Feed the Breed: Consider Breed, Type When Designing Equine Diets

We must consider the breeds of our horses and ponies when planning their diets. Here’s a look at what we currently know about feeding major equid categories and where we’re heading.

Whether donkey or draft, pony or horse, equid class dictates proper diet

Donkeys aren’t ponies. Ponies aren’t short horses. And drafts aren’t oversized lightbreeds. We know not all equids are created alike, but we’re not just talking about their height and shape. Certain breeds and types of horses are prone to metabolize their food slower or faster than others or develop diet-related disorders. In a recent study, for instance, researchers from the University of Melbourne, in Australia, discovered that different equine breeds have different insulin responses to oral glucose (insulin helps transport this crucial energy source throughout the body). Insulin levels can contribute to a variety of conditions, such as equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), insulin dysregulation, and laminitis.

In short, we must consider the breeds of our horses and ponies when planning their diets. Let’s take a look at what we currently know about feeding major equid categories and where we’re heading.

Mules and Donkeys

The domestic donkey’s ancestors evolved as browsers and grazers, surviving on low-energy fibrous plants. “Donkeys would travel for many miles to obtain food, spending 14 to 18 hours per day foraging over distances of 20 to 30 kilometers (about 12 to 18 miles),” says Faith Burden, PhD, director of research and operational support at The Donkey Sanctuary, in the U.K. Modern-day donkeys rarely have the opportunity to perform this combination of natural behaviors.

Like all equids, donkeys are hindgut fermenters and have evolved to handle a steady trickle of fibrous plant material moving through the gut at all times. But, “unlike horses, donkeys are highly efficient at digesting poor-quality fiber sources, and the donkey’s maintenance energy requirements are considerably lower,” says Burden. On average, a donkey’s daily digestible energy requirements range from 50% to 75% of that of a similar-sized horse.

Burden says researchers have shown that a donkey’s daily appetite at maintenance is 1.3% to 1.8% of body weight in dry matter per day. An overabundance of energy or calories in these animals can lead to a variety of health problems.

“An excess storage of energy as metabolically active adipose (fat) tissue can lead to inappropriate mobilization of lipids (into circulation), insulin resistance (reduced sensitivity to insulin that causes overproduction of this hormone), and enzyme dysregulation,” says Burden. While research to establish donkeys’ protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements is scarce, their protein metabolism and use does appear to differ from horses’.

“Experience would indicate that donkeys can survive on low-quality protein-containing diets, as evidenced by their ability to survive, breed, work, and grow on low-quality forages,” says Burden. The vitamin and mineral levels recommended for horses appear to be sufficient for donkeys, as well.

Donkeys

So what diet should a donkey consume? Burden suggests feeding fit, healthy donkeys a mixed forage-based diet, with cereal (barley or wheat) straw or coarse, low-energy hay to provide “bulk,” and adding higher-calorie fiber sources such as grass, hay, haylage, alfalfa, and beet pulp, depending on body condition, life stage, and workload.

“Donkeys rarely require energy-rich cereal grains, sweet feeds, or highly molassed products,” she says. “The feeding of such products is poorly tolerated, often wasteful, and frequently associated with the development of health issues such as laminitis, gastric ulceration, hyperlipemia (high fat levels in the blood that can cause liver and kidney damage), and colic,” not to mention obesity.

If you have a hard-working donkey, he does require cereal grains or concentrates, but Burden says his combined starch and sugar levels (nonstructural carbohydrates, or NSCs) should not exceed 15%. Ideally, they should be about 10%.

Also, donkeys are renowned for their thirst tolerance, but don’t confuse this with their water requirements, says Burden. Donkeys’ water needs are similar to those of horses, varying considerably depending on workload, ambient temperatures, and pregnancy and lactation status.

Make sure your donkey gets regular dental exams and maintenance so he can get the most out of his high-fiber diet. Offer logs and branches to satisfy his natural browsing behaviors and prevent him from chewing on fences and barns. Safe types include hazel, ash, hawthorn, apple, birch, alder, lime, poplar, and gorse.

Draft Horses

The most common and significant condition veterinarians can treat or prevent with diet in draft horses is a muscular disorder known as equine polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM/EPSM), says Beth Valentine, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP, professor of anatomic pathology at Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Corvallis. Historically called Monday morning sickness in working draft horses after a day of rest, PSSM/EPSM can lead to a variety of issues, from subtle hind-limb gait abnormalities to massive muscle damage from exertional rhabdomyolysis, or tying-up. It is a dominantly inherited trait, meaning just one parent can pass it on. Belgians commonly experience the neuromuscular disease shivers along with PSSM, although the two conditions appear to be unrelated.

Several clinical studies have confirmed that diet, particularly NSC levels, plays a significant role in PSSM/EPSM episode frequency and severity. Because the disease alters the simple sugar glucose’s storage method as glycogen in muscle, reducing sugar and starch intake could benefit these horses. Valentine’s research shows that replacing a significant amount of sugar and starch with fat can reduce PSSM/EPSM episode frequency and severity.

So what dietary changes should you consider for draft horses? “When draft horses show signs related to PSSM/EPSM, I recommend reducing dietary starch and sugar as much as possible and gradually increasing fat intake until the horse is eating 1 pound of fat (2 cups of vegetable-based oil) per 1,000 pounds of body weight per day,” says Valentine.

This means removing all high-starch and -sugar concentrates from the diet. Offer forages, either grass or legume pasture or hay, at a minimum of 1.5% of body weight per day. In most cases, horses with PSSM/EPSM can graze lush pasture as long as they are consuming the recommended amount of fat and do not become obese. Regular exercise and turnout can also help prevent episodes.

For youngsters and horses that might have this abnormal type of metabolism but are not showing physical signs, Valentine suggests providing them with half the treatment “dose” of fat. “If PSSM/EPSM issues ever arise, the amount of fat in the diet can be increased,” she says.

As a general nutritional principle, Valentine always recommends draft horses get a vitamin E supplement, a powerful antioxidant that can be deficient in diets of horses not grazing green grass pasture most of the year. Also, depending on their area, you might add a selenium supplement.

Feed the Breed: Ponies

Ponies

When you picture a pony, more than likely he’s pleasantly plump. Pony breeds prominently exhibit the EMS ­phenotype—observable characteristics associated with the disorder, such as obesity and a cresty neck. In 2006 a group of researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) found a dominant mode of inheritance for prelaminitic metabolic syndrome in an inbred herd of Dartmoor and Welsh ponies, suggesting genetics play a role in a pony’s EMS development.

