Sunday, March 19, 2017

Here's how to use alfalfa in your horse's diet


Horses need forage and lots of it. If you buy hay, you have a choice between grass hay and alfalfa hay. At certain times and places, you may also have the option of a grass/alfalfa mix. Here’s how to make sense of these options.

Different plants. First understand that grass and alfalfa have different properties because they are different plants. Grass is … well, grass. Alfalfa is a legume in the same class as clover and soybeans. Compared to grass, alfalfa has more calories per pound (i.e., it is more “calorie dense”), more minerals (especially calcium), and more protein. Digesting alfalfa generates more body heat so your horse will be hotter in the thermal sense when he gets alfalfa. He may also be hotter in the behavioral sense because he will have more energy from the extra calories. This seems to be especially true for horses that are already hyperactive by nature. Horses find alfalfa more palatable than grass and will always eat it first if given both.  

How to use alfalfa. The default forage for horses is grass. You should have a reason to feed alfalfa. Think of it as higher-octane fuel for your horse. If your horse stays outside in very cold weather, you can feed alfalfa to help him stay warmer. If your horse expends a lot of energy and breaks down a lot of muscle tissue in his training or daily work, alfalfa is a good choice as the primary forage because of its higher levels of calories and protein. For horses with a medium work load, a combination of grass and alfalfa – either grown together as a mixed forage or purchased separately – works well. By the way, feeding too much alfalfa will not burn up a horse’s kidneys. This is a myth. In the words of equine consultant, Patrick Cassady, you’ll just get “more sweat, more urine, and sometimes more attitude.”

Alfalfa and ulcers. Alfalfa can help if your horse has stomach ulcers because of its higher calcium content. Calcium is an antacid; it buffers stomach acid. However, the main management strategy with ulcers, both in their treatment and prevention, is to have regular forage feedings throughout the day. The exact combination of grass and alfalfa hay that works best for your horse is for you to figure out as you monitor his behavior and body condition. If you do need to make a change, for any reason, be sure to do it gradually. Take a week to 10 days and give the beneficial bacteria in the hindgut time to adapt to the changes in their environment.

When not to feed alfalfa. Some serious horsemen feed nothing but alfalfa to their horses and seem to have no problems. However, there are still some good guidelines to observe. Feeding alfalfa to a hard-working horse in hot weather can lead to excessive sweating and overheating. This is a good time to switch to a grass hay and an alternative source of calories, such as a modern low-starch mix. If a horse has too much energy for its rider to handle, alfalfa is not the right choice for forage. Finally, be very careful about feeding cattle-grade alfalfa to horses. Cattle-grade alfalfa is typically coarser and more difficult for the horse to process. More important, it may contain mold, which is fine for cattle but can be deadly for horses. Always keep in mind that horses and cattle have very different digestive systems. If you buy alfalfa, make sure it is meant for horses.

Final thought. Alfalfa is an important tool in the equine diet. Don’t be afraid to use it. Just be sure you’re making the best possible deal for your horse when you do.

Special thanks to Patrick (Pat) Cassady, equine consultant for ADM Animal Nutrition, for his input on this article. If you found it useful, please like, share, and comment.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Your horse probably has ulcers. Here's what to do.

The majority of domestic horses have stomach ulcers. So odds are good that your horse does, too. It’s not a big mystery as to why this happens and it is avoidable.

The stats.  There are two common stats you see: 60% of performance horses and 90% of race horses have ulcers. A veterinary friend of mine refers to university studies concluding that 80% of all adult domestic horses have ulcers. Even foals can have ulcers. Often there are no external signs that a horse has ulcers and the only way to be certain is to look at the stomach lining using endoscopy. Before you can deal with your horse's ulcers, you need to understand why they happen. 

Natural eating. Horses are grazing animals. They are designed to take in small amounts of forage continually and their stomachs generate gastric acid continually to initiate digestion. Acid is generated in the lower part of the stomach, which has a glandular lining tough enough to withstand direct contact with acid. Forage in the stomach mats up and absorbs acid. Saliva generated by chewing coats the stomach wall and has a buffering effect on the acid, as does the calcium present in the forage. As long as a horse is grazing, he’s okay.

