Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Researcher: Strive to Recognize Happy Horse Behavior

Researcher: Strive to Recognize Happy Horse Behavior

Happy horses live longer and are more likely not to injure their owners. That's my theory, anyway.  I'm just glad that someone with more cachet than I possess is trying to quantify equine happiness signals.

Happy now?

I don't think it would take a researcher to look at the photo above and determine that no one is happy.  Not I, and certainly not Dakota.  For comparison's sake, try this one:

Why we shouldn't buy horses as gifts,,,
Dakota is thrilled with all the attention.  Cliff, on the other hand,
was hoping for a new snowmobile.

Now, here's number 3:

Again, no degree required.  He might just be happy I got off, but
it's obvious that joy abounds in this photo.

It can't be a coincidence that inquiries into horse happiness quotients come at the height of the overabundance of horses on the market and the flooding of rescues with unwanted animals, many of which are perfectly sound but totally useless to their last owners of record.  Their uselessness could well be nothing of their own making.  Back to my theory, if a horse is unhappy, and his owner is unable to figure that out, there's going to be conflict.  And horses have memories.  Loooooong memories.  And they weigh a lot.   As my shoer always says, "Why would you piss off something that weighs a thousand pounds and can remember what you did?"  Point made.

There was a bit of confusion a few years ago about whether "mouthing" was a good or a bad sign.  The Natural Horsemanship advocates insisted that chewing meant relaxation.  Get that "green light" from your horse, and you know it's safe to move on to the next step in the training process.  But there was another side to the question.  Horse advocates using other means of determining relaxation level (like a cocked hind foot, not in a menacing, "Get away from me before I take your head off" way) decided that chewing was a sign of the lessening of stress.  They argued that pressure from "Natural" training methods was so intense, that the release of that pressure caused the horse to chew in a "OMG!  I'm still alive!" reaction rather than a "Gee! That was totally cool!" one.

As it will, time has passed, and that argument has become moot as technology improved and researchers became able to track heart rates, respiration, muscle heat and tension and so on.  Now it's possible to say definitively that , chewing or not, a horse whose respiration and heart rate remain within normal ranges are happier than those having a panic attack at the prospect of whatever it is their rider/trainer is asking of them.  And to make life easier for the rest of us, they created a wikisite (you know how I usually love those, but this is an exception to my No Wiki rule) that allows riders/owners/trainers to actually see horses in varying conditions of happiness and unhappiness and to submit videos of their own.  I'm going to credit the researchers at Nottingham Trent University with the wisdom to determine the veracity of the vids that are submitted and do a reasonably intelligent assessment thereof.

In fact, I will go out on a limb and actually "like" their Facebook page.  From what I've seen, these folks actually do get the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment, which is huge in the non-psychology-trained tribes.  I've spent many an hour trying to explain this.  They do a fine job without resorting to epithets and gin chasers.

And while you're about it, try their Ridden Horse Behavior blog.  I'm fascinated by the way they've applied human psychological constructs to equine behavior.  Very cool.  In fact, stop reading this and go there now.  Make a cup of tea first, as you're going to be there a while.

Happy Horses Make Happy Horsemen!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fewer Horse Owners

ARTICLE:  AVMA statistics: Horse ownership is down, and so are veterinarians’ visits

I doubt that this is news to horse people, and anyone else probably won't care.  But the future of the horse business depends on all of us involved in the business taking these stats seriously.

Can't believe it?  Does it seem to you that it's counter-intuitive that everyone in the world doesn't want a thousand-pound pet that costs more to keep than most colleges charge in tuition?  Do you honestly believe that we need to push more innocents into the fray so that they, too, can experience the joy of riding...and the depression that comes with the realization that "something has to be done" about Sparkles because Daddy lost his job and Mommy hasn't got time to take kids to the barn?

