Oct 262010
 

With the explosive increase in people using social media, such as Facebook, I find myself being sent an array of video clips from You Tube. Usually these are accompanied by a message that says “Isn’t this amazing?”, “Isn’t this funny?” or “Isn’t this terribly cruel?”. However, often the message is totally inappropriate considering the content. Although the sender thinks I’ll be impressed, in the, grammatically incorrect, words of the song ‘It don’t impress me much’.

Flying donkey’

One of the first things I was sent with a totally inappropriate comment was a photo of a donkey hitched to a cart with a load so heavy that the donkey is hanging in the air from his/her harness (www.onefunsite.com/donkey.shtml). My friend sent me this picture with a message saying “This is so funny, I know you like donkeys so you’ll love this!”. I didn’t love it or find it amusing. It so vividly illustrates some of the problems working equines face – hard work, heavy loads, often in extremes of temperatures with little opportunity for shade or rest. Their owners are usually dependent on these animals to earn enough money to feed their families. I was shocked and saddened that this was being circulated as something funny – and that my friend thought that I’d actually like it!

Nearly 10 years later I had just started working at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and a video version of the same scenario was circulating – as a ‘funny video’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gCs8-PU4qg). I wrote to one of the newspapers that was promoting it in their online video section: I highlighted the plight of the donkey in the scene and they replied saying that it’s what their readers enjoy! Judging by the thousands of views and comments, they were right.

Last year I was visiting The Palestinian Territories in my role at WSPA, working with the Palestine Wildlife Society in their community project to improve equine welfare. They are partnering with donkey owners in Bethlehem and surrounding areas to explore together what changes they could make to the way they manage and care for their donkeys, mules and horses to improve their welfare and quality of life. One of the community representatives approached me with a mobile phone and showed me the same video of the donkey mentioned above. I thought that he also finds it ‘funny’ and that I’d use the opportunity to discuss overloading with the owners. However, he showed me the clip and then said, through an interpreter, “Isn’t it so terrible? Does the owner not care? Does he know not to load the cart that much?” I was very moved – at least not everyone finds it amusing.

Does the means justify the end?

A more recent example of a video clip with an inappropriate message is a video of a horse competing at high level dressage. Apparently the horse was trained using clicker training and I was sent this as an example of something impressive because so many people know I promote reward-based training methods.

Watching the video I observed a highly stressed horse, mouthing, swishing tail, very tense. I was not impressed. “But he was trained using clicker training” – Don’t get me wrong I think that in the right hands clicker training can be a wonderful and positive training experience for human and horse. However, clicker training can also be done in a way that is not a positive experience for the horse. Maybe the horse had learnt some movements through clicker training, but was it done well? Did the trainer work for long periods frustrating the horse to get the desired movement? Was the horse given the opportunity to walk away to graze or have a break when he wanted to? The video showed a very ‘unhappy’ horse, irrespective of if clicker training was used.

Naturally nagged

A third, and final, example is a natural horsemanship video that was beautifully edited, with soulful music, showing a lady riding a horse bareback and bridle-less. The horse lies down on command and other similar tricks – accompanied by a message “How lovely, something for us all to aspire to”. Again, what does observing the horse tell us? To me the horse looked hyper-vigilant and tense, looking for every subtle cue from his owner. This is most likely the result of being trained so extensively using negative reinforcement that the horse has stopped thinking for himself or exercising choice and has become ‘shut down’, like a robot. Impressive perhaps – but only because this shows how horses can learn to respond to subtle cues.

Impressions

Of course it is generally inappropriate to make assumptions about what happens during the rest of the animals’ lives and training sessions apart from just the few minutes in these videos. However, we should always encourage people to consider what the horses are telling us in such footage rather than the message from the person sharing it.

It is interesting and sad that people are so impressed by what we can make horses do and not by what they do just by being horses. Why do we find it so impressive when a human can train a horse lie down? Because people intrinsically know that as a prey species this is a big deal for a horse? Many people consider dressage to take the horse’s natural movement and put it under control of the rider. However, behaviour is only normal and natural if it is done in context and for the ‘normal’ amount of time. Thus a horse in a field spinning quickly to avoid a threat is natural, spinning repeatedly as a trick is not – yet people so often find such abnormal behaviour impressive.

So, what would impress me?

What would I forward on to other people as an impressive horsemanship? What would I aspire to? I think the answer goes something like this: A video clip showing a group of horses grazing in a large open space. A human approaches and one of the horses leaves the herd and approaches the person with relaxed body language suggesting this is because he wants to, not because he feels he has to. The horse is greeted with a big scratch. Then horse and owner walk off together, exploring the landscape, sometimes walking, sometimes riding. If they meet an obstacle that the horse is unsure of the human lets the horse take his time to consider the situation, rewards calm behaviour and they calmly continue on their way. The horse is allowed to graze and browse, the human might take time to photograph the landscape but the horse quietly waits because they are used to spending such calm time together and as such he isn’t having to watch the human for every small command she might give. This is the type of video I would think as something to aspire to – but I suspect it would never get a million hits on YouTube.

Oct 142010
 

Positive reinforcement (+R), particularly when used in conjunction with clicker training, is commonly combined with the use of negative reinforcement (-R) and/or punishment. Typically the aversive stimuli (i.e. the pressure applied) in these cases will be mild and the combined approach is used to clarify and/or hasten the training. Is there anything wrong with this? Are those of us who would say “yes” just being dogmatic and purist in our approach to positive reinforcement? Or do we all need to take a step back and think more carefully about just how positive our positive training actually is?

Firstly I still don’t know of anyone who uses only +R all the time with all their horses and don’t believe it is possible (or useful). But I do believe it is possible, and extremely valuable in some cases, to have discrete sessions in which only +R is used – i.e. free shaping. For some horses, in some stages of their lives, I would say free shaping should make up most of the interaction they have with humans. But that depends on the horse and the stage it is at. More generally, outside those specific free-shaping sessions, the vast majority of emotionally well-placed horses will suffer no ill consequence for the occasional mild aversive stimulus. A gentle pull on the reins to stop or to raise the horse’s head from the grass will not cause psychological trauma to the well-adjusted individual.

But if you are going to use – within the same session and/or to achieve the same behaviour – a combination of +R and -R then various things can happen. This isn’t only because of bad training but also because of what is going on in the horse’s brain at the time.

The first reason is practical – if the horse is experiencing two different reinforcers pretty much simultaneously then the horse is going to be reinforced more by one of them than the other. This is known as “saliency” and is effectively the relative value of the reinforcers from the perspective of the horse. Does he find more value in the release of pressure or the reward? They are unlikely to be identical in value. The presence of the click and treat may well help the horse’s understanding along and confirm to him that he is performing the correct behaviour, but that is not the same thing as true positive reinforcement. The horse may well still be changing his behaviour because he is searching for the release of pressure, not because he is actively trying to earn a reward. The presence of rewards does not make your training positive; it is all down to the horse’s perception of the training and the reasons why he chooses to change his behaviour.

Another objection I have to the combination of positive and negative reinforcement is the issue of what Karen Pryor termed “The Poisoned Cue” . Due to classical (i.e. Pavlovian) conditioning, if you are using pressure then the level of pressure the horse feels in its training will become associated with you and your training equipment/environment . It’s a bit like receiving a phone call from someone you don’t want to speak to, you start dreading the phone ringing. So if you combine the pressure with some form of positive reinforcement, the positive reinforcement will be diminished in value (like getting a pay cheque, knowing that it’s all going to go straight out again on bills), possibly to the point of being irrelevant. While you could argue that some +R is better than nothing (in fact I *did* used to argue that) I have also seen a demonstration by someone combining CT with a well-known pressure-based training method and it was really really awful. More on that in a moment….

If an animal is experiencing genuine positive reinforcement then it is believed from neuroscience studies that a particular region of the brain is activated and dopamine is released. This is the opioid which makes us feel good when something good happens. Over time, this dopamine release can take place even in the absence of an actual reward. So if we do lots of reward-based training and trigger dopamine, then even just our arrival at the field can do the same, whether or not we have treats. It’s not just about the horse wanting us for our treats. We make the horse feel good. This is the neurological basis for the Pavlov’s dogs result. We feel genuinely pleased when our payslip arrives, because of what it represents, even though it’s only actually a worthless piece of paper.

If we do pressure-based training or even just “neutral” training then there is no dopamine released, even when you release the pressure. A different brain circuit is stimulated and, depending on how much pressure you use, there may be an adrenalin release, i.e. a stress response.

If we mix the two whilst training the same behaviour then the dopamine response is likely to be over-ridden by the adrenalin. Even if you normally do -R (depending on the degree of pressure – either physical or emotional) and decide to have an occasional pure +R session, you may still not be getting the dopamine release because of what you normally represent to your horse. So the best-case scenario may well be that you are not positively reinforcing your horse at all. You might be giving it treats but that is not the same thing as the horse FEELING positively reinforced. That’s not to say this is necessarily bad, and it may help your training along a bit if your timing is good, but it makes sense to be doing what you think you are doing and not complicating the session with red herrings.

The use of +R can encourage a horse to offer behaviours in the attempt to earn a reward and this puts the horse in a very emotionally vulnerable position (which is why a proper +R free-shaping session will reassure the horse that it is ok and that there is no negative consequence for a wrong answer). If pressure is likely to be used as well when the horse gets the wrong behaviour then it can create a major conflict in the horse’s mind, increasing the stress yet further. If a lot of pressure is being used then the best thing for the horse to do is just do as he’s told so as to avoid the pressure. If he is being encouraged to offer behaviours spontaneously as well then it puts the horse is a very difficult position. It’s like when you’re at school and you have to summon up the courage to speak in front of the class and then the teacher tells you you’re stupid. This isn’t just “bad training”, it can also be technically good training in a very unempathic way and it is something I have seen from various trainers who (perhaps inadvertently) prioritise the achievement of certain behaviours above the feelings of the horse. The horse I watched who stands out in particular was being trained with a combination of a Natural Horsemanship method and CT. The pressure was all at a relatively low sort of level but that didn’t stop the horse being very stressed about what it was being expected to do. He clearly knew the cost of getting a wrong answer but was unable to just switch off and respond to cues because the CT element demanded that he offer behaviours. The difference in attitude of a horse under this sort of conflict and a horse having a true free-shaping session are just such worlds apart that it’s very hard to do justice to it on a keyboard….

There is nothing wrong with doing low-pressure or neutral work, no-one is living in a state of constant dopamine fix! But if you never receive it you are unlikely to be in very emotionally developed place. In humans we call it “depression”. The horse is not likely to be making psychologically healthy choices and enjoying his work, merely responding to cues and trying to keep out of trouble. The ideal is that the horse is engaging his brain and thinking “howabout if I try a step backwards”, rather than “I need to move away from pressure” – free-shaping is often very much about “brain exercises” rather than physical training. There are, of course, caveats to these generalisations that can be made in individual cases. When I clicker trained my horse to walk backwards, I did start the training by “cheating” and using a light hand pressure on his chest and so negative reinforcement was involved to help him understand the behaviour I wanted. But once he understood the right behaviour, he started to offer it spontaneously and any residual association with the pressure was clearly counter-conditioned by the on-going purely positive free-shaping. It is better if you can avoid this sort of short-cut by correct shaping but if the alternative is a horse who is likely to become frustrated by not understanding the right behaviour then it may be appropriate – feel and judgement are always crucial.

My personal preference for a horse in an emotionally “good” place is to have some pure +R free-shaping sessions interspersed with just “normal” -R. For dealing with specific problems I would take a step back and devise a shaping plan with tiny steps so that each step gives the opportunity for reward and positive associations with the task. For horses in an emotionally difficult place then I would say many more free-shaping sessions are necessary before the horse is ready for -R and these sessions may need to be spread out over a long period of time. It is time well-spent and will create the foundations for a much more successful horse-human relationship.

