Horses, Ponies and Donkeys


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News and Research: Horses, Ponies and Donkeys

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  •  Henry Bracken's 'Farriery Improved, or a Compleat Treatise upon the Art of Farriery': A milestone in equine veterinary medicine
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    Horses can learn to touch symbols to communicate their preferences

    Trained horses can tell people what they want by using symbols


    Source: Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete H.M. Jørgensen, Knut E. Bøel
    Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2016.07.014

    Trained horses can tell people what they want by touching symbols. An experiment has involved teaching 23 horses the meaning of three symbols and how to use them by using a ten-step method based on operant conditioning. The horses learnt to go to a symbol board and touch a symbol, as well as the meaning of the three symbols. One symbol represented ‘no change’, a second ‘blanket off’, and a third symbol represented ‘blanket on’. All of the 23 horses had learnt how to do the task by 14 days, with some horses learning faster than others.The experimenters then tested the horses when it was wet and windy, and when it was sunny. The horses usually chose to keep on a blanket, if they were already wearing one, by signaling ‘no change’, or have one put on when the weather was bad. If it was sunny, they chose to have a blanket taken off, or touched the symbol meaning ‘no change’, if they weren’t wearing one. This indicates that the horses knew what consequences their choices would have, and that they could tell a human what they wanted by touching symbols.These were ordinary horses of different breeds and ages, and their ability to learn to use symbols shows that using two-dimensional symbols could be a useful new way to communicate with horses about their preferences.


    Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans.

    Horses can use gestures to tell humans what they want

    Rachele Malavasi and Ludwig Huber
    Animal Cognition vol 19 no 5, September 2016 pp 899-909

    Referential communication means using gestures of a type to indicate to another animal what role it should play in helping the sender to achieve something, for example, by indicating an object to let the recipient know what the sender wants. If the recipient gets the message, both parties look at the object in question. This experiment studied the ability of horses to tell humans about an object the horse wanted, which was a bucket containing food that the horse could not reach.

    The experimenter changed their position in four ways, facing the horse, back to the horse, walking away, and facing the horse with other human helpers nearby. These indicated differences in the attention of the experimenter. Horses showed the highest rate of gaze alternation when they and the experimenters were facing one another. When the experimenter walked away, or had their back to the horse, gaze alternation was lessened, and the horses made fewer pointing and head gestures like nods and shakes. The horses also walked to and touched the experimenter when visual communication failed.

    This study shows that horses can use referential gestures to gain a human’s attention to obtain a resource that the horse cannot reach Dogs are able to do this, but this study is the first to show that horses have such capabilities.
    HO, BT


    Pair-bonding and companion recognition in domestic donkeys, Equus asinus

    Donkeys like to be with a friend

    Source: L.M.A. Murray, K. Byrne, R.B. D’Eath
    Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 143 no 1, January 15 2013, pp 67-74.

    Pair bonding is common when animals are kin, or courting, and this has been studied a lot, but there has been less work on social pair bonding between unrelated animals with no sexual motivation. It is easier for such bonds to develop when animals recognize their companions. This study aimed to investigate social pair bonding in unrelated domestic donkeys, and to see whether the donkeys could recognize their companions in a recognition test involving a Y maze.

    The study involved 55 donkeys at the Scottish Borders Donkey Sanctuary, some of which had arrived with a companion, and they and their companion were kept together. Others had arrived alone. Many had been family pets. There were 38 gelded males and 17 females kept in seven groups, either same sex or mixed, each group comprising from 4 to 14 individuals. Observations on each donkey’s nearest neighbour were made three times daily for 22-days. Forty two of the donkeys, or 79.2 %, showed a preference for being with another individual donkey, and the relationships were mostly reciprocal. Twenty-four (12 pairs) of these 42 donkeys then took part in a Y-maze recognition test, where they had to choose between being with their usual companion, and a donkey they were familiar with from the same group, or a donkey they were not familiar with from another group. Where the donkeys stood indicated that they preferred being with their companion rather than a familiar donkey.