Zip's first day on earth

The idyllic scene in this artistically doctored photo of my Zip and his mom, Pokey (that's me as a mere child of...uh...fewer years) is the sort of thing horse people love to pass around.  It makes the whole horse thing seem so pleasant and spiritual that even the strongest will is hard pressed to walk away from the sale barn without a lead rope in hand.

But the fabulous day following Zip's foaling was only Day One of what has now been nearly 17 years of Zipdom, with many more yet to follow. With luck, we're only halfway through his projected lifespan.  In that time, I've spent more on board, tack, feed, lessons, training, more lessons, books to help figure why the training and lessons aren't working, vet care, more vet care, even more vet care, and a farm than on any other area of my life.  And the pregnant Pokey wasn't my first buy, so I already knew that I was insane and shouldn't have been allowed to talk to a horse dealer under any circumstances without heavy medication.

Now the numbers are in, and though a fraction of a percent seems like a minuscule number, in the real world it translates to 300,000+ fewer horse-owning households and over a million fewer horses in this country over a five year period.

Yes, we need to ask quietly where all those horses went, and we know we'll be happy when the answer is that they got old and died, and that we'll be unhappy when the answer is that they went to auction, to slaughter, or just went away and we don't know where they are.  So I'm not going to go there in this  post.

I'm going to go to the place where folks have bought horses thinking they'll breed them and sell a baby every year to help make ends meet in their horse lives.  I'm also going to the place where the breed associations need to stop offering premiums to folks who breed nice horses.  It's time for those owners to get a clue that they're not helping the situation, and for those associations to give back to their memberships by supporting sanity, not just pandering to the breeders they represent.

Look, nice horses will find a market.  It might not be a big, high-dollar market every time for all of them, but there will always be someone who will want to own a pretty, well-conformed, healthy and well-trained horse.  Not everyone is tanking right now.  And the breeding of horses is expensive because it's such a crap shoot.  The same mare/stallion coupling can produce a variety of outcomes, some good, some not.  I think it's time that the not-so-good get their day in the sun too.

Perfect conformation isn't everything.  In fact, it isn't necessarily anything much.  As long as there isn't a disastrous malformation, most horses are fine with what they're dealt.  It's up to us owners to work within the parameters available and stop forcing preconceived notions on the poor animals.  More knowledgeable buyers would have passed over my daughter's best horse, the one with the missing papers and the odd knees and the withers from hell who won dozens of ribbons over fences and on the flat and was her best friend for sixteen years.  And no one would have looked twice at my mare with the stiff lower back who had to be leaned against a wall for hoof trims lest she fall over, but who took me on hundreds of miles of trails and in and out of the show pen with ribbons to show for our efforts.  It's the owners and breed associations and show committees who put so much stock in perfection who need to think hard about their contribution.

Competition is a major force in the horse world. Shows, races, derbies, what have you are what drive people to continually buy better and better horses, and that, in turn, drives the breeders and all the other associated businesses.  But what if there were fewer conformation classes? What if there were just performance classes at the lower levels?  Is it really necessary for kids to start their horse lives by learning how to pose their horse for the judge?  Is an over-at-the-knee animal such a horrible thing to own that a Horse Show Parent won't even consider it despite the possibility that it's an awesome critter with tons of heart and years of pleasure to give to their child?

I know some of you reading this are cringing at the thought of doing away with a part of what you're used to in the horse biz.  But a small change sometimes has large effects, and this might just save the lives of a lot of horses and the horse lives of a lot of young riders whose parents couldn't on their best day afford that "perfect" horse.  I think we're incredibly lucky that horses aren't out searching for the perfect human. Most of us would be in sanctuaries by  now.

I'm no big mucky-muck (pun intended *snort!*) in the horse world, and no one asked my opinion. So I'm just throwing this idea out there.  If someone muckier than I picks it up and does something with it, well, I think something good might happen.

Peace out.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Bird-X Horse Expeller!