Enter domestication. Many things about the horse’s natural life are changed by living with humans: his freedom of movement, his social life, his eating patterns. Feeding twice a day has become a tradition, along with the use of simple carbohydrates in the form of grain to provide energy.

The empty stomach. The twice-a-day feeding practice results in long periods – hours at a time – when the horse’s stomach is empty. This is when ulcers get started. Acid is still being generated but there is nothing in the stomach to absorb or buffer it. The pH of the stomach becomes very acidic. When the horse moves around, the acid accumulating in the lower stomach splashes onto the wall of the upper stomach, which has a different, more fragile lining. The chemical burns that result are ulcers. In extreme cases, the gastric acid can score tracks in the stomach lining as it runs down the wall. The endoscopic image above shows this clearly.

Outward signs of ulcers. What’s incredible is that horses can cope with ulcers at all. But they do and we may not even know ulcers are present until there is some outward change in behavior. Horses may show signs of pain. They may stop eating and drinking. They may not give their all in performance. These outward signs often become visible when the horse is put in stressful situations.

The vicious cycle. Stress sets in motion a vicious cycle the horse can’t handle.  Stress causes an increase in production of gastric acid and a lessened desire to eat and drink. Without food coming into the stomach, the increased flow of acid results in increased burning of the upper stomach wall. The discomfort this burning produces causes more stress and the cycle continues.

What to do. If your horse has been diagnosed with ulcers, your vet may prescribe omeprazole to inhibit production of acid.  Non-prescription natural products are also available that help by balancing stomach pH.  These can provide relief from the discomfort of ulcers and set up the conditions under which damaged tissue can begin to heal. The same medications can be used in lower doses as a preventive strategy. However, a more natural diet is the real solution. The key thing is to feed more forage more often. The ideal is full-time pasture turnout. The next best thing is free choice hay. After that, a slow hay feeder is a good choice. At the very least, you need to give your horse an additional forage feeding in the middle of the day. Note that there are challenges with some of these strategies. For example, you have to be careful with full-time pasture turnout during periods of warm days and cool nights. It’s also possible that your horse will become obese if allowed to eat all the time. The bottom line is that managing your horse’s diet requires paying attention and making adjustments as needed.

The rest of his diet. Forage must be the basis of the diet. But no forage contains all the vitamins and minerals a horse needs, so you'll need a supplement. Look for low-starch mixes. Avoid grain entirely. Overuse of grain sets the horse up for many problems, including ulcers. Modern low-starch mixes, whether vitamin/mineral supplements or complete fortified feeds, have all the advantages of grain and none of the dangers.

Final thoughts. We can’t make the lives of our domestic horses exactly like those of their wild cousins and we wouldn’t want to. Life in the wild is brutal. However, we can commit to making the way we feed our horses as natural as possible. Even small changes, like adding a third forage feeding per day or hanging a hay bag in addition to the flakes put out at meal time will help. We owe it to our horses to make the effort. Fortunately, it's easy to learn about this aspect of horse care. There are many great educational resources online. 

If you found this article helpful, please like, share, and comment.    

Friday, March 17, 2017

Cure for the Cinchy Horse

If your horse bites or threatens to bite or even swings his head around in a threatening manner when you tighten his cinch strap, you’ve got a problem. Today you learn a simple fix that requires no equipment and works every time.

How to start. Stand in the usual position, facing the near side of the horse, right hand on the latigo strap, left arm crooked slightly so your elbow is pointing in the direction of the horse’s head. Tighten the cinch a little at a time, always while the horse is exhaling (Parelli style).

What to do. If your swings his head around, the first part of your body he’ll encounter is the point of your elbow, the hardest part of your body. If that alone doesn’t deter him, you can flap your arm like you were having a muscle spasm.  Practice this right now. It’s amazing how quickly you can move your elbow, far more quickly than you could jump out of the way or raise your hand to the horse. Before long, you will instinctively flap your arm when you pick up head movement in your peripheral vision.

