Barefoot in the Parks: Houston’s Police Horses

Bloged in Barefoot Trim by admin Tuesday February 27, 2007

A few weeks ago I wrote about a hoof treatment known as
the “Barefoot Trim”, based on the theory that horses’
hooves were much better off if they were allowed to go

The idea is that iron shoes will not permit the
hooves to expand as they com into contact with the ground,
and if they are not expanding properly, they are not
forcing blood from the hooves back up into the horse’s

A horses’ cardiovascular system, to work at its best,
needs all four hooves to get in on the act. Each hoof
has, underneath its hard outer shell, a tissue densely
packed with blood vessels, called the laminae (remember
Barbaro’s laminitis?), which will be acting to “pump”
blood back towards the heart with every step the horse

Horses in the wild are on their feet for close to
twenty-four hours a day, as they graze. They even sleep on
their feet, taking brief naps, but for the most part
staying alert to the chance of predators.

So wild horses, because their barefoot hooves are
constantly at work, are much less likely than confined
ones to develop circulatory problems than confined ones.

But horses both shod and stalled for the majority of the time,
some proponents of the barefoot trim say, are a different story.

Advocates of the trim might compare a shod, stalled horse
to a couch potato who, when he or she does get up to
exercise, has to do so in a pair of shoes a size too
small. A circulatory system already sluggish from lack of
exercise, combined with feet that cannot flex properly,
will likely find the couch potato heading back to the
couch in short order. And the circulatory system will
remain sluggish.

The “Barefoot Trim” technique, of course, has its
detractors. But one of the strongest arguments in its
favor is the experience of the Houston, Texas Mounted
Police Department.

The Houston Mounted Police Unit, with thirty-eight horses,
is the second-largest in the U.S, and over two-thirds
of their horses work barefoot. They initiated their
Barefoot Trim program in order to extend the working life
of their horses, which often had to be retired from active
duty because of lameness.

They began their program in 2004, when all their horses
wore barium-tipped shoes to improve traction on Houston’s
paved streets. Shadow, a four-year-old Dutch warm-blood
was their first horse to go barefoot, working up to
fourteen hours at a stretch in the week leading up to the
Super Bowl, on every imaginable surface.

Shadow’s rider, Officer Greg Sokoloski, noted that at the end
of the trial Shadow was experiencing some hoof soreness,
but not lameness, and put hoof boots on his front feet.
The soreness disappeared, and Shadow finished out the week
with no further difficulty.

Officer Sokoloski next tried the Barefoot Trim on Barney,
who suffered from chronic lameness and abscessing. He
pulled Barney’s shoes, trimmed and balanced his hooves,
and Barney has been performing, without further
discomfort, as a barefoot police horse ever since.

The Houston Mounted Police Unit continues to use hoof
boots when transitioning shod horses to going barefoot,
for long-duration assignments, and when the horses are
used in crowd control.

The newly-transitioning horses, especially those whose
hooves have become deformed from working shod over hard
surfaces, are given a trim and all the time they need for
their hooves to heal properly.

Some of the horses compensate for the discomfort they
experience when shod by adapting their gait, and cause
themselves conformational problems. So they need extra
time to return to their natural way of standing and
moving. But once they are up to being ridden, they are
schooled with hoof boots at the walk, trot, and canter,
over all types of terrain, until they are ready to return
to work.

I did have doubts about working barefoot horses for long
distances over asphalt, but the success of Houston’s
Mounted Police program is making me think again.



The Musical Ride Horses: Canada’s Answer to the Clydesdales

Bloged in RCMP Musical Ride by admin Monday February 19, 2007

Because I have already devoted one of my blog entries to
America’s most recognizable equines, the Budweiser
Clydesdales, I thought it only fair that I turn my
attention to Canada’s favorite ceremonial horses, the
striking black mounts of the RCMP’s Musical Ride.

While the U.S. has its Texas Rangers, best-known among
them TV’s masked Lone Ranger on his spirited white
stallion Silver, Canada is immediately associated with the
image of the scarlet-coated, Stetson-hatted Mounties.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were established in 1874
to bring law and order to Canada’s Northwest Territories,
which are now also the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
They have, over the past one hundred and thirty-three
years, evolved into the thoroughly modern world-class
Canadian federal police force of today, and while they no
longer use horses as part of their field work, they have,
with the Musical Ride, kept in touch with their equestrian

The first Musical Ride was performed in Regina in 1887,
and was a way for the early RCMP to both pass the time and
showcase their skills to the frontier communities.

The early Musical Ride maneuvers, because the first RCMP
officers were British-trained, were cavalry drill
exercises, and the first public exhibition of the Musical
Ride, with twenty horses, occurred in 1901.

The Musical Ride of today is performed by thirty-two
riders and a mounted director. It has added intricate
movements, borrowed from the dressage ring, to the cavalry
exercises, which the horses and riders must execute with
absolute precision at both a trot and canter, in groups of
two, four, and eight, all keeping time with the music.

