Wind Sucking

I have come across a few horses in my working life that were committed wind suckers or cribbers, but I have never owned one so you can take my comments with as many grains of salt as you like.


Most of us already know that wind sucking stems from stress. It is not a one off response to a one off stressful experience, but a habit developed slowly over a period of time in response to chronic stress. It can be triggered by prolonged confinement, isolation from other horses, lack of movement, stressful relationship with humans etc. It has even been suggested it can be caused by chronic ulcers and gastric inflammation, although the last I checked this was more a theory than a fact. I personally suspect that it is wind sucking that leads to these ailments, not the other way around.


But the thing to remember that once a horse has developed the habit of wind sucking it stays for life. There is no cure.


Some horses are more prone to developing the habit than others. But I don’t think there is an overall pattern, other than those horses that live a life of stress are more likely to wind suck, that will help identify a potential wind sucker. In my experience, it is rare to see cold-blooded breeds or ponies that wind suck.


It seems to begin in early life and early training and it is uncommon to see older and mature horses begin to wind suck if they haven’t done it before.


A horse can be stopped from wind sucking by removing objects it can bite down on, but I have seen horses bite on dirt when nothing else was available. People often fit an anti-crib collar to their horse, which makes it difficult for a horse to gulp in air, but once the collar is removed the habit will return.


Wind sucking is a coping strategy that a horse uses to get through life. I have never known it to be reversed even when the stress is gone from a horse’s life. Once it starts it seems to be for life. So given that it is a mechanism to relieve stress for a horse and that it can’t be undone, my view is that we should not try to prevent a horse wind sucking using gadgets and removing things that it could use to wind suck. It will not help a horse feel better and can only exacerbate the problem by eliminating the horse's ability to use it’s coping strategy. I know that is an opinion that many will disagree with.


In my experience, wind sucking does not interfere with a horse’s ability to work well or be highly trainable and thrive. The problems with it are often more about how we view it than any harm the horse suffers.


But that’s not a blanket endorsement of doing nothing. Wind sucking does have negative consequences in a few horses. One thing that can happen is that a horse will wear down its front teeth prematurely by biting on posts and other objects. I’ve seen 12-year-old horses where the front teeth have been worn down to stumps that you’d only expect to see in 30+-year-old horse. In addition, wind suckers can eat away wooden posts and rails until they are turned into nothing but a pile of splinters. The dental issues and the decimation of fences could be one justification for removing a horse’s access to these objects.


The other problem that sometimes occurs is that horse can have difficulty putting on weight and develop gut complications. Horses that wind suck a lot are prone to accumulating non-digestible debris in their gut. It can be dirt, wood fibres, plastic, sand etc. If this gut trash is not passed it can cause absorption problems, colic, and gut inflammation. A preventative treatment such as an annual drenching with paraffin is not a bad idea in these cases.


With a horse that wind sucks I think the best management would be to let it live in a large paddock with plenty of friends and high-fibre grasses. That way it will experience lower stress, better nutrition and plenty of exercise. If this is possible, I see no reason to worry about most horses that wind suck.

The Horse: Evolution and Function

It is my opinion that there have been 4 great scientific discoveries in the last 100 years that have dramatically changed the way we understand the world. The first is Ernest Rutherford’s work on the structure of atoms and their decay. The second was the discovery of the DNA alpha helix by Watson and Crick. Thirdly was the ability to sequence genomes. Fourthly is the very recent discovery of gravitational waves that may lead to revelations about the universe(s), past and future, that were never thought discoverable.


However, the discovery of how to sequence entire genomes is the one that I want to mention today. The importance of this scientific breakthrough cannot be understated because it transformed Darwin’s ideas from theory to a fact. The ability to sequence entire genomes of complex organisms (including humans) has put beyond question or debate that Darwin was largely on the mark when he theorized that species evolved from species that came before. There is no longer room for discussion about creationism or intelligent design because genetic sequencing has now debunked them beyond any doubt and they now belong to the history books along with claims like the earth is flat and illness is caused by evil spirits.


So knowing that this claim will both upset and be rejected by some people, why do I put my neck on the line with it?


