Above the Influence: An Introduction

One thing that my college riding instructor was very good at explaining was why you use certain aids (or cues, for Western people!) to get your horse to move, bend and speed up or down.  If you understand what part of the body your aid is effecting, you can get your horse to do just about anything for you.  So in this series,  I’d like to take some time diving into how we influence our horses from the saddle and explaining the ‘whys’ that go with the ‘hows.’  By understanding how the movements you make in the saddle effect your horse, you can become a much more controlled and effective rider and your skill level will increase drastically.

George Williams rides Rocher during the USEF Selection Trials for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team. (June 19, 2008 - Photo by None/Getty Images North America)

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Why is he losing weight?!

It’s never a good feeling for you as an owner to look at your horse and think, How did he get to be that skinny?  If you’ve got a hard keeper, a lot of time and money is spent on making sure he keeps a healthy weight.  But what if your horse has never been a hard keeper and suddenly begins to lose weight?  That can be a frustrating, even scary feeling.  Take a step back and consider some of these possibilities and options for helping you four-legged friend pack on the pounds:

  • If he gets grain, is he getting enough? Make sure that you check the bag of the grain that your horse is getting.  Any reputable brand of horse grain will have a feeding chart on the back for how much to feed based on weight and activity level.  If you are trying to put on weight, feed the high end of the recommended amount.
  • Is his hay or pasture high-quality?  Is the hay that your horse is eating high quality?  You can have your hay tested to make sure that the nutrients he needs are present.  Sometimes even hay that looks like it is high quality is lacking in nutrition and some hay that doesn’t look so great to us will give your horse everything he needs.  For more information on testing forage quality, try the National Forage Testing Association.  Also, if your horse is in a pasture all day or most of the day, just because he’s happily eating lovely emerald green grass doesn’t necessarily mean that he is getting all the nutrients he should.  If  you are concerned about his overall vitamin and mineral intake, try a basic nutrition supplement like Accel, Red Cell, Grand Vite, or Missing Link.
  • Have you tried a weight supplement?  It could be that you just got lucky enough to have a particularly hard keeper.  If  he is getting the highest recommended dose of grain and his hay/pasture is high-quality and he’s still not as fat as you’d like, try adding a weight supplement.  Certain breeds tend to be harder keepers than others.  Thoroughbreds and American Saddlebreds are two examples of breeds in which hard keepers are not uncommon.  Also, sometimes as horses age, they can become harder keepers so think about how old your horse is when you are trying to assess the reason for his weight loss.  If you are looking for a decent weight supplement, try Weight Builder, Fat-Cat, or SmartGain 4.  If you don’t want to supplement with a manufactured product, try adding Beet Pulp to your horse’s diet.  It is high-fiber and helps digestion and is often helpful in putting weight on.
  • When was the last time his teeth were floated?  Horses do not chew the same way that we do.  Humans have a chomping, up & down motion when we chew.  Horses grind their jaw more side to side to pulverize their food.  This is fine except that their lower teeth are narrow than their upper teeth and therefore, when they grind, they do not wear down their teeth evenly.  Sharp points can form on the teeth and making eating more difficult and even painful.  How do you know if your horse might need his teeth floated? Watch him eat.  Does he drop a lot of food out of his mouth as he is eating?  This could mean that his teeth are not even and he can’t chew properly.  Also, is he not eating as much?  If it is painful or difficult to eat, he might not have as much desire to try.  Ultimately, talk to your vet and get a professional opinion about the quality of your horse’s teeth.  If this is the cause of his weight loss, you will see improvement in his weight within a month or two after floating the teeth.
  • When was the last time you dewormed him?  If, in addition to be a bit on the thin side, your horse is also rubbing his tail and/or looks a little dull-coated, he could need to be dewormed.  My experience with the fecal testing that is currently all the rage was not a positive one, as the results came back telling me that GQ only really needed to be given his dewormer twice a year.  After several months, his coat was dull, he’d lost weight and was rubbing his tail like crazy.  Deworming him led to a huge improvement in his coat, as well as stopping the rubbing and helping his weight.  I have since put him back on his old worming schedule of 6 times a year, rotating Zimecterin and Zimecterin Gold and he is shiny and healthier.
  • Talk to your vet!  There is a reason veterinarians go through so much schooling: to deal with the hard stuff! Ask your vet for ideas about why your four-legged friend might not be as rotund as you’d like.  If you’ve tried some of these basic things, there is always more a vet can recommend or work through with you!

SmartDark & Handsome

I have to just take a minute to sing praise for SmartPak’s supplement SmartDark & Handsome.

