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A Treat, A Treat, My Kingdom for a Treat

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, August 06, 2014


Miniature horse Frodo has a "rounded" figure, possibly due to his favorite treat.

Horses do not NEED treats. Repeat that five times fast. Then look at your horse. You don’t see the rounded belly. You see the starving deep brown eyes. You feel the mental telepathy urging you towards a treat, any treat. I can feel my daughter’s miniature horse trying to figure out how to unplug my computer at this point.

The reality is that most horses can handle an occasional treat (or two) and most owners are going to give their horses treats. With that established, what are the best and worst treats?

Years ago, horses got sugar cubes. You could buy boxes of these little cubes of pure consolidated white sugar at the grocery store. You were warned to hold your hand perfectly flat so you would not get bitten as your horse lipped the cube off your palm. I have not seen sugar cubes in any grocery store in decades. Sugar cubes would not be great for insulin resistant or equine metabolic syndrome horses anyway.

Next up come peppermints. The cute red and white striped hard candies. For some reason, these are the treats that Thoroughbred lovers seem to choose. Of course, any horse will enjoy them, but most TB owners have them in their pockets about 80 percent of the time. Horses like these too and they make a satisfying crunch as your horse eats them. If you foolishly give your horse peppermints with the bridle on, be prepared to clean the bit thoroughly. These candies are sticky! I could pretend peppermints have medicinal value since things like peppermint tea are recommended for people with upset stomachs but a peppermint candy will not really treat your horse.

Apples and carrots are natural treats that many horses enjoy.  In fact, if your pasture has any apple trees either in it or bordering it, your horses will happily treat themselves. Our horses pick their own apples. I have tried the apples off those old trees and was not impressed, but the horses, deer and sheep all seem to like them. They like me to cut up apple slices in the winter too. Apple peels (without the meaty fruit) are suggested treats for horses with IR.

Most horses also love carrots. I have pondered how horses ever got into eating carrots since they are root vegetables but maybe they dug them up or carrots came up with frost heaves. These are also quite sweet vegetables and not ideal for IR horses.

All horses can enjoy beet pulp based treats quite safely in moderation. You can also use small alfalfa cubes or handfuls of your horse’s regular concentrate ration.

What about somewhat exotic treats? My first horse, a palomino half Arab, would steal my lunch at shows and even eat things like a ham and cheese sandwich. Both he and my TB mare enjoyed ice cream sticks – vanilla ice cream with a thin chocolate coating wrapped on a stick. I had to hold it carefully so the stick wouldn’t get chomped but on a hot day they thought those were excellent treats. The same for fruit-flavored popsicles. I can’t advocate either of those as good horse treats now as a veterinarian, but I admit, as a horse lover, they were favorites.

And then we come to Frodo, the miniature horse. Frodo competed at both our county and state fairs in the mini horse division with my daughter – driving, showing in hand, doing trail in hand and not jumping in the jumping division :) No one would ever mistake Frodo for a semi starved rescue mini. He is, shall we say, well rounded?

At the fairs we discovered Frodo’s favorite treat. I hope no equine nutritionists are reading this. He loves fried dough, preferably with cinnamon sugar. I mean he REALLY loves it! We had to watch out for small children (even adults) walking by with their fried dough not under close guard. Frodo would move much faster than you would have thought if he was trying to snag someone’s fried dough. He is limited to a small piece once or at most twice a year. And yes, he does not need even that much.

So time to confess up here. What treats does your horse love? I promise not to judge you :)

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Choosing The Top Prospect

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, June 29, 2014


A Swedish study looked at over 8,000 horses to help us better evaluate young prospects.
We would all love a magic wand to wave over a group of promising performance horses that lights up over the top prospects. A study written up in the June 15 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association – Associations of health status and conformation with longevity and lifetime competition performance in young Swedish Warmblood riding horses: 8,238 cases (1983-2005) - comes close, however.