My barn is overrun by house sparrows.  In birder parlance, they're "HOSP's", and they're to be feared, dreaded, and done away with whenever possible.  I know my animal-friendly readers are probably vibrating and chirping with anger at the thought of getting rid of anything that breathes, so let me explain.

HOSP's are not your grandmother's birds.  Back around 1850 or so, some English gent, homesick for the Motherland, brought 60 house sparrows back to New York City after a visit home.  Little did he know that HOSP's are the kudzu of the animal world.  I didn't now it either until I noticed that I was seeing a dearth of bluebirds, killdeer, tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, and all the other small avians that  used to populate my barn and yard.  It was a slow change, and I just assumed there was something in the environment--climate change, for instance, reducing suitable titmouse forage--creating the situation.  I didn't know I was harboring criminals.
Birds flee when Wiener Cat enters the barn, but
there are so many of them and so few of her...

I would have continued in my blissful ignorance had the critters not finally reached population overload.  There is nothing more annoying to man or horse than 50 sparrows yelling for breakfast in the morning.  They are loud, raucous, and don't hesitate to attack from above as I'm dumping feed into horse buckets.  It was this aggression that sent me online to find a cure to the bird problem.

 I admit that my first line of defense was more hands-on and personal.  A couple of years ago I spent two hours a day for two solid weeks (until the pop gun finally quit working) chasing the little critters out of the barn.   I was able to scare them out for a full day...only to find them all lined up in front of the door when I went out in the morning to feed.  I couldn't figure out how to let the horses in without opening the door, so score one for the sparrows.

Online I found several options, and I started with the least annoying:  the humane, repeater trap.  This unit was supposed to keep the birds contained, using the earlier trapees to lure the new ones.  In two months we caught exactly three birds.  They only lasted one day in the trap and were dead before we could get to them.  I felt bad.  One had its head ripped off, so I assumed we'd left them prey to some raccoon or something.


I launched a more in-depth search of not only the commercial anti-bird device sites, but the birding sites as well.  That's when I learned the truth.  Odds are those little guys had killed each other, right down to the beheading of their fellow.  It's what HOSP's do.  They do it to each other and to other birds.  They will go so far as to trap a bluebird in a bird house, shred him, kill the babies, eat the eggs, then take over the nest.  Horrible little invasive species, they are!

So armed with new knowledge I bought a better, guaranteed repeater trap and one of these:

BirdXPeller PRO
This is a Bird-X Pro bird expeller.  It makes the sound of birds in distress (eight different species) and predator birds (three species), and it's supposed to scare the birds away.

It did, for one day.  The next day they were back, so I cranked up the number of species it was imitating.  Day two the birds were unruffled.

On day three, however, all hell broke loose, not among the birds, but among the horses.  The Bird-X was located in the barn loft as per instructions.  Not a good plan.  By the third day, Duke had had enough and refused to enter the barn at all.  He also refused to let Leo, the BFF he's sworn a blood oath to protect, into the barn.  The other horses, bigger and less easily scared, entered, but at least three of them had a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.

So, I'm here to report that the Bird-X Pro is not suitable for use in horse barns unless your horses are far more laconic than my geriatric herd.  If you want to give it a try anyway, it's available from Sears online cheaper than anywhere else, so go for it.  I'd be delighted to hear that someone came up with a plan that truly rids the barn of HOSP's.

Meanwhile, the newest trap--hand-built on order by Uncle Blaine-- is in habituation mode, and I'm biding my time, anxiously awaiting the return of the only deterrent that has ever consistently and effectively chased these little brown hellions away:  Barn Swallows.  The sparrows are known to kill field swallows, but they are impotent against the onslaught of my beloved barn swallows who make no noise, no mess, and keep the insect population at bay all summer long.

My final word to bird lovers:  Don't feed the sparrows!  Look around your yards, and if you don't see bluebirds, robins, and other small birds, you've entered HOSP Hell.  Yeah, I know...sparrows need love too.  You are welcome to come and get mine and shower them with affection at your house.  Please.