A great bit of equine-related research has hit my desk lately: A group at Washington State University quantified lowered cortisol levels in kids enrolled in equine-facilitated learning programs. The study, a randomized trial, gives EFL programs a huge leg up in legitimization. It should help stakeholders and insurance companies understand what us horse owners already appreciate: being around horses is good for you. Read about it here.
The report is getting some decent traction on the Internet. No more attention, however, than some seriously sketchy science promoted by the International Society of Equitation Science (ISES).
ISES released a study by Cecilie Mejdell and her colleagues at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences that described how horses can choose for themselves whether or not to wear a blanket. The team trained 23 horses to read cue cards, essentially “asking” horses if they would like to wear a one.
I asked my vet about the research, she replied:
It sounds like a lot of assumptions were made – horses understanding consequences of their actions, for example.
- What if the preference was for the symbol rather than the action afterwards?
- How are they sure the message was communicated uniformly across the horses?
- What was the state of the horses’ body temperature under the conditions?
- What was the length/thickness of the hair coat at time of experience?
- Where did these horses’ come from and what sort of conditions were they exposed to prior to the study?
My vet understood there’s a big difference between a proceedings journal (ISES) and published research (the EFL study). She also knows about the Gold Standard of Scientific Work and the Hierarchy of Evidence. Those principles state that meta analyses and randomized controlled trials are the best, most reliable and most respected kind of work.
The least reliable is expert opinion and case studies. ISES, though well-meaning in its efforts, promotes and disseminates mostly case studies. Read more about ISES.
That’s all well and good if you know how to review scientific studies. But what about the rest of us? Too often on the Internet, gold mixes with fool’s gold. Media outlets skim a study’s surface. If it’s fun and topical, they’ll give it good play. Readers on social media gobble it up without considering sources or fact checking.
The result? Lots of misinformation.
Want some tips on how to navigate through the junk to find the gems? Read tips for how to judge research here.
Culture and vanity vie against common sense and science in plenty of our personal decisions. Take tanning:
This year, the World Health Organization added tanning booths to the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation. People get skin cancer and die from frequenting tanning booths and eschewing sunscreen. But there are lots of tans folks out there. Society chooses tan over pale nearly every time.
Likewise, evidence overwhelmingly supports wearing a helmet to protect oneself from head injury while horse riding.
- Head injuries make up 23 percent of riding injuries resulting in Emergency Room visits. Read more.
- You’re four times more likely to die while riding if you don’t have a helmet. Read more.
- Most injuries happen in younger and less experienced riders; many occur when working with a young horse. Read more.
- Most traumatic brain injuries result from falling or being tossed off a horse, but some happen while on the ground (like being kicked in the head).
Helmet wearing seems to be a no brainer.
Yet millions choose not to wear one and suffer no ill consequence during a lifetime of riding. Insurers increasingly mandate helmets at events and facilities. For the rest of us, the freedom, risk, and choice is personal.
And like many personal choices, folks can get downright emotional about it.
The usually sensible Rick Gore has a long YouTube tirade against wearing helmets: he says they give riders a false sense of security, empower riders to take greater, ill-advised risks and that only helmet companies are advocating for helmet use. It’s silly stuff, but serves to illustrate how polarized the argument for and against helmets has become.
NickerNews and BestHorsePractices are more concerned with providing perspective and less concerned with taking a position. But here’s a middle of the road stance from our Marketing Director, Emily Thomas Luciano. She writes from her home in Florida:
I’ll be the first to admit that I probably should wear a helmet every time I saddle up, but frankly, sometimes I just don’t want to. Maybe I’m having a good hair day or maybe it’s hot. Whatever the reason, I’m not always the poster child for safety.
I do, however, have a few hard-and-fast times when I’m a stickler for wearing one:
- If I’m putting the first handful of rides on a horse.
- If I’m hitting the trail alone.
I take the horse into consideration as well: my mustang gelding who can be a bit unpredictable, so I always wear a helmet when riding him. On the other hand, I leave it off when riding my quarter horse mare that I’ve owned for all of her 15 years.
- Lastly, I try to be a little smarter about helmet usage when my husband is deployed. With family 12 hours away by car, I couldn’t manage a head injury with him gone.
But really, is a head injury something that any of us can afford to manage?
The risk and choice is yours.