The study was done in Sweden with 8,238 Swedish Warmblood horses involved. Four- to five-year-old horses were tested with an eye toward seeing which horses would have the longest and best careers in competition performance events. The horses were tracked over their performance careers. Health status and conformation factors were examined. Horses received in overall orthopedic health score, hoof health score, locomotion health score, palpation orthopedic score and a riding quality test. Conformation was also evaluated.

Hoof evaluation rated each horse on 11 traits of the hoof, including shape and hoof wall. Locomotion was checked at a walk and trot, and then followed up with a trot after flexion. For conformation, judges looked at overall body type, head, neck and body specifically, conformation of the legs and looking at the walk and trot in hand. Since most horses were looking at careers in dressage and show jumping, those were the areas looked at in the riding test.

The tests, which statistically were the most helpful in predicting a horse’s future, were the locomotion evaluation, the body type and trotting scores and the overall health score (resulting from palpation, locomotion, etc).  The talent scores from the riding test were also important. Poor hoof quality and any joint effusion tended to correlate with a shorter career and/or poor performance.

The best qualities were a large but moderate in height horse, slightly sloping shoulders, nice neck, good withers and a sloping croup. Free movement both in the fore and rear were important. Talent in the jumping arena showing up in a four- to five-year-old horse was very positive for both longevity in performance and overall lifetime performance quality.

Negative correlations included short and heavy horses, steep shoulder conformation and stiff movement. Toeing in in the front had negative results while slight toeing out showed a positive effect on longevity. Any reaction on flexion tests matched up with poor longevity and performance, as did any atrophy of the croup or hamstring muscles. Joint effusions and poor hoof quality also showed strong heritability. This suggests that thought needs to go into these conditions when evaluating breeding stock.

Bottom Line: Careful, systematic evaluation of young performance horse prospects makes sense. Do a thorough workup and you have a better chance of coming up with a horse who will have a long and successful performance career.

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Ticks, Ticks and More Ticks

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, June 24, 2014


I count myself as extremely lucky. Our little microenvironment in upstate New York is not a hotbed for ticks. People living even a few miles from our farm tend to see many more ticks. However, last fall and this spring I started finding occasional ticks on the dogs. Luckily, none on the horses so far.

Are ticks a concern for our horses? Absolutely! Two of the diseases ticks can spread to horses are Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis (used to be Equine Ehrlichiosis if you started in horses way back like I did :-). Both of these diseases can be treated, but they can also do lasting damage to your horse.

Anaplasmosis will affect your horse’s blood cells. You may notice petechia (tiny blood patches on the skin), edema or swelling of the legs, a fever and not wanting to move. Some horses will show icterus or yellow tissues from the destruction of red blood cells. This is diagnosed via blood samples and treated with oxytetracycline.

Lyme disease is seen in horses in areas where the disease is prevalent in people and pets. Think New England and the Northeast, though the areas of known cases are spreading. Horses may show joint problems with lameness, pain, laminitis, eye problems and possible liver or kidney problems. This is generally treated with oxyteracycline or doxycycline.

The reality is that you would prefer not to have to treat your horse at all! So how can you help to prevent tick problems with your horses?

Step one is to look at your environment. Mowed or fairly closely grazed pastures (such as a rotational system) will keep tick encounters to a minimum. Don’t pile up brush or old leaves and other plant material right by your horse pastures and your barn.

Discourage wildlife. Deer, voles, mice and almost any mammalian wildife can carry ticks into your pasture and near your horses. Put salt and mineral blocks near the barn so hopefully deer won’t come that close to lick them. Put hay out in racks near the barn for the same reason. Sunlight and dry weather (low humidity) are enemies of ticks, so keep that in mind as you survey your property and plan plantings, landscaping, etc.

Chickens, especially bantams, and guinea hens are renowned for tick eating. If you want farm fresh eggs and fewer ticks you can simply add a few chickens to your animal population. Of course, chickens can bring their own problems and beware if you have a horse with allergies.