By Catherine Bell

(If you want to know more this is a brilliant video compliments the article – http://barnmice.ning.com/group/bodylanguage/forum/topics/rewards-and-dopamine-what.)

(Thank you to Catherine for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Oct 042010
 

How similar is equine thinking compared to ours, is a common thread running through many articles on animal behaviour and animal-human relationships. Most owners feel a greater contact with their animals because they give their pets at least some human thinking abilities and our close proximity to our pets actively encourages it. So, there is deep interest and investment in demonstrating how similar animal thinking is to our human capabilities. Don’t get me wrong I think it is important to understand the ways animals think. However, I do believe we come at the whole question of how animals think from the wrong end. Instead of can animals think like us it would be better to ask how can we think like our animals?

Anthropomorphism is the process of giving non human objects human emotions. We pat the car we have given a name as it starts on a cold morning or we blame the washing machine for breaking down just when we needed it most, as if in some way it had chosen to let us down deliberately. It is difficult not to anthropomorphise with animals, after all most of us spend our early years watching mice that fall in love, cats that hold vendettas against mice, rabbits that problem solve, dogs that can talk and birds that are jealous and vain. Yes, Mr Disney surely knew what he was doing when he created the cartoon animals that were almost human. Perhaps he knew how much we would connect with those crazy critters if he made them just human enough that we could identify in them all our own emotions, but we could laugh at them because they were animals.

If we give our pets human emotions through the process of anthropomorphism, then we run the real risk of attributing our flawed thinking to our pets and, in my experience human thinking is often flawed. We struggle with complex emotions such as jealousy because we gain pleasure or even happiness from possession of inanimate objects. Sometimes we mistakenly believe those possessions are other people and act with anger if other people take an interest in our supposed possessions. We want what other people have, even when we already have all we need and so greed is born. We are vain, our appearance can determine our happiness, with humans having the ability through self loathing to starve or eat themselves to death because our image of ourselves in not real.

Hundreds of thousands of books, workshops and training sessions are delivered world wide every year on self help. All with the aim of improving our self esteem, creating happiness, reducing stress and managing anger not to mention the massive market for relationship counselling and advice. Through spiritual leaders we have seen that spiritual practises such as Buddhism require a life time of work to control our thoughts. If our human thinking was the shining beacon that we believe it is, these books, lessons and coaches wouldn’t be needed or at least in less volume.

We lie to ourselves that we are the top of the IQ tree. Well we set the tests, so I guess we would do pretty well wouldn’t we? Yet our brains in terms of evolution have been developing for a relatively short time and the brain of the modern man from hunter gatherer to I T business whiz kid has only had about 100,000 years to evolve, no wonder we struggle to use this supper powerful personal computer.

Without practise and considerable effort our ability to understand our own thinking is limited, yet we do have the ability to understand that other humans are and do experience similar emotions to us. We have what is known as an understanding of self. Certain functions we take for granted as adults have not always been with us as children. We develop conscious memory from the age of about three when the hippocampus, part of the brain that lays down long term conscious memory matures. As the brain begins to develop new parts of the brain come online, which is why peek-a-boo is such an entertaining game for babies. As the parietal cortex starts to work we become aware of fundamental spatial qualities of the world and we know faces can not just disappear but the modules of the brain that tell us where the face goes have not yet matured. Then between the ages of eighteen months to two years we develop self-consciousness we no longer point at our reflection in the mirror as if it were another child we instead begin to recognise what we see as us, we develop the sense of I that most people feel in their heads.

Do animals develop this sense of I? Well there is some evidence to suggest that some may do, the great apes, an occasional elephant and a crow perhaps, but I am not sure we really know. Some researchers say animals do not have this sense others say that they do and some say the tests that are used are not a understanding of self just the ability to understand the concept of mirrors. Yet we pet owners commonly believe that our pets can understand our complex emotions. A common statement I hear is from the dog owner, who on returning home to finds their dog has disgraced themselves in some way and claims the dog knows they have done wrong, they can see by their dogs behaviour that they are feeling guilty for letting the owner down. The dog shows signs of submission or hides away and this is seen by the owner as an acceptance of guilt. Well may be or may be not, perhaps the dog is simply offering what they see as the appropriate behaviour for the situation. The dog’s behaviour is not related to what they may have done sometime before but rather the body language and vocal tones of their human companion at that moment. Having learnt the human signs of anger and discovered that appeasement or avoidance are the best method to avoid trouble the dog may simply be offering what it considers appropriate behaviour for the human behaviour they see. They do not have to be able to understand the owner is angry or upset they may simply read the body language and be conditioned to avoid conflict that they know follows this body language. May be they always adopt submissive behaviour on the owners return and sometimes the owner can attribute this to a misdemeanour? This behaviour in the dog is not any less incredible for not being attributed with thinking like a human, to my mind it is a testament to their learning ability and perceptual skills that allows them to read us humans and act accordingly.

I am often asked how intelligent is a horse or a donkey and is it true that a mule is more intelligent than both. To be honest, I don’t believe it is important to measure or compare animal IQ. A horse is good at being a horse and while it might not do well on a human IQ test, if we dump a horse and a human in 100,000 acres of wildness and leave them for a couple of months the horse will have far better chance of survival than the human, so who is the smartest in that situation?

All have animals have mental abilities that we can measure such as memory, reasoning, problem solving etc. Providing the tests are related to the animal’s innate abilities then we will have a pretty good idea of what they are capable. Dogs may innately be better at problem solving due to the evolutionary ancestors pack hunting skills and association with man but are they anywhere near the capabilities of the human brain, unlikely. This doesn’t mean they are not smart, just that they are not human.

Imagine two Zebras, George and Graham we will call them just to anthropomorphise a little, grazing along side each other on the plains of Africa as the sun comes up. A sudden ambush by a pride of lions, a moment of panic and a short chase sees Graham becoming lion breakfast. How does George respond? Well if he was human he would spend most of the rest of the day telling all the other Zebras what had happened and how it could have been him and thinking to himself what if I had been closer it would have been me or perhaps suffering the guilt of having survived when his friend did not, pretty soon he would have an ulcer from all the worry and “what ifs”. Fortunately, George is a Zebra and while being physiologically stressed by the attack and perhaps even feeling some sense of absence or loss he is soon back in the moment concentrating on eating and surviving and avoiding lions just as he was before the attack, and that’s why Zebra’s who lead such stressful lives don’t get ulcers. Yes of course, change their environment to a zoo and confine them and the environmental stress might give then ulcers but not in the wild.

Animals have a simplistic uncluttered thinking that is not judgemental, doesn’t blame everyone else for their problems and they are capable of learning. However, even our closest relative the chimpanzee can take up to seven years to fully learn the art of cracking a nut with a stone tool.  I am not saying animals are not sentient beings or capable of emotions far from it, but rather that humans are overly complicated creatures that are not yet well adapted to their environment and far from in control of their massive brains.

Trying to label how an animal thinks is like trying to describe the sensation of meditation if you have never meditated. We may have a knowledge of what meditation may be, we can use words like peaceful, calm, relaxed and focus yet these words describe only states of mind, they don’t add up to the experience of meditation. The only way to know what meditation is like is to practise meditation. The only way to know what it is like to be an animal is to be an animal. As that is unlikely to happen, no matter how hard we try, we can only experience their world through our senses and label what we believe they feel like.

The problem with giving human emotions to animals is not that may or may not experience human emotions as scientists continue to debate, but that the general human way of thinking is flawed. Our thinking is sometimes controlled by ego, the conditioning of our parents during childhoods and our evolution. So to label an animal as jealous, naughty or deceitful are faults of the human mind not of the animal mind. We can spend a life time thinking back to past injustices or panicking about our future. Do animals think “if only my mum had loved me more when I was a puppy!” probably not. Their behaviour may be effected if they were weaned to young or not socialised but that is their behaviour.

By way of example about the difference between dog and human thinking. Say we have a rescue Labrador who has previously been starved. Humans may imagine how they would react and behave had they been treated in a similar way and think how terrible that is and accept him always scavenging for food. Others will say dogs live in the moment and it doesn’t matter what happened in the past so don’t allow him to get away with that behaviour. The truth is perhaps some where between the two. The dog that has had bad experience will have had the connections in the brain changed as a result of that experience and those changes influence future behaviour, but the dog is not constantly thinking back to being starved and worrying that might happen again, as a human might do. They may have a higher motivation for food but their behaviour is not driven by fear of not being fed again it is influenced by the neural connections made earlier in their life. If this wasn’t the case the dog would have a very sort memory and forget everything they learned just moments before, this is not the case, nor is it the case that they are thinking back to when they were starving because as soon as they realised that food was regular and readily available they would reason that they no longer had to rush their food and scavenge.

A horse is not intrinsically good or bad it is just a horse. To one person a horse that kicks is disrespectful and naughty to another they are just communicating their fear and to the horse, well they are just being a horse. It is our perception and labelling that determines if a behaviour is good or bad without humans to judge there is no good or bad, just behaviour. Our own beliefs colour our perceptions and judgements which go on to influence our actions. We see our pets not as they are but as we are, until we understand the true nature of animals and the true nature of ourselves we cannot hope to improve our training and handling or our pets. When we label our animal with a negative human emotion we and other humans then treat the animal according to the label we have given it, and this then negatively influences the behaviour of the animal.

A horse is just a horse, surviving, breathing, feeding, reproducing and socializing not good or bad those are our human judgements. Once you understand this you remove incorrect thinking from ourselves and free ourselves from the turmoil of perception of bad and good, past and future and you can work in the moment. When these powerful human emotions negative or positive are removed you can see things as they truly are, you can act based on behaviour not emotional response to behaviour.

To best help our animals we don’t need to believe they think like us, we need instead to learn to think with their brains. When we do this, we truly open up the possibilities of communicating fully with our animals, without the transference of our mistaken human judgements and the burdens on the animal of our flawed emotional states and, we see them as they are not furry humans but independent individuals dissevering of our respect not our judgement.

By Ben Hart

www.hartshorsemanship.com

(Thank you to Ben for an interesting article.  Enjoyed this article? Then please donate a little to The Equine Independent to keep us writing without a subscription. You can donate via paypal to mail@theequineindependent.com. Even the smallest amount is greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading from everyone at EI.)

Sep 232010
 

Am I the only person to be concerned about the increasing trend to control and overcome natural equine behaviour? Now before all the training people leap on me, yes, I do know that all our interactions with horses have an effect on their behaviour, and that all training is designed to do just that. I’m not talking about that, though. What concerns me is the idea that normal horse behaviours are problems, for which you need a solution that – very handily – someone can sell you. I’m not sure whether the demand has come from horse owners and riders, from manufacturers trying to sell products, or simply from the modern desire for a quick and easy fix (such as using herbicides instead of weeding the garden).

In the 6000 years since horses became domesticated animals we have done much to bend their wild natures to our own ends. But it seems that it’s only in the last few years in the developed countries of the world, as the idea of the horse as working partner has faded from living memory, that we have been trying to suppress their natures altogether. Rather than accepting that horses are nervous, flighty and sometimes argumentative creatures with strong social and sexual drives, we have decided that it’s acceptable, even necessary, to treat those natural instincts as problems or conditions that need to be cured or controlled. Hence the whips, spurs, tight nosebands, severe bits, training aids and food supplements.

A recent study by Hockenhull and Creighton (2010) found that in a survey of over 1000 non-professional horse owners in the UK, 79% used one or more artificial aid such as a martingale, or noseband other than a simple cavesson, and 85% routinely fed dietary supplements. Astonishingly, almost one in three owners – 27% – gave their horses four or more dietary supplements along with their feed.