Since my post on March 22, I have been privately corresponding with a regular reader who felt offended by my belief that shoeing some horses in some circumstances can be a better option that leaving them barefoot. The essential argument they presented is that the hoof of a horse is both complex and brilliant. They argued that the hoof is an amazing piece of engineering that makes it optimally designed to carry out its function. Therefore fitting metal shoes to a hoof interferes with the optimal function by altering the way it interacts with the ground. The bottom line of their argument is that horse’s feet were designed to be perfect as they are for what they need to do. They believe that shoeing a horse hinders the hoof function for which it is perfectly designed to do.


I reject this argument for a very simple reason.


For an animal to possess any anatomical or physiological feature, it does not need to be perfect, it only needs to work. If we focus on the feet of horses, the hoof has many design flaws that leaves it susceptible to problems like laminitis, pedal osteitis, bruising, infections, arthritis etc, (sometimes caused by humans and sometimes not).


The hoof is designed well enough to support the frame of a horse and allow movement. But it fails in other ways. Just because a mechanism such as a hoof is the culmination of many thousands of years of evolution, does not mean it is perfect. It doesn’t need to be perfect. 


Evolution only needs to create a design that works well enough for the animal to be able to successfully reproduce. The hoof only has to fulfill its function adequately to ensure a horse from lives long enough to pass its genetic characteristics to the next generation. This does not mean it has to be a perfect or optimal design. That’s not how evolution works.


This is true of virtually every function of an organism – they all have strengths and weaknesses and being perfect for the job hardly ever exists. I use to set an exam question each year for honours year physiology students asking them to outline a better design for human sight or locomotion or kidneys or skin etc (it changed each year). With a little thought it was an easy question to answer because there is a range of ways to improve each system. For any system to exist it only has to function well enough to get the organism to the stage where it can reproduce and pass along our genes.


If you understand this fact of life you also understand that we can sometimes help overcome the weaknesses that nature has created. And example of improving upon nature might be fitting shoes to a hoof to make a horse more comfortable and functional. Another example is when good dental care can make a horse more comfortable, make it healthier and prolong its life. Perhaps another instance is parasite control – even in wild herds parasites (such as ticks) can be a major problem that both hinders the quality and length of a horse’s life.


Maybe this post is more of a soap-box type lecture than most, but my recent exchange with a reader prompted me to realize that there are people who believe that horses are made perfect and human intervention can only get in the way of their perfection. I think that concept is a hard one to justify when we look at the facts. That is not to say that sometimes we aren’t that cause for making life harder and more miserable for horses, but we also have the ability to make their life better too. The choice is ours.


Photo: Speaking of perfection ….

Cleaning A Horse's Sheath

I’m going to talk a little about cleaning the sheath of stallions or geldings. I don’t relish discussing this topic, but I keep coming across people who believe it is an important part of horse husbandry. I don’t know if it’s worth noting that in my experience it is always women who insist on cleaning the sheaths of their horses – never men. But I will leave it the Freudians to explain that one.


Over the years, I have been told many times what an uncaring horse owner I am for not cleaning the sheaths of my geldings. So after inadvertently coming across a video on the subject I finally felt compelled to explain.


I have always questioned the need to clean the sheath. I have been told several reasons why it is important, but most of them seem to be myths and not based on real facts. If a person were to believe the reasons why sheaths need to be cleaned regularly, it can only leave a person thinking it is a miracle that wild horses were ever able to reproduce.


Most people who believe in the importance of cleaning sheaths seem to have fallen for the idea that an unclean penis looks dirty therefore it is dirty. In particular, the build-up of oily substances that continually secrete from the penis leads to a build up of smegma  - sometimes dry and sometimes oily. It looks bad and disgusting, but it is perfectly normal and even healthy.


The amount of smegma produced varies from horse to horse. Horses with white penises tend to produce more smegma than those with black ones, however, both are normal. It is very rare that a horse produces too much smegma and needs to be managed by cleaning.


There is a misconception that smegma harbours unhealthy bacteria and needs to be removed regularly, but in fact, smegma protects the penis from bacterial infection. Cleaning the penis of smegma makes horses more susceptible to infection.


Some breeders also believe that cleaning stallions lowers the risk of introducing infection to a mare and also increases the rate of fecundity. However, as I have just said smegma is protective against infection (it contains anti-microbial agents shown to inhibit bacterial growth) and it has been demonstrated in a study in Pennsylvania that the bacterial population on the surface of a penis is greater days after cleaning than before cleaning. Some of those species of bacterium have been linked in other studies to uterine tract infections. It can take up to 3 weeks for the normal bacterial population to return to normal after cleaning.