Your attitude. Other than flapping your elbow, don’t react at all to what your horse has done. Remain relaxed and focused on the cinching as if nothing happened. If he comes around again, flap your arm again. If he’s persistent, you may have to adopt an animated style of cinching where your left arm is flapping almost continually. Once the problem goes away, you can go back to being calm and quiet during cinching, occasionally reassuring your horse with a touch or soft word.

Why it works. Your horse experiences an unpleasant (but not painful) consequence to the action that he chose to take. In a scientific sense this is called punishment, but don’t get hung up on the word. It’s unpleasant to him because 1) it surprises him, 2) if he makes contact with your elbow, it is a bit uncomfortable, and 3) he finds himself moving into commotion or energy. It also gains him nothing because you kept right on with what you were doing as if nothing happened. He will try again but it will be with less enthusiasm. Finally, he’ll just give up.

Where I got it. I saw a video clip once in which Tom Dorrance was demonstrating this technique using a dowel rod tucked under his arm. I found I could accomplishment the same thing with my elbow. However, if you don’t feel safe using your elbow, use a dowel rod or training stick or anything else that’s handy. The important thing is that you have something sturdy between you and the horse’s head.

Why it’s good. The big advantage of this technique is that the horse doesn’t realize that the punishment has come from you. He believes he did it to himself. Some of the best old-time training techniques were like this. I like this sort of technique because it cures a dangerous behavior without putting the relationship at risk.

Before you start. There’s always a chance that the horse has a medical issue that is causing him pain when you tighten the cinch. Examine the girth area and call your vet if you see or feel anything unusual.

If you found this article helpful, please like, share and comment. Thanks! 

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Sad Truth about Negative Reinforcement

You love your horse. Why in the world would you use negative reinforcement in his training? It sounds horrible!

Yes, it does, which is too bad because negative reinforcement isn’t horrible at all. In fact, you are probably already using it. The worst thing about negative reinforcement is its name. But more on that later.

Here’s the real meaning of negative reinforcement: rewarding a desirable response by removing an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus. Read that sentence again. “Negative” means a stimulus is removed. “Reinforcement” means that the horse sees this as a reward. Negative reinforcement is used to increase the likelihood that a given behavior will be repeated.

In plain old English, it’s what we call pressure and release training. Any time a trainer puts pressure on a horse and releases the pressure when the horse gives an acceptable try, the trainer is using negative reinforcement.

But back to the name. Negative reinforcement is a scientific term coined by American psychologist, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner used the labels “positive” and “negative” because they invoked the ideas of adding and subtracting stimuli in response to behavior demonstrated by a subject.

Negative reinforcement has an identity crisis today because the public doesn’t use positive and negative this way. To us, these words are synonymous with good and bad. We say, “She has a positive attitude” or, “The movie got negative reviews.”

It is truly ironic that Skinner’s naming convention made it seem like rewarding the horse was really punishing him. This is an epic fail! It’s also a bit sad. Skinner was absolutely brilliant and is considered the father of Behaviorism, one of the big three learning theories of the 20th century. But words matter and he was a lousy wordsmith.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Your Horse Doesn't Love You. Get Over It!

Your horse doesn’t love you. 

Them’s fightin’ words to some people. Now, I’m not saying that’s you, but since you’re here, let me lay this out for you. There’s a point to this, I promise.

We all know that there are different senses of the word “love” in English. I can say I love ice cream and I love horses and you wouldn’t be confused by either statement. Get out of our shared culture and there is more opportunity for misunderstanding. I would be very careful how I talked about loving all things equine when ordering in certain European restaurants. It only gets worse when we try to translate a nuanced concept to another human language, and it’s a complete disaster in inter-species communication.

The human and the equine are as opposite as can be. Dr. Miller and I coined the terms “ultimate predator” and “ultimate prey animal” back in 2004 to drive this point home. That a relationship of any kind can exist between these two polar opposites in the animal kingdom is amazing on its face. That this relationship can be taken to the highest levels of mutual trust, respect, and communication is … is … well, it’s why I’m writing this and you’re reading it.