Hyperinsulinemia, an excessive insulin response to rising blood glucose levels, falls under the EMS umbrella and could lead to laminitis development. In most cases hyperinsulinemia occurs as a result of obesity; researchers from Charles Sturt University in Australia found sustained hyperinsulinemia in obese Shetlands and Welsh-cross ponies when they compared blood insulin values to nonobese horses eating the same free-glucose-containing meal. Could simply being a pony, regardless of obesity, be a factor? It appears so. The team found that nonobese mixed-breed ponies also had elevated hyperinsulinemic responses to an in-feed glucose dose (Bamford et al., 2013).

So, knowing all this, how should we feed ponies? One of the first recommendations is to prevent overweight ponies from becoming obese because of their weight loss resistance. Potter et al. (2013) found a restricted diet to be fairly ineffective at reducing obese mixed-breed ponies’ weight. After a four- to six-week diet restriction, Standardbred horses reached a body condition score (BCS) below 5, whereas ponies only decreased from around a 7 to a 6 after 12 weeks of diet restriction. Light to moderate daily exercise had no effect on weight loss in this study. In contrast, researchers on another study found that using a dynamic feeder that encouraged ponies to perform persistent low-intensity exercise, in addition to a restricted diet, did reduce BCS (de Laat et al., 2016).

Pasture could be a significant source of excess calories for ponies. For example, when grazing during a six-week study, ponies consumed an estimated average of 3.8% of their body weight in dry matter, slightly over 50% more than the normal intake of 2.5% of body weight (Longland et al., 2011). And when limiting pasture turnout to three hours per day, ponies increased their grass consumption from 0.49% to 0.91% of body weight in dry matter intake per day within six weeks (Ince et al., 2011). Wearing grazing muzzles for 10 hours a day did slow ponies’ weight gain compared to those allowed to graze freely (Longland et al., 2016). However, ponies adjusted their eating behavior after just one week of wearing a grazing muzzle, and by Weeks 2 and 3 the ponies actually gained weight.

Severe dietary restrictions can be more effective yet stressful on ponies, possibly leading to gastric ulcers or behavioral issues. When scientists put obese Shetland ponies on a 21-week weight loss plan involving a diet of low-energy hay and a ration balancer, the ponies experienced a significant drop in body condition score (Bruynsteen et al., 2015). Ponies are more prone to hyperinsulinemia than other breeds, so only implement severe restrictions under a nutritionist and veterinarian’s guidance. With this in mind consider the following recommendations:

  • Avoid high-NSC feeds, including starches, sugars, and fructans from pasture;
  • Feed a hay containing 10 to 12% NSC, at most. If this isn’t available, soak hay in water for 30 to 60 minutes to reduce the NSC fraction before disposing of the water and feeding;
  • Most ponies maintain their ideal weight on forage alone. Use a low-calorie ration balancer to provide a complement of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids; and
  • If ponies do need to gain weight, increase the calories in their ration by feeding more hay, introducing a highly digestible fiber source such as beet pulp, or supplementing with a fat source.

Horses

Feeding recommendations for horses currently focus on known diseases rather than genetic differences. However, evidence suggests breeds such as Morgans, Paso Finos, Quarter Horses, and Andalusians might be more prone to developing EMS. Whether a genetic component exists in these breeds remains to be discovered, but you might consider proactively feeding to reduce the risks of EMS. Read more on this topic at TheHorse.com/110374.

We do know that certain genetic lines of Quarter Horses related to the stallion Impressive might be affected by the muscle disorder hyperkalemic periodic paralysis, or HYPP. In these horses, a mutation in the sodium channel gene causes the channel to become leaky when blood potassium levels fluctuate. Therefore, the focus turns to managing diet to maintain steady blood potassium concentrations. Read more about feeding horses with HYPP at TheHorse.com/19839.

Wrapping It Up

Just as with height and coat color, genetics set the blueprint for how a horse or pony responds metabolically to their diet. Here’s what we do know:

  • Most donkeys do just fine on a low-quality forage source alone;
  • Drafts and Quarter Horses can suffer from a muscle disorder that’s easily managed with diet changes; and
  • Ponies tend to have a greater insulin response, regardless of their diet.

Regardless of breed, always feed your equids as individuals, and design their diets based on their unique nutritional needs.

About The Author

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Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

Inbreeding in Thoroughbreds: Positives and Negatives

Selective breeding has led to a Thoroughbred uniquely adapted to modern racing’s demands. But it’s also led to inbreeding, and with that has come some less favorable genetic issues.
inbreeding in Thoroughbreds

Three hundred years of selective breeding has led to a modern Thoroughbred that performs highly in his specific field and conditions. But it’s also led to inbreeding, and with that has come less favorable genetic issues, Australian researchers say.

An analysis of data from more than 135,000 Thoroughbreds racing in Australia from 2000 and 2010 has shown that inbreeding has failed to “alleviate the genetic load” in the breed and possibly put it at a higher risk of developing heritable health problems, said Evelyn Todd, a PhD candidate in the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

That means Thoroughbreds around the world continue to carry genetic traits that could lead to heritable health problems, Todd said. While all individuals have some risk of such issues, a greater level of inbreeding increases the risk of them occurring.

Most of the inbreeding in Thoroughbreds—up to 80%—can be traced back to just a few founding ancestors, Todd said. Fortunately, as breeders have begun to better understand genetics in the past few decades, there is a trend toward greater genetic improvement in the breed. It’s a trend, she said, that would be wise to continue to protect future generations.

“A Thoroughbred horse that may be a superior racetrack performer may still carry some hidden genetic load, so inbreeding to them in future generations may have unexpectedly negative effects on some of their descendants,” said Todd. “So, it is important to remember that the consequences of breeding decisions that are being made now will not be seen for another few generations. The average age of reproduction for a Thoroughbred is 10 years, so this means another 30 to 40 years. Favoring one particular bloodline at the cost of eliminating or reducing other bloodlines in the population may have unexpected consequences ‘down the track,’ so to speak.”

Study Findings

Todd and colleagues examined the bloodlines of all 135,572 horses that started in a race in Australia over a 10-year period. For each horse, they calculated the inbreeding coefficient—the amount of inbreeding it has. They also selected 128 horses for high-density genotyping to get a clear view of those horses’ genomes and help identify genetic trends, including mutations and abnormalities.

They evaluated each horse’s racing performance (yes, all 135,572 of them) to see how it related to that horse’s genetics and inbreeding coefficient. To do that, Todd said they investigated five aspects they considered representative of a horse’s talent, consistency, and soundness: total earnings, earnings per start, career length, total number of starts, and winning strike rates (number of wins compared to the total number of starts).

They found a lingering genetic load “even after many generations of inbreeding,” Todd said. But they also found that multiple levels of inbreeding have “fine-tuned” the Thoroughbred for its sport.

Effects of Inbreeding in Thoroughbreds

“The Thoroughbred breed was founded and has since been selectively bred for the purpose of elite racing performance,” she said. “When racing over the distances of 1,000 to 3,200 meters (about 5 to nearly 16 furlongs), Thoroughbreds would be expected to outperform any other horse breed. In our study we found evidence that selective breeding, over time, has increased genetic variants which improve athletic performance.”