There seems to be a widespread perception (Hockenhull & Creighton 2010; McBane 2010) that the apparent increase in horses behaving inappropriately, and the proliferation of ways to modify their behaviour that do not rely on the skills of the rider, is because many more horses these days are owned by novices who use artificial aids and dietary supplements to help with problems that they lack the skills or knowledge to solve. However, this survey showed quite clearly that the riders using the largest number of artificial aids, and giving the most dietary supplements, were those who described themselves as committed amateurs, rather than leisure riders, and who rated their level of skill as ‘high’. These products, it seems, are used most by the very riders who ought to have the skills and knowledge not to need them.

Many years ago, the sports writer Simon Barnes wrote a monthly column for the UK magazine Horse & Rider. One sentence that he wrote has stayed in my mind ever since: “The whip is an admission of failure.” He meant that by carrying a whip, he was, in effect, saying “my own body and legs and hands and personality are not

good enough to motivate this horse to go forward willingly.” The trouble is that we have an equestrian culture – and this recent study confirms it – in which fierce bits, and crank nosebands, and training gadgets that resemble bondage outfits, and whips, and, more than anything else, spurs, are seen as the badges of honour of the skilled riders, the serious, proper riders, as opposed to the ‘happy hackers’. How would it be if everything changed, so that using an artificial aid proclaimed to the world, “I’m not a good enough rider to fix this problem without this gadget.”? What would it take to make that happen?

This isn’t a perfect world; all horse-rider relationships are works in progress; and none of us are quite as good as we’d like to be, but I do think horses in general would have a better time if we could change our culture to one of using as little equipment as necessary, rather than as much as possible, and if more people were in the habit of questioning what they do and the kit they use. For example: Does my horse really need this? Would something else, like some extra riding lessons, or less hard feed for the horse, be another way to solve the problem? Am I just using this equipment because I’ve always used it, or everyone else uses it, or the professional riders I admire use it?

I always feel sceptical about the merits of the various feed supplements designed to modify horse behaviour and suspect that they work largely by convincing the rider that the horse will be calmer, or less bolshy, or whatever, while taking the supplement, and so she rides with more confidence or tact, and so the horse behaves better. The causes of inappropriate behaviour are likely to lie in the realm of inappropriate feeding, housing, exercising, training or care, and it seems improbable that small scoops of this or that herb, or vitamin mix, or other magic powder can have much effect if some major aspect of the horse’s life is wrong. Indeed, the labelling on the packaging of many supplements gives the impression that nothing is guaranteed: phrases such as ‘believed to be beneficial for X’, or ‘may help horses suffering from X’, or ‘traditionally used for treating X’, or ‘to support the function of X’ enable the manufacturer to suggest that their product will help with something while not making any direct claims that would get them into trouble with Trading Standards.

When you use herbs, what you are giving your horse is an unknown dose of an unknown number of active ingredients, of unknown strength and in many cases unknown effect, with unknown side-effects and interactions with other supplements and prescribed medicines and, in products from less-reputable companies, unknown contaminants including heavy metals and prescription drugs. Skeptvet (2010) gives a comprehensive and alarming list of publications on the subject. However, whether riders are inadvertently poisoning their horses with these products or not, the fact remains that the majority of riders seem to think it’s OK to use drugs to modify their horse’s behaviour – because that’s what these products essentially are. Is that really an acceptable way to treat these animals that we say we love?

I do suspect that a lot of behavioural or temperament problems in horses could be solved not by adding substances to their concentrate feed but by giving them less of it, and by giving them more exercise and a more varied and exciting life.

The underlying problem seems to be that many people find the natural behaviour of horses difficult to deal with, or frightening, or in some way undesirable, and this is possibly because it’s so different from our own behaviour. About ten years ago, Equine Behaviour Forum member Emma Creighton conducted a scientific study into the aspects of horse and pony temperament that are important to riders and handlers. Her findings were that most of the respondents preferred horses who were in the mid-range of emotional reactivity, were highly sociable and responsive to humans, and were extrovert and open to new experiences. These preferences were independent of rider age, years of experience or level of skill. What came as a surprise was that the horse temperament described as ideal by most people was more a description of the average dog than the average horse. Emma suggested that since we have shared more years of our history with dogs than with horses, we perhaps relate better towards, and have an inbuilt predisposition towards, animals that behave like dogs. Is this why we try so hard to stop horses behaving like horses?

By Alison Averis

Alison Averis is the Editor of Equine Behaviour, the Journal of the Equine Behaviour Forum. 

If you find these questions interesting, you would probably enjoy being a member of the Equine Behaviour Forum and joining in the correspondence in our quarterly magazine. See www.gla.ac.uk/external/ebf/ for more information.

References

Creighton, E (2003). Equine temperament and welfare. Equine Behaviour 59, 13-16.

Hockenhull, J & Creighton, E (2010). Can we blame the widespread use of artificial training aids and dietary supplements in the UK leisure horse population on novice owners? In Proceedings of the 6th International Equitation Science Conference, p40. www.equitationscience.com

McBane, S (2010). Conflict behaviours – causes, effects and remedies. Equi-Ads, September 2010, p40. www.equiads.net

Skeptvet (2010). Risks of herbs and supplements finally getting some attention.  www.skeptvet.com/blog/2010/02/344/

Jul 142010
 

Summer is a great time for riders and horse owners alike, the long days and hopefully sunny weather bring greater opportunities for spending time with our much loved, four-legged friends. However, for some horse and pony owners summer can also be a worrying time and the start of an ongoing battle with their horse’s waistline. Despite our best intentions summer comes and our horse’s stomachs begin to expand like balloons at a birthday party. Some horses come out of winter the perfect weight but can start to inflate the minute the first spring grass appears, for others the issue of weight is a constant factor, especially for those with pony or cold blood genes in their DNA. If you own a horse who is a ‘good doer’ and he can seemingly live off air alone, it can seem like no management strategy or exercise regime will stop the spread. So what are the real risk factors of obesity and how can we prevent our horse’s becoming overweight this summer?

Obesity, in both horses and humans, is becoming an epidemic in the UK. The horse charity, World Horse Welfare, estimates that between 35 and 45 per cent of the UK’s 1.35million horses are obese[1]. There are many worrying disorders that obesity is associated with, including; Laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome and oxidative stress[2]. All of the above disorders are of grave concern to owners! Laminitis is inflammation of the digital laminae of the hoof. The digital laminae are necessary for suspension of the skeleton within the hoof and spread the concussive forces experienced by the hoof during the horse’s locomotion. Inflammation of the laminae weakens the hoof and can have devastating effects on the horse’s physiology included; sinking and rotation of the coffin bone (known as founder), separation of the hoof wall from the hoof capsule, rotation of the coffin bone and penetration of the coffin bone through the sole of the hoof[2]. These complications of Laminitis can cause permanent lameness and loss of use and can, in the worst cases, result in euthanasia.

Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) is characterised by obesity, insulin resistance and intermittent bouts of Laminitis[2]. Obese horses suffering with EMS become gradually more resistant to the action of insulin – insulin is a hormone which triggers cells in the liver, muscles and fat to take up glucose from the blood stream and store it as glycogen. This resistance to insulin consequently causes abnormally high levels of insulin to be secreted when the horse ingests food, especially foods high in sugars such as concentrate. In both horses and humans, insulin resistance seems to be correlated with obesity and the altered metabolism of fats[3]. However, unlike in the human species, insulin resistance in horses due to obesity is very rarely type 2 diabetes (diabetes in horses is usually only associated with Cushing’s syndrome), instead insulin resistance is postulated to be a contributing factor to Laminitis and potentially certain vascular diseases[3].

Laminitis and EMS are not the only concerns for the owners of horses who put on weight easily. Several adverse health effects can be correlated with the horses gain of fat deposits. The horse may become intolerant of exercise and his athleticism will be compromised. Just as obese humans can experience oxidative stress, fatigue and increased concussion on joints during exercise, horses can also experience these consequences of obesity. The performance of horses competing in races of duration 1 mile to 160km has been found to correlate to the horse’s body condition[4-6]. The obese horse may also experience thermoregulatory difficulty, although fat deposits will insulate a horse during the winter months, in the summer excess fat can prevent the horse from effectively dissipating heat resulting in the horse overheating[7]. Finally, abnormal reproductive performance has also been observed in obese mares [8], obesity can cause unnecessary complications in pregnancy and is therefore a welfare concern for both mare and foal. The risks of horse obesity are very worrying for horse owners so why are so many horses becoming obese in the UK?

Although ignorance on behalf of the horse owner is sometimes the underlying cause of equine obesity, most owners are aware when their horses are becoming overweight. Even the least observant owner can see their horse’s stomach increasing in girth, the neck becoming larger and developing a crest, and fat deposits occurring on the shoulders and flanks, but often the owner is struggling to set up a management regime that can control the weight of the horse. Owners are often restricted by factors such as; the residence of the horse, the management of the horse’s pasture or other environmental factors. But do not despair, here are a few ideas which could help to prevent the summertime spread this year.

1. Knowing how much you horse should weigh, finding an accurate way to measure your horse’s weight and keeping a record of change.

The first thing you will need to know when you embark on the battle with obesity is your horse’s ideal weight. Without a goal weight for your horse any measurement of the horse’s weight is going to be arbitrary. Although all horses differ with regards to their ideal weight, approximate ideals for your horse’s type and height can be found below. For each height range there is a range of ideal weights, if your horse is the top end of the height range or a draught bred then the horse’s ideal weight will be the top end of the range, and vice versa.

Height in hands 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Ideal weight in kg 120-230 230-290 290-350 350-420 420-520 520-600 600-725

(Adapted from Baileys Horse feeds [9])

Once you know your horse’s ideal weight you will need to be able to measure the horse’s weight. There are many ways to measure a horse’s weight, some more accurate than others. The most accurate method of measuring a horse’s weight is a weighing bridge, however unless you are liveried at a very well equipped yard or have convenient access to veterinary facilities it is unlikely that you will have access to a weigh bridge.

A more common method of measuring a horse’s weight is by using a weight tape. Weight tapes are placed around the girth of the horse, just behind the withers, and give an estimation of the horse’s weight based on the circumference of the girth . The accuracy of these tapes is debatable however, the tape provides a quantitative measure of weight which can be recorded and which will provide notice of the horse’s weight changing over time. Weight tapes can be brought from most equestrian stores, and on occasion tapes specifically designed for draught horses and ponies can be acquired. Buying a tape designed for your horse’s body type will increase the accuracy of the measurement.

As an alternative measure of the horse’s weight and condition there are body condition scoring systems, one of the most popular is based on work by Henneke et al (1983)[10]. Henneke et al’s body condition scoring uses the observation and ranking of the fat tissue present on specific areas of the body to score the condition of the horse. The areas observed for the accumulation of fatty tissue are; the neck, ribs, back, shoulder, wither and the top of the tail. When all the areas are taken into consideration an overall condition score, between 1 and 9, is attributed to the horse – 1 being of very poor condition with no fatty tissue present in the scored areas and 9 being of obese condition with significant fatty deposits visible on the . A picture chart explaining Heneke’s body condition scoring can be found at – http://www.admani.com/allianceequine/images/bodyconditionscoring/horse%20body%20condition%20score%20card.pdf , this picture chart is a good summary of the observations that should be made during condition scoring. A printable record sheet for Henneke et al’s body condition scoring mechanism can also be found at this link – http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Information_Resources_Management/policy/im_attachments/2009.Par.52473.File.dat/IM2009-041_att1.pdf

There are potential problems with using body condition scoring as a method of weight measurement in horses. Scoring body condition is a subjective method and it is therefore possible for owners to over or under score their horses and, if no additional methods of weight measurement are used, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether the horse is indeed of a healthy weight. Ideally two or three people should score the horse independently and the middle score taken to be correct, such a precaution will help to minimise the effect of subjective bias. The body score of the horse can be recorded and over time any change in the horse’s condition can be monitored accordingly.

