Category Archives: Health Care

DIY Horse Toys

Of course you can buy horse toys if you like, but why? There are lots of ways to make horse toys of your own.

• Place pebbles, whole corn, dry beans, or pennies in well-washed half-gallon or gallon plastic milk jugs. Use baling twine to suspend jugs from the ceiling in your horse’s stall or pitch them into his paddock so he can toss them around.

• Traffic cones make great fling-it-around horse toys. Buy them at Lowe’s, Home Depot, or the like – don’t liberate them from roadside construction projects!

• Buy a secondhand tetherball and hang it in your horse’s stall.

• Toss old basketballs, soccer balls, footballs and the like in your horse’s paddock for him to play with. Buy them at yard sales or ask the athletic department at your local school for balls they would otherwise discard.

• Used 55-gallon plastic barrels with the top and bottom still intact and with or without a few stones inside make great toys to push around a paddock. Before buying, make certain they contained food-grade products, not toxic substances.

• Hang a cowbell in your horse’s stall. Don’t do it if you have close next door neighbors.

• Buy plush toy animals at yard sales, remove eyes and anything else your horse could choke on, then tie them together at intervals with strong rope. Hang the toy or simply place it where your horse can pick it up and fling it around.

• Place empty soda cans in a poly feed sack, fold it in half or in quarters. Secure it with a piece of duct tape and let your horse have at it.

• Drop apples in your horse’s water bucket or horse tank and let him bob for apples. Or float a rubber duckie in his bucket or the horse tank—fun!

• A strange one I saw online but that I bet horses would love: buy a large rutabaga (in Britain: a swede), drill a hole all the way through, then run a sturdy piece of rope through the center and suspend it where your horse can knock it around or nibble – his choice.

– An excerpt from Horse Tips & Tricks; More Than 400 Ways to Care for Your Horse Better, Safer, Faster, Cheaper, by Sue Weaver

Give the Horse a Beer

“Fully one-half of the horses used by the brewers,” said a fat and ruddy driver of one of the big wagons, “are beer drinkers, and there are horses belonging to the company which will not leave the delivery yards without having had their bucket of beer in the morning and at lunch time. They have acquired a taste for the beverage, and they refuse to do their work until they have been supplied. Now, I say the horses acquired a taste for beer, but I guess I am wrong about that, for it is my candid opinion that horses love beer.

“Our horses fatten on beer, and it is a noticeable fact that the ones drinking the most beer keep in the best physical condition and can do the most hard driving. Drivers and horses are allowed a liberal supply of the fluid by the company, and I would go without my mugs before I would see my horses go thirsty.”
– American Carbonator and American Bottler; January 15, 1905.

A beer for your horse? Absolutely! We learned about the health-giving qualities of beer ten years ago when one of our goats got sick. He was off-color, mopey, with no appetite, so I posted about him to a sheep group that I moderated at the time. A Welsh member said, “Give him dark beer.” An elderly Welsh shepherdess turned them on to the digestive benefits of beer quite some time ago, with great results. So we gave our goat 2 beers, 1 in the morning and the other that evening. The next day he was eating again. Since then we’ve dosed sick sheep and goats with beer and we concur with that old Welsh shepherdess: beer works!

Then I started seeing references to beer in old-time horse books, mostly as an appetite booster but also as an all-around tonic. So I ran a Google search with surprising results.

• Horses don’t get drunk from drinking beer because their livers metabolize alcohol much faster than ours do. Also, a pint or so of beer is a comparative drop in the bucket given to a 1200 pound horse (feed less if you’re dosing a mini).

• Many leading racehorse trainers and competition riders in Ireland and Great Britain treat their charges to a pint of Guinness stout after races and competitions to revitalize them. They also feed it to stimulate picky eaters.

• Arkle, the great English Thoroughbred steeplechaser, enjoyed 2 pints of Guinness daily. His trainer used it to soak Arkle’s oats.

• The yeast in Guinness, Saccharomyces cervisia, is a component in better-quality probiotic supplements. Hops are used as a digestive aid and a treatment for intestinal ailments in traditional Chinese medicine; one of the phytochemicals in hops, quercitin, is a powerful, anti-inflammatory antioxidant. The malted barley in Guinness is a fine source of B-vitamins and of the minerals iron, copper, manganese, and selenium.

• Recommended amounts to feed on an ongoing basis, according to Guinness:
High performance horses: 12 ounces (1 bottle) once a day
Moderately active horses: ½ cup once a day
It can also be fed after a hard training session, after a competition, or during periods of high heat or high humidity.

• Trainers also feed a pint of dark beer a day to horses with anhydrosis (anhydrosis means they can’t sweat). If you suspect anydrosis, call your vet, don’t assume a beer will do the trick.

• Not sure how to introduce beer to your horse? You could try this ploy from The Simple Ailments of Horses; Their Nature and Treatment, W.F. (1882):
“Place a quart of ale in the bottom of a pail, then place a whole loaf, with the crust pared off, in the ale leaving the upper side dry. The horse eats the bread down to the beer, and eventually takes the whole, beer also; and will henceforth take kindly to the beer given alone. Beer and loaf is capital in long, tedious cases of extreme weakness, such as continued fevers.”

