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horse health

Is it cruel to give a horse a job? Have you tried asking your horse about that?

Friday’s Opinion

Horses’ rights advocates
There’s been a lot of discussion and controversy worldwide about a variety of horse riding and working disciplines with some groups clamoring for laws and practices that change the way horses are “used.” PETA is trying to lead a bandwagon aimed at banning carriage horses. Groups fostering a movement to end the “cruel” practice of riding horses are cropping up in different countries. The racing industry has been under attack from a variety of segments for decades. Some self-described equine mavens are blanketing the media with messages that advocate for a sensory overload approach to the point it renders the horse practically brain dead as a “kinder and gentler” method. Opinions and claims abound about how others should conduct their interactions with horses, but are these people talking to the horses? If they are, do they consider the horse’s opinion?

Domesticated horses are different than the wild, nomadic, free ancestors that offer a romantic notion of happy horses free from human encumbrance. Maybe it’s sad that we’ve made this so, but what’s done is done and it’s been in the making for a lot longer than any of us have been alive. It’s a good thing that the voices for fair treatment of horses are growing more numerous and louder. Some go too far, though, and lose sight of what a horse may need today to be happy.

It’s amazing how the years can change one’s perspective. Decades ago, I was among those slamming the racing industry. Of course, I had no first-hand exposure to the trainers, horses, practices and backside, but carried the message of supposed neglect and abuse to others with conviction. Are there bad practices and bad eggs in this sport? Sure. But the reality is that the accusations heralded by the uneducated masses miss the mark on where these are. Many owners and trainers of racehorses view them as commodities. Surprisingly for most, I imagine, this translates to more fastidious care than is seen at the most affluent show barn (or most other equine discipline facilities). The good Thoroughbred grooms know more about legs and related care than most vets I encounter. What amazed me most, though, was how much care and attention these horses get.

Those bred to race – particularly the good ones – want to. I’ve owned horses that have made more in a few years (not on my watch, unfortunately) than I will see in a decade. Even sore, they’re miserable at the farm and can’t wait to get back into the racetrack to train and run. They want a job to do – and relish the opportunity go play the game to win.

Herd experiment brings horse training insight
This year, we fenced in 26 acres at Halcyon Acres. We didn’t do 24/7 turnout because the run-in sheds simply didn’t provide enough relief from the relentless insect monsters that appeared during the day, but it was enough to foster a herd mentality.

What we witnessed through this natural approach to what should be a horse’s delight was surprising. Those we culled out of the herd to start under saddle or train for new careers were the most eager and quickest to approach the humans in the mix. They wanted a job and relished the work. No treats, clicks or other enticements played a role in this behavior, yet, the chosen transformed into happier horses, excited to greet the challenge of the day (and those who represented this opportunity).

Who wins?
This year at Halcyon Acres, it was Clover, Buster, Play Play, Courtney and the nursing babies who were culled out for lessons. Frankly, this really surprised me. I expected these horses to resent the fact that they were singled out for work. The opposite proved to be the case. The moment she was started under saddle, Clover went from a precocious, independent, aloof and sometimes belligerent filly to be first to run to the gait when she spotted her trainer. Quickly, she came to insist on a stroke between her eyes and immediately stopped her former antics with the vet and blacksmith. She needed a focus and now had a job that gave her a clear mission and some satisfaction that she had formerly garnered from schooling our vendors. Buster is now bored and a little lost since we decided to give him some time to grow up after a couple of months on the trails. He seemed to really enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out new requests and terrain. Play Play, always the pleaser, continues to relish new experiences and often asks to extend the lesson time. Courtney has gone back to his aggressive herd behavior and cribbing since we stopped his conditioning training.

That’s been our experience, and it’s been an eye-opener. So, the next time you see a campaign promoting the flavor of the month for horse advocacy, ask your horse what he thinks about all this. If you really listen, his answer may surprise you.

Quick Tips for budget conscience horse care

Today’s economy is making it tough own a horse. There are some easy ways you can cut costs and still keep your equine companion happy. Think about how you can reduce expenses with a sound strategy to keep your horse healthy.

Graze your horse
Even if you don’t have the land or the boarding facility to put your horse out to rich pasture, you can let him eat grass. This is healthy and natural and can be one of the most effective ways of putting weight on a horse. Consider spending daily time (starting in ½ hour increments) holding a lead rope and letting your horse enjoy the greenery. Let him cut your lawn, enjoy a spot that’s weedy or wander off the property (with permission) to help a neighbor control overgrowth. Do pick up deposits left, though, or you’re likely to be unwelcome in the future.

Feed more hay and reduce grain
Roughage is a horse’s natural intake and sometimes more grain leads to more weight loss. We had a mare here that we struggled to get weight on for years. Our blacksmith suggested cutting her grain substantially (she was a picky hay eater) and within two months, we added about 150 pounds to her 16.2 frame as she learned to enjoy hay and had less grain making her hyper.

Do fecal samples twice annually
Instead of worming every six to eight weeks, consider an alternative approach that identifies if there are any worm concerns (often there are not) and what needs to be addressed. You may find you save a ton on wormer tubes and do your part in reducing parasite resistance.

Pick stalls in the morning
You can save a ton on bedding costs (and time cleaning your horse) if you take a few minutes first thing in the morning to remove manure piles from the stall. Most horses learn quickly to handle this with ease, if guided through the expectations, and the reduction in churn not only saves money but also a ton of time when you really get serious about stall cleaning.

