Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Horses Need Salt All Year Long

I was at several cow horse events recently at different large horse facilities and as I walked around I noticed none of the stalled horses had access to a simple plain white salt blocks. It's true these horses could be getting electrolytes or salt dressed in their grain or pelleted feed, but not likely. Maybe the owners or barn managers thought that since the hot weather is gone so is the need for salt.

The lack of Sodium, or what most of us just call salt, can result in poor performance in horse speed or athletic events; make it more likely that a horse's muscles will get sore and stiff - referred to as tying up; or even affect the horse not being able to sweat adequately which is part of their evaporative cooling system. A lack of salt in the horse's diet can aggravate dehydration as it could cause a horse not to drink an adequate amount of water,.....and drinking less water is a factor for colic.

As with about anything related with a horse's nutritional needs and feeding programs, a person can go crazy trying to balance nutrients, electrolytes and minerals. A friend of mine used to keep a large tray of loose salt for horses' free consumption believing that a salt block couldn't provide was the horse needed because it was too hard to lick. He had to keep that salt tray out of the weather, inside the covered portion of the horse's stall, and as I remember, it collected a lot of dirt and sand.  And I have tried adding powdered or granulated minerals to my horse's feed only to have them get adept at eating around it.     

My horses are on dry feed, as pasture is hard to find here in West Texas. I choose to feed both grass (coastal Bermuda) and alfalfa for several reasons: 1 - I don't believe my horses need that high of percentage of protein in their feed as alfalfa is around 18-20% protein (grass hay is usually around 10-12%; 2 - the grass hay is usually in longer stems which slows down the horse eating, and provides good roughage; and 3 - the grass and alfalfa mix maintains a good ratio of Calcium and Phosphorus in the diet.     

Horses also need other minerals and it's hard to get all the minerals in dry hay. A mineral block is often suggested as an alternative, when pasture can't be accessed, but I have yet to have or even seen a horse who will lick a mineral block.

There are solutions other than a standard mineral block - which you find in your local fed store's as a trace-Mineralized block. Redmond Equine offers a rock shaped salt block that is advertised as containing over 60 minerals. I have one of these in each of my horse's feeders. I hope that the horse's will lick on it from time to time or have the movement of the rock in the feeder wearing minerals off the rock as it gets moved around with the hay. I can't say that any of my horse's lick these rocks, but at least it gives me alittle peace of mind that's it there. You can always topdress your horse's grain or hay with Redmond Crushed Rock loose mineral salt supplement, but again I have not had much luck in getting horses to like loose minerals crushed or not.  

I also feed a pelleted feed, now feeding about 2 lbs of Standlee mixed Timothy Grass - Alfalfa pellets in the evening which really just provides an additional source of dry, compressed hay, but the Timothy hay is different than the Bermuda I feed in bulk. It also keeps my horses used to that pelleted feed in case I have to feed more of than because of a lack of availability of hay for trips into the mountains. Pelleted feed is also handy for using it to introduce supplements which I have one horse on a hoof and joint supplement.

My mainstay is that throughout the year I ensure each horse has a standard white salt block. I leave them out in the open exposed to the rain and dirt, so I have to routinely clean them which only takes a few minutes once a week or so, if that.

The bigger issue I have with salt blocks is the holders in which I place them. I have several types of holders, some without drain holes and others with drain holes underneath the salt block so that the block doesn't allow them to drain water.

And if they can't drain water then the accumulated sand and dirt builds up and makes it difficult to clean. I resolved that problem by drilling a bunch of holes in the bottom and sides of my salt block holders. See the picture below of the salt block holders I drilled more drainage holes in.

I think that if you are unsure what to do, consider at a minimum providing your horses with a white salt block as this is an easy and cheap solution to provide adequate sodium into their diet. Some horses, likely not the majority of them, will chew on the salt block out of boredom.  And while horses generally have a high tolerance to excessive salt, if you have a horse that appears to eating or biting of large chunks of the block then I would remove it until you can talk to your vet about it with an idea on how much the horse is digesting.  You may notice the horse drinking a lot of water and there may an excessive amount of urine in the horse's stall. This habit is generally because of the horse being bored.   

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How do I choose the right bit for my Horse?

Jessica wrote to say "I have a new horse and she is four years old. I have been riding her in a halter but I need to put a bit in her mouth. What should I be looking for when I try out different bits, so do you think there is a particular type of bit that I should be using on her? I want to start right and go slow so I don't have any problems down the road with her. Thanks, Jessica."

Generally horses are started, which means their training begun, with a snaffle bit. Training really begins much earlier upon the first time the horse is handled, and continues into ground work and all the things you do to prepare a horse to accept a saddle and rider. Since you can ride your mare in a halter then you are doing something right, and your plan to go slow and do it right is certainly the right approach - good for you.   