SmartDark & Handsome

I happened across a little flier for SmartDark & Handsome late last summer that came in one of GQ’s SmartPak shipments.  Not three days prior to that, I had been complaining about how sun-bleached his coat, mane and tail were looking.    Since this supplement was not too expensive (and to be honest, I loved the name! =D) I figured I would give it a try for a month or two and see if there was any improvement.  It was incredible! Within 3 weeks, my dark bay gelding was already getting some of the sleek, dark sheen back in his coat and within 2 or 2 1/2 months, his mane and tail were looking less red and blond and getting back to a darker shade, if not quite all the way black.  He gobbled it up — not that he’s a super picky eater — and looks great!

If you are looking for a product to bring some shine and dark color back to your sun-bleached horse, give this one a try!  This is the description from SmartPak:

SmartDark & Handsome helps bring out a deep, dark shine in black, bay and brown coats. This unique formula provides a rich blend of Omega 3 fatty acids from Fish Oil, Flax Seed and Chia Seed combined with Paprika and Nutmeg. SmartDark & Handsome is not just for the boys – it’s great for mares, too. (We just couldn’t resist the name!)

Note for Competitive Riders: This product contains Paprika, which may contain trace amounts of Capsaicin.  

Have a horse of a different color? We recommend SmartShine Ultra.

Here is a link to SmartDark & Handsome!

Head Down!

Have you ever thought Gee, this would be a lot easier if his nose wasn’t brushing the barn beams! This seems to be a common complaint among horse people.

Here is a super handy little trick to teach your horse for those times when you need to see the top of his head or have access to his ears for clipping, bridling or general checks for overall health:

Standing next to your horse’s head like you would to lead, put a small amount of downward pressure on the lead rope.  Hold this pressure nice and steady until your horse lowers his head and then immediately release.  (I add the phrase “head down” when I teach it, although it is not entirely necessary.)  Even if he pops his head back up, give him a short reward (neck rub, treat, etc) and then do it again.  The first couple times you try this, even the slightest decrease in resistance to the pressure of the halter is cause for reward.  If your horse will consistently give in to the pressure, make it a little more challenging by not releasing pressure until his nose is even lower or give him less time to rest in between.  By asking him to put his head back down immediately when he raises it again, it teaches him that you want him to keep his head down.  GQ, my handsome dude, learned this idea very quickly and now I just give a featherlight tug on the lead and he puts his head down to my eye level and holds it there while I clip his bridle path or fiddle with his ears.

This is one trick that will make your life infinitely easier, I promise you that! Just remember:

  • Be consistent!
  • Remember that horses have a 3 second time limit in which they connect your reaction to their action, so be quick to praise when they are doing well or correct when they are wrong!

The Equine Eye: Color Vision

In my first post about the equine eye (found here), I explained that I think it is important to understand how every part of the horse functions in order to be able to train and work with them efficiently and effectively. So why take so much time talking about the horse’s eye?  The eye is an incredibly complex structure and the way that it functions in horses and humans is vastly different.  If we can’t understand how a horse views the world differently from us, how can we understand how to effectively communicate with him? Therefore, by taking the time to learn about the equine eye, we can become better trainers, riders and handlers.

There has been much debate over the way horses see color, or if they see color at all.  Through many tests and studies however, researchers have made many discoveries about the way that color and light works from a horse’s perspective.  Before delving into the color debate, let’s go over two important parts of the eye:

  • Cones are the part of the eye that distinguish color.
  • Rods are the part of the eye that perceive light intake.

The first item in the color debate is whether or not horses actually see colors and to what extent.  The answer to this is that horses do indeed see color, but not quite as vibrantly as humans do.  Horses have dichromatic vision, which means that they have two types of cones in their eyes.  Humans have trichromatic vision which means that they have three types of cones.  The cones in human eyes perceive blue, green and red.  With these three types of cones, we can see thousands of colors in sharp contrast.  The cones in a horse’s eye perceive blues and greens, although the greens that horses see has more of a yellow hue to it that it does to our vision.  When a horse views red, it appears as a kind of earthy tone with yellow and blue hues.  Certain colors can not be distinguished from one another, similar to when we put a color picture into grayscale and one color has the same gray tone as a different one.  Researchers believe that equine color vision is similar to a person’s vision who has a red-green deficiency where there is very little or no problem with blues and yellows but not  all reds and greens are distinguishable.  The colors a horse sees are washed out in comparison to what we see when looking at the same image and tend to resemble a sepia tone.  Here is an example:

Human trichromatic vision

Equine dichromatic vision

The cones of a horse’s eye are also arranged differently than the cones in a human eye.  Our cones are packed centrally on our retina.  A horse’s cones are spread out along a “visual streak” on the retina that mimics the line where earth and sky meet making it easier for them to scan the horizon.  As a prey animal who needs to be continually aware, this is useful!