Why can’t we use “love” to describe how a horse feels about his human partner? Two words: It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it feeds the notion that the same thought processes and mental structures are in a horse’s noggin as in yours. Your horse has a more primitive brain than you. He lives in the moment. He has no principles or values. His perceptions of the world around him are those of a highly successful prey animal. His first instinct when there is any question about his safety is to move his feet. Yes, you can train him to look to you for leadership when he’s worried, but the instinct to survive at all costs remains. Every horse is capable of spooking and running right over anything in its path, including you. Your belief that he loves you won’t stop that.

Now think for a moment about your essential nature. Humans are tool users. Our hands, not our feet, are our first lines of defense. We can imagine things we haven’t seen, we think about the future, we have the capacity to read and write, we have empathy, and we can reason. And since I brought it up, is it reasonable to think that this already-complicated concept of love that occupies our thoughts can also exist in the horse’s very different mind? Hmmm?

So, if it’s not love, what exactly does your horse feel when he’s around you? When he bats those big brown eyes, when he nuzzles you, when he nickers at the sound of your footsteps approaching? He feels safe. That’s it. He may like what happens when you’re around. He gets fed or brushed or ridden. But none of that would matter a whit if he didn’t feel safe. Pat Parelli used to say that a horse’s priorities are safety, comfort, and play (food has since been added to the list). Safety is first for a reason. It’s more important than you.

This truth may stick in the craw. You may fear it will ruin what you love about horses. Take a deep breath. Accepting this essential truth about horses is a rite of passage on the horseman’s journey, and you know what? It won’t change a thing for you. Horses will still be wonderful and they’ll still be the most perfect vehicle for human fulfillment and self-actualization that has ever existed on God’s green earth.

You love your horse? I’m happy for you. Really! Just don’t tell me your horse loves you back. Because he doesn’t.   

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Five Tips for Needle-Shy Horses

Sooner or later you’ll have to give your horse an injection. Yikes! You can do it and here are five tips to make it easier. The first four apply to any horse and the last one is especially for the horse that has developed a phobia about injections.

Visualize success. Horses take all kinds of cues from us. If you’re nervous about giving injections, your horse will pick that up and reflect it right back at you, which, of course, will make you more nervous. The solution is to not act nervous. You do this using positive visualization. Put a vivid picture in your mind of giving the injection calmly and your horse accepting it calmly.  Note that I said vivid.  Imagine how this experience looks, how it feels, how it sounds, even how it smells. The more senses you involve in visualization, the more effective it becomes. You’ll know you’ve done this enough when the first picture that comes to mind when you think about giving the injection is this positive picture. It’s almost like you’re remembering something that really happened. In fact, in a nutshell, that’s why this works. You’re programming your subconscious mind.

Desensitize injection site. First, let’s be clear that I’m talking about intramuscular injections, not intravenous injections. IM injections such as vaccinations or antibiotic shots need to go in a large muscle. Some people prefer to inject in the middle part of the large neck muscle a couple inches forward of the shoulder blade. The skin here is loose, so you can pinch it and create a little numbness in the area. Inject at the base of the pinched area and rub it when you’re through. All better!

Other people prefer the butt area for injections. As a reference, think halfway between the top of the tail and the point of the hip, and four inches off the center line. Anywhere in this general area is fine. The skin is tighter here so you’ll desensitize by thumping firmly with rhythm - one, two three - and injecting on the fourth beat. I’m going through this quickly because there are several YouTube videos where you can see techniques for injecting in the neck or butt. These videos also show how you load the syringe, get rid of air, and back the plunger slightly after injecting to be sure you don’t see any blood. Do all that stuff.

Safety position. In the positive visualization I mentioned earlier, be sure you visualize standing in a safe position. If you’re injecting in the neck, I recommend facing the side of the horse so your left elbow can come up quickly if your horse swings his head around. This is the same position I recommend for the cinchy horse. In either case, when the horse makes an aggressive move toward you, he runs into the point of your elbow, the hardest part of your body. He teaches himself that’s not a good idea! If he’s tied or his lead rope is being held by a helper, having your elbow at the ready isn’t as important but it’s still a good habit to develop. For injecting in the rear end, face the rear but stand as far to the front of the horse as you can, and  and lean toward his butt. This makes it harder for the horse to “cow kick” you. Again, see the YouTube videos if this isn’t clear.