    Some donkeys that did not bond with another had only recently arrived, so may not have had time to develop a friendship. Other loners had spent a long time at the sanctuary, and previous friendships may have been disrupted by new arrivals, though these donkeys may have just preferred to be alone, or not found a companion they got on with. This study backs accounts by donkey-handlers of pair bonds between donkeys, which are based on reciprocal social preference and the ability to recognize companions. These findings are important for people caring for donkeys, because keeping pairs together is good for their physical and psychological welfare.


    Misbehaviour in pony club horses: incidence and risk factors

    Fatter Pony Club horses are more likely to misbehave

    Source: P. Buckley, J.M. Morton, D.J. Buckley, and G.T. Coleman
    Equine Veterinary Journal vol 45 no 1, January 2013, pp 9-14

     When Pony Club horses misbehave, this can affect their performance, as well as causing injuries, which are more likely to be serious when children are riding. Misbehaviour may also be linked to musculoskeletal pain. This study aimed to investigate how often misbehaviour happens, what it consists of, and what the risk factors might be. The study involved 84 Pony Club horses belonging to 41 families who were members of seven Pony Clubs in a region of inland Australia. The families kept records of when horses misbehaved, and a daily diary with details of the horse’s housing, exercise, nutrition, illnesses, and healthcare. The horses were also examined every month by a vet.

    Fifty horses of the 84 misbehaved at least once during the study, which lasted 14 months. There was misbehavior while horses were being ridden on 3% of the days they were ridden. The misbehaviour was rated dangerous on 52% of days when misbehavior happened. Risk of misbehaviour was higher when the horse was competing, and on exercise days. It was also higher when the horse was fat, fed a daily supplementary feed, grazed on lusher pasture, exercised only 5 days a month or less. Misbehaviour did not appear to be related to back pain.

    Equine body condition, exercise and nutrition appear to be important factors to take into account when investigating misbehaviour. Vets could use these results to make recommendations to prevent equine misbehavior.


    Leopard horses lived in the Stone Age

    Black spotted horses may have lived in Stone Age

    source: New Scientist vol 212, no 2838, November 12 2011 p19

    Black spotted horses may have lived in the Stone Age, rather than being a recent variant. They are depicted in murals in caves at Peche-Merle, France. Arne Ludwig from Germany's Leibniz University, Berlin, found pigment genes producing spotted patterns in horses when he analysed ancient European horse DNA.


    Worth a bet

    Genetic basis of speed in racehorses

    source: Anthony King
    New Scientist vol 210 no 2818, June 25 2011 starts p40, 2 pages long

    Horse genetic studies are making new progress, though thoroughbreds have long been selected for strength and speed. Hill's test examines the myostatin gene, that curtails muscle development. Mutations preventing the gene functioning can lead to muscly animals. Emmeline Hill's team at Dublin's University College found two basis in myostatin genes, thymin (T) and cytostine (C), giving three possible combinations, T/T, C/T, and C/C, from their two copies of the gene. T/T horses tend to perfom better in long races, and C/C horses are better sprinters. Training and management are also important, but new research is likely to help breeders produce successful horses.


    Can an introduced species ever be considered native?

    Debate on the protection of American wild horses

    source: Bob Holmes
    New Scientist vol 210 no 2817, June 18 2011 p14

    Wild horses are found in the western states of the USA. Animal rights groups claim that the horses should not be removed to make space for cattle farming. The federal court case could affect treatment of these horses on federal lands. Horses evolved in North America, but became extinct there aound 10,000 years ago. Wild horses found in the US today descended from European domesticated horses. Modern horses appear to be longer legged and taller than their ancestors, judging by cave paintings. Domestication tends to reduce brain size, though the reduction is smaller in horses, which also develop structured social systems and thrive in a feral state. They may merit protection whether or not they are defined as native.


    Mighty mules are no dumb donkeys

    Hybrid vigour gives mules greater intelligence

    source: New Scientist vol 199 no 2667, 2 August 2008  p19

    Mules have proved more successful than donkeys and horses at learning which of two buckets to select to obtain food. Mules learnt more symbol pairs and did better in terms of consistency, according to University of Sussex's Leanne Proops. She argues that their better cognitive skills are the result of hybrid vigour, which means that offspring may be fitter than either parent.