Furthermore, it has been recorded that stallions in the wild reach conception rates of up to 85 percent, which compares favourably with the conception rates of many domestic stallions (70+ percent). That is not proof that unwashed sheaths lead to better productive outcomes, but it does suggest that leaving them unwashed does not diminish the rate of conception.


Another reason people sometimes feel compelled to clean the sheath is to remove a small accumulation of smegma from the end of the penis (urethral fossa) called a plug or bean. It is thought by some that this plug hinders a horse’s ability to urinate. The problem is typified by a ‘camped-out’ stance and hunched back while trying to urinate. However, it has been shown that the build up of smegma (plug) is no match for the force of the stream of urine and is easily ejected during urination when the plug grows too big. It is more likely that the posture of hunching the back is an indication of other problems such as back pain (caused by the camped-out posture) or ulcers.


Finally, occasionally a sheath can appear enlarged or swollen. Many people take this as a sign that the sheath needs cleaning. But the swelling is usually simply a build up of fluid during confinement due to the sheath being a low point on the body and where fluid drains towards – no different to how legs swell because gravity sends fluid in that direction. Most times the edema in the sheath is fixed by exercising the horse.


But are there times when the sheath should be cleaned? Yes.


I had a horse that had a squamous cell carcinoma on his penis and flies laid maggots in the wall of the tumour. It required that I washed his penis every day for about 10 days before the wound healed and didn’t need care anymore.


Sometimes a penis can have a small cut that requires regular cleaning to avoid infection. However, once the cut has healed it is not necessary to clean the penis anymore.


If you have a horse that needs their sheath cleaned for medical reasons, there are a couple of rules to keep in mind.


Firstly, never try to force a horse to drop its penis. If your horse is reluctant to drop its penis, it is better to sedate the horse (which will cause it to drop naturally) than try to physically force it out of hiding. It is a sensitive organ and needs to be handled gently.


Secondly, when cleaning the area always be gentle – do not scrub. Most of the smegma will flake or peel off easily and often you don’t even need water. Never use chemicals or harsh detergents and be careful not to break the skin.


I know some people will think this article is rubbish and not cleaning a horse’s sheath is a sign of an uncaring and negligent owner. But the bottom line is that a hell of a lot of gelding and stallions (both domestic and wild) get by and live long lives with never having had their sheaths cleaned. I know this because I have owned such horses.


This video is what prompted me to write this post. I disagree with virtually everything the vet says and does in the clip (including the assertion that smegma is skin). I would like to have treated this horse for parasites first and checked whether the tail rubbing stopped or find out if the tail rubbing ceased after the sheath was cleaned.


Environmental Factors and Horses

We have 8 horses and two of them are chestnut thoroughbreds. Both of them are now in their mid teens. We acquired the mare Six when she was a 2 year old and the gelding Riley when he was a 4 year old.


For many years I lived just east of the city of Melbourne. Michèle and I leased space on a farm owned by friends. It is here that we kept my horses and ran our training business.


Winters in Melbourne are cold and wet. For 4 months of the year it was almost mandatory to wear rubber boots to slosh around the paddocks. Sometimes the mud could be so deep that you’d lose a boot as it was sucked right off your foot.


Between the mud, the rain, the cold and the wind, training horses in Melbourne in winter was a chore and my wife and I often dreamed of warmer climates.


Every winter Six and Riley suffered recurring skin problems. They both suffered a disease called rain scald, which is a persistent bacterial infection that attacks the neck, shoulders and topline. It creates sores that make the skin sensitive to touch. The sores form a hard scabby surface that covers a pussy gunck underneath. I became a dab hand at treating the infection with medicated washes every second day. In the worse years I would bring out the big guns of antibiotic injections to clear it up.


Six also contracted mud fever on her two white pasterns every winter. Mud fever is a fungal infection that causes swelling of the pastern and fetlock and eventually can result in cellulitis in the lower leg. Six always went lame and very sore. She would threaten to kill anyone who dare touch her sore legs or even looked at them the wrong way. I learned that if I caught it early with a mixture of Vaseline gel, sulphur and tea tree oil on the affected areas I could keep the disease under control.


Only the chestnut thoroughbreds were under attack by these skin conditions and only in winter. Once spring was under way, they would spontaneously disappear and stay gone until next winter.