There are very few products for horses specifically labeled for tick control but many of the fly sprays will help to discourage ticks from attaching to your horse. I have sprayed people insect repellents on a cloth and used that to wipe down my horses during bad times of insect harassment.

Actually the best method of tick control (along with environmental steps) is to do a quick daily survey of your horse. An eyeball assessment can catch many ticks early on. You may need to actually rub your hands over your horse in some areas like the armpits and carefully feel for any “tick bumps.” Always check ears and tail carefully. Sitting on the tailbone is a common place for ticks to attach on horses and they like ears too. If you see your horse itching, rubbing or biting at a certain spot, feel carefully for any ticks in those areas. A recent suggestion was to run a lint roller over your horse when he comes in from the pasture. Ticks that aren’t firmly attached already would get stuck on the sticky paper.

If you find a tick, do NOT do the local old wives’ tales methods of removal. Holding a match near the tick will simply singe and terrify your horse! I can recommend a “tick key”. These little tools work very well for scooping a tick out. Ideally you should wear gloves while doing this. Horses, dogs and people tolerate tick removal with this simple tool.

Hopefully you won’t encounter any ticks on you or your horse. If you have other great tips to share on keeping tick populations down and keeping ticks off your horse, feel free to share them!

See also: 

More Ticks in 2014.

Tick Defensive Tactics. 

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Mosquitoes Can be Deadly

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, June 06, 2014

A natural skeeter-eater.
Mosquito season is upon us. Other bugs too, but today I want to deal with mosquitoes. Clearly these are insects we want to avoid. Mosquitoes are known for their part in spreading the deadly encephalitis viruses horses are susceptible to.

“Chemical warfare” is certainly used to fight mosquitoes. Still, most of us prefer to keep our chemical weapons to a minimum and use natural bug beaters as much as we can. So how can you keep your horses relatively mosquito free in a natural way?

First, minimize mosquito habitat on your farm. We love using big water tubs and troughs in the summer so we don’t have to lug water buckets all day. Those tubs should be dumped at least weekly if not every three days or so to destroy any insect larvae developing in them. Dump and scrub!

If you rely on ponds for water for your horses, consider stocking some native mosquito killers. These include a fish called Gambusia. These are small – one- to three-inch guppy- type fish – that thrive on mosquito larvae. Koi and goldfish do, too, but they aren’t native fish and may not do as well. Or you could add tadpoles purchased from local bait shops. Frogs will eat mosquitoes.

BTI is Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a natural-occurring bacteria that mosquito larvae will eat. The bacteria then produce a toxin that kills the mosquito larvae. This will not affect adult mosquitoes and is considered to be safe for birds and other animals who drink from the pond. You would “seed” your pond with this to get a culture growing.

You can also stock your pond with damselfly and dragonfly larvae. The larvae feed on mosquito larvae and adult dragonflies will eat adult mosquitoes. These and BTI can be ordered through many farm and garden outlets.

Birds are big mosquito eaters. That includes lovely hummingbirds – after all they need protein, too! – as well as your traditional bug-eating birds like barn swallows and purple martins. If you provide suitable housing (and in the case of hummingbird additional flowers or feeders) these birds will take up residence and quickly start in on your mosquitoes.

Our barn swallows have already had one hitching and are sitting on a second set of eggs. Be prepared to deal with the possibility of bird droppings in your barn aisle or even on your horse at times. I consider this a small price to pay for the bug control. Swallows zipping in and out of the barn can also desensitize a spooky horse to flapping, flying objects.

While bats cause panic in many people, they are wonderful bug eaters and rarely cause any other problems. You can set up “bat houses” to attract them as well.

There are passive ways to repel mosquitoes from your barn area, too. Many plants serve to repel bugs including mosquitoes. My favorite plants for this are marigolds whose spicy scent is attractive. Rosemary, catnip and citronella grass also perform this duty. Your resident barn cat might really appreciate his own catnip bed.