    Earliest evidence of humans on horses

    New evidence dates domestication of horses to as early as 3500 BC

    source:New Scientist 14 March 2009 vol 201 no 2699 p14

    New evidence of early horse domestication has been found by Alan Outram and his team from the University of Essex, England. The team has discovered horse bones in four settlements of the Botai people in Kazakhstan. The bones have been dated to 3500 BC, 1000 years earlier than the previous earliest findings. Studies of the horses' teeth show wear of a kind indicating usage of bridles and bits. The team has also discovered equine milk fat traces on Botai pottery containers, which means that the Botai probably milked mares.


    Man's best friend

    History and characteristics of Icelandic horses

    source: Wendy Findlay
    Country Smallholding December 2003
    starts p36, 2 pages long

    Icelandic horses were once the main mode of transport, and they are now popular for riding and trekking tours. They are typically between 12.2 and 13.2 hands high, stocky and deep-chested. Any colour is acceptable, except for appaloosa. Their manes and tails are bushy and long, and they have double coats in winter.

    An unusual characteristic of Icelandic horses is that they can do five gaits, two more than the usual walking, trotting and cantering. The first extra gait is the tolt, with four paces, also called a running walk. The order that the legs move in the tolt is like a walk, but the back legs move forwards more, and the forelages are lifted high. The tolt is a smooth gait, which is comfortable for riders. The second extra gait is the skeid, with two beats, similar to a trot, but the legs at one side are moved together, unlike a trot, where the legs move as diagonals. The best Icelandic horses are able to do these five gaits, though not all individuals of this breed can perform them.

    The origin of these horses in Iceland is believed to be through Viking imports, and they may have previously been descended from Celtic ponies, so be related to Exmoors and Shetland ponies, or they may have come from Scandinavia. There was a ban on imports of new horses from 982 AD, and horses leaving Iceland could not go back. This ban holds true for modern times, and there is also strict control of the import of used harness and tack. The result is an almost disease-free Icelandic breed. The demanding environment means that these are versatile and strong horses. They also lack natural predators, so are less likely to flee from living creatures, and are not as spooky as most horses, The hazards they face are rock slides, quicksand, steep tracks, and other environmental hazards, and they tend to assess potential dangers, instead of fleeing.

    Other characteristic of the breed include a tendency to anaemia, which does not appear to cause them harm. They also have a higher level of red muscle fibre, and higher fat levels in their muscle fibre, and are reportedly more efficient at digesting cellulose. These characteristics may account for their great stamina.

    There are some 80,000 Icelandic horses, many in free-ranging herds. Foals are usually left with their natal herd up to the age of four. This practice, and the wide ranges of the herds, are said to create fit, spirited, and sure-footed horses.


    Understand your horse

    The importance of understanding equine instincts and horses' natural lifestyles

    source: Wendy Findlay
    Country Smallholding November 2003
    starts p35, 2 pages long

    Horses are still affected by instincts, despite having been domesticated for a long time. Feral, free-ranging herds have hierarchies, with one stallion protecting mares and offspring, while colts have to leave the herd when they are seen by the stallion as a threat, usually when they are one or two-years-old. Feral horses may travel some 50 miles daily, and graze for some 15 hours. They check each other for signals of threats, and their response to apparent threats is usually to flee.

    The lifestyle of feral horses is very different to that of many domesticated horses, which have less space, are often in stables for long periods, and may be given concentrated feeds. Horses kept isolated in stables can get bored, and may develop a range of associated habits, like weaving and crib sucking. Owners can help recreate a more natural lifestyle by providing hay, and feeding horses the same amount of feed, but split so that the horse is fed three or four times daily. A living area that allows social contact between horses also helps, for example, a large barn that opens out onto an area where the horses can graze. There should also be hedges and shrubs to let horses enjoy variety when they forage.

    Humans tend to vocalise to communicate, while body language is more important for horses. Posture, and the position of ears convey messages. Horses may raise their ears forward when they are interested in what they are looking at, or hold their ears back when they dislike something. Fear or excitement are linked to horses showing their eye whites. Muzzles are also used when horses communicate with each other.