That’s made the Thoroughbred particularly adapted to modern racing’s demands.

“Due to the change in racing conditions over time, selective pressures on Thoroughbred horses have also changed over time,” Todd said. “If an elite Thoroughbred from the 1700s or 1800s, such as Eclipse (who was born in 1764), competed today, would he still be an outstanding racehorse? I would suggest maybe not. Hence, the changing racing structure over time means that the selection for elite racehorses has also changed over time. This explains why we haven’t seen a lot of improvement in the breed over time, but also why we found evidence of improvement over the last 20 years (when horse racing has been more similar to what it is today, so selection has favored horses that would excel in current racing conditions).”

In essence, breeders have developed an animal, through selective breeding including inbreeding, that’s perfectly fit for his purpose. However, that comes with some consequences. For example, the horse might not be well-adapted to conditions outside his wheelhouse (i.e., a sprinter vs. a distance horse, dirt vs. turf tracks, etc.), or he might have a certain reputation for characteristics some people might consider negative.

“Characteristics such as flightiness may be common in the Thoroughbred breed because they may be a contributing factor to their superior athletic performance,” Todd said. “On the other hand, there has been almost no selection on Thoroughbred horses for characteristics such as cold tolerance, and considering the breed was founded through stallions imported from the Middle East, it is hardly surprising that they are not adapted to survive well in freezing European winters. And Thoroughbred horses always race and train in shoes, so would not have been selected for robustness when barefoot.”

And likewise, as their study indicates, the inbreeding in Thoroughbreds could also put the horses at greater risk of inheritable problems—their genetic load, Todd said.

“Genetic load is the presence of unfavorable genetic variants in a population—for example, mutations which can decrease the health and survival chances of an animal,” Todd said. “All animals have two copies of each chromosome, so often if an animal has one copy of a negative genetic variant and one copy of the normal variant, it will have no effect on their health. For this reason, rare negative variants are hard to completely breed out of a population, so almost all animal populations will carry some genetic load.

“Inbreeding will increase the chance of an individual inheriting two copies of a rare negative variant from a common ancestor,” she continued. “For this reason, inbreeding to Thoroughbreds that have superior racing performance may have unexpected negative effects in future generations if some of their descendants inherit two copies of a hidden negative genetic variant.”

The Bottom Line

This information isn’t meant to accuse Thoroughbred breeders, however, Todd insisted. On the contrary, compared to other domestic animal breeding programs, the Thoroughbred is relatively well off.

“All domestic populations of animals have some level of inbreeding and carry genetic load,” she said. “The genetic load of the Thoroughbred population probably hasn’t increased since the breed was founded in the 18th century (and, in fact, it may have decreased). But our study shows that some negative variants are still present in the population. Previous studies have shown that there are high levels of genetic load in most domestic animal populations, such as breed dogs.”

Thoroughbred breeders have done comparatively well in maintaining genetic diversity in the breed, she said. They’ve succeeded in developing a high-performing horse despite the ongoing genetic load. And going forward, with today’s genetic knowledge, they can aim to continue to improve performance while avoiding negative genetic consequences.

“The Thoroughbred horse population is still thriving and viable,” she said. “The main purpose of our study was to assist Thoroughbred breeders in making decisions to improve their chance of a successful outcome—that is, breeding an elite racehorse—and assist in breeding decisions to maintain and improve the quality of Thoroughbred horses.”

The study, “Founder-specific inbreeding depression affects racing performance in Thoroughbred horses,” was published in Scientific Reports.

About The Author

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Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

Feeding Horses on Stall Rest

Take steps to manage your horse’s weight and behavior while he’s cooped up.
feeding horses on stall rest

Take steps to manage your horse’s weight and behavior while he’s cooped up

You’re headed out to catch your pastured horse for a riding lesson when you notice that his hock is the size of a softball. Later, you hold your breath as the veterinarian examines the injury and cringe at the sound of those two dreaded words: stall rest. Continuous confinement of any horse for long periods poses many obstacles, especially where nutrition is concerned. Diet plays a critical role in a horse’s behavior and overall gastrointestinal health, and not properly feeding horses on stall rest can be worse than the injury itself.

Cutting the Calories

Whether your patient is a racehorse or a weekend trail horse, stall rest means a serious reduction in his usual amount of activity—voluntary and otherwise. Depending on his level of work prior to the injury, you will need to reduce his total calorie intake to account for the decrease in activity. Here’s an example of a 1,100-pound horse’s daily caloric requirements:

Table 1

Level of Work & Description Mcals per Day
Idle: minimal activity 15.2
Light: recreational riding 20.0
Moderate: school horses, ranch work 23.0
Heavy: low-level eventing, show horses 26.6
Very Heavy: racing, endurance, elite three-day eventing 34.5
From NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 2007

There are two main calorie sources in a horse’s diet: carbohydrates and fats. Carbohydrates are further divided into two types: structural and nonstructural. Horses receive structural carbs from the fiber found in hay and pasture. The nonstructural carbs come mainly from cereal grains, such as oats, and include sugar and starch. Fats, such as vegetable oils, contain approximately 2.5 times the calories of carbohydrates and are made up of long chains of fatty acids. The horse needs all these calorie sources to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the fuel that powers the body’s systems, including the muscular and thermoregulatory systems, during physical activity. So the question is, what calories should you cut from the diet first during stall rest? To answer this, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the horse’s digestive system.

The foregut is comprised of the stomach and small intestine. Enzymes in the stomach break down most of the fat and nonstructural carbohydrates, which the small intestine then absorbs. Stall rest restricts a horse’s ability to forage—the act of seeking out and consuming small meals throughout the day. And horses that aren’t able to partake in their daily grazing routine can be predisposed to gastric ulcers, says Anne Baskett, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, a surgeon with a special interest in sport horse medicine and lameness at Tryon Equine Hospital, in Columbus, North Carolina. Saliva, which is high in bicarbonate and only produced by the act of chewing food, helps to buffer the stomach’s acidic secretions. Therefore, longer time between meals increases the horse’s risk for gastric ulcer formation.

The hindgut includes the cecum, large colon, small colon, and rectum and is the main site of fiber digestion. Within the cecum and colon reside billions of microbes charged with breaking down fiber into volatile fatty acids the body can use for ATP production. These microbes do not cope well with rapid changes to their daily routine or environment, such as times without adequate fiber, and health issues such as colic can result. In addition, researchers have found evidence that reduced or restricted locomotion can decrease a horse’s gastrointestinal motility—the movement of food through the digestive tract.  