So any horse talented enough to be selected as a Musical
Ride horse is special indeed, and the RCMP has its own
breeding program to ensure a steady supply. Musical Ride
horses are a cross between Thoroughbreds and Hanoverians
The Thoroughbred blood accounts for their height,
agility, and stamina, and the Hanoverian blood provides
their black coats, solid bone structure and quiet

The RCMP breeding program has one registered Hanoverian
stallion, but uses artificial insemination on about 90% of
its broodmares. The program’s broodmare band at Pakenham,
Ontario, has between twenty-five and thirty mares at any
given time And its Ottawa stables are home to about one
hundred schooling horses, and both current and future
Musical Ride horses.

Black geldings and mares, standing between 16 and 17.2
hands, and weighing between 1150 and 1600 pounds, meet the
physical qualifications for the Musical Ride. But that’s
just the beginning.

Musical Ride horses need a fluid and balanced walk, trot,
and canter, dressage and jumping ability, and a relaxed
demeanor both under saddle and in harness. They must work
well in close contact with other horses, and be healthy
enough to withstand traveling thousands of mile a year.

They must deal with large crowds, strange people,
new food and stabling, and sudden changes in climate.
The best Musical Ride horses can perform from the age of
six until their twenties. So they need conformation and
health which will hold up for more than a decade.

And, because the Musical Ride rotates its riders every
three years, the horses that stay in the program long
enough will have to adapt to new riders along the way.

The elegant, athletic, coal-black horses of the RCMP’s
Musical Ride are special indeed, joining the Budweiser
Clydesdales and the Lippizaners of Austria’s Spanish
Riding School as the world’s best-known and loved equine






Seeing-Eye Horses?

Bloged in Guide horse by admin Monday February 12, 2007


Well, I watched the Super Bowl with eyes wide open for
Budweiser’s Clydesdale commercial, and almost missed it.
Not because I wasn’t in the room, but because the
Clydesdales were barely in the commercial.

The commercial featured a down-in-the-mouth white mongrel
dog who, after getting splattered with mud from a passing
car, notices his reflection in a storefront window.
Recognizing that he now closely resembles the Dalmatian
seated by the driver of the Budweiser Beer Wagon passing
by in a parade, he seized the moment.

In the next shot we see the mongrel dog on the wagon
driver’s other side, and a very fleeting glimpse of the
Clydesdale hitch. The ad closes with one of the beauty
queens riding atop the wagon leaning forward to plant a
kiss on the mongrel’s head.

Let me make very clear that I am a dog lover, and have
rescued more than one stray in my time. But I am a bit
miffed at, after waiting all year for the new commercial,
seeing the Clydesdales playing second fiddle to a dog.

But, as I was surfing around the Internet this morning I
found a website featuring some horses who are giving the
canine community something of a comeuppance. And they
could not be further from the Clydesdales.

The site belongs to the Guide Horse Foundation, and they
are not promoting horses for trail guides. They are
devoted to the training of miniature horses to act as
guide animals for disabled people. And believe it or not,
there is a real demand for the tiny equines to fill the
roles traditionally assigned to dogs.

There have never been enough guide dogs to go around, and
the guide horses, since the Guide Horse program began in
1999, have shown real promise in helping blind people gain
some mobility. They have gained a reputation for being
friendly, yet not easily excited when working in a crowd.

And the Guide Horses are a great solution for blind people
who could not get a dog because of allergies.

Those horse experts who have studied the behavior of horse
herds report that if one of the animals loses sits sight,
another will begin to act as a “guide” and keep it with
the herd. Horses apparently have a natural guide
instinct, as anyone who had given their horse its head
after a day the trail knows. The animal will find its way
back to the barn without any help whatsoever.

And the miniature horses have another huge advantage over
guide dogs: they normally live between thirty and forty
years. Most guide dogs can be successful working animals
for between eight and twelve years before they have to
retire, and unfortunately for their owners who have become
so attached, of the do not live much past that point.

Because training a guide dog can be prohibitively
expensive, only seven thousand of the 1.3 million legally
blind Americans have one. Guide horses may prove much
more economical to train, and be available to a far
greater number of people.

Finally, a guide horse will be immediately recognizable as
a working animal, letting its owner avoid the difficulties
that sometimes arise when brining eve a guide a dog to a
public place.

There are drawbacks, of course; a guide horse will require
pasture and shelter, and while the miniature horses can be
trained to put it off for a while, they do need to relieve
themselves more frequently than dogs. And a guide horse
would not fit into public transportation as easily as a

The Guide Horse Foundation still considers their training
program to be in the experimental stage, but does offer
online applications for those who think they would benefit
from having a miniature horse as a companion guide.

You can learn all about the program at


Struggling with the Wood Pellet Shortage

Bloged in General by admin Monday February 5, 2007

If you didn’t think that a simple thing like keeping your
stalled horse comfortable on clean bedding was could be
affected by the oil price increases of the past four
years, think again.

Those of you who have been using wood pellet bedding to
replace plant material know exactly what I am talking
about. And the reason you are having hard time finding
bedding is that wood-pellet stoves, as a means of home
heating, have soared in popularity since 2004.