    Horses can also recognise humans from their manner, body outline, and smell. It helps to be reassuring, calm, and firm with horses, if we want to get on well with them. They also need to live as naturally as possible, and it's important to remember the strength of a horse's natural instincts.
    HO, BT


    Riding and road safety

    Road safety for horse riders

    source: Wendy Findlay
    Country Smallholding August 2002
    starts p58, 2 pages long

    UK roads have become more dangerous enviroments for horse riders, with more traffic that goes faster than 20 years ago. On average, eight accidents occur daily involving riders, cars and horses.

    The first rule of safety is to be seen, with riders using fluorescent caps and waistcoats, and horses having fluorescent tail guards, leg bands and nose bands.

    The Highway Code and BHS manual on road safety for riders are important sources of help. They advise riders to keep left, and use single file at bends and on narrow roads. Riders should keep left even when about to turn right, rather than standing in the centre of a road, where a horse could panic with traffic on each side. The road can be crossed when it is safe.

    It's important to check it is safe before signaling and turning. Hold your arm straight for some three seconds on the side you wish to turn.

    Riders may ask motorists to go more slowly, espcially if they fear their horse is unsettled. The signal involves slowly moving an outstretched arm up and down while looking at the motorist. Riders can also use their palms to face motorists to ask them to stop. Smiles and nods of thanks help riders get on with motorists.

    It's essential to have enough experience to cope with traffic, or to ride with someone who has this experience. Nervous horses are often calmer if they walk with calm horses. It's best to choose quieter roads at quieter times, and ride in daylight when there is good visibility, using fluorescent equipment even in daylight. Safety hats and stirrups of the right size are also important, and riders should be insured, with third party legal liability.

    Sometimes riders encounter obstacles that can frighten horses, like people using machinery. They have to assess whether retreat and an alternative route is the best option, or whether the machine operator can be persuaded to stop for a while, with a pleading glance. An object in a hedge on the left can be approached turning the horse's head to the right, while using the right leg to ensure he stays at the road side and doesn't swing his quarters out. Riding puroposefully past the object should then be possible. Horses also react better to traffic behind them if they see it first with their right eyes, since a glimpse with a left eye may lead a horse to think the car is approaching on his inside, which may lead him to go into the centre of the road.

    Motorists should always slow when they see horses, and give them plenty of room, being especially considerate of young riders.

    Riders wanting to learn about road safety can get help from the British Horse Society, which runs training programmes and tests.


    The pits for ponies

    History of pit ponies

    source: Justine Hankins
    Guardian Weekend June 29 2002 p97

    Horses were first used in underground mines during the 1700s, and were used throughout the 19th century. Numbers dropped in the 20th century after a peak of 70,000 ponies in 1913. There were 21,000 pit ponies in 1947, when the National Coal Board was established, and only 55 pit ponies by 1984. They ceased to be used in 1999, with the retirement of two ponies from a mine near Pontypool in Wales. John Bright is a writer who collected stories for his book 'Pit Ponies', which came out in 1986. Miners believed that ponies could sense danger before humans could, and this is one reason for the strong affection felt by miners for their equine companions. Both miners and ponies had hard lives. Many ponies lived undergound all year, and only saw the sunshine for a two-week annual holiday. Many miners were pleased to see ponies have a better life, when they were no longer used in the mines, but very much missed their former companions. 


    The Beauty myth

    Background to the story of ‘Black Beauty’

    source: Justine Hankins
    Guardian Weekend May 18 2002 p83

    ‘Black Beauty’ was written by Anna Sewell, and has become a classic children’s book, which is very different from the TV version. The book has lots of tips about caring for horses, while the horse, Black Beauty, makes many moral observations. Sewell wanted to show how badly treated working horses were. She was born to a Quaker family in 1820, and was taught to be kind to animals as part of Quaker ideals. Quakers were involved in 19th century organizations that tried to improve animal welfare. Sewell hurt herself badly when she fell off a horse as a teenager. She finished ‘Black Beauty’ in 1877, and died in 1878. The book was taken up by the RSPCA in Britain, and the Humane Society in the US.