• In the olden days, folks dosed their horses using a specially made, very thick and strong, long-necked glass bottle. But don’t try to give your horse beer straight from any bottle unless you pad the neck really well and are very, very careful. To give him a taste you could syringe flat beer (fresh beer foams too much to draw into a syringe) into his mouth using a dose syringe or a 60cc or 120cc catheter-tip veterinary syringe. Once he’s tasted it and knows he likes it, he’ll drink it from a bowl or pail.

• Another good way to give your horse beer is in bran mash.
Mix together:
• 8 cups of bran
• 8 cups of oats
• a pinch of sea salt
• hot water
• 1 can of dark beer
Add enough water to thoroughly moisten the ingredients, add salt, mix and let the mixture steep until cool enough to feed.

• Dark beer is the preferred type of beer to give to animals for medicinal purposes. Dark ale is a British type beer combining hops, yeast, and a blend of malts; it’s a chestnut brown color, with a fruity smell and robust character. Stouts, like Guinness, are a type of porter. Stout means strong; enough said. Guinness, the favorite of Irish horse trainers, is made using water, barley, yeast, hops, and roasted malt; it’s the malt that gives stout its dark color. We gave our first sick goat extra-dark bock (German) beer because bock means buck, as in a goat buck. Being non-drinkers, we didn’t know what to choose, so ‘goat beer’ seemed just right. Whatever, it worked, so we’ve dosed using bock beer ever since.

– An excerpt from Horse Tips & Tricks; More Than 400 Ways to Care for Your Horse Better, Safer, Faster, Cheaper, by Sue Weaver

Cribber? Or Wood Chewer?

This is an updated version of an article I wrote (for which magazine, I can’t recall) that was published in the mid-1990s, back when I had a crew of dedicated wood chewers in my barn. Thankfully, I don’t today because my horses are turned out 7/24–but if you do, or if you have a cribber to contend with, here are some things you might want to know.

Chew on This

A mare lounges by a pine plank fence. Bored, she nuzzles the top board then grasps a mouthful of wood, CRUNCH! Splinters dribble from her mouth while she thoughtfully chews. Is this horse cribbing?

Photo courtesy of Elina Lundahl and Wikipedia.

            Many horse owners might say so, but she’s simply chewing wood. If she were cribbing, she would hook her teeth on the plank, flex her neck, relax her jaw and throat, and then jerk her head down and back, allowing air to rush into her pharynx and upper esophagus. She’d emit a distinctive grunt.

            Cribbing is what behaviorists call a stereotypy. Other equine stereotypies include weaving, head bobbing, pawing, wall kicking, circling, tongue lolling, and flank biting. The horse world calls them stall vices. They are stylized sequences a horse repeats dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of times a day. Until recently, they were greatly misunderstood.

            Studies conducted in Sweden, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States have given scientists more insight into these baffling behaviors. The results of the studies are remarkably similar.

            Scientists now believe cribbing is the most common of stereotypical behaviors. In an Australian study of 3009 Thoroughbreds, 5.7% of stabled horses cribbed, as did 3.6% of their pastured mates. An English study followed 218 Thoroughbred foals over a 4 year period; 10.5% cribbed, beginning at a remarkable 20 week median age!

            Other findings: Equines of all breeds, ages and sizes crib. Light horses are most likely to indulge, ponies, drafters, donkeys, and mules more rarely. Stallions are more likely to crib than mares. So are curious, intelligent, high energy horses, but lower ranking, insecure members of a group’s social hierarchy often crib too

            A genetic factor seems involved. Although horses of all breeds crib, certain bloodlines produce more cribbers than others.

            What else makes a horse crib? Boredom, frustration, isolation, and diet are all strongly implicated.

            Horses are social creatures. A wild horse grazes up to 16 hours a day, always in the company of friends. Unless he’s sleeping or dozing, he’s on the go, nibbling grass. His stomach is rarely empty.

            Today’s horse typically spends much of his life in barns where high walls isolate him from his neighbors. Twice a day he’s issued a huge grain meal and a modest portion of hay. Because he’s hungry, he devours it quickly; much of the time his tummy is empty. He’s unhappy, bored and thoroughly frustrated. He needs something to do, so he gnaws on his stall. By chance he discovers sucking air into his throat makes him feel…better. This horse has learned to crib.

            Some though not all researchers believe when a horse engages in stereotypical behaviors such as cribbing, his body produces endorphins that relieve stress and make him feel good. He’s powerfully rewarded for his behavior and he soon becomes addicted. Whatever is at work, all agree that confirmed cribbers are rarely reformed.

            As a preventative, cribbers are often fitted with cribbing collars–straps snugged tightly behind a horse’s ears to prevent throat expansion. But dedicated cribbers may still crib while wearing a collar. Muzzles are sometimes used.           