Whichever method of weight measurement you decide to use with your horses, try to keep a record at least once a month of the horse’s weight. This record keeping will allow you to see changes in the horse’s condition early and allow you to change his management before serious complications arise.

2. Cutting out the concentrate feed!

This one may seem obvious, but if your horse is overweight it is not necessary to supplement the horse’s roughage feed with concentrate! Removing concentrate feed, and therefore unnecessary calories, from the diet of the horse will help to prevent, or treat, obesity. If the horse is feed ad-lib, quality roughage including pasture, and is a good weight it is not necessary to supplement the horse’s diet with calorie-dense, grain concentrate. Should the horse’s pasture and roughage be of poor quality it may be a prudent idea to add a vitamin and mineral supplement to the horse’s feed, this will prevent any dietary malnutrition. As long as the horse maintains weight and does not become thin, and is not in a heavy exercise regime, i.e. intermediate eventing or above, the horse does not require extra calories. Should the horse be currently in a routine where he is used to receiving concentrate meals at certain times and will become distressed if his routine is changed then some molasses-free chaff or grass chop can be feed at these times to placate him.

3. Pasture maintenance

There are many aspects of pasture maintenance that can be managed to help combat obesity and weight gain in the horse. Below I will tackle the most important factors of pasture maintenance that can be managed by horse and land owners –

The right grass?

Many grassland species have been selectively produced to feed domestic livestock on intensive grazing patterns, as such many grass species commonly found in horse grazing are high in sugars. Grass designed to keep livestock at a good weight is often too rich for horses who are designed by evolution to each a great amount of poorer roughage. See below abstract by Menard et al (2001)[11] on the comparative forage intake of cattle and horses.

“Equids are generalist herbivores that co-exist with bovids of similar body size in many ecosystems. There are two major hypotheses to explain their co-existence, but few comparative data are available to test them. The first postulates that the very different functioning of their digestive tracts leads to fundamentally different patterns of use of grasses of different fibre contents. The second postulates resource partitioning through the use of different plant species. As domestic horses and cattle are used widely in Europe for the management of conservation areas, particularly in wetlands, a good knowledge of their foraging behaviour and comparative nutrition is necessary.

In this paper we describe resource-use by horses and cattle in complementary studies in two French wetlands. Horses used marshes intensively during the warmer seasons; both species used grasslands intensively throughout the year; cattle used forbs and shrubs much more than horses. Niche breadth was similar and overlap was high (Kulczinski’s index 0·58–0·77). Horses spent much more time feeding on short grass than cattle. These results from the two sites indicate strong potential for competition.

Comparative daily food intake, measured in the field during this study for the first time, was 63% higher in horses (144 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1) than in cattle (88 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1). Digestibility of the cattle diets was a little higher, but daily intake of digestible dry matter (i.e. nutrient extraction) in all seasons was considerably higher in horses (78 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1) than in cattle (51 gDM kg W−0·75 day−1). When food is limiting, horses should out compete cattle in habitats dominated by grasses because their functional response is steeper; under these circumstances cattle will require an ecological refuge for survival during winter, woodland or shrubland with abundant dicotyledons.

Horses are a good tool for plant management because they remove more vegetation per unit body weight than cattle, and use the most productive plant communities and plant species (especially graminoids) to a greater extent. They feed closer to the ground, and maintain a mosaic of patches of short and tall grass that contributes to structural diversity at this scale. Cattle use broadleaved plants to a greater extent than horses, and can reduce the rate of encroachment by certain woody species.”

Menard et al (2001)


As horses can consume great amounts of forage it is vital that the high-sugar, easily digestible and nutrient rich grass varieties fed to domestic livestock species are not feed in high quantity to horses. Obesity and laminitis will be difficult to avoid on rich grazing without restricting grazing, which in turn would be detrimental to the welfare of the horse. Sugars present in grass species, especially fructans have been correlated with laminitis in horses. Below is an informative short article on fructans from www.equinescienceupdate.co.uk.

Recent studies suggest that fructans might be involved in pasture-induced laminitis in horses. Fructans are storage molecules produced by the grass when it produces more sugars by photosynthesis than are needed for immediate use. Fructans are poorly digested in the foregut of the horse. If large quantities reach the hindgut they are rapidly fermented by the microorganisms, leading to a cascade of events that may result in laminitis.

In a three year study Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel, working at the Landwirtschaftskammer in Hannover, Germany, looked at fructan content in the species of grasses that are commonly found in horse pasture. They harvested grass samples every two or three weeks during the growing season. Samples were collected at 11.00 each morning to prevent the results being influenced by time of day.

Dr Grässler presented their findings at the Equine Nutrition Conference held earlier this month in Hannover. They found that Lolium perrene (Perennial ryegrass) and Lolium multiflora (Italian ryegrass) contain the highest amounts of fructans – an average throughout the year of 5.7% on a dry matter basis. However, they found that the fructan content varied throughout the year, being highest in May and October. The fructan content fell during the summer. They also found a difference between strains of perennial ryegrass. One strain (“Anton”) had the highest fructan level of 14.2%DM in autumn 2003 and 13.6% DM in spring the same year.

All other pasture grasses contained low fructan concentrations – on average about 3.5% DM. Again, the highest fructan concentration was found in the first growth in May and in October. The fructan content of the grass was lowest during the summer.

The second part of the study looked at the fructan content of grass mixes that might be used for horse pasture. Grässler and von Borstel found that mixtures with a high proportion of Lolium perrene gave the highest fructan levels . The highest levels were found in pastures containing only Lolium perrene (15.2%). During the growing season the highest fructan content was measured in late June (11.4% DM average) and in October.

Grässler and von Borstel conclude that grass mixes with high amounts of Lolium perrene may contain high fructan concentrations, especially in spring and autumn, and are less suitable for feeding horses predisposed to laminitis.

To minimise the risk of laminitis they suggest that grass mixtures with reduced quantities of Lolium perrene should be used. Pastures with forage grasses such as Alopecurus pratensis (Meadow Foxtail) and Phleum pratense (Timothy) as the main components are suitable to produce low fructan concentrations.

Reference: Fructan content in pasture grass. Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel. Proceedings Equine Nutrition Conference. Pferdeheilkunde (2005) 21, 75 – 76.”[12]

The key message of the above article is; when planning the reseeding of your pasture please consider the grass species you are using and choose low-sugar grass species, such as Meadow Foxtail and Timothy, which will protect your horses against obesity, insulin resistance and Laminitis. Herbs and legumes can also be included for variety and additional vitamin and mineral availability. Sugar-dense grasses used to feed domestic livestock, such as dairy cattle, should be avoided as they are not suitable for healthy horse grazing. Rye grass is the typical example and is currently very common in the pastures of Britain’s horses. If you are at the mercy of a land owner it may be possible through democratic negotiation to encourage the seeding of horse friendly grass species.

Pasture fertilisation

Traditionally pasture fertilisation is recommended in the spring and autumn months. It is suggested that proper fertilisation will provide pasture with the nutrients to produce a good quantity of grass cover, minimising weed growth. In addition it is postulated that the nutrients needed to provide horses with a healthy diet are also infused into the soil during fertilisation. However, the relationship between fertilisation and grass nutrition is not straight forward, especially when considering non-structural carbohydrate concentrations (sugars). It is often assumed that fertiliser increases the sugar content of grass, however, it is well noted in scientific journals that grass grown in an environment deficient in either nitrogen or phosphorus is observed to be significantly higher in sugars than grass grown in fertilised conditions [13, 14, 15, 16]. The discovery of this correlation between nitrogen availability and the sugar concentration in grass has led to the postulation that nitrogen maybe a limiting factor for growth and therefore if the grass becomes deficient in nitrogen, growth stops and, rather than being used for the production of new plant matter, fibre and energy, the sugars accumulate in the grass[17].

In her 2005 paper titled – A Review of Unlikely Sources of Excess Carbohydrate in Equine Diets, Kathryn Watts considers data collected on the effect of pasture fertilisation on the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) concentrations of grass, and how pasture should managed to prevent an excess in sugar in the equine diet[17]. She writes “The following data was collected from the first cutting of forage from an established paddock of irrigated pasture at Rocky Mountain Research & Consulting, Inc. Each treatment was replicated 4 times in a randomized block design. The species represented are mostly Paddock meadow brome and Garrison meadow foxtail, which are standard commercial varieties in the area. Ammonia nitrate was broadcast in March, and irrigation was applied as needed for optimum growth to both fertilized and unfertilized plots. When the paddock was starting to head the end of May, samples for NSC were collected 4 PM, frozen immediately, and shipped frozen for analysis. A light frost occurred the night before sampling. The next day, 2 sq yards of plant material were hand clipped to ground level from each plot, and dried in an oven to obtain dry matter yield. The plots fertilized with ammonia nitrate yielded 3 times more dry matter, and were 29% lower in NSC concentration than unfertilized. This inverse relationship between nitrogen content and NSC concentration corroborates that found in plant science literature.

NSC %

Dry matter

Yield Tons

Dm/ acre

Pounds NSC /acre
35 lbs/acre

nitrogen as AmNO3

17.88 b 1.8 a 643 a
No nitrogen 23.10 a .6 b 277 b

Analysis by Dairy One, Ithaca, NY

The determination as to whether NSC concentration or pounds of NSC per acre is more important will be dependent on how the individual horse’s intake is managed. If a horse has continual access to pasture, it is possible to limit grass intake by starving the grass for nitrogen and overgrazing such that the amount of available forage does not exceed or even meet caloric needs. In this scenario, additional hay is often required. Because hay is generally lower in NSC than fresh grass, the higher concentration of NSC in nitrogen deficient grass may be offset by the lower concentration generally found in hay. In this type of situation, susceptible horse’s may be at increased risk of over indulging if the pasture is fertilized or irrigated, or a drought breaking rain occurs, which would then create more pounds of NSC per acre, while removing the limitations to intake imposed by slow grass growth.

If the caretaker were limiting intake by restricting access to grass, by use of grazing muzzle, portable fencing, or removal to a dry lot for part of the day, then fertilization, which decreases the concentration of NSC per mouthful of grass, would be the best option.” [17]

When considering whether it is healthier for your horses to fertilise your paddock or to leave it to grow organically it is necessary to consider whether the higher yield of grass obtained through fertilisation is likely to cause your horse to have higher sugar in his diet than the lower yield, higher sugar concentration grass of organic pasture? If your horse’s residential property has a low horse-acreage ratio, then it is possible that the high yield gained by fertilisation will create to much pasture for the horses to graze without becoming overweight. However, if there are a significant amount of horses grazing the pasture of your horse’s residence the extra grass yield of fertilised pasture should be spread between enough animals that the lower sugar concentration of fertilised grass is beneficial. Optimum fertilisation is a balancing act, one that must be considered carefully by horse owners.

To be continued….

Next time we will consider more pasture management ideas and exercise routines design to fight horse flab.

By Emma Lethbridge

(info@emmalethbridge.com)

References

[1] http://www.worldhorsewelfare.org/

[2] Johnson P.J., Wiedmeyer C.E., Messer N.T., Ganjam V.K. Medical Implications of Obesity in Horses—Lessons for Human Obesity. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2009; 3(1): 163–174.

