Book Review: “Horses and Horsemanship” – M.E. Ensminger (2nd edition, 1956)

Haha! Finally finished another book in my stack of things I’m halfway through reading. Sorry for the delay in posts, I started a new job and was focusing on doing well for finals, still waiting to hear if vet school is going to offer me a spot as an alternate this year.

So I picked up Horses and Horsemanship at a used bookstore here in Corvallis looking for a simple review of different breeds and styles of riding. I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t raised to be a horse person, but I do like horses, and plan on working with them and the people who own them in the future.

I realized after I bought the book that it was published in the 50’s, so much of the medicine and training techniques were well out of date. Rather than go out and buy the most recent addition, I thought it would be fun reading the perspective’s from that time period, and that the history, breed descriptions, and event descriptions would be pretty much the same (been right so far).

Most interesting was the history section, which was fascinating in that it included the various European and Arabian developments of the horse and their use in agriculture and sport. It also included the authors unique views from 1956, in which he foresaw a renaissance of the horse for sport use as it was replaced by automobiles and tractors. I myself was amazed that the tipping point of more tractors than horses for agricultural use occurred only shortly after WWI, my own mother who grew up on a dairy mentioned to me that it was about that time that her father got his tractor. His predictions turned out to be correct, as we have seen growth in the numbers of horses in the US since the 60’s, with no additional use in agriculture.

The book was fun to read, and extremely beneficial to someone like me who needed a quick overview of common horse breeds, history, and descriptions of various racing sports. I would recommend picking up the newest edition if you’re interested in medicine and nutrition briefly covered (the genetics chapter was entertaining, as much of the information they had at the time was either incomplete, oversimplified, or proven incorrect in later years). However, it was really interesting to read about the recent history of the time, and how mechanization changed the use of the horse. I’ll leave you with a brief excerpt showing what I’m talking about.

The future of the horse and mule industry

Most people agree, horse lovers among them, that further declines in work horses and mule numbers are inevitable. But we need to take stock of our gasoline and oil supplies. Should there be another war, perhaps the retention of a goodly number of horses and mules might be in the nature of preparedness. In the final analysis, however, the dominant factors that will determine the future of the horse and mule situation are: (1) the amount of mechanization, (2) the need for the cow pony, and (3) the use of horses for recreation and sport.

Further mechanization inevitable

We new live in an atomic age. Certainly, further mechanization in this era is inevitable. Some manufacturers even go so far as to predict that it is only a matter of time when the farm horse will be driven into permanent oblivion. In the thinking of these machine enthusiasts, this time only awaits the ingenuity of man in perfecting more and better adapted machines that will operate with greater economy.

(Ensminger, 43)

Clearly, Ensminger wouldn’t even be able to fathom the world we live in today where so many people have never even seen a horse in person. I do agree that the cow pony is still unbeatable in it’s unique purpose. Though I think ATV’s provide an excellent tool as well.

Even the Army’s famous little jeep does not appear sufficiently versatile for use in roping a steer on the range. (Ensminger, 43)


Ensminger, M. E. Horses and Horsemanship. 2nd ed. Danville: Interstate Printers and, 1956. Print.

New Research: An examination of working senior horses

Just letting you all know that I’ve added another paper to the Articles by A.J. Bouck page on the site. It’s a review of the current literature concerning the exercise capacity and changes that occur as horses age. I wrote it for my Equine Exercise Physiology class here at OSU, and I think it’s a pretty good review of the surprisingly little literature available examining changes in older horses. You can read it here, and feel free to check out the other article on that page as well.

Newsworthy: Is horse slaughter back on the menu in the US?

Image from PennState's

Well, the 5 year ban on funding dedicated to inspection of horse slaughter facilities has ended. The question now is whether the industry has been effectively killed, or if there is still a large enough market to find the funding and overcome the opposition.

Full disclosure: I have no problem with horse slaughter, and I also really like horses. The animals are subject to the same humane end as beef and poultry, and any objection to the consumption of horse products by those who enjoy other animal products is hypocritical. You may now choose to read or ignore the rest of this post if you wish, knowing that I’ll speak with this bias. I will however, make my points respectfully, and fully welcome reasoned and intelligent debate from anyone who disagrees.

Psych Your Mind has a great post discussing how we meat eaters manage to both love animals and eat them. A lot of it boils down to our separation of cow and steak, and how we perceive livestock animals as opposed to pets. Horses are unique in that they fall into both the work and companion categories, and it’s amazing to see how they can switch back and forth. This is similar to the many free chickens you find on Craigslist that no longer lay eggs, but “make great pets!”. The original owners clearly want them for production, but want no part in their non-economic use.

Google scholar shows a host of articles looking at the impacts of the ban that I’m not going to detail here. However I would really like to hear from readers in the comments, specifically readers opposed to horse slaughter and consumption! It’s difficult to find arguments not rooted in a religious, animal rights, or sentimental background, and I’m really interested to hear if there is empirical evidence that supports a slaughter ban. Whether it be based on export economics, public health (I have heard of food-borne illness concerns with horse meat), or potential detriment to other industries, I want to hear about it! So please feel free to comment and let me know where you stand on the issue!



Newsworthy: Branding and Microchips

Veterinary ethics are especially touchy and complex because the general public often has strong opinions on every animal issue, including: euthanasia, animal welfare, animal rights, cosmetic surgery, private breeding, puppy mills, spaying and neutering, pit bulls, leash laws, animals as food, veal, genetic engineering, hormone use, vaccination, preventative care, training techniques, feral cats, dogs and livestock, licensing, service animals, classroom animals, TV animals, animal research, animal testing, animal waste, grazing on public lands, raw-food diets, alternative medicine, hunting, population control, use of animals in sports, no-kill shelters, captive wild animals, and a million others that people will vehemently defend their side on.