Read Anatomy of a Wreck.
We’re excited to welcome Lucerne Farms to our growing family of advertisers. The Maine company, based in Easton and Fort Fairfield, fits our values and mindset to a T: a small company with a high quality product that’s great for owners and their equines.
It’s the perfect time of year to know more about Lucerne Farms. Many of us like to supplement our horses’ diets to ensure weight maintenance through the cold months. Grain’s not always a good choice; forage is safe, affordable and horses love it!
Horses stomachs are small, about the size of a football. As grazing animals, they are designed to eat slowly and almost constantly. That makes forage a great option in any number of situations including when:
- hay may have iffy nutritive value
- pasture doesn’t give them what they need
Horseman Chris Cox worked with Lucerne to develop a special blend. This video explains how much he favors forage over grain or other alternatives. The popular clinician uses it year round.
Lucerne makes many varieties, most with a blend of timothy and alfalfa grasses. I love “Hi Fi” as we call it at the feed store. Hi Fiber has timothy hay, alfalfa hay, and oat hay with a touch of molasses to tamp down any dust and add a smidge of flavor. It’s nine percent protein and 30 percent fiber.
For those wanting more protein, there’s Alfalfa Supreme with 15 percent.
If you haven’t tried forage, give Lucerne products a try. We’re betting you’ll see positive changes.
Want more ideas for keeping the weight on in winter? Read more.
Tom Smith knew what happened off the track was crucial to victories on the track. Diet and horse keeping practices were key to the champion he developed out of the fussy, difficult Seabiscuit. Read about Seabiscuit: An American Legend and other favorite horse books.
Nervous behaviors and stereotypies (non-functioning, repetitive movements) are physical manifestations of an ill-kept horse. They are diseases of domestication that make for stressed, underperforming and downright unhappy horses.
We can prevent the onset of issues and possibly undo these problems if we take away the artificial components of our care and maintain more natural elements.
Back in the 1930’s, Smith knew that if he could make Seabiscuit happier and more relaxed, he could make him a winner, too. The trainer didn’t just focus on split times and jockey assignments. He scrutinized every aspect of Seabiscuit’s life from handling, to companionship, to feed and living space.
Or, as Dr. Steve Peters and Martin Black write in Evidence-Based Horsemanship:
“Any changes you introduce away from a natural setting will have an impact. You may not notice it, but varying levels of domestication will indeed impact the horse on a physiological and psychological level.”
Even within the constraints of the thoroughbred racing world, Smith worked this altogether simple magic. Over time, Seabiscuit relaxed, shed his stress and correspondingly became one of the most celebrated horses of all time.
Stereotypies are behaviors like cribbing, weaving, pacing and head bobbing. Researchers have found these movements linked to increased cortisol levels as
well as reduced levels of serotonin (respectively, these are chemicals associated with stress and mood stability). They most often develop when you take away horses’ ability to move, graze normally, and socialize.
Think your horses are OK in stalls where they can see each other?
Writes Peters, “simply housing horses together in separate stalls does not satisfy their need for sensory communication.”
In other words, offer your horses the option of shelter, but don’t make confinement mandatory.
Even when he traveled cross-country by train, Smith gave Seabiscuit a jumbo stall.
The trainer also offered scores of companion animals to the finicky horse. When he introduced a goat, the horse famously grabbed her by the neck with his teeth and tossed her over the stall wall into the barn aisle. Finally, Smith tried a retired Montana cow pony named Pumpkin, a “general calmer-downer” writes Laura Hillenbrand in her book, Seabiscuit, an American Legend. “They conversed and developed a fast friendship… and lived and worked the rest of their lives together.”
Horses’ stomachs are small, about the size of a football. They are designed to take in small amounts of food over long periods of time (ie, grazing much of the day). But if you impose human-like meal times, you’ll run into problems – and not just digestive issues like colic. Research shows horses can develop stereotypies when forced into strict routines, especially around food. In the horse world, there’s no such thing as mealtime.
Seabiscuit got lots of free-choice hay and some oats. Had it been an option, he might have considered Lucerne Farms forage. Read about it here.
The iconic stallion wasn’t treated like a champion in our human interpretation of the word, with isolation and quartered privilege. He was treated like a horse. Behind all the pomp and circumstance, that’s how Smith nurtured him from troublesome mediocrity to the stuff of legend.