[3] Hoffman R.M., Boston R.C., Stefanovski D, Kronfeld D.S., Harris P.A. Obesity and diet affect glucose dynamics and insulin sensitivity in Thoroughbred geldings. J Anim Sci. 2003;81(9):2333–2342.

[4] Kearns C.F., McKeever K.H., Kumagai K., Abe T. Fat-free mass is related to one-mile race performance in elite standardbred horses. Vet J. 2002;163(3):260–266

[5]Lawrence L.M., Jackson S., Kline K., Moser L., Powell D., Biel M. Observations on body weight and condition of horses in a 150-mile endurance ride. J Equine Vet Sci. 1992;12:320–324.

[6]Garlinghouse S.E., Burrill M.J. Relationship of body condition score to completion rate during 160 km endurance races. Equine Vet J Suppl. 1999;30:591–595.

[7] Cymbaluk N.F., Christison G.I. Environmental effects on thermoregulation and nutrition of horses. Vet Clin North Am Equine Pract. 1990;6(2):355–372.

[8] Henneke D.R., Potter G.D., Kreider J.L. Body condition during pregnancy and lactation and reproductive efficiency of mares. Theriogenology. 1984;21:897–909.

[9] http://www.baileyshorsefeeds.co.uk/feedingexplained/calculator.htm

[10] Henneke D.R., Potter G.D., Kreider J.L., Yeates B.F. (1983). Relationship between condition score, physical measurements and body fat percentage in mares. Equine Vet J. 15(4):371-2

[11] Menard C., Duncan P., Fleurance G., Georges J-Y., Lila M. (2001). Comparative foraging and nutrition of horses and cattle in European wetlands. Journal of Applied Ecology. 39 (1); 120-133.

[12] Article at http://www.equinescienceupdate.co.uk/fructan.htm on the paper- Fructan content in pasture grass. Jürgen Grässler and Uwe von Borstel. Proceedings Equine Nutrition Conference. Pferdeheilkunde (2005) 21, 75 – 76.

[13] Smith D. Nonstructural Carbohydrates. In Butler G.W., Bailey R.W. ed. Chemistry and Biochemistry of Herbage, vol 1. London: Academic Press, 1973;105-155.

[14] Belesky D.P., Wilkinson S.R., Stuedemann J.A. The influence of nitrogen fertilizer and Acremonium coenophialum on soluble carbohydrate content of grazed and non-grased Festuca arundinace., Grass Forage Sci 1991;46:159-166.

[15] Donaghy D.J., Fulkerson W.J. The impact of defoliation frequency and nitrogen fertilizer application in spring on summer survival of perennial ryegrass under grazing in subtropical Australia, Grass Forage Sci 2002;57(4):351.

[16] Morvan-Bertrand A., Boucaud J., Prud’homme M. Influence of initial levels of carbohydrates, fructan, nitrogen and soluble proteins on regrowth of Lolium perenne . L. cv. Bravo following defoliation. J Exper Bot 1999;50:1817-1826.

[17] Watts K.A. A Review of Unlikely Sources of Excess Carbohydrate in Equine Diets. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2005; 25(8): 338-344

Jun 142010
 

Here are a collection of abstracts from the lastest scientific papers, published in the first half of this year. Whether you are a casual rider or a professional horse person this is information that you need to know. I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the below abstracts, or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment and I will happily answer your questions.

Behaviour

Discrimination between conspecific odour samples in the horse (Equus caballus)

Becky Hothersall, Patricia Harris, Lotta Sörtoft and Christine J. Nicol

Abstract- Behavioural observations suggest that smell is important in social discriminations between horses but balanced studies of this capacity are lacking. We used a habituation–discrimination procedure to investigate the ability of horses to distinguish between pairs of odour samples from different individuals. In Study 1, separate tests were conducted for urine, faeces or fleece fabric previously rubbed on the coat (to pick up body odour samples (BOS)) and donor pairs differed in sex, and age. 10 pregnant mares each underwent three tests, one per sample type. A test consisted of three successive 2-min presentations of a sample from Individual A with a simultaneous presentation of a sample from Individual B during the final presentation. Doubly repeated measures ANOVA indicated a main effect of sample type on investigative response (df = 2, f = 7.98, P = 0.004): durations were longer for BOS than for urine or faeces but habituation across trials was most consistent for urine. In the final presentation, mares demonstrated discrimination by investigating the novel urine sample (B) more than the repeated sample (novel: median 8.0s, IQR = 10; repeated: median 2.5s, IQR = 6; z = −2.558, P = 0.008). In Study 2, urine samples from castrated male donors were used and neither mares nor their 4-month-old foals discriminated between samples from different individuals in the final presentation. The findings suggest that urine odour may contain some information that horses can use to discriminate between conspecifics. This may be limited to the level of broad categories such as sex or reproductive status; further investigation is needed to reveal what functional information can be transmitted and what compounds are involved.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science

Fear reactions in trained and untrained horses from dressage and show-jumping breeding lines

U. Von Borstel, I.J.H. Duncan, M.C. Lundin and L.J. Keeling.

Abstract- Horses’ fear reactions are hazardous to both horses and human beings, but it is not clear whether fear is influenced more by training or by other factors such as genetics. The following study was designed to detect differences between young, untrained (U) and older, well-trained (T) horses of dressage (D), show-jumping (J), and mixed (M) genetic lines with regard to intensity of reaction and ease of habituation to a frightening stimulus. In five consecutive trials, 90 horses were exposed to a standardized fear-eliciting stimulus where intensity and duration of the reactions were recorded. Repeated measures analysis showed that flight reactions by J were less intense (p >0.05) than those by D or M regardless of training status or age. Habituation to the stimulus over time was not significantly (p >0.1) different between the disciplines, as indicated by similar slopes for all measurements, but reaction vigour declined faster for T than for U. These findings indicate that there may be a genetic basis for less strong, though not shorter-lasting, fear reactions in J compared to D or M lines of horses. Research including the estimation of genetic correlations between traits related to fearfulness and to performance would be required to verify this assumption.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00136-X/abstract

Monitoring distances travelled by horses using GPS tracking collars

BA Hampson, JM Morton, PC Mills, MG Trotter, DW Lamb and CC Pollitt

Abstract – Objective The aims of this work were to (1) develop a low-cost equine movement tracking collar based on readily available components, (2) conduct preliminary studies assessing the effects of both paddock size and internal fence design on the movements of domestic horses, with and without foals at foot, and (3) describe distances moved by mares and their foals. Additional monitoring of free-ranging feral horses was conducted to allow preliminary comparisons with the movement of confined domestic horses. Procedures A lightweight global positioning system (GPS) data logger modified from a personal/vehicle tracker and mounted on a collar was used to monitor the movement of domestic horses in a range of paddock sizes and internal fence designs for 6.5-day periods. Results In the paddocks used (0.8–16 ha), groups of domestic horses exhibited a logarithmic response in mean daily distance travelled as a function of increasing paddock size, tending asymptotically towards approximately 7.5 km/day. The distance moved by newborn foals was similar to their dams, with total distance travelled also dependent on paddock size. Without altering available paddock area, paddock design, with the exception of a spiral design, did not significantly affect mean daily distance travelled. Feral horses (17.9 km/day) travelled substantially greater mean daily distances than domestic horses (7.2 km/day in 16-ha paddock), even when allowing for larger paddock size. Conclusions. Horses kept in stables or small yards and paddocks are quite sedentary in comparison with their feral relatives. For a given paddock area, most designs did not significantly affect mean daily distance travelled.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123356045/abstract

Equine Development

The effect of early handling of foals on their reaction to handling, humans and novelty, and the foal–mare relationship

E. Sondergaard and J. Jago

Abstract – The natural behaviour of horses in response to danger is to take flight, and consequently human handlers can be injured. Reducing the flight response and general reactivity of horses is therefore likely to reduce the incidence of injuries to handlers. In this experiment we investigated the effect of handling foals in the first 2 days after birth on their subsequent response to handling, humans and novelty, and the foal–mare relationship. Standardbred foals were assigned to one of two groups, handled (H) (N = 22, 12 colts, 10 fillies) and control (C) (N = 22, 11 colts, 11 fillies). Handling took place 3 times/day on days 1 and 2 after birth for 10 >min/session. Individual foals were gently restrained and stroked all over their body using bare hands and then a plastic bag and each leg was lifted once. C foals received no handling. C and H foals did not differ in their reaction to freeze branding at a mean age of 14 days. The approach and leave behaviour of mare–foal pairs were observed at pasture during week 5 to evaluate their relationship. Mares of H foals were less active in keeping the pair together than mares of C foals (GLM: 6.81; P < 0.05). At 6 weeks of age all colts were introduced to an arena, together with their mare, and their reaction to a novel object and an unknown human were tested. Treatment did not affect heart rate of foals or in mares. C foals initiated more suckling bouts than H when no human was present (Wilcoxon: Z = 2.44, N = 22, P < 0.05) indicating that they responded differently to the novel arena than H foals. However, there was no difference between H and C foals in their exploratory behaviour in the arena. When a human was present in the arena, H foals had a shorter flight distance than C foals (Z= −1.98, N= 22, P < 0.05) and tended to move further away from the mare (Z= −1.80, N= 22, P< 0.07). Handling of foals in the first 2 days after birth appeared to affect the foal–mare relationship and alter their perception of humans at a later age but did not alter their response to novelty or to handling. The effects of early handling of foals on the foal–mare relationship require further investigation.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00029-8/abstract

Effects of imprint training procedure at birth on the reactions of foals at age six months

J. L. WILLIAMS, T. H. FRIEND, M. N. COLLINS, M. J. TOSCANO, A. SISTO-BURT and C.H. NEVILL

Abstract – Reasons for performing study: While imprint training procedures have been promoted in popular magazines, they have received limited scientific investigation. Objectives: To determine the effects of a neonatal imprint training procedure on 6-month-old foals and to determine if any one session had a greater effect than others. Methods: Foals (n = 131) were divided into the following treatments: no imprint training, imprint training at birth, 12, 24 and 48 h after birth or imprint training only at birth, 12, 24, 48, or 72 h after birth. Foals then received minimal human handling until they were tested at 6 months. Results: During training, time to complete exposure to the stimulus was significant for only 2 of 6 stimuli. Percentage change in baseline heart rate was significant for only 2 of 10 stimuli. These 4 effects were randomly spread across treatments. Conclusions: Neither the number of imprint training sessions (0, 1, or 4) nor the timing of imprint training sessions (none, birth, 12, 24, 48, or 72 h after birth) influenced the foal’s behaviour at 6 months of age. Potential clinical relevance: In this study, imprint training did not result in better behaved, less reactive foals.

Link -http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123228952/abstract

Horse Training

Positive interactions lead to lasting positive memories in horses, Equus caballus.

Carol Sankey, Marie-Annick Richard-Yris, Helene Leroy, Severine Henry, and Martine Hausberger.

Abstract- Social relationships are important in social species. These relationships, based on repeated interactions, define each partner’s expectations during the following encounters. The creation of a relationship implies high social cognitive abilities which require that each partner is able to associate the positive or negative content of an interaction with a specific partner and to recall this association. In this study, we tested the effects of repeated interactions on the memory kept by 23 young horses about humans, after 6 and 8 months of separation. The association of a reward with a learning task in an interactional context induced positive reactions towards humans during training. It also increased contact and interest, not only just after training, but also several months later, despite no further interaction with humans. In addition, this ‘positive memory’ of humans extended to novel persons. Overall, positive reinforcement enhanced learning and memorization of the task itself. These findings suggest remarkable social cognitive abilities that can be transposed from intraspecific to interspecific social contexts.