    Sewell wrote about overwork, neglect and cruelty to working horses, though she also understood the problems of poorer people who asked too much of their horses because of their poverty. Cruelty to horses because of vanity of greed angered her more. 


    Crisis-hit farm welcomes its gift zorse

    Foal born of Shetland pony mother and zebra father

    source: Helen Carter
    Guardian June 27 2001 p1

    A black and tan foal born to a Shetland pony at Eden Ostrich World, Langwathby, near Penrith, Cumbria, has unusual stripes, since she was fathered by a circus zebra called Bijou. The zebra had been spending the winter at a wildlife park, in the same field as Tilly, the pony. The wildlife park gave Tilly to Eden Ostrich World, unaware that she was pregnant.

    Zebras only have 44 chromosomes, whereas horses have 64, so these hybrids are very unusual. A female zebra and a male horse are unable to breed. The British Horse Society noted that such hybrids would tend to be like Shetland ponies, but with big ears, stripes, and bad tempers, so they do not recommend creating them deliberately.


    Developments in equine nutrition: comparing the beginning and end of this century

    Developments in equine nutrition: comparing the beginning and end of this century

    source: Patricia A. Harris
    Journal of Nutrition vol 128 no12, December 1998
    starts p2698S, 6 pages long

    Major developments in the nutrition of performance horses are examined, using sources from 1908 and 1927, and comparing them with modern views on equine nutrition. There was little change in views on equine nutrition from the start of the 20th century until the 1960s, because horses had become less important in transport. The rise in their popularity for leisure activities led to a renewed interest in their nutrition from the 1960s.

    There are continuities in feedstuffs used at the start of the 20th century and today, such as oats, lucerne, barley, maize and linseed, though today linseed has tended to be replaced by soy. Mung, urad and kulthi were also fed in 1908, and boiled fish stock was fed to Norwegian stock. Icelandic ponies today may eat herring, but generally the modern view is that horses and other herbivores should not eat feed derived from animals.

    Modern developments include manufactured commercial feeds, and supplementary fat, which is fed to many modern performance horses. Salt supplements are also a new development.

    There has been more effort to express the energy content of feedstuff as time has gone by, but there is still a debate today on the role of fibre in equine nutrition, and its energy value. More research is also called for on the needs of horses at different stages of their lives, and with different work loads, especially the needs of competition horses. 


    Life on the edge

    Wild horses in Namibia

    source: Roman Goergen
    New Scientist August 25 2001
    starts p30, 4 pages long

    There are some 100 wild horses living in the Namib Desert, Namibia, the only population of wild horses in the whole of Africa. The population had dropped to 70 horses in 1999, as the result of a drought, and farmer, Piet Swiegers, sought to help them by taking alfalfa bales for them to eat, until heavy rains saved them.

    The horses have been able to survive extreme conditions, including droughts, commonplace in the region, as well as temperature fluctuations, from zero at night to 40 degrees C in the daytime in shady places during the summer. The winter weather can be very hot one week, followed by freezing rain a week afterwards.

    The origin of the horses is unknown. Some stories tell of German cavalry officers releasing horses in the 1900s, while others mention horses released by German railroad builders. The horses drink from a stone trough at a disused railway station built by German troops at the start of the 20th century.

    Telane Greyling is a researcher from Potchefstroom University, South Africa, and he has studied these horses’ behaviour. He calculates that they have been wild for between 80 and 100 years, or 10 generations.

    University of Kentucky’s Gus Cothran has analysed blood samples from these horses, and found a factor called q which is unique to the Namib horses. He also found them to be highly inbred. They show the greatest similarity with Shagyas, or Arab horses from Poland, and US Arab horses, so the Namib and European horse breeds appear to have a common ancestry.

    The horses’ appearance is likely to have been affected by the extreme conditions they live in. They are from 1.4 metres to 1.5 metres high, when standing, measured at the withers, but their forbears could have been some 10 cm taller. They also have very thick coats in winter, which helps them to survive the bitter cold of that season. Their behaviour has also changed, and they seem to drink as much water as horses elsewhere, but drink less frequently, at intervals of between 30 hours and 72 hours, sometimes waiting as long as 100 hours for a drink. They graze an average of 17 hours daily when grazing is available, compared with 13 hours for Camargue horses from France. This could be because grazing is poor in the desert, so they need to graze for longer.