I have used essential oil mixes to help keep black flies and mosquitoes off my horses’ faces and ears. My favorite is BuzzGuard from Earthheart, which contains Neem seed oil and pure essential oils of citronella, fir, geranium, rosewood, basil and myrrh in water. I like the smell and it does truly seem to help especially with the black flies and mosquitoes. One farm near me burns citronella torches near the barn doors at night hoping to keep mosquitoes out. Obviously, you need to observe those due to fire risk.

A face/fly mask will also help keep mosquitoes off at least part of your horse. Combined with a fly sheet you have additional protection but I do find that mosquitoes will bite right through the fly sheets.

An ideal set up would be a stall with mosquito netting and screens to keep your horse in at night. That simply isn’t realistic for most of us.

Those are my best mosquito fighting tips. I’d love to hear your success stories, too.

Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, Contributing Veterinary Editor

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Trick Training

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, May 22, 2014


Frodo learned to do tricks quite quickly.
As horse crazed youngster I remember seeing a book titled something like “Dr So and so Book of Trick Training for Horse.” I had ordered it – a yellow paperback booklet with a drawing on the front of a gentleman in a ringmaster coat and a horse with his front feet on a wooden half-barrel. Apparently it got lost or discarded somewhere along the many moves in my life.

But when I finally got my first horse, Goldie, a palomino Half Arab, when I was 14 years old, trick training was one of the things I set out to do. Goldie was clever and that first summer I had nothing but him. No organized sports or activities like kids have now, no electronics. I realize that may be hard to imagine for some of you!

Not knowing anything about clicker training, operant conditioning or any of the behavior science we now have at our fingertips, I had a bunch of cut up carrots and my booklet. Looking back, I did a combination of luring and bridging. Goldie was a typical horse of the Arab persuasion – clever and a true quick study.

I started with “shake.” I would tap his lower leg with a crop lightly. As he moved his leg (sort of like responding to a fly landing on his skin) I would praise and treat. Once he moved the leg reliably on the cue of the crop touch, I started to grab the leg. Goldie picked up this idea quickly. Once he grasped the idea of picking the leg up in a forward motion, we were on it. I added the word “shake” and voila! A horse who would shake hands! Of course my blacksmith killed me on his first visit after we mastered this trick as Goldie kept trying to shake while he was working on him.

Goldie picked up other tricks. He would put his front feet up on a cut off stump. He would side pass with me standing by his shoulders. He would shake his head “yes” and “no.” He would bow. We lured that trick with treats held down between his front legs. He would give kisses. He would carry a basket by the handle.

On his own, Goldie had picked up some other tricks. He loved to snatch hats off people’s heads. He would steal anything you had hanging from a pocket. The blacksmith wasn’t fond of that trick either as Goldie would steal tools as he bent over. He also stole tools if my father was working around the shed.

Now fast forward many, many years. My daughter Kate decided to do operant conditioning for her science fair project. She took her Australian Shepherd, Tia; our goat, Zoom; her miniature horse, Frodo; and the older donkey, Sugar; to teach how to bow. She was armed with a clicker and Cheerios. Kate used a combination of shaping and luring. She wanted to see which animal learned fastest, had best retention, etc.

It was fun watching the progression. Tia learned quickly, but then she had had a great deal of training and this was a natural movement for her as well. Frodo also caught on quickly, too.

But Zoom was a real star – he took a bit of time to learn, but it stuck with him for years. Literally until he died if you gave him his cue he would bow. And then hassle you for his reward! Zoom would also perform rapidly and repeatedly – clearly expecting a treat every time.

Sugar the donkey took the longest to learn. She would study Kate, think about what was being asked, ponder it some more and eventually got the behavior. Once she learned it, she was 100% accurate on performing. Never done with much enthusiasm or speed, but very accurate. 

While tricks are fun, they can also be useful. Goldie could actually carry some things for me. You could cue bends to either side or up and down as part of a physical therapy routine. If you have a horse who is stall confined, learning tricks can be mental stimulation and help to reduce stress.

There are many excellent books, DVDs and even seminars available now. Have you done any trick training with your equines? Share your experiences with us!

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