“Decreased physical activity results in decreased gut motility, and this can predispose a horse to impaction colic,” says Baskett. The hindgut is also the predominant place for water absorption, so impaction colic can occur in horses accustomed to ingesting and obtaining a fair amount of their daily fluid requirements from grass. Hay has a much lower moisture content, significantly decreasing the amount of fluid available for the large colon to absorb. So although these horses might be drinking as much as they usually do from their water buckets, their fluid intake is still drastically lower than normal.

Less water and more baled forage also make it harder for the digesta to flow easily through the twisty-turny cecum and colon, and it can become impacted.

“Cecal impactions are more often seen in horses locked up for orthopedic problems and getting NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain,” Baskett notes. “Ileal (the final section of the small intestine) impactions can occur in stalled horses eating coastal Bermuda hay, even in horses that are used to this hay.”  

Adjusting the Diet

Managing a stall-bound horse’s diet means more than simply adjusting for his reduced caloric needs. You also need to consider the type, amount, and timing of his meals, along with behavioral tendencies when feeding horses on stall rest. But where do you start?

Keep the fiber Fiber provides the horse with more than just calories. Although researchers have not defined an exact required fiber amount, they do know it’s an essential daily requirement for proper digestive function, particularly in the hindgut. Studies have shown that when horses are fed less than 1% of their body weight per day in fiber, they are more prone to develop unwanted behavioral vices. Fiber, particularly in the form of long-stemmed hay, reduces boredom and stress and slows intake time. Therefore, make sure your horse is consuming, at the very minimum, 1% of his body weight in fiber per day.

Foraging behavior Grazing horses generally consume grass constantly during turnout, so it’s important to mimic this as closely as possible while on stall rest. Krishona Martinson, PhD, associate professor and equine Extension specialist at the University of Minnesota, suggests using a slow-feed haynet to extend foraging time. “Our research shows that horses consuming a hay meal from the stall floor take 3.4 hours compared to 6.5 hours when the same hay meal is fed from a slow-feed haynet,” she says. If a haynet is not available, feed hay in small meals at least three times per day.

Weight management For horses needing to gain or lose weight, stall rest presents an opportunity to pack on or shed a few pounds. You can achieve this by making simple, gradual changes to the horse’s diet and monitoring his body condition score. Methods used to reduce weight include decreasing the nonstructural carbohydrate and fat portion of the diet while increasing forage intake. At the same time, ensure the diet is still meeting the horse’s other nutrient requirements (protein, vitamins, and minerals); simply reducing the amount of grain fed might not be ideal. Consider adding a ration balancer to reduce calories without compromising these nutrients.  

Choosing the right calorie source is key to increasing weight without creating behavior vices. There is evidence that fat and fiber are more suitable calorie sources than nonstructural carbs, lowering spontaneous activity, cortisol, and subsequent stress levels. Look for feeds with highly digestible fiber sources (e.g., beet pulp, soy hulls), added fat, and low sugar and starch.  

Weight gain takes time and patience, so it’s important to create a plan based on the duration of stall rest. The following table shows the additional calories necessary to raise a body condition score from four to five (on a nine-point scale) in a 1,100-pound horse. Pain, which reduces appetite, can delay this, so build in some extra time to achieve results.

Table 2

Time Period Additional Mcals per Day
60 days 5.3 – 6.7
90 days 3.6 – 4.4
120 days 2.7 – 3.3
150 days 2.1 – 2.7
180 days 1.8 – 2.2
From NRC Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 2007

Other Management Considerations

One of your most important goals when caring for any stalled horse is to manage his brain while his body heals. This is different for every horse and situation. Baskett recommends adding the following to your horse’s routine if on stall rest:

  • If the horse is able to walk, frequent hand or tack walks with plenty of grazing will help both the brain and the gut;
  • Changing the turnout routine of some of the other horses in the barn so the resting horse always has company goes a long way toward reducing his anxiety. Keep in mind that some horses tolerate stall rest better in a quiet, home environment, whereas others do best in busy barns with more stimulation;
  • The judicious use of sedatives, such as acepromazine, can also reduce anxiety in horses that are not tolerating stall rest. Avoid sedatives that decrease gastrointestinal motility, since we know stall-rested horses are already at an increased risk for impaction colic; and
  • If your horse is simply not tolerating his lockup, don’t go it alone! There is a growing number of rehab facilities across the country that specialize in caring for horses needing both short- and long-term stall rest. Many of these have underwater treadmills, swimming pools, and free walkers that are extremely helpful for a variety of injuries. Researchers have shown that such controlled exercise decreases musculoskeletal stiffness, promotes gastrointestinal motility, and improves attitude. The added benefit is that once your horse has healed, he’s likely to be a lot fitter and able to get back to his job sooner. Some of these facilities are able to transition your horse back to turnout and even to tack walking and trotting.

Pesky Pests

Flies can be extremely irritating during warm months, especially for horses on stall rest. Stable flies feed on blood and carry pathogens capable of causing infection, so protect and cover any open wounds. The following are a few feeding tips to help keep these pests away:

  • Use a separate bucket for grain only, and remove it from the stall when mealtime’s over;
  • Use fly protectant, such as a top-dressed feed-through supplement. This passes through to the manure with minimal absorption in the digestive system. Fly larvae present in manure can’t mature into adults. Many manufacturers add garlic to their feed-through fly protectants as a natural pest control ingredient. However, there’s currently no published research to back this claim; and
  • Keep all feed stored and covered when not in use, and cover buckets if you portion feed out before feeding.  

Take-Home Message

Feeding horses on stall rest can be a daunting task that requires careful diet planning for gut health. Mimic the horse’s natural behavior by feeding small, frequent meals and using a slow-feed haynet. Feeding highly digestible fiber sources and, if necessary, fat for calorie sources will reduce the horse’s chance of developing behavioral vices and digestive upset.

About The Author

mm

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

 

The Horse, Boehringer Ingelheim Partner for Gastric Ulcer Awareness Month

Does your horse have gastric ulcers? Research suggests the odds are yes. Learn more about EGUS with educational content throughout August.

It’s no secret a majority show horses and racehorses have equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS). However, it’s not just a problem for performance horses eating highly concentrated diets and under the stress of training. In fact, one study estimates that than 60% of all adult domestic horses and 50% of foals suffer from EGUS.

That’s why The Horse and Boehringer Ingelheim are teaming up in August for Equine Gastric Ulcer Awareness Month. Look for EGUS-related content all month TheHorse.com, our Facebook page and Twitter feed, and in our e-newsletters.

Improving Horse Welfare by Changing Human Behavior: Not Always Easy

One veterinarian concedes that equitation scientists and vets alike are still working to determine how to change people’s behavior with the goal of improving horse welfare, but offers some suggestions on how to make progress.
improving horse welfare

We’ve got the science. We’ve got the evidence. We know the kinds of things that result in poor equine welfare. We’ve figured out what causes horses discomfort or pain. We understand what actions we, as humans, do that can make horses suffer in the name of sport, pleasure, or even convenience. And we’ve made strides in improving horse welfare.