There are many on that list that I myself have strong opinions on, but its my responsibility as a scientist and my benefit as a debater to approach conflict on this issues as discussions, not arguments. I’m not always the best at it, but I pride myself on my willingness to be proven wrong. I like to think that when shown data, presented in a clear and unbiased way, I can base my decisions on all the information presented, rather than simply reject new opinions. Terry Etherton had a few great posts about communicating with non-scientists, and how there’s a need to reach out even when you receive a poor response. This isn’t just a scientist vs. the lay public thing, this is for anyone who wants to be part of a productive discussion of these issues. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but unless we listen to each other and work toward middle ground, nothing ever gets done.

Image from

With my little editorial finished, lets jump into this article on branding and microchip use in foals.

“For animal welfare reasons, many veterinarians are currently promoting the method of implanting a microchip over the traditional practice of branding, while officials of major sport horse breed registries deny that branding really causes pain or stress to foals.” (ScienceDaily, 2011)

I’m a big promoter of microchipping, it’s hardly an invasive procedure, and causes little more pain than a vaccine. At my animal shelter, almost all microchipped animals we received were reunited with owners, as long as the chip data was current. They’re especially great for cats, who have a knack of removing collars with identification information when lost, and are more likely not to carry identification in the first place. The data shows that microchipped animals are much more likely to be returned home from shelters than non-microchipped animals. I haven’t heard much about microchipping in large animals until now, but I can understand why there’s a debate there.

Microchipping would be a difficult identifier in any large group of horses, as you need to get within inches of the animals, and there’s no way to simply view the identification. Ear tagging is unwanted aesthetically in horses, which leaves branding as a useful permanent mark. Freeze branding is an option the article doesn’t discuss, but it’s expensive, not always recognized by the state, and will be less visible depending on the animal’s color. The University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has done a study concluding that hot branding causes more long term stress from the injury, assuming that the short term stress is mostly due to restraining procedures the foals must go through to be microchipped or branded. The fact remains however, that branding in many ways is superior to microchipping depending on the management of the animals.

The counter argument to using microchips is further strengthened by the comparing the procedure to other common practices with foals. Castration, tail docking, and (in cattle) polling can be considered far more traumatic, and have similar debatable merits depending on the management strategy. The article also mentions a tradition component that it doesn’t elaborate on. Many county fairs have branding competitions and branding is often made into an event in rural areas, implying that the tradition of branding animals has a cultural component independent of animal welfare.

While branding may be more stressful for the animals, I do not think that microchipping is an adequate replacement as the only means of identification in large animals. The specific purpose microchips serve well in companion animals doesn’t translate into the same needs we have for livestock. Hopefully another solution will eventually be available, but for now it seems that the use of brands, ear tags, and microchips will be determined by management, not its effect on the animal.

Newsworthy: Males Make Pregnant Horses Abort

I’m not a horse person, and I don’t think I ever will be. I think to truly be a horse person, for better or worse, you need to spend many years in their company. They’re not like dogs who have been so selected for companions that we understand their emotions even if we are not behaviorists. Additionally it’s harder for us to comprehend the way a prey animal views the world, much as it’s hard to understand the thoughts of people with severe phobias, OCD, or Autism (of course, if you’re Temple Grandin, this does not apply to you šŸ™‚ ). In short, a relationship, whether as master, companion, or physician between yourself and equine needs to be developed before you can operate on a “horse person” level.

Until that day, I’m limited to looking at horses in an abstract sense, an academic one. My efforts to get to know these animals through playing Polo have been mildly successful, but I still don’t feel the understanding that I do among other animals, whether it be a feral cat or an old retriever. Heck, I feel like I understand cattle better than horses. However, I am still very interested in their physiology, behavior, and interactions. I’ve greatly enjoyed riding and spending time with these animals, maybe I’m on my way.

My news browsing today led me to this article. Which was really neat because I just finished the horse maternal behavior in my behavior book (Houpt) that I’ve been reading in my spare time. Obviously traveling to use a foreign stallion to breed your horse is extremely common, as you may be paying for some race winner etc.. Protecting that investment and avoiding a needless abortion of the foal you paid for is important.

The article is interesting to me however, because the implications of messing with natural animal processes here show a direct loss of revenue from an industry perspective. I am not a holistic or natural training/management supporter, nor do I agree with any of the principals and claims made by animal rights supporters, but animal welfare is a goal everyone should strive for, and improving animal welfare benefits both the producer as well as the animals they are utilizing. The article suggests that mares who have just been bred away from home should be allowed to freely mate with stallions at home, using vasectomized stallions so that you don’t inadvertently breed a foal that you do not want if the desired breeding was unsuccessful.

This could also provide the benefit of unwanted males still having an industry job, if their genes are not desirable, they don’t need to be culled or shipped to mexico to be processed for meat (if we could once again allow horses to be used as meat in the US that would be ideal…), they could be used as the “home males” that prevent abortions resulting from their presenceĀ  following breeding.

Midway through writing this I realized I was basing these assumptions based on a BBC news report, so I went ahead and found the original article (not sure if non ONID users can use that link).

After reading the actual article, my assumptions remain supported, that mares who were in the present of home geldings or stallions across a fence (unable to solicit coitus to confuse paternity) were 7 times more likely to abort than those allowed to have direct contact with familiar males. Though I was wrong that this should be implemented as an industry practice, as housing bred mares in their own enclosure with no other males present or nearby has even higher reproductive success.

That’s enough thoughts on this particular article, but I will say this, the possibility implied in the discussion that mares may be able to consciously choose to abort their foal though an unknown mechanism, is really cool.