Link- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W9W-4YBX1RW-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369489598&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=47c2752e3aabb8c1c1304cbfddc73aef

The use of human-given cues by domestic horses, Equus caballus, during an object choice task

Meggen Walton and Karen McComb

Abstract – Selection pressures during domestication are thought to lead to an enhanced ability to use human-given cues. Horses fulfil a wide variety of roles for humans and have been domesticated for at least 5000 years but their ability to read human cues has not been widely studied. We tested the ability of 28 horses to attend to human-given cues in an object choice task. We included five different cues: distal sustained pointing, momentary tapping, marker placement, body orientation and gaze (head) alternation. Horses were able to use the pointing and marker placement cues spontaneously but not the tapping, body orientation and gaze alternation cues. The overall pattern of responding suggests that horses may use cues that provide stimulus enhancement at the time of choice and do not have an understanding of the communicative nature of the cues given. As such, their proficiency at this task appears to be inferior to that of domestic dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, but similar to that of domestic goats, Caprus hircus.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W9W-4YT09DP-1&_user=10&_coverDate=06%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369491728&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=eb6e37f1c4cbefc1c23d49f601b6d234

Human facial discrimination in horses: can they tell us apart?

Sherril M. Stone

Abstract – The human–horse relationship has a long evolutionary history. Horses continue to play a pivotal role in the lives of humans and it is common for humans to think their horses recognize them by face. If a horse can distinguish his/her human companion from other humans, then evolution has supplied the horse with a very adaptive cognitive ability. The current study used operant conditioning trials to examine whether horses could discriminate photographed human faces and transfer this facial recognition ability a novel setting. The results indicated the horses (a) learned to discriminate photographs of the unrelated individuals, fraternal twins, and identical twins and (b) demonstrated transfer of facial recognition by spending more time with their S+ woman in the field test.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/jg20884g612471h4/

Horses’ learning performances are under the influence of several temperamental dimensions

L. Lansade and F. Simon

Abstract – Learning performances are influenced by many factors, not only breed, age and sex, but also temperament. The purpose of this study was to understand how different temperamental dimensions affect the learning performance of horses, Equus caballus. First, we carried out a series of behavioural tests on 36 Welsh ponies aged 5–7 years to measure five temperamental dimensions: fearfulness (novel area test and surprise test), gregariousness (social isolation test), reactivity to humans (passive human test), tactile sensitivity (von Frey filament test) and activity level (evaluation of locomotor activity during all the tests). We then presented them with two learning tasks (avoidance and backwards–forwards tasks). In the avoidance task they had to learn to jump over a fence when they heard a sound associated with an aversive stimulus (puff of air). In the backwards–forwards task they had to walk forwards or move backwards in response to a tactile or vocal command to obtain a food reward. There was no correlation between performances on the two learning tasks, indicating that learning ability is task-dependent. However, correlations were found between temperamental data and learning performance (Spearman correlations). The ponies that performed the avoidance task best were the most fearful and the most active ones. For instance, the number of trials required to perform 5 consecutive correct responses (learning criterion) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (way of crossing a novel area: rs= −0.41, P = 0.01 and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs = −0.33, P= 0.05) and activity level (frequency of trotting during all the tests: rs= −0.40, P= 0.02). The animals that performed the backwards–forwards task best were the ones that were the least fearful and the most sensitive. For instance, the learning criterion (corresponding to the number of trials taken to achieve five consecutive correct responses) was correlated with the variables aimed at measuring fearfulness (latency to put one foot on the area: rs= 0.43, P= 0.01; way of crossing a novel area: rs=0.31, P= 0.06; and time to start eating again after a surprise effect: rs= 0.43, P= 0.009) and tactile sensitivity (response to von Frey filaments: rs= −0.44, P = 0.008). This study revealed significant links between temperament and learning abilities that are highly task-dependent.

Link – http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(10)00074-2/abstract

Management

Effect of housing conditions on activity and lying behaviour of horses

S.J Chaplin and L. Gretgrix

Abstract – Housing conditions for horses impose various levels of confinement, which may compromise welfare. Lying behaviour and activity can be used as welfare indicators for domestic animals and rebound behaviour suggests a build-up of motivation resulting from deprivation. The objective of this study was to determine if activity and lying behaviour of horses are affected by housing conditions and to investigate the occurrence of rebound behaviour after release from confinement. Eight horses were subjected, in pairs, to each of four experimental treatments; paddock (P), fully stabled (FS), partly stabled (PS) and yard (Y). Each horse received 6 days acclimatisation prior to the 24 h recording period. Time spent in lying and activity were electronically recorded using a tilt switch and motion sensor connected to a data logger worn on the horse’s left foreleg. Time spent active during the first 5 min of release from stable to paddock in the PS treatment (days 1 and 5) and at the same time of day in the P treatment was used as a measure of rebound behaviour. Effect of housing conditions on total time spent active was highly significant (FS = 123 s, PS = 158 s, Y = 377 s, P = 779 s, P < 0.001). Housing conditions did not significantly affect total time spent lying (P = 0.646). Horses were significantly more active, compared with baseline paddock behaviour, on release from stabling on both days 1 (P = 0.006) and 5 (P = 0.025) of PS treatment. These results suggest that activity patterns of horses, but not lying behaviour, are affected by the housing conditions tested and that rebound activity occurs in horses after a period of confinement.

Link – http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7466644

Riding

Preliminary study of jointed snaffle vs. crossunder bitless bridles: Quantified comparison of behaviour in four horses

W. R. Cook and D. S. Mills,

Abstract – The study tested the null hypothesis that if a horse is ridden in a snaffle bridle and then a crossunder bitless bridle, there will be no change in its behaviour. It was predicted that there would be change and that behaviour would improve when bitless. Four horses, none of which had ever been ridden in a crossunder bitless bridle, were ridden through two 4 min, exercise tests, first bitted then bitless. An independent judge marked the 27 phases of each test on a 10 point scale and comments and scores were recorded on a video soundtrack. The results refuted the null hypothesis and upheld the predictions. Mean score, when bitted, was 37%; and through the first 4 min of being bitless, 64%. A binomial probability distribution suggested that the results were significantly different from random effects. All 4 horses accepted the crossunder bitless bridle without hesitation. Further studies are warranted and it is hoped that others will build on this new field of investigation. The authors are of the opinion that the bit can be a welfare and safety problem for both horse and horseman. Equestrian organisations that currently mandate use of the bit for competitions are urged to review their rules.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123230824/abstract

A comparison of forces acting on the horse’s back and the stability of the rider’s seat in different positions at the trot

A.B. Kotschwar, B. Borkenhagen, S. Kuhnke, J. Molsner and A. Baltacis

Abstract -The aim of the study was to compare the stability of the rider as well as the forces acting on a horse’s back with different seating positions at the trot (sitting trot, rising trot and two-point seat). The same experienced rider was mounted on 10 sound horses trotting on a treadmill. The kinetic data were recorded with an electronic pressure mat, placed under a well-fitting dressage saddle with no saddle pad. The rider used three different seating positions, each for 20s. Right forelimb motion was used to synchronise the pressure data with the stride cycles. To determine the rider’s stability, the movement of the centre of pressure (COP) along the transverse (X) and longitudinal (Y) axes was calculated. The force was taken as the sum of all segments of the pressure pad multiplied by the area of the pressure pad. The maximum force and the X- and Y-deviations were evaluated using ANOVA for repeated measures with a Bonferroni Post hoc test. The stability of the rider in the Y-direction was significantly highest in the two-point seat, followed by the rising trot and the sitting trot, respectively. In the X-direction, there was no significant difference between the three positions. The significantly highest load on the horse’s back was at the sitting trot (2112N), followed by the rising trot (2056N) and the two-point seat (1688N). The rider was most stable in the two-point seat while transferring the lowest load on the horse’s back. The rising trot was found to be more stable and less stressful for the horse’s back compared to the sitting trot.

Link – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WXN-4W80GHX-1&_user=10&_coverDate=04%2F30%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1369499043&_rerunOrigin=scholar.google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=f7f5c89c58d102c20197b1e6134e0579

Stereotypic Behaviours (Stable Vices)

Crib-biting in US horses: Breed predispositions and owner perceptions of aetiology

J. D. ALBRIGHT H. O. MOHAMMED, C. R. HELESKI, C. L. WICKENS and K. A.HOUPT

Abstract – Reasons for performing study: Crib-biting is an equine stereotypy that may result in diseases such as colic. Certain breeds and management factors have been associated. Objectives: To determine: breed prevalence of crib-biting in US horses; the likelihood that one horse learns to crib-bite from another; and owner perceptions of causal factors. Methods: An initial postal survey queried the number and breed of crib-biting horses and if a horse began after being exposed to a horse with this habit. In a follow-up survey, a volunteer subset of owners was asked the number of affected and nonaffected horses of each breed and the extent of conspecific contact. The likelihood of crib-biting given breed and extent of contact was quantified using odds ratio (OR) and significance of the association was assessed using the Chi-squared test. Results: Overall prevalence was 4.4%. Thoroughbreds were the breed most affected (13.3%). Approximately half of owners believed environmental factors predominantly cause the condition (54.4%) and crib-biting is learned by observation (48.8%). However, only 1.0% of horses became affected after being exposed to a crib-biter. The majority (86%) of horses was turned out in the same pasture with other horses and extent of contact with conspecifics was not statistically related to risk. Conclusion: This is the first study to report breed prevalence for crib-biting in US horses. Thoroughbreds were the breed more likely to be affected. More owners believed either environmental conditions were a predominant cause or a combination of genetic and environmental factors contributes to the behaviour. Only a small number of horses reportedly began to crib-bite after being exposed to an affected individual, but approximately half of owners considered it to be a learned behaviour; most owners did not isolate affected horses. Potential relevance: Genetic predisposition, not just intensive management conditions and surroundings, may be a factor in the high crib-biting prevalence in some breeds, and warrants further investigation. Little evidence exists to suggest horses learn the behaviour from other horses, and isolation may cause unnecessary stress.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123230083/abstract

Exploring lay perceptions of the causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour in horses.