With heating oil and natural gas prices skyrocketing,
people have looked for alternate fuels, and wood pellets
were among their top choices. The Europeans, in fact,
have used wood-pellet stoves for decades, and the Canadian
wood pellet industry signed contracts, which are still in
force, to supply the European market back in 1999.

They had no idea that the North American demand would
climb the way it has, and in spite of a 35% increase in
wood pellet production in 2006, are still scrambling to
keep up.

The slow-down in the home construction market also means
that there less scrap lumber and sawdust are available for
the pelleting mills To make matters worse, in January,
Bear Mountain Forest Products of Oregon, which produces
110,000 tons of wood pellets annually, lost 20% of its
inventory in a fire.

In the meantime, those retailers who still have wood
pellets available have raised their prices, on average,
from $3.99 to $5.99 per 40-lb. bag.

So if you have been keeping your equine friends happy and
clean on marvelously absorbent wood pellets, and also
found that the pellet/ manure combination makes excellent
compost, you may feeling frustrated at the thought of
having to find a substitute. But don’t expect the
shortage to end any time soon.

But you can cut back on the amounts of wood pellets, or
whatever bedding you have been putting down, if you first
invest in rubber matting for your stall. While its
initial cost can seem steep, it will dramatically decrease
your ongoing bedding expenses.

Besides being warm and free of dust and debris, and
draining exceptionally well, rubber matting provides
enough of a cushion that you can decrease the amount of
bedding necessary to give your horse a warm soft
“lying-about” spot.

No matter what you are using, you will save yourself and
your horse a lot of grief if you remove all the wet
bedding at least once a day; otherwise you are inviting
bacteria to establish themselves and your horse’s feet will
be open season; never mind getting knocked over from the
ammonia odors when you enter the stable.

And if the bedding shortage has made you decide to winter
your horse outside for the time being, remember that it
would be happier, if your temperatures drop below 20F,
with a well-fitting blanket. Provide protection from
wind and moisture, whether it be from a planting of trees
or a simple shed.

The wood pellet shortage may cause you to make changes in
your horse’s bedding, but whatever you use, comfort and
cleanliness will go a very long way to giving you a happy,
healthy, and eager-to-perform companion!


Barbaro, Laminitis, and Learning to Let Go

Bloged in Barbaro by admin Thursday February 1, 2007

While the horse world is still mourning the loss of
Barbaro, more details about what led to the decision to
euthanize him are coming to light. Jennie Rees of the
Louisville Courier-Journal reports today that Barbaro, in
addition to having an abscess and two extra pins
surgically implanted in his left hind leg, had developed
laminitis in both front feet.The threat of laminitis, from the outset of Barbaro’s
recovery, was lurking as the greatest obstacle to his
survival. The disease occurs when the hoof lamina, tissue
supplying blood and connecting the exterior of the hoof
coffin bone to the hoof wall, is weakened or dies

Laminitis most often occurs when a horse’s digestive
tract, after the animal has overeaten on rich grain or
pasture, experiences a change in its bacterial
composition. The change will release toxins into the
horse’s blood, interfering with blood circulation in the

But it can also occur, as it did with Barbaro, when one
or more of the horse’s legs has to bear a
disproportionate amount of weight, so that an extended
period of lameness in one leg almost guarantees laminitis
in another.

Because horses, as prey animals, are not physiologically
designed to spend long periods off their feet–although
Barbaro, it has been reported, was very smart about lying
down to sleep at night–there is little chance that they
can keep weight off an injured foot long enough for
complete healing. So their other legs have to compensate,
and, unfortunately, they are not designed to do so.

A healthy horse will normally bear two-thirds of its
weight on its front feet; this means that, with a horse of
one thousand pounds, two front hooves the size of a large
man’s hands are each carrying about 340 pounds.

Barbaro’s front hooves, since last July, when he had
laminitis surgery on his left rear hoof, had very likely
been under strain; that they remained laminitis–free for
as long as they did is a testament to the quality of care
he was receiving.

Barbaro is not the first Kentucky Derby winner to have
succumbed to laminitis; Foolish Pleasure, who ironically
was the winner of the 1975 match race in which the great
filly Ruffian, like Barbaro, shattered an ankle; Sunday
Silence, who won the race from his arch-rival Easy Goer
in 1989, and went on to be the greatest stallion in
Japanese racing history; and, of course, the
incomparable Secretariat, considered by many to be the
greatest racehorse who ever lived, were all euthanized
because of the disease.

Unfortunately for Foolish Pleasure and Sunday Silence,
their handlers, in attempts to save them, prolonged their

The willingness of Barbaro’s owners, Roy and Gretchen
Jackson, to keep his welfare paramount, even when it
meant losing him, is the bright spot I see in his tragic

If other owners of “important” horses, faced with the
same decision, instead of trying for economic or
sentimental reasons to save their animals, will from now
on emulate the Jacksons, Barbaro’s legacy will be special


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