Jabbing. This may be counterintuitive, but you need to inject with a bit of a jab. Don’t belabor this part. Just stick it in and move on! Remember, you’re acting like this is no big deal. You’ve been rubbing, pinching, thumping or otherwise desensitizing the area. If the horse does feel a prick, it’s over so quickly he thinks nothing of it, especially when you don’t telegraph that it’s coming..

The needle-shy horse. Okay, here’s that special technique I promised for the needle-shy horse. Do all of the above. That’s it. That’s the fix. Pay really special attention to how you act around the horse. Remember, you are the calm, confident, highly experienced horseman your horse dreams about. This is just another day at the office for you. There is nothing the horse can do that will surprise, frighten, or hurt you. You have your syringe ready, you’re in the correct position, you’ve been touching the horse and projecting your own calmness on him. Giving that injection is just another task on your to-do list.

You want something more? Okay, spend a little more time on the desensitizing. Rub, brush, scratch, pinch, inject, rub, brush, scratch, pinch, and so on. More? Go through the whole thing with a dummy syringe (no needle) before you use the real one. This is totally about you getting comfortable with a procedure that is really not that big a deal to the horse.  

Three Tricks for Better Behavior at Feeding Time

Horses love food. I can relate! But too often a horse’s behavior becomes annoying or even dangerous when he’s obsessed about eating. Here are three tricks I’ve found that transform a horse’s behavior at feeding time. I call them tricks because they work like magic. By the way, these aren’t all that advanced but they’re not for beginners, either.

Back before eating. Backing isn’t natural for a horse. Psychologically and physiologically, he’s a forward animal. But you’re going to teach him to back away from food upon your command. Teach this with your horse in a rope halter and lead rope so you have some control. Bring him to his feed and make sure he sees it. Now ask him to back up. You’ll need to use the standard natural horsemanship techniques of pressure and release, rewarding the slightest try and progressively raising your expectations. When you get something you can reward, you will not only stop asking but also invite him forward to eat. Yippee. Some horses catch on to this game so quickly they will start anticipating your cue and backing away from the food before you’ve asked. If that happens, do nothing until he stops backing. Then ask him to back some more and reward with feeding. Our Icelandic Horse, Fidla, would start backing when she saw us coming toward the barn. It was like she was saying, “See? See? Can I eat now, already?”

Pretend you don’t want it. This is a little game I’ve taught several horses. But I need to reiterate that this is not for beginners. Hand-feeding treats is a good way to get hurt if you haven’t established boundaries of space and behavior with your horse. So don’t attempt this unless you are absolutely certain you can do it safely. Start with your horse in a halter and lead rope. Stand a few feet in front of him. Make sure he knows you have a treat and is looking directly at you. Then say, “pretend you don’t want it.” At first, he won’t know what you mean, so you may have to say it again, and again. At some point, however, he will move his head slightly to one side or the other. It’s just a random movement. Instantly praise him and give him the treat. Try it again. He may get worse before he gets better, but eventually he will respond by turning completely away from you, just like he’s saying, “Take it away; I’m not interested.” Again, he is showing a willingness to put responding to your request above his primal desire to eat. By the way, don’t repeat this trick too many times. A rookie mistake is to keep repeating something until the horse fails or refuses. Don’t be that guy. Look for a good place to end as soon as he gets the hang of it. When you stop on a good note, your horse will likely be better next time.

Vary feeding time. What happens when a horse gets used to being fed at precisely the same times each day? Right! He freaks out if you’re even a few minutes late. So don’t be so predictable! Vary the time by up to two hours. If you normally feed at 6 am, make it 6:45 or 7:58 some days. He’ll get used to it, I promise. And remember, multiple small feedings throughout the day are healthier than two big feedings. There’s a bonus to this strategy, by the way. You have more flexibility in your own schedule. You can actually finish dessert before leaving the restaurant with that apologetic, “Sorry, I have to feed!”

Final thought. Food is a powerful motivator for horses. Yes, a horse can be taught without the use of food rewards. No, you can’t always get a treat to a horse at the right moment to reinforce his behavior. But food is still useful in training because it is completely unambiguous to the horse. He doesn’t have to wonder if you’re really happy with him. If you give him food, life is good.