    The horses are trapped where they live. They are tied by the water trough, and hemmed in by mountainous and other natural barriers, as well as fenced farmland. The Environment Ministry of Namibia feeds them at times of drought, as do farmers. Critics argue that the horses should be abandoned to die if they are unable to adapt, but the problems they face are partly man-made, as land has increasingly been fenced in, which means that the horses cannot easily escape drought. Gazelle and oryx herds have disappeared from the desert, and human activity has been a factor in their disappearance. The Namib horses appear to be healthy and strong, but are still under threat over the longer term, and their survival depends on human activity.


    Wild mustangs’ days of freedom are numbered

    US government plans to reduce numbers of mustangs

    Source: Andrew Buncombe
    Independent June 16 2001 p19

    The US government plans to reduce numbers of mustangs, found in 10 states in the US West. The government argues that there is not enough land for the horses, so some need to be removed. The government has approved spending of some 23 million pounds sterling (30 million US dollars) for removing mustangs in 2001. The Bureau of Land Management, an agency under the federal government, aims to cut the number of mustangs by half. There were an estimated two million mustangs in the US in 1900, and this has dropped to under 50,000.

    Wild Horse Spirit is a campaign group opposing the Bureau, as is the American Horse Defence Fund. Critics, such as these groups, argue that cattle ranchers are putting pressure on the government. Cattle farmers pay the government a few dollars per head to cattle to graze on public lands, where mustangs also live. Cattle farmers argue that they need the grazing, and horses present too much competition. However, environmentalists argue that cattle have more impact than mustangs on the ecology of the ranges.

    The mustangs have descended from different sources, such as horses let loose by 16th century conquistadors, and those released by the US Cavalry and farmers. Horses may have existed in American long before the 16th century, but had disappeared by the end of the Ice Age. Fans of the mustang see them as part of US history.


    Suffolk Punch

    Characteristics of Suffolk Punch horses

    source: Richard Lutwyche
    Country Smallholding May 1999
    starts p61, 2 pages long

    Suffolk Punches are the rarest British breed of horse, and only 70 breeding mares remain in Britain. They are chestnut, and may have white facial markings. Mares are 16.22 hh, with stallions at 17hh. All Suffolk Punches are descended from one stallion foaled in 1768. They have short legs and strong necks and are work horses geared to ploughing heavy soils. Some are kept for show, and horse-drawn transport, and a few are also used on farms, mainly geldings.


    Prison farm closure raises fears for rare Suffolk horse

    Suffolk Punch stud farm run by prisoners may be closed

    source: Anna Whitney
    Independent February 19 2001 p10

    A Suffolk Punch stud farm run by prisoners could be closed, as part of a review of the Prison Service. The Hollesley Bay Prison, Suffolk, England, runs a farm with 22 pure-bred Suffolk Punches, and eight of the mares are pregnant. The breed is very rare, and there are only 237 Suffolk Punches registered. Vice-chairman of the Suffolk Horse Society, Martin Goymour, is concerned about the impact of the closure of the stud, which could lead to a loss of expertise. Keeping Suffolk Punches involves skill, since the stallions can be dangerous. Funding from the National Lottery has been refused. Suffolk local government officials argue that they need funding from regional protection schemes or the lottery if they are to take over the stud and keep it going as a visitor attraction.


    Dealing with spookiness

    Ways that riders can tackle spookiness in their mounts

    source: Sara-Jane Lanning
    Horse and Rider March 2001
    starts p42, 4 pages long

    Riders can try to assess why their horses spook, in order to tackle the problem. Possible causes include pain from tack that doesn't fit properly, lack of concentration, diet, picking up nervousness from a nervous rider, and a frightening environment, such as heavy traffic close by. Riders should stay calm and look away from the feared object, bending the horse away at the same time. They can also get the horse used to objects he might be fearful of. He should be taken to different environments to get used to them, and made to focus on his rider. Hacking with a calmer horse can also help to settle more nervous horses.