The snaffle bit is a non-leverage bit that it broken (or what you may think of as hinged) in the center of the mouthpiece. The snaffle bit works by providing a signal on the horse's tongue, bars of the mouth (space between front teeth and molars), and/or the corners of the mouth depending the mouthpiece of the bit, how it is seated or fitted to the horse, and of course how the rider handles the reins. Pressure applied by tension on one rein also has a pulling effect on the other side of the mouth through the snaffle bit.
While a rider can certainly begin a horse to neck rein on a snaffle bit, the snaffle bit is generally used through a direct rein. The picture above left is a typical snaffle bit.

The snaffle bit, not having a lot of leverage like a shanked bit, can be more forgiving to a horse's mouth on a horse, who for the first time, has to carry it and to the rider who may have quicker of harsher hands than is necessary.
Two things about the snaffle bit that riders sometimes do not understand are that the broken mouthpiece of snaffle bit can pinch the horse's tongue - even cutting it, and that the broken mouth piece can "tent" - making a peak and poke the roof of the horse's mouth causing a lot of pain.
 Sometimes a horse will accept or be more comfortable with a snaffle bit that is connected in the middle with a short piece which can be a roller or dog bone shaped, hence the name "dog bone snaffle".  See the picture above right. I like the copper roller for one of my mouthy horses - it also keeps his mouth moist.    

Snaffle bits, being non-leverage bits, do not provide much control on a run away horse or a horses in speed events like barrel racing.
Leverage bits have a shank that the reins connect to providing more leverage for the rider on the horse's mouth and also by activating or tightening the curb strap or chain under the horse's jaw.  Could have a nut cracker effect if the curb chain is too tight when the reins are loose and the rider pulls harshly.   
The picture above left is a broken bit with shanks, or you can think of it as a leverage bit with a snaffle mouth piece. In fact some people call this an Argentinian Snaffle.
Pretty much all the bits I have bridled up right now are snaffles and the lone leverage bit with the broken mouth piece.  I have several medium port solid bits but haven't used them recently. 
I guess what I am trying to write is that all bits can cause pain if used incorrectly.  I winch when I am at an event and I overhear someone saying "Did you see the way that horse stopped?  I've got to find out what type of bit he is using."  What I saw was the horse's head flying up trying to escape the pain of the bit pulled quickly and harshly in his mouth.
The idea is to use bits in such a manner as to signal the horse before that pain is applied. It's not the bit that creates the pain, it is the rider's hands. I hear too many comments from rider's that suggests a false understanding that when your horse is not performing right then you need a more severe bit. What is usually needed is a different approach. So I really can't suggest a bit for you and your horse other than a snaffle is a good place to start, but don't fall into the trap of continuously going to a different bit hoping to solve your training or performance problems.  I've been there and I would like to forget I was that guy.    
Another place to start would be if you buy a horse then find out what bit he has been used with and maybe start from there, but again, it's going to be the rider's application of the bit and the relationship he/she establishes with the horse that is going to make the difference.

I would highly suggest attending all the clinics you can, even just auditing the clinics. Horse's aren't born knowing how to understand what a human handler wants, nor are humans born capable of understanding and communicating with prey animals. So it is the human who must adjust and help the horse.  One of the coolest things is to see a horse try with the slightest pressure then see that horse demonstrate he accepts and understands what you are asking by giving more and doing it quicker.  I wish my wife would appreciate the subtlety of my efforts as I try to do with a horse.....week by week I am getting closer to getting honey-dos done.                     

Saturday, November 5, 2016

How Do Horses Think?

Melanie wrote an e-mail to ask "I love my two horses, both are distinctly different in their temperament, spookiness and just general behavior, just as my kids are vastly different too. I am also a elementary school teacher and it is fascinating to see the differences in how 6 and 7 year old children process information and make decisions. I know I am missing something by not understanding the mental processes of my horses. What do you make out of the left brain-right brain theory and how to approach certain horses in manner for them to learn? More importantly to me is how does the weekend rider use some of these esoteric concepts."

Hi Melanie, I don't have a good understanding of theory of what parts (left or right) of a horse's brain drive what emotion or action. Your question actually sparked an interest in looking further into this area that I first heard Pat Parelli describing years ago. Clinton Anderson also routinely discusses horses' right brain - left brain, how that impacts on how they learn, and how a handler approaches asking something of a horse but maybe not in as much detail as Parelli. My limited understanding is that horses will demonstrate characteristics or traits, that categorize them into a "left brain dominant or right brain dominant horse", including, but certainly not limited to traits like calmness or nervousness; more curious as opposed to reactive; and, dominating as opposed to being more submissive.

I'm all a better understanding of a horse, how and why the horse thinks, if it helps two way communications between horse and handler. I've just never had a formal checklist or a process for analyzing how horses think so I rely on what I know or think I know to be facts when dealing with horses......which for the record, is much tougher than figuring out women.