A. LITVA, C. S. ROBINSON and D. C. ARCHER

Abstract- Reasons for performing study: Crib-biting/windsucking behaviour has important consequences for equine health and welfare. Lay perceptions of health and illness are of interest to medical sociologists, providing important information to medical practitioners, but have infrequently been applied in veterinary research. Objectives: To demonstrate how lay epidemiology can be applied within veterinary research by exploring the lay perceptions regarding the causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour in horses. Methods: Informants were recruited from professional and amateur horse owners who had or had not owned/cared for a horse that exhibited crib-biting/windsucking behaviour. In-depth interviews were used to examine perceptions about the development of this behaviour within each group until a ‘saturation’ of themes emerged. Results: The main themes that emerged as causes of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour were ‘boredom’, ‘stress’ and ‘habit/addiction’. In the group of owners/carers who did not have direct experience of this type of behaviour, ‘copying’ from other horses emerged as a strong theme and they stated that they would not wish to own a crib-biting/windsucking horse. In contrast, those who had direct experience of horses demonstrating this behaviour did not believe copying was a cause based on their own observations and would not be put off purchasing or caring for another horse displaying this behaviour. Conclusions: Perceptions about what causes crib-biting/windsucking was influenced by whether or not informants had personal experience of horses demonstrating this behaviour. The three main themes that emerged have some justification based on current research and highlight the need for further investigation into the underlying pathophysiology of crib-biting/windsucking behaviour. Potential relevance: Qualitative approaches to health, disease and behaviour have an important role in the medical field and are applicable to veterinary research.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123353793/abstract

Lateralised motor behaviour leads to increased unevenness in front feet and asymmetry in athletic performance in young mature Warmblood horses

C. van HEEL, M. C. van DIERENDONCK, A. M. KROEKENSTOEL and W. BACK

Abstract – Reason for performing study: Foot stance in grazing significantly influences hoof conformation and development from foal to yearling age.Objectives: To conduct a longitudinal study to establish if the relationship between motor laterality and uneven front feet persisted in 3-year-old horses at the time of studbook selection and to investigate if such laterality and unevenness might influence the horses’ ability to perform symmetrically while trotting, cantering and free jumping. Methods: Seventeen clinically sound but untrained (with only minimal experience of handling) and sound Warmblood horses that had participated in a previous study were assessed as per the protocol reported. Laterality was tested in a preference test (PT) and z-values were calculated for analysis purposes. Laterality and hoof unevenness were related to both relative limb length and relative head size, while the ability to perform symmetrically was tested in free trot-canter transitions and free jumping exercises. Differences in performance between horses with and without a limb preference in the PT and those with ‘uneven’ and ‘even’ feet were tested for differences in performance metrics using Students’ t test, while linearity was tested using a regression analysis (P<0.05). Results: Significant laterality was still present in 24% of the 3-year-old horses and the relationship between laterality and uneven feet pairs was stronger than at foal and yearling stages. Horses with significant motor laterality had almost 4 times more unevenness, a smaller head and longer limbs and the relationship between body conformation and laterality was still present. There was a strong linear relation between unevenness, laterality and a bias or side preference for trot-canter transitions. However, this relationship was not significant during the free jumping exercise. Conclusion: Motor laterality and uneven feet pairs were still present and significantly related in the 3-year-old horses and both variables were also strongly related to sidedness in trot-canter transitions. Potential relevance: Warmblood studbooks should include quantitative data on laterality at the time of studbook admission as part of the selection criteria.

Link – http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123339030/abstract

The Feral Horse

Affiliative relationships among Sorraia mares: influence of age, dominance, kinship and reproductive state

Filipa Heitor and Luís Vicente

Abstract – Affiliative relationships among mares were examined in a managed group of Sorraia horses, Equus caballus, over a 3-year period. We assessed the influence of age, dominance, kinship and reproductive state on the strength of affiliative relationships and diversity of partners. The herd comprised 9–11 mares that had known each other since birth, their foals and a stallion that remained in the group exclusively during the breeding season. In contrast to a previous study, kinship did not significantly affect bonds. Mares tended to spend more time in proximity to those in the same reproductive state. Affiliative relationships among mares were relatively stable but their strength decreased after foaling, possibly as a function of foal protection and bonding between dam and foal. There was no consistent evidence that mares disengaged from affiliative relationships with increasing age. As expected, dominant mares and barren mares contributed the most to affiliative relationships. Dominance rank increased with age, but dominance relationships were stable and did not change after foaling. Overall, reproductive state was the factor that had the most consistent influence on affiliative relationships among Sorraia mares.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/n314557n16q646l4/

Dominance relationships and patterns of aggression in a bachelor group of Sorraia horses (Equus caballus)

Filipa Heitor and Luís Vicente

Abstract – The influence of individual factors on dominance rank and the relationship between rank distance and patterns of aggression predicted by models of evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS) of animal conflict were investigated in a managed bachelor group of Sorraia horses, Equus caballus. The group was composed of four to six stallions 3- to 12-years-old during the study period. The dominance hierarchy was significantly linear and rank was not related to age, weight, height or aggressiveness. Frequency and intensity of agonistic interactions were low, but higher-ranking stallions did not receive lower aggressiveness than lower-ranking stallions. There was some evidence that dominance relationships were more contested among close-ranking stallions, as predicted. Agonistic-related interactions among close-ranking stallions served similar functions to those among distant-ranking stallions, but the latter interacted more frequently than expected for access to resting sites and/or resting partners. Therefore, we found some evidence that agonistic-related interactions among distant-ranking stallions play a larger role in providing access to valuable and defendable resources than those among close-ranking stallions. Nevertheless, the fact that space to escape from aggression was limited and breeding access was independent from dominance rank may have reduced the benefits relative to costs of aggression and therefore limited the occurrence of contests over dominance and resources.

Link – http://www.springerlink.com/content/l67722831h4q302k/

Hope you enjoyed reading,

Emma Lethbridge

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May 142010
 

Dietary supplementation for horses is a vexed area where the scarcity of scientific studies, owners’ desires to do the best for their animals and enthusiastic advertising by manufacturers all conspire to make it difficult for anyone to know the best thing to do.

There is nothing inherently dodgy or implausible about vitamins and trace elements. They are essential to life. Strictly speaking, a vitamin is a substance that has to be obtained from the diet because the organism involved is unable to manufacture, or synthesise, it in its body. For example, vitamin C or ascorbic acid is a vitamin for people but not for horses. Horses synthesise this substance in their guts; people do not, and depend on a dietary supply. A trace element is, as its name suggests, a chemical element or nutrient that is required by the body in minute, or trace, amountsIt has long been known that dietary deficiencies can lead to illness (Wikipedia 2010a), although it was not until the early part of the 20th century that all the vitamins were isolated and described. It is also indisputable that until fairly recent times, vitamin and trace element deficiencies were common in humans even in the developed countries, and in less fortunate parts of the world this is still so.

The discovery of vitamins, and the ability to manufacture them commercially, soon led to a highly profitable industry selling supplements. Once the preserve of the whole-food shop, dazzling arrays of supplements are now de rigueur almost anywhere that food and, indeed, medicines are sold. The beliefs that routine supplementation is good for everyone, that most diets are deficient and that many people have special needs for extra micronutrients have all been promoted way beyond the actual evidence, to the point where many people not only take multivitamins routinely, but take them well in excess of the recommended daily doses. Unfortunately, recent studies are showing that when it comes to vitamins and trace elements it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and substances that are vital for health in small doses can be dangerous in larger amounts. This is hardly surprising: these substances are biologically active, and all biologically-active substances are likely to have side effects as well as main effects. For people living in developed countries, the scientific evidence at present is that there are no proven benefits to routine supplementation, that modern foodstuffs are not deficient in nutrients, that most people in industrialised countries can get all of their nutritional needs from food, and that high doses of vitamins probably do more harm than good (Hall 2008; Novella 2009; Skeptvet 2009, Carroll 2010).

Might this be the case also in horses?

Equine nutritional supplements have been something of a growth industry over the last 20 or 30 years. Your average tack shop or feed store now incorporates an impressive display of vitamins, minerals and other feed additives and there are hundreds of vitamin and mineral mixes sold for horses, even though the recommended daily allowances and maximum and minimum safe levels for horses are not at all well known (Merck 2008). In the last few months I’ve seen advertising that suggests that all soils, in the UK at least, are deficient in minerals, that all pasture and hay is therefore deficient, and that all horses therefore need to be given supplements. It is very difficult to find any hard evidence on this subject. In temperate climates there are localised areas of nutrient deficiencies in the soil, and these can affect the health and growth of ruminant livestock such as sheep and cattle depending on how intensively the land is managed (Whitehead 2000), but I’ve not been able to find any comparable data for horses that is independent and doesn’t come from somebody selling supplements. If any reader can point me to any, please do.

It appears that vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the horse are actually rather rare (Merck 2008) and generally follow some other problem such as starvation or malabsorption because of age or illness. Horses’ bodies manufacture vitamin A from beta-carotene and vitamin C from sucrose in the diet. All the B vitamins and vitamin K are synthesised by the bacteria in the equine gut. Vitamin D is produced by the action of ultraviolet light on the horse’s skin. In fact the only vitamin needed by the horse that has to come from its diet is vitamin E (Kerrigan 1986). There are adequate levels of the essential trace elements in most pastures and hay for a horse doing light to moderate work, and not otherwise stressed (Wikipedia 2010c). A horse who has reasonable access to sunlight and green, growing pasture or sun-cured forage is unlikely to be deficient in any vitamins. Mineral deficiencies can arise, but these are rarely a consequence of the pasture a horse is in and more commonly a result of faulty feeding. The trace elements most likely to be deficient are calcium, phosphorus, copper, sodium chloride (salt) and selenium (Merck 2008).

It is more common for horse rations to contain an excess of certain nutrients, and this can lead to direct toxicity or to induced deficits of other minerals. Phosphorus, iron, copper, selenium and vitamin A are the substances most commonly fed to excess (Merck 2008).

In horses, the best-known example of a nutritional disorder is nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, also known as big-head disease or bran disease. It is caused by a diet containing too much phosphorus and too little calcium, and was prevalent in western Europe when many horses were fed large amounts of wheat bran. Although the link between bran in the diet, calcium deficiency and bone weakness was established by the veterinary surgeon Dr Varnell in 1860, the condition was still occasionally being diagnosed in the 1980s in horses fed excessive amounts of grain (Hintz 1987). It is still common in horses grazing certain tropical grasses, where chemicals called oxalates in the grasses combine with calcium so that it cannot be absorbed by the horse’s gut.

Selenium and vitamin E deficiencies have been considered as possible risk factors in horses prone to exertional rhabdomyolysis (tying up or azoturia) but the evidence is by no means unequivocal: if your horse suffers from this condition it is sensible to have a vet blood-test your horse and supplement, if necessary, under expert supervision. This is definitely not one to guess at yourself as even a slight excess of selenium can cause irreversible damage including loss of mane and tail hair and sloughing of the hooves (Merck 2008), and large overdoses can cause death (Wikipedia 2010b).

As for the known toxic and harmful effects of overdoses: vitamin A in excess can damage the bones and skin and cause developmental problems in unborn foals, and too much vitamin D can cause calcium to be laid down in the blood vessels, heart and soft tissues as well as bone weakness and weight loss. It can be fatal. Iodine toxicity, resulting in an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre) can occur in horses fed too much dried seaweed. Too much potassium can cause heart problems. Feeding magnesium to excess – possible if you give your horse a fortified diet and also a magnesium-based ‘calmer’ – may interfere with calcium absorption and lead to a deficiency of that mineral. Iron excess can interfere with the metabolism of copper. Too much copper can cause problems with the uptake of selenium and iron (Merck 2008).

Current veterinary advice is that a horse in light to moderate work who is fed a balanced diet with plenty of good-quality forage (including hay or haylage and decent grazing), who spends at least 4 hours a day outdoors in order to metabolise vitamin D from sunlight and who is not in extremely hard work is, if otherwise healthy, unlikely to need any supplementation except for common salt, sodium chloride, which may be given as a free-access lick or added to the feed (Merck 2008). There are, however, circumstances in which it is possible for a horse to suffer from deficiencies. The most obvious is the fat horse or pony who needs to be on a severely restricted diet in order to control his weight. He may not be getting enough food to fulfil his needs for vitamin precursors (the substances that are converted to vitamins in the digestive tract) or trace elements, especially if his diet is based on soaked or poor-quality forage. Phosphorus deficiency can occur in horses eating poor-quality forage and no grain. It leads to weakening of the bones and low-grade lameness, but the owner is likely to notice the horse eating soil or other non-foods before any clinical signs develop. Very old horses may need supplements to compensate for the reduced efficiency of their digestive processes. Horses kept permanently stabled or rugged may have vitamin D deficiency as a result of insufficient sunlight on the skin. Horses in very hard work that makes them sweat a lot will benefit from electrolyte supplements to compensate for the sodium and potassium lost in sweat. If they are also fed high-fat diets they may need extra vitamin E. Horses who are chronically stressed, or ill, may have higher than normal requirements for some vitamins and trace elements. Pregnant and lactating mares may need supplements too (Wikipedia 2010c).