Now that we’ve got that down, the next step is easy, right? Just tell people to stop doing what they’re doing and do it differently.

Hold your horses. As a group of equitation scientists and equitation science enthusiasts discovered, it’s not quite that easy.

“We, as equitation scientists and even practitioners in the industry, are still a long way off from being able to come up with interventions that will succeed (to change people’s behavior with their horses),” said Nicolas de Brauwere, MRCVS, senior welfare veterinarian at Redwings Horse Sanctuary in Hapton, Norfolk, England, which currently manages 1,500 equids plus hundreds more in foster care.

“After all,” he said, “this isn’t necessarily our specialty.”

Identifying the Problem: Easy

Changing human behavior is far more complex than just showing people the research results, he said. It’s a multifaceted process resulting from many steps and approaches—which is why it merits its own scientific category and specialists.

“It’s important that those of us hoping to improve equine welfare recognize the role of human behavior change in reaching out from science to practice,” de Brauwere said. “And we need to appreciate the complexity of the scientific field of human behavior change and respect the science and expertise to carry out human behavior change properly.”

Fixing the Problem: Difficult

To demonstrate, hands-on, the importance of these ideas, de Brauwere led a practical workshop on improving horse welfare during the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. He asked participants to work in groups to brainstorm how to change human behavior to improve equine welfare. As an example topic, he chose the issue of using tight nosebands, which has been a popular subject in recent equitation science studies.

“The idea isn’t to sit around talking about how horrendous the behavior is,” he said. “Your job is to figure out how to get people to change what they’re doing.”

He gave participants 10 minutes to investigate the problem and 10 minutes to find a resolution for it—to get people to change their behavior at all times, not just in the competition ring. He reminded participants that it’s not just important to consider what happens when people use tight nosebands, but also to consider what happens when they don’t.

“You’ll have horses that have always been ridden this way, and they could have become so accustomed to it that they become somewhat difficult to control without it,” he said. “And this could lead to accidents or reduced performance. These are things that you’ll need to consider as you address the problem and the solutions.”

De Brauwere insisted that it’s critical to not just “look at the person and judge him or her” but, on the contrary, to try to understand that person’s reasoning and motivations.

“We have to try to get into their heads,” he said. “Why are they doing it? We must focus only on the factors around the people that are involved, not the horses. And it’s very possible that we could actually need more research to understand what the people’s motivations really are.”

It’s an error, he said, to make assumptions about what people believe or think without knowing. He said we need to recognize that we might not have that information, even if we think we do. And as scientists, it’s important to avoid making general assumptions based on personal beliefs, understanding, or experience.

“We know what’s going on with the horses through our research, but not what’s going on with the humans,” de Brauwere said.

After participants had completed each of their 10-minute brainstorming activities, they discussed their ideas with the entire group. Many recognized the need for further research about humans because they could only speculate about why people performed this particular behavior. Even so, they came up with basic ideas worth further exploration, de Brauwere said.

They also came up with interesting possible solutions, he said, such as:

  • Implementing education programs;
  • Offering incentives and reward programs;
  • Levying penalties; and
  • Developing welfare-friendly tack (nosebands that break under certain pressure or front-cover-only nosebands, for aesthetic purposes, that don’t make a full circle around the face).

Moving Forward

Human behavior is the cause of most equine welfare issues,” de Brauwere said in closing. “But it’s important to keep in mind that every person is able to effect change, although we are not always aware of our own impact. Human behavior research is indeed a specialist subject, but it’s one that can be learned bit by bit.

So you don’t have to be an expert to at least get involved and have a go at it.”

He advised the equitation scientists in attendance to consider expanding their scientific knowledge to that of human behavior change. “You can be more effective if you include human behavior change tools to complement your equitation science expertise,” he said. “And you can turn to others for their advice and collaboration.

“If you now consider the human element in your future work,” he concluded, “you have taken the first steps.”

About The Author

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Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

What’s in Your Horse’s Water?

Water is an essential nutrient for horses. Find out why it’s important to keep your horses’ water sources clean and common challenges horse owners face.
What's in Your Horse's Water?

How to keep your horse’s life source pathogen- and debris-free

For Florida boarding barn operator Clarissa Cupolo, a good, steady rain is a welcome sight. It means the 14 horses residing on her property have lush paddocks to graze. But excessive rainfall can present a set of horsekeeping challenges, particularly when it comes to horses’ drinking water and any standing water in their environment. So each morning Cupolo inspects every trough in every paddock to make sure it’s free of algae and debris—cleaning it if it’s not—and filled to the brim. Then she examines the waterlines and spigots that feed the troughs to make sure they are in place and in good working order. Finally, she peruses the pond in one paddock for algae blooms and insect activity.

“There is either too little rainfall or too much of it, so we’re always compensating for something,” she says.

Cupolo is mindful of water availability and vulnerability to environmental pressure, but most horse owners generally only think about these factors in a crisis—such as after a natural disaster. But they should pay them more attention, says Rebecca McConnico, DVM, PhD, professor of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry at Louisiana Tech University, in Ruston, and a member of the Louisiana State Animal Response Team (LSART).

“Basically, water is essential,” she says. It’s an irreplaceable nutrient that aids digestion, helps maintain body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, helps cushion a horse’s nervous system, and maintains an elastic skin tone.

And horses need lots of it every day. Authors of a PennState Extension publication note that the average-sized 1,100-pound horse consumes 5-10 gallons of water daily. Horses that work harder, especially during periods of warm weather, might require more water to stay properly hydrated. Meanwhile, lactating mares might consume 20-25 gallons of water a day.

Water is so critical that horses deprived of food but not access to drinking water can survive up to 20 or even 25 days, the PennState authors note. By contrast, horses without access to water might survive only three to six days. After two days they might refuse to eat and show signs of dehydration, colic, or kidney failure.

Therefore, it’s crucial that owners provide horses with free-choice access to fresh, clean water. And depending on where they live, they might face unique challenges in doing so.

About The Author

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Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

What Nutrients Does a Horse Need?

ny good feeding program meets the nutrient needs for the animal, maintains a healthy digestive system, and offers feeds of the highest quality. Does your horse’s diet include the required nutrients?
what nutrients does a horse need

With respect to weight management, balancing a horse’s diet while meeting its digestible energy requirements is extremely important. However, a horse requires other nutrients that should be considered when looking at the overall feeding program. Any good feeding program will be based on the following principles: Meets the nutrient needs for the animal, maintains a healthy digestive system, offers feeds of the highest quality. So, what nutrients does a horse need in his diet?