Next we come to the function of rods in the eye.  Many horse people, especially avid trail riders, are familiar with the advice to let your horse be the guide if you find yourself stuck out on a ride after nightfall or as it begins to get dark.   This is great advice to follow because horses have much better night vision than us because humans have fewer rods than horses do.  The human cone to rod ratio is 20:1 while the equine ratio is 9:1.  The larger amount of rods, in conjunction with the tapedum lucidum, a reflective coating on the back of the retina, allows for optimum light intake and makes a horse’s scotopic vision (vision in dim light) much better than ours.  The tapedum lucidum bounces light back to be absorbed by the rods that would otherwise be lost.

So, while we can see more color, trust your horse to safely carry you home if you find yourself in the dark!

Winter Weather Beauty Treatment

If you are anything like me, you dread the winter months because of what they do to your horse.  No baths, longer hair, snowy, muddy and messy.  Sometimes just a small beauty treatment can make your winter fuzzball look less like a neglected backyard pet and more like a presentable, well-loved, four-legged friend.

GQ, my handsome guy, doesn’t have the luxury of a stall.  He lives outside all year round and because we get some cold, unpredictable winters, I don’t have the luxury of keeping him clipped and show-ready like I desperately wish I could.  I often find myself telling him, “You look like a hooligan!” and then it gets followed up with a mini winter beauty treatment.  Here are some of the things I do to keep my horse looking presentable during the winter:

Clip those whiskers!  Use your clippers with a light touch to skim off extra long nose whiskers.   Since the hair on his muzzle is a little longer, you don’t want to apply as much pressure as normal or you’ll come away with uneven, goofy looking patches on his nose.   Keeping the clippers moving downwards in the direction of the hair will also reduce your chance of making patches.  Also trim off the long scraggly pieces of his beard under his chin and jaw.  This takes a little more finesse to make look even, but your horse will look so much more put together without 3 inches of hair hanging off his chin and also makes it easier to tighten your nose band for a ride.

Keep a bridle path!  During the winter months when GQ’s coat is long, I use scissors to trim his bridle path.  If your horse does not stand quietly, I do not recommend trying this technique!  I ask him to put his head down, (which is a convenient trick I will address in my next post!) and trim his bridle path until it is even with the coat on either side.  I trim off any obnoxiously long pieces of fuzz and taper it so that there is not a giant divot on his poll where I’ve taken the bridle path down to the skin and left his winter coat long around it.  If you don’t trust your horse to stand nicely for you to use scissors, use your clippers with light pressure and don’t clip all the way to the skin to avoid that divot!

Make that mane even! Since GQ is outside all the time, I don’t want to shorten his mane as much as I would during the show season/warmer months.  However, I still want it to look even and well-maintained.  A long scraggly mane is one of the biggest turn-offs on a horse in my opinion.  Make sure you comb out your horses mane at least once a week and keep it pulled/trimmed to an even level, even if you want to keep it a little longer for some extra warmth. [Make sure to give your horse a good scratch at the crest!  Almost every horse I’ve met gets super itchy there–especially in winter! =D ]

Tidy up the ears! I don’t want to completely expose GQ’s ears to the harsh winter weather, but I do want them to look nice and neat.  To tidy up the ears, I pinch the edges together, which forces the extra long hairs to stick out and I clip those hairs.  It is amazing how such a small action can make your horse look infinitely more presentable.

Whip out the Show Sheen! Actually, any product that says it “conditions” will do.  I actually use Cowboy Magic Super BodyShine because I like the smell a little better than Show Sheen and its a bit cheaper, but they share the same principle: Add shine to your horse’s coat, repel dust and condition the coat.  If your horse wears a blanket, this is especially kind for him because he’ll get pretty static-y and dry under those covers.  Use a spray like one of these to help relieve the static shocks your grooming tools will cause and pull dust out of deep layers of that winter coat.

Cowboy Magic Super Bodyshine

Absorbine Show Sheen

Santa Fe Coat Conditioner

Clean those hooves!  With horse feet, you’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place because lack of moisture in the hot summer months creates problems, but excess moisture in snow and mud can also damage your horse’s feet.  At least once a week, use a stiff brush to get debris off of the hooves and clean them as well as you can.  A lanolin-rich product like Corona can replace some of the nutrients that the excess moisture saps out.  You don’t want to use a sealer though when your horse has been standing in water or mud because you can inadvertently do more harm than good by trapping excess moisture into the hoof.

Corona Ointment (My FAVORITE!!!)

Try some of these tips to keep your horse from looking like a hooligan as you wait out the cold and your horse will look presentable and loved all season long!