            Surgery is another deterrent. Since the 1920s, veterinary surgeons have performed Forssell’s Procedure, removing muscles and nerves from a cribber’s neck. Until recently, the operation was disfiguring and often didn’t work. Lasers have changed all that. At the 2001 American Association of Equine Practitioner’s convention, Dr. Daniel J. Burba, associate professor of surgery at Louisiana State University’s school of veterinary medicine, described laser surgeries performed on 14 Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse cribbers. His conclusion: “None of the horses demonstrated cribbing behavior after surgery. All horses returned to previous function”. And laser surgery is more cosmetically correct.           

            However, many equine behaviorists frown on interventions of any sort, believing that unless a cribber’s basic problems are addressed, deterring a cribber only leads to a different expression such as weaving, circling or head slinging. And because ingrained cribbing is so difficult to treat, they stress prevention rather than cure, claiming that when raised in a horse-friendly holistic manner, even genetically predisposed youngsters rarely crib.

  • Horses require social contact, especially during stressful episodes such as weaning or when being introduced to new experiences and surroundings. So wean foals in groups, build stalls so horses can touch noses with compatible neighbors and view activity taking place around them, provide a companion for the isolated stallion, spend time bonding with your brand new horse.
  • If they must be stabled, give horses something to do. Daily ridden exercise, longing or turnouts are a must. Between outings, provide toys and other diversions. A companion–a dog, cat or friendly goat or better, two–helps a lot.
  • Feed high forage, low concentrate rations in a manner closely mimicking a horse’s natural diet. Researchers recommend long-stem grass hay fed at about 1.5% of a horse’s body weight, broken down into at least 3 feedings a day (using slow-feed hay nets works best), with little or no grain added, even to youngsters. Another finding of the English study cited earlier: weanlings fed high concentrate diets are four times more likely to crib than those who aren’t. High concentrate diets and empty bellies can boost gastric and hindgut acidity to harmful levels. Ulcers follow. Cribbers and wood chewers secrete more saliva than other horses. Saliva is a natural acidic buffer. Are they telling us something? It would seem so.
  • Horses need time to wander, relax, and behave like horses. Pastured youngsters rarely learn to crib. Turn your horses out to graze. They’d be glad you did.     

            And that wood-munching mare we discussed earlier–is wood chewing a stereotypy too? Sometimes yes, often no. Wood chewing, also called lignophagia (from the Latin lignum, meaning “wood”, and the Greek phago, meaning “to eat”) can be triggered by the same feeding and management practices that spawn cribbers; in fact many wood chewers learn to crib. But wood chewers might also be teething or need dental work, they could be salt or mineral deficient, and some horses just plain like to eat wood.

            Science tells us wood chewing escalates during wet, cold, stressful weather and during late winter and early spring. Horses prefer soft woods including plywood and particleboard and the bark of many trees. Dedicated wood chewers destroy stalls, devour fences, girdle and kill trees, and generally drive their caretakers bananas. They sometimes swallow splinters, nails and staples or gnaw bark from poisonous trees. And according to a study published in 1999, 11.78% of adult horses chew wood. That’s scary!

            What to do?

  • Watch your horse while he chews wood. Does he close his eyes and blissfully smile, drifting off to his own little world? Does he indulge at set times, under certain circumstances, in much the same manner each time? Then he’s likely a stereotypical wood chewer and could easily progress to cribbing. Change your management practices accordingly–and soon!
  • Rule out physical causes. Call in your vet, have your horse’s teeth evaluated, install a loose salt and mineral feeder where he can nibble whenever he pleases or try adding probiotics or antacid supplement to his diet.
  • Tub minerals and salt blocks give horses something constructive to focus on and chew.
  • Eliminate or protect favorite chewing spots. Cap surfaces with metal stripping or string hot wire over them. Wrap uprights and trees with chicken wire.
  • Paint exposed wood with commercial or homemade no-chew products. Petroleum jelly, cooking oil, and mild dish-washing soap liberally laced with high-octane ground up cayenne pepper works well, won’t injure your horse and they’re environmentally sound. Some horse owners swear by smearing surfaces with Irish Spring bar soap. Why Irish Spring? I don’t know!
  • Lure incurable wood eaters away from staple- and nail-laden wooden fences and buildings by dragging softwood saplings into their pastures and turnout areas. Aspen, other poplars, willows, and birch are delectable choices. Make certain you know your trees: the wilted leaves of red maple as well as the leaves of all members of the cherry family, peach, plum, black walnut, black locust, and all parts of the yew are toxic or poisonous to horses.
  • Build to discourage wood chewing. Choose pipe or wire instead of wooden rail or plank fences. Avoid building with soft woods like pine or poplar. Use oak and other hardwoods instead. Design buildings and enclosures so that horses have minimal access to wooden structures.  Remove the opportunity to chew.
  • In worst-case scenarios, prevent wood chewing with a well-fitted grazing muzzle–but try to eliminate his reasons for chewing before you do.

            While cribbing and wood chewing are distinctly different behaviors, both can be prevented or greatly alleviated. We may have to reevaluate how we keep our horses but it’s worth doing what we must. That’s what responsible horse ownership is about.