There are several nutrients a horse requires such as water, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Specific amounts for each of these nutrients will depend largely on your horse’s weight and activity level or physiologic status (such as if an animal is growing or lactating). Detailed values of these requirements are found in the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, and are summarized in the table below:

Nutrient Requirements of Horses at Maintenance

Water

Water is by far the most important nutrient, and is most often overlooked. All horses should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Without it, colic, dehydration, and even death could result. Horses’ water requirements depend greatly on their physiologic state—as a lactating horse will require significantly more water than a horse at “maintenance.” In general, a 500 kg horse will drink approximately 30-45 liters per day. However, how much horses actually drink will largely depend on diet; for example, a horse at pasture likely won’t drink as much as a horse eating hay because the pastured horse takes in water with each blade of grass.

Protein

Protein’s main function as a nutrient is to provide the building blocks for tissues, muscle, hormones, and enzymes. With respect to equine diets, we often classify protein requirements based on quantity and quality. Quantity refers to grams of protein required in the diet. Most horse owners think in terms of percentage of protein in a given feed, but how much the horse actually gets would depend on how much of that feed it gets. (Example: Feeding 5 kg of a 10% protein diet would give a horse 500 grams of protein [5,000 grams x 0.10]; feeding 2.5 kg of a 20% protein diet would also give a horse 500 grams of protein [2,500 grams x 0.20 = 500 grams].)

Horse owners should consider the total grams of protein intake per day, not the percentage. In addition to being aware of the quantity of protein a horse is getting, being aware of the quality of the protein is equally important. Protein quality refers to the amino acid make up of a feed. Some amino acids can actually be made by the body and are not essential from a dietary standpoint. Amino acids that cannot be produced by the body, such as lysine, are considered essential and must be provided for in the diet.

A high-quality protein should provide these essential amino acids. Good-quality sources of protein include the seed meals (such as soybean meal or linseed/flaxseed meal) and legume (alfalfa, clover, etc.) hays. The essential amino acid lysine is of particular importance because of its requirements for growth. Some equine feeds are relatively low in one or more of the key amino acids, with lysine being considered the first limiting amino acid (meaning that if insufficient quantities of lysine are present, the body's protein synthesis abilities are limited ). Thus, if a horse were easily meeting its protein quantity requirements but wasn’t getting enough lysine, the diet wouldn’t be suitable.

Let’s use this analogy: If amino acids were letters, and protein a word (a chain of letters), lysine could be thought of as the letter “E”; it is very important for the formation of many words and certainly important in writing a sentence or paragraph.

Fats and Carbohydrates

The main nutritional property of fats and carbohydrates is their ability to generate energy through being metabolized. However, specific types of carbohydrates and fats serve additional important functions for the horse. For example, complex carbohydrates such as fiber are extremely important for digestive tract health; the microbial ecosystem is highly sensitive to an insufficiency of fiber.

Furthermore, in humans it is now recognized that some types of fats are essential parts of the diet; namely the omega fatty acid group, including , omega-3 and omega-6. These fats are important for their anti-inflammatory properties and their roles in immune function. Horses also likely benefit from these omega fatty acids and research is ongoing, though these fats are not considered essential nutrients.

Minerals

Equines require several minerals to meet a variety of functional needs, including skeletal integrity and cellular communication. The macro minerals (those needed in relatively high amounts) include calcium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur.

Trace minerals (those needed in relatively small amounts) include cobalt, copper, zinc, selenium, iron, iodine, etc. Horse feeds tend to be variable in many minerals, and as they are usually low in sodium and chloride (salt), it is recommended all horses be offered some kind of salt source, such as a salt block.

Another important point about minerals is the significance of several ratios among these minerals, as the amount of one mineral in the diet may affect the use of another. For example, there should always be more calcium in the diet than phosphorus, ideally in the ratio of approximately 2:1. If this ratio is imbalanced, the horse may not be able to use the calcium in its diet and may develop bone problems.

The only way to know how many minerals are present in your feeds (particularly hay and/or pasture) is to have them analyzed at a local agriculture lab. Most commercially available feeds will have minerals added in quantities to meet the needs of the type of horse the feed is designed for.

Vitamins

Vitamins are classified as water-soluble or fat-soluble. The fat-soluble vitamins (they can dissolve in fat) include A, D, E, and K while the water-soluble vitamins include the B complex (niacin, thiamin, etc.) and vitamin C. The horse is unique with respect to some of its vitamin requirements in that the microbes located within the large intestine have the ability to synthesize the B complex vitamins and vitamin K. The microbes do so in quantities sufficient to meet most horses’ needs such that deficiencies of these vitamins are very rare and even difficult to induce experimentally.

Horses, unlike humans (and fruit bats, primates, or guinea pigs), can synthesize their own vitamin C and therefore generally do not require it in their diet. Vitamin D, synthesized upon the skin’s exposure to sunlight, is found in good amounts in sun-cured forages. Therefore, providing you feed good-quality hay (i.e., not last year’s batch) and your horse gets some outdoor exposure, it should be getting plenty of vitamin D.

Vitamins A and E are found in variable amounts in pasture and hay, with higher amounts found in pasture during the spring months and in hay that hasn’t been stored for too long. Most of the fat-soluble vitamins will degrade over time in stored hay.

What You Need to Know About Equine Stomach Acid

Common feeding practices could be causing your horse’s stomach acid levels to rise.
What You Need to Know About Equine Stomach Acid

Did you know the average horse’s stomach only has a 2- to 4-gallon capacity? That’s because it was designed to digest a small but steady forage stream throughout the day. Horses evolved as grazers, spending two-thirds of the day grazing. As they continuously graze, they produce large amounts of saliva and maintain a mixture of roughage and saliva in their stomach most, if not all, of the time that buffers it from the acid.

However, common performance horse feeding practices don’t typically follow that routine.

When horses are fed meals, especially concentrates containing cereal grains that pass through the stomach more quickly than roughage, there are often times during the day or overnight when the stomach is empty of feed. It is, however, still producing strong gastric acid. In fact, horses produce up to 16 gallons of acidic gastric juice each day.

That’s approximately equivalent to:

  • The gas tank of an average car;
  • Three five-gallon water buckets; and
  • Half of an average bathtub.

The horse’s stomach is separated into upper and lower parts. The lower portion is lined by glandular mucosa and is where the acid is produced. That’s where the acid is meant to reside and digest food. The glandular mucosa has a thick mucous layer, robust blood flow, and naturally-produced sodium bicarbonate, all of which protect the lower portion of the stomach from the acid.

The upper part of the stomach, however, is lined by squamous mucosa and doesn’t have the same protection from the acid. If the stomach doesn’t have any food in it, the acidic juice can accumulate and reach or splash up and contact the unprotected upper part of the stomach, burning the squamous lining and causing stomach ulcers.