Finally Michèle and I were able to buy our own property. We bought 150 acres in north-west New South Wales. The winters here are mild and dry, while the summer days are often over 40 deg C. Our property is quiet. We are off the beaten track and I no longer take outside horses for training. Nobody visits and I rarely leave when I’m not teaching clinics. Although we have plenty of grass it is poor quality and mostly native varieties that are good for cattle, but has all the nutritional value of newspaper for horses. Nothing like the lush rich grass the horses were eating in Victoria.


The first winter we lived in our new home, Six and Riley came down with rain scald and mud fever like every other winter. The attacks were perhaps not as severe as previous years, but they still needed treatment. However, in the second and third winters, there was no sign of the annual bout of rain scald and mud fever. I was prepared for it, but it didn’t happen.


The second thing that I noticed that coincided with moving interstate was a change in the amount of feeding the horses needed to maintain good condition. The first year we were at our new property, the horses needed a lot of extra feeding because we our paddocks are filled with poor native pastures and they were used to rich English pastures meant for dairy cattle. But as each year has passed it is obvious that our horses have adapted to the local grass and do well with a lot less supplementation. Now only the thoroughbreds (and an aging Arab gelding) are given a small amount of extra. The other horses get all their requirements from the harsh, tussock-like grasses. Furthermore, we use to have to treat for intestinal worms 5 or 6 times a year, but now we only treat once per year.


During the last 3 or 4 years of our time in Victoria, spring brought other problems for our mare, Six. She developed a severe case of hormones. I’ve had mares who showed behaviourial changes when breeding season arrived, but nothing like Six showed. Most of the year she was a sweet mare, but when she came into season she turned into a monster. A few times it was not even possible to put a saddle on her. I had never experienced a mare who showed such a Jekyll and Hyde transformation.


It happen to correspond with the time that stallions were brought onto the property by another trainer. Before the stallions arrived, Six suffered no problems when she came into season. But once the stallions came to live, it all changed for the worse. And this was despite the fact that she was kept at the opposite end of the property – out of sight and out of hearing of the stallions. I was on the verge of having her checked for ovarian tumours or hormone issues, when we moved to our new home.


However, on the 18 hour trip to New South Wales, Six must have had an ovarectomy because I didn’t know notice any changes in her during the next spring. Not only was her behaviour unremarkably different from the rest of the year, but also I was not even aware when she cycled. Her mood changes were so benign when she was in season, that I missed noticing them at first.


Once I became aware of the improvement in Six’s behaviour I made an effort to look for changes in all the horses.


It has become crystal clear that moving to NSW has had a calming affect on all our horses. They are so much more mellow. The change could make a person think there were smoking “grass” instead of eating it – if you know what I mean.


I wasn’t aware that our horses were not completely settled and happy before. It was only after moving to our new home that I was jolted into realizing that all the horses had suffered a low-level underlying stress that simmered constantly while living in their previous home.


It is easy to see that our horses are happier and healthier living here than they ever were in Victoria. If I try to explain this, the thing that I keep coming back to is that our new home is a low stress environment compared to where they use to live. There are no stallions coming and going. There are no training horses coming and going. The herd is stable with no short-term visitors. I no longer use them to help me train the young and the troubled horses, so the riding they do now is a lot less stressful.


I am certain that the underlying stress our horses experienced while living at the previous facility compromised their ability to fight skin infections and maintain condition. With that constant anxiety now gone, things have changed for the better.


This new realization has made me wonder how many horse’s issues in the world can be attributed to living in a stressful environment?


I have been to show barns and boarding facilities where there is a serious focus on competition riding and it has been impossible to ignore the prevalence of stressed horses. It seems to me that if my horses (who had a pretty easy-going life) were stressed by living in a paddock with 7 of their best mates and only required for occasional work, then what about horses who have a much more demanding life?


What must the experience be for horses are fed jet-fuel type diets, live in stables for hours a day, limited herd interaction, layers of rugs (blankets), adrenaline pumping exercise and training?


It is worth asking if some of the issues we have with our horses are caused by environmental factors and not necessarily derived from medical or training problems alone. I treated Six’s mud fever as a medical issue, when in fact the real problem was where she lived. How many issues are treated as training or veterinary issues when the real causes are in the environment they live?


The photo is of my friend Ben riding Riley when he and his fiancé, Sari visited us a couple of years ago.


This is so funny....