We know that some horses are just more reactive than others. We all accept that horses are naturally wary - that they are prey animals and come into the world ready to flee to avoid perceived dangers. I think that the environment and experiences that a horse accumulates has alot to do with just how reactive they are. Imagine the horse that has been ridden, since the first bit in his mouth, by a heavy handed rider. They learn to associate any pressure from the bit in the mouth with discomfort and pain and get bracey or throw their head in avoidance of what they are thinking comes a flinch response.

I believe that with patience and training we can influence a horse to think or reason something out before they physical react to that instinct to avoid perceived danger or even bolt and run. I try to give a horse a chance or time to think, to absorb a lesson. So on the concept of pressure and release, you can add the word pause, as opposed to pressure, release then rapidly applying pressure again, then release. I think that while you are giving the horse a release when he gives you the requested behavior or movement, the rapid, continued action of pressure and release with the time in-between to absorb that lesson can build mental pressure in the horse, confusing him and working against what you are trying to achieve.

As wary as horses naturally are, they are curious as well as we use that in many situations as well, again if you give them time. An example would be approaching an obstacle on horseback and your horse alerts, stops, tenses up, feels like he is close to turning and bolting, moving his head up and down, left and right and likely snorting too. We've all seen this too. Ten seconds seem like 5 minutes and if in some sort of obstacle competition too many riders will get impatient and try to push their horse forward before he accepts it is safe. Given adequate time to accept it on his own, and you are likely going to have to keep the horse from turning around or backing out, a horse will usually move forward and eventually drop his nose on the obstacle. Whether this takes 5 minutes or 10 minutes, the horse has just replaced his instinct with a deliberate thinking process. I think this is what we are trying to achieve and the heck if I know it comes from his left brain or right brain.

Handling different horses often reminds me of a leader I had in the service who admonished me to treat all my men the same. This is a concept I just could not adhere to. Everybody's different, like horses, so in my book as long as you treated each one fairly everything would turn out alright. So with horse's I think if you give them the time they need to develop that thinking response you'll be a lot more successful in getting them to accept and perform. Setting up situations where the thing you are asking for them is easy and avoiding what you are asking is difficult, but giving them the time to find that right answer. Giving a horse sufficient time is just not sticking with something until he gets it, it's making sure the timing of your release is particular for the horse to associate that release (or absence of pressure) to what he did to earn it that release.

I often see riders working on lateral flexion where the ask their horse for lateral flexion and when the horse gives it, they get a release but get immediate pressure for lateral flexion again. This is another example where if you gave the horse some time, often no more than 5 to 10 seconds before asking again, will be a much more understandable lesson for the horse.

Another example is when I throw feed for my horses. I won't drop the hay into their feeder until they step back and be respectful of my space. Occasionally one of my horses will stand too close waiting at me to drop the hay. I just wait and watch their expression. Then the understanding takes place, they'll back a few steps and stand while I drop the hay and give them a signal to approach. I don't know how to describe it, but it's rewarding to watch the change of expression as they figure out why I am waiting to throw feed and what they are supposed to do......"Oh yeah, I almost forgot,..I have to back up and wait".

Another example may be in the saddle and getting in contact with the bit or bosal asking them to soften and drop their head and nose. Initially the horse will likely start backing and if you maintain that same contact, they will soon stop because the pressure was not released. Sooner or later they will drop their head, maybe only a tiny bit, and as they do you release the contact with the bit or bosal. Your timing on the release has to be pretty exact so the horse relate getting soft with the release of that pressure. Some riders, I've seen them and likely you have too, will pick up the reins and get in contact with a horse asking him to get soft and break at the poll, but while in contact before the horse drops his head and nose, they will release the contact to get a better grip and in effect giving that horse a release for not doing anything. That has got to be confusing to a horse.

And yet another example is when I am helping a new rider or new horse in a sorting pen. Knowing that either the horse or the rider, or both, will be timid of a bunch of cows and that pushing a horse too fast will have negative consequences for the mental state of the horse and his confidence, I'll have the new rider/horse stay on my outside flank as I ride a slow circle around the cows a couple of times, then switch directions so the horse can see the cows out of both eyes. As the cows move away, the horse and rider gain confidence. For the life of me, I can't figure out if that would be their left or right brain working the problem out and I don't know if knowing that is really necessary for me to to do what I what to do with my horses.

Another thing I think I know is that when things aren't going well you can either go much slower, break what you want to do down into steps and begin there, or do something that your horse does well and stop on a positive note.

Thee is a project by highly respected clinician Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters, a neuropsychologist which resulted in a DVD titled "Exploring Evidence based Horsemanship", which is advertise to give the viewer the benefit of understanding equine brain function. I ordered the DVD after struggling with your left brain, right brain question. I hope to watch it soon and see wht I can learn from it.

Anyway Melanie, I did my best to answer your question. Maybe I just gave you more questions rather than answers, but that's not always a bad thing as I see it. Good luck and safe journey.