Learn how to assess and address medical issues
Not every injury or colic case requires a vet call. Learn from others how to ascertain the severity of a situation, doctor wounds, do a proper injection when appropriate and monitor your horse for signs of improvement and/or peril. Most medical emergencies are easy to deal with if you know what to do and you’ll likely save your horse pain and problems if you can react immediately vs. spending time waiting for a vet to arrive. We always call our vet to alert them to an issue and a possible emergency call later, and she is wonderful about providing advice over the phone on immediate treatment remedies and signs to look for that will require a visit.

Horse feed costs out of control? Consider grazing.

It took me a long time to realize that it’s not cruel to put domesticated horses out on grass. Silly, I know, but grain and hay ration precepts were drilled into my head from an early age. Insight from others, including a good number of vets, made me realize good pasture is a whole lot better for horses than what we humans have manufactured.

This year, we fenced in twenty-six acres. The horses have never looked better – and are happier to be able to enjoy a herd and feeding situation that is much more natural.

Feed and Familiarization
Sure, the broodmares, babies and performance athletes still need grain to help supplement their high energy drain, but the rest of the gang is fine eating for sixteen hours, then getting a daily handful of grain when they come into their stalls when called.

It’s important to ensure you acclimate your equines to grazing slowly. You don’t want to risk founder or colic. Start a horse that hasn’t been on grass with about ½ hour the first day. You can increase pasture time ½ hour per day until you build up to six hours. After that, they should be OK for 24/7 turnout.

Horses need shelter, interestingly more so in the summer than winter. Bugs and the sun are more troubling than cold, rain or snow (although protection from high winds is essential in frigid temperatures).

You can build a run-in shed, or order one (or more, depending on the size of your herd). Woodtex ( offers an affordable and sturdy structure with customized specifications. The only problem we found with these structures is they use pine for the exterior (although oak interior kickboards are included in their standard product), so chewing damage can be an issue. Of course, you’ll probably need to be in the NE USA unless you’re willing to pay huge shipping fees, but we’ve found this company to be outstanding to work with (and get no kickback for mentioning them).

Water is critical, and it needs to be fresh. If you can’t run water to the paddocks, see if there is a nearby town that sells water. We discovered water three miles away that fills our 325-gallon tank for $1.50. Even with the $300 or so investment in the tank and the gas to power the truck for water pick up, we figure to recoup quickly given the energy costs to power the pump and water system, along with minimizing the drain on the well. Plus, we can easily drive the pickup to each paddock to dump water in the tanks (we affixed a heavy duty water release on/off handle and attached a three-inch hose for quick flow from the tank into the tubs).

Know Your Horse
Of course, for some breeds and health issues with particular horses, grass feed is a bad idea, but for most, quality pasture forage is a cost-effective alternative that makes for a happier, healthier horse.

Top Ten horse health care items to spend your money on:

10. A thermometer
9. Betadine® Scrub
8. Novalsan® cream
7. Properly fitting tack for riding horses
6. A good blacksmith
5. A hoof pick
4. Annual fecals
3. Good quality hay and/or grass
2. A good equine vet

And the number one item any horse owner of any means can afford and implement to prevent so may other problems that can destroy the foundation of their horse:

1. A pitch fork – and the commitment to use it daily in run-in sheds too!

What to do about worming?

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about worming. Concern is mounting that prior regular and constant worming protocols are creating scavengers that are resistant to parasite control products.

Today, most vets that are keeping current are recommending horse owners invest in fecal exams. These should be preformed two times a year – in the spring (April in Western New York) and as winter sets in (November in this area). This has more to do with worm gestation cycles than horse habits, something that might come as a surprise to many.

Given the research findings and input from respected professionals we’ve consulted, we’ve decided to perform fecal exams on all horses on the property twice a year and forego our prior aggressive worming practices (in most years, we have a lot of horses coming in and out of the Halcyon Acres facility, so infestation is a bigger concern than would be the case in the standard home-based facility). We’ll treat horses individually, based on findings with specific products that address the worms discovered, retest the identified cases as prescribed by the vet, and stop our prior practice of regular, identical and timed worming treatments for all horses on the property. In the long run, we believe this will actually save clients and the farm a good deal of money and improve the health of the horses by reducing costs associated with buying wormer products and instead, individually identifying a particular horse’s treatment needs with precision.

What have you found to be an effective worming protocol?

Quick Horse Tips

The bugs have been terrible this season. Any horse that it is outside during daylight hours is likely a magnet for the insect brigade. Even well protected horses seem to be more bothered this year than most by rashes, itches and flaking. Here are a couple of ideas that may save you some money and save your horse a lot of irritation:

Homemade insect repellent:
Mix half and half cider vinegar with Pine-Sol® (the Pin-Sol® makes it stick) and apply it from a sprayer bottle. Don’t put it on too thick and keep it off nursing mares. This will last for an hour or two, which is about as long as we’ve found any commercial equine product to be effective. Plus, a gallon of this brew also goes a lot further for a lot less money than products labeled horse fly sprays.

Are your horses literally tearing out their hair?
With the bugs and the weird weather we’ve had this year, a lot of horses are rubbing manes and tails raw. If you’re looking for an inexpensive treatment that is remarkably effective, try oatmeal shampoo. This is not sold as an equine product, but you can find it in any dog section of your feed store or at pet stores for about $12 a bottle. Massage it deep into the tail (or mane, depending on where your issue is). Leave it on for about twenty minutes and then rinse thoroughly. We’ve found treating twice a day clears up the itch by day three when nothing else was effective.