Summer Read: The Nature of Horses

Authors of horse books generally come in two varieties:

  • Horsemen and women who write about their expertise. Their strength is horses.
  • Writers and journalists who love horses and want to write about them. Their strength is writing.

220px-Stephen_BudianskyIt’s rare to find books by authors who can clearly write and ride.
But they’re out there. Find more books.

The Nature of Horses: Their Intelligence, Evolution and Behaviour by Stephen Budiansky is one of them.

Budiansky grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Virginia. He’s written for the science journal Nature, the New York Times magazine, The Economist, and writes as often about elements of war as he does of animals. Budiansky came to horsemanship as an adult and pursued not only riding but a self-directed equine education. Check out his Atlantic Monthly article on fox hunting.

The Nature of Horses covers a huge breadth of topics. I honed in on “Horse Sense,” his chapter on equine intelligence and learning behavior.

He writes:
The good news is that horses have a relatively large brain for an animal of their size. The bad news is that they use most of it just to keep their feet in the right place.”

Budiansky questions the value judgment we make when assessing intelligence as strictly a cerebral, problem-solving deal.
— What about the incredibly coordinated movement of galloping over uneven ground, turning, jumping, dodging obstacles, changing leads?
“[It] may be a hard-wired function but it is none the less complex for being innate. “

— What about memory?
“Taught to choose which visual symbol in each of 20 pairs would bring a food reward, a horse was able to 9780753801123remember them all on retesting…Retests at 3, 6, 12 months showed that horses had little loss of memory as to which symbol in each pair was the right one.”

— What about learning?
In the wild, of course, it’s all about survival. Horses adjust and adapt to “a changing environment where the rules are not fixed.” That’s part of being intelligent, too.

Read more of Budianksy’s contributions to the Intelligence article.

More highlights from The Nature of Horses:

  • No breed is innately smarter than another.
  • The dominant horse is not necessarily the smartest horse. The smartest tend to be in the middle of the herd rank.

Bug products worth the cost and effort?




No Mas to my old routine!

This summer, I’ve decided to stop my zealous and expensive efforts to keep flies off the horses.

  • Not convinced any really work.
  • Plus, I’m increasingly concerned about chemical exposure, for me, the horses, and the barn’s nesting birds.

0040009Feed-through products?

  • Not sure they’re all that effective either.
  • I started the season with a feed-through strategy, buying a big bucket of Bug Check for a hundred bucks. I gave it with Hay Stretcher every night. The horses ate it alright. But I’m hesitant to pony up for a refill.

I have only unscientific observations to support my decisions:
I watched them grow increasingly exasperated by the flies when the weather became hotter and calmer. They’d graze for a bit, tails swishing, heads shaking. Then they’d come into the barn.
I took a mental note of how much time they were grazing versus seeking refuge and how much tail swishing and head shaking they were doing.
I bought a bottle of Endure, which like most fly sprays, has pyrethrins as the main repellant and supposedly stays effective for more than a week. I sprayed them thoroughly.
I watched for a change in barn time, tail swishing, and head shaking.

No notable change.

Like so many horse products, fly-related items prey on our need to feel we’re doing the best we can for our horses.
One can’t help feel sorry for them when the bugs are fierce. But how much are they really suffering?

  • Are they losing weight?
  • Is their skin ravaged?
  • Are they running wildly off cliffs or, at the very least, into fences?
  • Are flies so distracting that outings are more swatting sessions than actual trail rides?

Not yet.
But stay tuned.

What Would Joe Do

Joe Camp keeps popping up on my radar. He’s been busy for decades with dogs (writer/director of “Benji,” etc) and horses (author of scores of top-selling horse books), but lately we’ve been moving along parallel ‘Nature is Best’ paths.

He blogged about kissing wormers goodbye here. Camp has moved to feeding his eight horses DE, diatomaceous earth and has done the research to support his choice. (In a similar minimalist move, this summer I’m using Bug Check which has DE, garlic, and a few other ingredients, trying to lay off wormers diatomaceousearthAND bug spray.)

Last week, he joined the call for Maturities, not Futurities.

Camp cited renowned scientist, Dr. Deb Bennett of the Equine Studies Institute and formerly of the Smithsonian Institute, urging his readers to stay off horses’ backs until they are skeletally mature enough to handle riders.

Age three or four, you say?

Guess again.

Citing Dr. Bennett’s “Ranger Piece”, he says horses aren’t ready for you and serious work ‘til five or six years old.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t work with them, introduce them to the saddle, and show them the joy of jobs.

jodiThe argument against starting horses too young was something broached in Evidence-Based Horsemanship, too. Scroll to the bottom of this article for Martin Black’s comments about waiting to start young horses.

Click here to read Starting Jodi, observations of our four-year old mare, Jodi.

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