Can horses bring health benefits?
Riding is widely believed to be helpful to disabled children and adults, but is it real physical therapy?
Two recent research papers suggest that it is. In one study, six able-bodied children aged between eight and 12 were fitted with sensors that recorded their pelvic movements as they walked. The same children, none of whom were experienced horse riders, were then put on lead-rein ponies that were walked about while the measurements were repeated.
The results showed that passive riding mimics the natural active walking motion of the pelvis to a remarkable degree. This is beneficial for children who cannot walk normally, since it stimulates muscle activity in the back and abdominal wall and supports the normal function of pelvic organs.
In another study, 30 elderly residents in a care home were put on an equine simulator designed to replicate precisely the saddle movements of a horse at walk.
They rode the “horse” for 20min a day for eight weeks.
Two assessments were then made: the strength and activity of their lumbar and pelvic muscles, and their stability and resistance to falling.
When the measurements for the riders were compared with those for closely matched counterparts that had not been riding, there was a clear difference.
The riding golden oldies had improved the strength of their lower body muscles and reduced their chances of falling over, compared with the other elderly folk who had spent the 20min each day watching television or playing dominos.
Is your youngster feeling the fear?
There is a lot of interest in the behaviour and stress levels of young horses during early handling and training.
Danish vets took 24 unhandled three-year-old Icelandic horses straight from their studs and gave them basic handling so that they were halter-broken and would wear a girth that held heart rate monitors.
The horses were then divided into two groups. Half received no further training but were turned out individually into an indoor school for 10min each day with a female groom standing still in the corner.
The others were taken individually into the same school for 10min a day, but were trained by a female groom to stop and start while walking in hand, walk in circles and figures of eight, back up and walk on the lunge.
All 24 horses then underwent standard fear and stress tests. Their behaviour and heart rates were recorded as they were exposed to a multicoloured umbrella placed next to a familiar feed bin and as they passed between two unfamiliar striped traffic cones.
The trained horses were tested in the presence of their female groom — but also in the presence of an unfamiliar male groom.
It was expected that the trained horses would be less spooked and stressed by the tests, but the results showed that the trained ponies only appeared less fearful if they were in the presence of the female groom.
The trained ponies were just as spooky as the untrained ones when an unfamiliar person was present. And when the heart rates were analysed, even the trained ponies with their familiar trainers had the same rise in heart rates as the untrained ones.
So it seems as though a familiar human trainer may make a young horse appear less nervous, but inside it is just as fearful and maybe just as likely to do something unpredictable.
The scientists warn against false confidence with young horses that is based only upon their behaviour when they are with a familiar human friend.
Acron poisoning — the case strengthens
Many horses are pastured in paddocks with oak trees, but cases of acorn poisoning are only anecdotally reported.
Vets in the UK recently published a report on nine cases of severe disease in horses that seem to have been definite cases of acorn poisoning. The horses were very ill, with signs of colic, and all either had diarrhoea when first seen or developed it soon afterwards.
All horses had evidence of acorns in their dung or in their gut at postmortem. All cases occurred in October or November.
Only three of the horses — those with diarrhoea that was slower in onset or milder in severity — survived. The others either died or were put down on humane grounds. All had severe inflammation of the large intestine.
Postmortem examinations produced similar results to confirmed cases of acorn poisoning in cattle, which causes severe bloody diarrhoea and can be fatal.
With this evidence on the table it is certain that acorn poisoning is a potential threat to greedy horses grazing under oak trees in the autumn, especially on sparse pasture. Owners should be aware of this risk.
Every autumn a number of free-living ponies in the New Forest die and this is put down to acorn poisoning. On Exmoor, where there are very few oak trees, there are no reported autumn deaths.
Despite reservations, probiotics ‘do horses no harm’
Probiotics are cultured doses of living bacteria that are marketed as “beneficial”, in contrast to the pathological bacteria that cause disease.
A vast population of essential bacteria lives in the gut of a healthy horse. These bacteria are necessary for efficient digestion; they have evolved alongside their hosts as part of the normal healthy function of the mammalian gut.
When this “gut flora” is upset by disease or stress, the animal can suffer. It makes sense to promote healthy gut flora by feeding extra amounts of the good bacteria to restore the balance.
Three Danish scientists have recently reviewed all the available evidence for the efficacy of equine probiotics in a lengthy research paper. They point out that most of the research supporting the benefits of probiotics is in humans, and that the evidence for their usefulness in horses is very limited.
A few facts remain undisputed, however. In horses, the probiotic bacteria do not survive long in the gut, so although they may have a temporary benefit when they are being given, the effect does not last.
It is also clear that no one probiotic strain or product can be beneficial for every bowel problem; specific strains and bacterial species are required for different challenges.
Despite these reservations, the Danish scientists say that probiotics do horses no harm, are relatively cheap and — in some cases — may be of some benefit.
Some like it hot
Like their riders, horses have changing moods and attitudes to work. Sometimes they seem keen and happy to oblige; other times they just can’t be bothered.
In a recent report, veterinary behaviourists investigated the willingness to work of 16 Anglo Arab geldings kept for pleasure riding. The horses were all worked between 9am and 10am in the summer.
The riders knew the horses well and were asked to score how willing they were to work and to assess how happy the geldings seemed with what they were being asked to do. At the same time, the researchers measured the horses’ heart rates, breathing rates and temperatures.
They also recorded the ambient temperature, humidity, air pressure and wind speed.
Results revealed a good correlation between the willingness of the horses, in the opinion of their riders, and their heart rates, breathing rates and temperatures — more challenging conditions resulted in higher readings and increased reluctance to work.
When environmental factors were studied it was clear that atmospheric pressure and humidity were not linked to willingness to work; while wind speed and air temperature appeared to have significant effects.
A wind speed greater than 5.5 metres/second (roughly 12mph), made the horses less keen to work than calm conditions. Temperatures above 26°C definitely made them grumpier.
There are other factors that can affect how well a pleasure horse co-operates in ridden work, but this research seems to show that — all other things being equal — Anglo Arabs at least prefer a cool, still day to a hot, breezy one.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 12 February 2015