“Horse owners have to consider the sheer amount of acid the horse’s stomach produces, and that acid is being produced whether there is food in the stomach or not,” said Hoyt Cheramie, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, senior equine professional service veterinarian for Boehringer Ingelheim. “The most natural way to feed a horse is to provide grazing for most of the day.

“However, he continued, “that isn’t feasible for most performance horses that are fed large infrequent meals, have limited turnout and grazing, and are under the stress of training, showing, and traveling; yet their stomachs still produce all of that gastric fluid on relatively empty stomachs.”

The most natural way to decrease the strength of the acidic juice in the stomach and to keep it off the upper squamous lining is to take advantage of a quality-roughage-based diet. Cheramie suggests:

  • Increasing grazing time whenever possible;
  • Using a slow-feed or grazing haynet to extend foraging time;
  • Replacing calories from cereal grains with good-quality roughage; and
  • Adding alfalfa to the diet, where appropriate.

A higher-roughage diet has been shown to result in a lower acid level due to roughage and saliva’s natural buffering effect.

Ulcer Prevention and Treatment

When stomach ulcers do develop, the associated pain can cause poor or suboptimal performance.

UlcerGard (omeprazole) and GastroGard (omeprazole) are the only U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved products for the prevention and treatment of equine stomach ulcers, respectively. Both products are designed to inhibits acid production at the source—the proton pumps in the glandular mucosa.

Both products are also designed to protect the omeprazole from being broken down by acid so it can make it into the intestines, then absorbed into the bloodstream, and eventually make its way back to the stomach to treat or prevent ulcers.

Take-Home Message

Feeding a performance horse isn’t without challenges. Due to the way performance horses are commonly fed, and in addition to the stress of training, showing, and traveling, stomach or gastric ulcers affect two out of three competitive horses affected. Ask your veterinarian or equine nutritionist for feeding recommendations to help keep acid levels under control.

High-Tech Equine Research

Find out how equine researchers are using the latest gadgets and gizmos to diagnose lameness, collect data, and more.
High-Tech Horse Science

How equine researchers are using the latest gadgets and gizmos to diagnose lameness, collect data, and much more

Smartphones, flat-screens, high-speed cameras, analog software, GPS tracking, Bluetooth. These amazing technological advances and more have changed the way we live, work, play, and communicate. But that’s not all they’re doing. They’re equipping researchers worldwide for studying horses in ways they might have thought impossible just a few decades ago.

In this article we’ll take a look at some of the most exciting technological advances in equine research and how they’re helping scientists better understand horse health, movement, behavior, emotions, and learning. We’ll see why technology matters and where it’s leading us.

Giving Horses a Voice

In situations ranging from housing and social separation to locomotor pain and relationships with humans and beyond, technological devices are opening windows into the equine mind. Researchers have frequently relied on assumptions about what horses feel and think. But the latest sensors, monitors, detectors, readers, and other gadgets are taking the guesswork out of this area of science.

“Horses can’t tell us where it hurts or what they need (though they often try),” says Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, professor and Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “So one of the things we’re trying to do with technology, whether it’s for checking lameness or having horses touch a screen to say whether they want their blankets on or off, for example, is give horses a voice.”

Lars Roepstorff, DVM, PhD, professor of equine functional anatomy at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who performs research for the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), agrees. “Technology teaches us how the horse reacts—mentally and physically—to different research treatments and regimens,” he says. “It actually allows us to look at and even measure their mental state, in ways that only technology can.”

Knowing More, Faster

Motion sensors, easily wearable heart rate monitors, and thermography cameras that detect eye temperatures are just a few of the most recent examples of cutting-edge technology that’s opening the data dams, flooding equine research labs with new information—so fast, in fact, researchers are having a hard time knowing what to do with all the information they’re receiving.

But that’s certainly not a bad thing. The more data, the merrier the science, or so it seems. “Scientists refer to data as their friends; that’s where it starts,” says Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS, MACVS (Animal Welfare), professor of animal behavior and animal welfare science at the University of Sydney. “Technological advances are the gateways to more data. The more data we gather, the more we will know. A scientist would never say no to data.”

Floods of new data also serve as bases for comparison in research, allowing scientists to verify—from a variety of angles—their hypotheses. “A whole suite of data collection systems can provide checks and balances, so we’re not leaping on one data point and saying that that’s diagnostic of poor or good welfare (or health),” McGreevy says.

Clayton, who has recently retired from university research, has watched technology evolve in equine studies over several decades—in particular, in her field of locomotor research. “I’ve spent my entire research career working with whatever technology was considered cutting-edge at the time,” she says. “At first, it was so slow and tedious. And now, with computerization and all the fabulous equipment, we can do in seconds what would have taken a week.”

But the vast influx of new data could lead to some bumpy research moments initially, says Roepstorff. “Anytime you get new ways to measure things, suddenly everyone’s seeing a lot of things we hadn’t seen before, and there’s always the risk of overinterpreting findings,” he says. “But eventually things will stabilize.”

Unprecedented Precision

Roepstorff’s team has been applying 3-D motion analysis over the past several years, allowing scientists to study with incredible accuracy horse and rider movements. “Horses and people move in 3-D, not 2-D, and now we can see that on a screen,” he says. “Actually, we’re working in 4-D because this technology allows us to study movement in real time, giving us a remarkably precise animation tool to really understand what’s going on in this complex phenomenon of movement.”

His team is now working on perfecting motion capture technology in equine biomechanics—a huge step forward, says Clayton. “Biomechanics is a very numbers-based science, which makes it very amenable to biotechnology,” she says. That not only increases scientific knowledge in the field but also paves the way for faster and more precise detection of injuries and subtle lamenesses. “Earlier detection means earlier treatment, before it gets to an advanced stage—when it’s too late to treat,” she says.

Italian researchers, meanwhile, are developing high-precision technology for detecting cardiac data in working equine athletes and their riders. Antonio Lanata, PhD, and Paolo Baragli, PhD, of the University of Pisa, have created wearable ­technology—soft-knit girths and T-shirts with electrodes woven into the fabric like thread for close skin contact. These are much more comfortable to wear than bulky strap-on heart monitors, and they’re also far more precise. “This is much-needed technology because the traditional monitors are not so foolproof,” Roepstorff says. “Fit and contact are critical.”

A Testing Field Without Humans

Humans in equine experiments can accidentally influence their research subjects because horses are so sensitive to subtle body movements. But new technology is allowing scientists to shield research horse data from investigator influence.

Infrared thermography is a great example of this, says McGreevy. By measuring eye temperature using infrared camera technology from about a meter away, researchers can gain critical information about horses’ arousal levels (that is, their alertness at a given moment). Compared to standard testing of salivary cortisol (aka, the stress hormone) using a swab of the horse’s tongue or serum cortisol that requires a blood draw, eye temperature readings are noninvasive—which is especially important when analyzing emotion.

