and that’s a $4-500 vet bill.”

I finally gave up. But I showed him. I moved that little puppy all over his paddock and sent him to his room, closed all the doors, took out the hay, closed all the barn doors and drove off with his best friend, who happily plopped on the trailer.

The Hero

The Hero

I know it didn’t make a damn bit of difference to him, but I sure felt better sending him to his room. I probably should have just gone back to bed today myself, but the roof may have fallen in on top of me. Maybe I don’t hate my horse today; maybe I just hate the day.

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