Lately, I seem to have spent a lot of time helping horse owners update some rather out-of-date knowledge. Rather than teaching them about the latest intra-articular medications, the pros and cons of alternative approaches to the navicular bursa and recent advances in laboratory testing for worm control, I’ve been busting myths and setting the record straight about the most mundane, yet important, elements of day-to-day horse care and husbandry.
Horse owners are a frequently joked about subset of the population. If it’s not Thelwell images, or jokes about “Felicity Fetlocks”, it’s the all-too-knowledgeable Pony Club instructor and well-meaning but way-off-the-mark livery yard owner. While the magic of turmeric has largely been put to bed by the Facebook Militia (for once coming to our rescue), there are some rather odd habits out there among the horse-owning population that refuse to die even among my own clients, despite my best efforts.
My pet hates are as follows, in no particular order.
Ineffective and even harmful remedies
Who decided that sticking chalk dust in an open wound would help it heal? And why is the stuff still being made and sold?! It’s so illogical – putting a foreign non-dissolvable dust into open wounds is just utter madness but remains a staple of the horse owner’s first-aid kit.
Apart from providing a visual marker of where the wound is, I can’t fathom why this is still used either. Gentian violet is a dye used for histological staining which was used long ago for its weak antifungal and antibacterial properties. This has thankfully been superseded by more effective and less harmful alternatives, but the memo has been missed by some.
Poulticing wounds remains particularly popular in the world of racing – no head lad ever presented me with a wound that wasn’t several days old and not improving despite multiple poultice dressings
Presumably this is done in an attempt to “draw the badness out”. A quick glance at the back of a poultice dressing packet reveals the reason why this is such a bad idea. Poultice dressing contains some pretty nasty chemicals, such as boric acid and tragacanth, to provide osmotic draw when dressing suppurative subsolar abscesses of the hoof. In this instance there shouldn’t be a lot of contact, if any, between the dressing and any live soft tissues. However, when placed in contact with an open wound of the skin, this is the best way to cause cauliflower-like exuberant granulation tissue which won’t heal and for which the bacteria will love you. This practice remains particularly popular in the world of racing – no head lad ever presented me with a wound that wasn’t several days old and not improving despite multiple poultice dressings.
Not trusting the vet
“I don’t know why we suddenly have to start rasping horses’ teeth. We didn’t do it years ago and never had any problems.”
Thankfully most of the horse-owning population are on board with routine rasping and oral examination, but there are a surprising number who still seem suspicious we are making it all up
Sadly for the horse, historically its mouth is such that no one ever really looked in it before, or at least not thoroughly. Only once the horse was unable to eat and had dropped significant weight did vets get called to deal with the case, and by then the pathology was probably almost beyond help. And even then, it was just a “bad eater” and fed more boiled barley and linseed. Sadly, some horse owners are still not aware of the degree of pathology and pain horses can hide and tolerate in their mouth. Thankfully most of the horse-owning population are on board with routine rasping and oral examination, but there are a surprising number who still seem suspicious we are making it all up.
The idea that things only come into existence once they are discovered is such a widespread concept, I often wonder how any discovery isn’t met with more supernatural wonder and offerings of gifts to the gods
Similarly, some owners think suspensory desmitis and Cushing’s disease must be made up, presumably by greedy vets, because they weren’t around back in “their day” either. The idea that things only come into existence once they are discovered is such a widespread concept, I often wonder how any discovery isn’t met with more supernatural wonder and offerings of gifts to the gods. It is even more peculiar when you do find a condition which really is man-made and reversible, such as equine obesity – then the people want diagnoses, names and wonder drugs to cure them and their poor horses of the unfortunate cards they have been dealt.
Equine nutrition is another common area for doubt. Just because they have always let their horse eat as much grass as it wants, and hay or haylage every hour that it is not grazing, plus feeding bowls and bowls of hard feed, they can’t see why there is any need to change this practice. Clearly equine nutrition has moved on significantly from the days where we fed “straights” and grazing and roughage was considerably lower in quality and quantity. The horses were probably also less able to chew their food properly back then, for all the sharp enamel points and untreated diastemata. Never mind the worms they were sharing their calories with back in the day, and the difference in insulation provided by a Jute rug back then and a 400g turnout rug with integrated neck and thermofoil-insulating lining. Don’t forget climate change in the UK too…
Talking of worming, there is still a frustratingly large swathe of horse owners who have missed every memo going about worm control. I have come across too many intelligent people who are still either worming every month or two with whatever pops up online first or is nearest the feed store checkout, or doing nothing at all… which is arguably better than the former. I genuinely thought that this was common knowledge among my client base, so I had to get my nose back to the worm education grindstone.
Ignoring behavioural indications that something might be wrong
Then there is my biggest face-palming moment: the “badly behaved horse” who “has always done that”.
If I was faced with that discussion by a friend at a dinner table, I would be calling a cab, but when you are attending to a horse with a client it is your duty as a vet to take up arms on this one no matter how much you fear you might lose.
The owners who still believe that their horses are naughty, bad-tempered or stubborn are some of my most rewarding interactions – when you convince them to let you investigate that horse who won’t load, or needs cross-tying to tack up, or who won’t canter on the left rein or has started refusing cross-country… the moment they realise it was all down to a painful condition is the most incredible in my books.
The owners who still believe that their horses are naughty, bad-tempered or stubborn are some of my most rewarding interactions … the moment they realise it was all down to a painful condition is the most incredible in my books
When you literally see a person’s interpretation of their animal’s behaviour completely change for the better, you know that they are going to (hopefully) meet future behavioural obstacles with a greater understanding and knowledge that will serve animal welfare no end – if not just for the animals they encounter. Your heart melts when you are called back to the same livery yard to then help a friend who is now wondering if her “napping” horse has pain somewhere also.
I was brought to tears once (stemmed until I was back in the van, obviously) when a 12-year-old girl followed me out to the car park to tell me how grateful she was that we found the reason for her pony’s “bad behaviour”, as she knew all along that hitting him and wearing spurs as her instructor had been telling her to was not the answer, but she didn’t know what was.
I am inclined to think that due to the long-standing history between man and horse, together with the fact that many horse owners live and breathe horses from birth (or at least early childhood), many assume they must know it all by now. There is a distinct lack of desire to “learn” in a, thankfully small, portion of the horse-owning public. Most are very keen to improve their knowledge and, in fact, spend hours on social media trying. However, sadly for the horses of those who are sure they have it all nailed and treat new ideas or methods with suspicion, there is nothing we can do except keep trying at every opportunity we have.