“If you happen to touch a fearful horse, you’re going to get a response to that touch even before you take a blood test,” he says. “Or, on the other hand, if you have a horse that enjoys being touched, then that could have a calming effect. So it’s exciting to have a noninvasive tool in the works.”

Meanwhile, researchers in Japan have taken humans out of equine cognitive testing. Masaki Tomonaga, PhD, of Kyoto University in Aichi, Japan, has trained ponies to select shapes that flash randomly on tactile screens. If the pony chooses correctly, he automatically receives a carrot chunk in a dish below the screen. Results are “pure,” in that no human could have accidentally given the pony subtle cues, Tomonaga says. Another benefit: The computer records all the data for error-free storage and analyses. (Watch a video of this experiment at TheHorse.com/37144.)

High-Tech Equine Research: Breeding Bonny

Teaching Tools

Technology also has its place in equine research and veterinary classrooms, ­leading to better understanding and welfare. Roepstorff’s lameness animations, for example, help students evaluate lameness. “It’s no longer just, ‘Okay this horse is lame in the left front,’ ” he says. “We actually look at high-speed measurements—at what the horse is actually doing—and explain all that via biomechanics.”

Sandra Starke, MSc, PhD, a former member of Clayton’s team who’s now a research fellow at the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., has put that technology online with her “Lameness Trainer” program. Interactive 3-D animations teach veterinary students how to recognize subtle signs of locomotor problems. “It progresses so it teaches you to develop an eye to see the lameness at lesser and lesser degrees,” Clayton says.

Students also benefit from lifelike simulators in the classroom, on which they can practice such procedures as jugular vein puncture and joint injections. There’s even a realistic “Breeding Bonny,” which helps students learn how to examine the mare reproductive tract using transrectal palpation and ultrasound without danger of damaging a live horse’s rectal wall. Veterinary students can practice endlessly on these simulators—some of which even give computerized feedback about the student’s performance—perfecting their skills without subjecting real horses to endless needle pricks or exam-associated stress.

“These simulators mean much less work for teaching animals and better-prepared students by the time they have to examine a live horse for the first time,” says Christine Aurich, DVM, PhD, head of the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science, in Neustadt, Germany.

“Students really like simulators because it’s stressful for them working on a live horse,” adds Clayton. “They concentrate on the skills without worrying about harming the horse.”

Affordable and Portable

Technology is making things less expensive and easier to transport, too. For equine researchers, that means performing previously impossible field studies in working equine athletes.

With low-cost and easy-to-use sensors, for instance, Roepstorff’s group is currently collecting a year’s worth of data on 150 horses’ daily training regimens with a goal of someday detecting early signs of orthopedic disorders.

And some technologies are now as accessible as your smartphone. “There’s a new phone available that has infrared technology in it, and with an application for analyzing eye temperature data, it could be a very cheap, practical solution for research,” says McGreevy.

There are caveats, though. Some less-expensive portable technology can be less accurate and pose more limitations. “You need to understand the pros and cons of such systems and adjust research protocols accordingly,” Roepstorff says.

Still, not all portable technology is less accurate than its more expensive cousins, says Clayton. “Some of the inexpensive technology is equally accurate, but it doesn’t usually come with as many bells and whistles in the software,” she says.

A Wireless World

Wireless technology is creating new opportunities for in-movement equine researchers. That’s certainly true for the Sequisol team in Normandy, France. Co-led by Nathalie Crevier-Denoix, PhD, of the Maisons-Alfort Veterinary School, the team uses pressure sensors in a special “dynamometric” shoe in trotting, galloping, and even jumping horses. Combined with high-speed cameras (1,000 frames per second), they’re able to detect and capture exerted forces from multiple angles and in three dimensions in real time—with no wires. The shoe transmits data immediately to laptop computers near the horse’s work area.

Another French group is benefiting from wireless technology to study equine brain activity via electroencephalography (EEG) in free-roaming horses. Hugo ­Cousillas, PhD, of the University of Rennes, and his colleagues developed a quick-fitting horse helmet that accurately places electrodes over horses’ brains and transfers data to computers using radio waves.

Meanwhile, researchers in Australia, Italy, Japan, and the United States are benefiting from GPS technology to track feral and domestic herd movement and behavior, as well as to understand how horses’ bodies respond to jumping efforts.

The Big Risk: Reliable Validation

While this is all very exciting, it’s also somewhat risky, our sources say. Patience is paramount because much of the technology still lacks reliable validation. “We’re combining technology with equine biology, and the only way to really be able to validate what we’re reading is by testing it with people who are experts in both fields,” Roepstorff says. “And that’s a pretty specific call. So we have a huge challenge facing us.”

The challenge might have found its match, however. Roepstorff says he’s “strongly considering” opening up an equine biotechnology testing facility that will provide universal validation for every new equine research technology invention. “We’re greatly in need of an institute to validate these tools,” he says. “Right now nothing exists, and everyone is on their own.”

Scientists can read through existing literature to learn how to validate their equipment, he adds, but again, understanding the complexity of the texts requires expertise in both biology and technology. 

Exciting, Powerful, … and Limited

With all these technological advances, it’s tempting to begin to imagine a practically automated research world where robots and computers test all our hypotheses about horses. But all the technology in the world still can’t replace the human brain, our sources say.

“Technology serves to confirm that which people already just seem to ‘know’ through correct intuitive judgment,” McGreevy says. That’s particularly true in evaluating pressures and forces or just “knowing” when a horse is off.

Roepstorff agrees. “Technology is leading us to frontiers that we otherwise would never have had access to,” he says. “But it will never substitute good horsemanship in training or a good eye in a lameness exam. It will always be only an aid.”

Horse is Suing His Former Owner for Neglect

If successful, the case will be the first to establish that animals have the legal right to sue their alleged abusers in court.

An Oregon horse is suing his former owner for damages relating to health issues connected to alleged neglect. If successful, the case will be the first to establish that animals have the legal right to sue their alleged abusers in court.

Last year, an 8-year-old Quarter Horse, now called Justice, was surrendered to a rescue by his owner. At the time of the surrender, he was allegedly emaciated, infested with lice, suffering from rain rot, and had swollen genitalia due to frost bite. Gwendolyn Vercher, the horse’s owner at the time of the surrender, later pleaded guilty to animal cruelty.

In May, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a personal injury complaint in the Washington County, Oregon, Circuit Court against Vercher on the animal’s behalf.

Vercher was not available for comment.

The complaint states that Justice was neglected for months causing “permanent physical and psychological injuries that will require specialized medical care for the rest of his life.”

The suit seeks $100,000 to be used for the horse’s past and ongoing care.

The ALDF said the Oregon Supreme Court has already recognized that animals should be considered individual victims in criminal cruelty cases. If successful, this case would expand remedies available to animal victims under the law.

The case remains pending.