If your horse does have a clinically significant deficiency, he might need a higher level of supplementation than he’d get in an all-purpose vitamin and mineral mix, so it is worth having a proper test and just giving him what he really needs. In fact, if you have any suspicion that your horse may have a vitamin or trace element deficiency, it is far better for your bank balance and his health and soundness to have him blood-tested, and to adjust his diet accordingly.

For obvious reasons, it is best to have this test done by your vet and not by a company who is selling supplements and who has a vested interest in finding a deficiency. Nutritional deficiencies are easily and inexpensively diagnosed using blood serum analysis and this is the only reliable way of doing it. I wouldn’t personally be tempted by alternative diagnostic techniques such as hair analysis (Barrett 2008) or applied kinesiology (Barrett 2009) as they haven’t been shown to work in independent tests and in many cases the person or company offering the technique is also selling supplements. Do-it-yourself diagnosis and treatment also has its risks. I have heard of owners giving their nervous horses magnesium and vitamin B supplements ‘because they are essential for the proper working of the nervous system’ – and so they are, but nervous behaviour isn’t necessarily the result of a disordered nervous system, and the horse may not actually be deficient in those substances. Even if these owners don’t cause any actual harm with their oversupplementation, they are spending money on products that will do no more than produce vitamin-rich and mineral-rich urine. There are cheaper ways to improve the nutritional status of your fields, if that is the problem.

In conclusion, though most horses are unlikely to need supplements, some may benefit from them. And if your horse is one of those who would benefit, it would seem most sensible and economical to find out what he actually needs, given that supplements cost money and that some are dangerous in large doses.

By Alison Averis

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References

Barrett S (2008). Commercial hair analysis: a cardinal sign of quackery. www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/hair.html

Barrett s (2009). Applied Kinesiology: phony muscle testing for ‘allergies’ and ‘nutrient deficiencies’. www.quackwatch.com/01/QuackeryRelatedTopics/Tests/ak.html

Carroll R (2010). Vitamins. www.skepdic.com/vitacon.html

Hall, H (2008). Should I take a multivitamin? www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=160

Hintz HF (1987). The nutrition and feeding of horses. In Veterinary notes for horse owners. Ed by P D Rossdale. 17th Edition. Stanley Paul, London.

Kerrigan, R (1986). Practical horse nutrition. Adelaide, Australia.

Merck & Co. inc. (2008) Nutrition: horses. www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp?cfile=htm/bc/toc_182600.htm

Novella S (2009). Another negative study of vitamins. www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=372

Skeptvet (2009). Orthomolecular medicinebig talk, little evidence, real risk. www.skeptvet.com/Blog/2009/08/orthomolecular-medicine-big-talk-little-evidence-real-risk/

Whitehead DC (2000). Nutrient elements in grassland. CABI Publishing, Wallingford.

Wikipedia (2010a). Vitamins www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/vitamins

Wikipedia (2010b). Selenium. www.wikipedia.org/wiki/selenium

Wikipedia (2010c). Equine nutrition. www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Equine_nutrition

Apr 272010
 

At the end of March I left the dismal weather in the UK for the sunny Gambia to present at the first Pan-African Conference on Working Equines. The conference, entitled ‘Better Management, Improved Performance’ was organised by the World Association for Transport Animal Welfare and Studies (TAWS) in association with The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). Speakers and experts with experience of working in The Gambia, Mali, Mauretania, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Sudan attended for the 2 day seminar and then a field trip to the GHDT head-quarters.

The opening talks set the scene, describing the changing management systems of agriculture in The Gambia and the changing roles of cattle and equines in this sector. Dr Touray (Chairman of the Gambian Vet Council) explained that in the 1930s there were 30,000-40,000 cattle and now there are an estimated 425,000, a reflection of the intensification of cattle farming.

Thirty years ago, horses and donkeys were rare in The Gambia, with oxen providing the majority of the draught power, but now 87,000 cattle and equines are used for this purpose. There are now 25,000 horses and 40,000-50,000 donkeys in The Gambia working hard helping to plough fields, carry water and other loads on their backs or draw carts. [I nearly said ‘pull carts’ but one of the first lessons when you start learning about working horses is that they don’t ‘pull’ carts – they ‘push’ into their harnesses to move the cart. There are fun ways you can show this practically but they don’t work so well on paper…]

Introducing Equine Expertise to the Gambia

The dramatic and relatively rapid increase in the number of equines used in transportation and agriculture in a country with little experience of managing and caring for equines has resulted in welfare problems. Ill-health of the animals can be catastrophic for the farmers dependent on them as they can often only afford a single horse or donkey.

The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT) was set up in 2002 with the principle aim of improving the health and welfare of working equines and, in turn, reducing the poverty of their owners. It became apparent to the organisation that although animal health workers were taught extensively about livestock health and management, there was a lack of equine-specific training. The GHDT partnered with The Gambia College School of Agriculture to address this, and in 2008 and 2009 16 students were selected to be taught additional modules in equine health and management. The extra modules were funded by the GHDT, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (RCVS) Trust, the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) Trust, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and the Donkey Sanctuary.

After the graduation ceremony, the students attended the seminar as professionals to learn from presentations and to participate in the exchange of ideas on the two central themes of management and prevention.

The Threat of Disease

The GHDT has been working in The Gambia since 2002, and in the eight years of providing basic veterinary support at the nearby markets, they have come across a range of diseases, some of which were previously unknown in The Gambia.

Some highlights from the presentations on disease:

  • Some of the diseases are really gruesome. For example, African Horse Sickness (AHS) is caused by a virus spread by midges and causes equines to cough up frothy fluid from nostril and mouth, and fluid buildup in the lungs. It is a highly infectious, distressing and deadly disease. Epizootic lymphangitis is another highly contagious disease; a fungus causes the lymph vessels to stand out, then nodules form along them, which then turn into abscesses exuding copious amounts of pus – gross. Strangles, a disease horse owners in the UK will be familiar with, has emerged as a significant problem. Jamie Gartsides presented lots of practical ideas on how this disease can be managed in rural settings as encountered across Africa.

  • GHDT had been reporting cases of equines with an unknown neurological disease with a high mortality rate. The horses can be seen to pace restlessly in circles. Laura Peachey (RVC) described research into the cause of the disease – most likely to be cerebral trypanosomiasis. Further work is needed to identify the specific strain involved and to provide appropriate treatment.
  • Most projects working with equines in developing countries include a de-worming programme. Chris Proudman (University of Liverpool) explained that research involving people in rural African communities has showed that ‘worms’ are not in the top five concerns to owners with respect to their donkeys and that owners do not recognise the signs of heavy parasite burden. The best way to control worms is the same world-over – a combination of faecal removal and strategic use of de-wormers. He reminded us that 80% of worms are in 20% of the hosts so when you do worm counts it is important to do this for all horses that live together. Faeces collection ‘poo picking’ was highlighted as an excellent method of preventing transmission, and in Africa this has additional economic benefits as faeces can be sold for fuel, fertilizer or even used as barter!
  • Between one third and one half of the world’s human population has no access to basic surgery, and for animals access is even less available. However, in his presentation Patrick Pollock (University of Glasgow) described how it is possible to perform many procedures under basic field conditions. Fortunately, many procedures can be done with the equine standing and sedated and with the use of local or regional nerve blocks. Indeed such techniques have several advantages and are therefore ideally suited to areas where standard surgical facilities are not available.
  • Another presentation that explored low-tech practical solutions was Alex Thiemann’s (The Donkey Sanctuary) appraisal of traditional solutions for the treatment of wounds and other conditions. Thiemann explained that the majority of the world’s population of working equines is located where access to modern/Western medicines and high-tech diagnostic equipment is limited, either by cost or availability. However, simple remedies and techniques can be effective and also empower local people to use their abilities successfully. Recipes were provided for alternative oral rehydration fluid, pain relief and wound treatments, and Thiemann revealed the secret treatment for donkeys that come to the Donkey Sanctuary with poor appetite and how to reverse hyperlipemia – copious amounts of ReadyBrek! Thiemann explained why some traditional treatments work – for example, sugar paste for wound treatment is an ancient Egyptian/Greek remedy that is still used in parts of Africa- the main action is antibacterial and can be especially useful for infected wounds.

Prevention Through Education

The need for education of owners to prevent some of these diseases and problems resulting from poor care was an ongoing theme and formed the focus of some of the presentations on the second day.

Some of the presentations had already described how communities can provide useful information about how common diseases are and what the local methods of treatment are. In my presentation I explained how WSPA (The World Society for the Protection of Animals for who I work) has been changing our approach to involve communities also in the solution. Our work to improve the welfare of horses in developing countries used to focus on providing treatment where it would otherwise be unavailable. We funded mobile clinics so that vets could reach the animals in need. However, this is very expensive, does not reach all the animals who need us and also we used to spend a lot of time patching animals up. We were more interested in really making a difference to the lives of equines, not just in treating their wounds but in making sure their needs, physical and mental well-being, were met. I have been trialling ways of working with communities that depend on working equines for their survival focussing on changing the way they are kept – e.g. through fun activities and discussions considering all the things a horse needs, and nurturing changes in their care. Using examples from my work in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Uruguay and The Palestinian Territories I explained what we have learnt about working in this way and shared some of our exciting results. For example, in Cambodia owners have been making their stables much bigger so that the ponies can lie down properly and get proper rest, and in Uruguay incidences of colic decreased by 74% as a result of owners clearing grazing areas of rubbish so preventing horses from eating plastic bags.

Other educational programmes running across Africa were described. For example, Amadou Doumbia (SPANA) explained that most of the problems faced by working equines in Mali are because of the way they are managed and worked. SPANA devised training programmes for representatives of groups of owners about how to care for their animals. The results were impressive – in one project area mortality reduced from 62% to 5%, and wound incidence from 42% to 11%, highlighting that education can lead to improved welfare.

Putting Theory into Practice

The two-day seminar was followed by an optional extension to the GHDT base in the village of Sambel Kunda, 230 km and an 8 hour journey from the comfort of the conference hotel. Here delegates got a taste of how horses and donkeys are kept in rural areas.

There were some practical demonstrations. Ann Varley led a lively session in which some bemused horses and donkeys were painted (it washed off afterwards!) to show their skeletons and then to demonstrate how harness design should enable maximum comfort to the animals and maximum efficiency.

Anyone who thought that learning about cart design would involve donkeys doing the work was in for a surprise as Professor Hovell harnessed people to the carts so that delegates could truly feel the difference between the effects that different designs had on the ease of drawing a cart.

Making a Difference

As eloquently summarised by Heather Armstrong (GHDT) “Horse and donkey owners across Africa face significant challenges to keep their animals in good condition to work productively. Some of these challenges can be overcome with simple changes in their management and some challenges are more difficult to deal with. Equines are vital to the economy of the country and they and their owners deserve our support. It is essential that Gambians are taught about how to care and manage these animals and GHDT has been working to achieve this.”

The conference brought together delegates whose work spans many countries in Africa and provided an opportunity to learn from each other and to consider how to best work in often challenging field conditions. The practical demonstrations were particularly memorable and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more horses and donkeys across the world might shortly find themselves being painted!

Many organisations are working help the equines that work so hard for people all around the world and donations are always welcome. Some examples:

By Suzanne Rogers, The World Society for the Protection of Animals (SuzanneRogers@wspa-international.org)

Mar 212010
 

Are pressure halters and thin rope halters good or bad? Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.

These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.

If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.

The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.

My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.

I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?

Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.

It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.

With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.

We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.

If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.

The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.

However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.

For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.

I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.

If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.

It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.

I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?

If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.

The Dog Whisperer” who is currently starting a UK tour is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Ignorance is no longer a defence.

I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!

I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?

The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.

By Ben Hart

(www.hartshorsemanship.com)

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