Category Archives: Things Equine

Unsung Inventions: Horseshoes

As mentioned in my June 20, 2013 post, I’ve been reflecting on humble yet revolutionary inventions that ancient Greek horsemen lacked, and today’s focus is horseshoes.

A horse’s hoof might look hard as a rock, but it’s not. It’s similar in makeup to our own fingernails, which means they can also crack, chip, and split. Under damp conditions, they soften. They’re designed to take on a certain amount of stress, but the demands on a horse in the wild are dramatically different than one running with the weight of a rider or pulling loads.

A horse is constantly on its feet, and as any horse owner knows, once it starts having foot problems, the rest of its health can quickly decline. Unfortunately, a cavalry or caravan can’t always be choosy about the terrain it travels through, so someone got the bright idea to put on some foot protection.

Horseshoes as we know them help to offset the demands on working horses by preventing excessive wear and strengthening the hoof wall. Nailed horseshoes weren’t developed until around 900 A.D., but even in the B.C. era, equestrians were experimenting with metal and leather coverings on horses’ feet.

The Greeks were not among those folks. Instead, they went about hoof care another way. In Xenophon’s On Equitation, he writes that stables should have sloping floors (to promote drainage) and be cobbled with round stones in order to keep hooves hard and in good shape. He also advises against washing horses’ legs. In other words, Greeks maintained conditions that would keep their horses’ hooves dry (so they wouldn’t soften) and wearing evenly. That latter part is important because the Greeks didn’t trim their horses’ hooves. Vegetius, a Roman veterinarian, writes about cutting hooves to the quick in the case of laminitis but doesn’t mention routine trimming, which is regarded basic horse care nowadays.

As much as horseshoes have done to enable horses to work under loads and conditions they couldn’t otherwise, horseshoes are not without drawbacks. (Apparently, horseshoes can impede blood circulation, among other things.) As such, many owners keep their horses shoeless part of the year, and some, like the Boyz’ Mom, keep them barefoot all the time.

Having shoeless Friesians does mean extra work for the Boyz’ Mom. She spends a half hour each week filing their feet down (unlike the Greeks, she’s not going to rely on a cobblestone yard to keep those hooves well-shaped), but she’s willing to put in that effort to keep her Boyz happy and healthy. In that sense, perhaps the ancient Greeks had the right idea after all.

Unsung Inventions: Bits

As mentioned in my June 20, 2013 post, I’ve been reflecting on humble yet revolutionary inventions that ancient Greek horsemen lacked, and today’s focus is on bits.

Bits have existed nearly much as long as horsemanship. It helps that horses have that natural gap between their teeth that looks genetically designed to accommodate a bit. But while the bit existed well before the ancient Greeks, their design and use have changed dramatically over the years.

As mentioned in my last post, fitting an ancient Greek bridle properly was critical. The straps of the bridle served to secure the bit in the horse’s mouth. If they were too loose, the horse could take the bit between its teeth (a very bad thing for the rider/driver). But if they were too tight, the bit could harden the horse’s mouth (a very bad thing for the rider/driver and horse). And if you saw fourth century BC Greek bits, you’d see exactly how a horse’s mouth could get damaged.

Modern Snaffle

Modern Snaffle

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Above are some bits I saw at the museum in Olympia. As you can see from the pictures, the basic design is similar to a modern snaffle bit, but they also have those wicked looking points at the ends. According to J.K. Anderson’s Ancient Greek Horsemanship, other ancient bits also included spiked plates and rollers (spiked or smooth). You can find pictures of those in Anderson’s book, and to me, they look more like torture devices than something you’d put into a beloved horse’s mouth.

According to Anderson, the bits were so severe that Greek riders generally kept their reins slack and communicated instead through their seat bones (which is possible because they rode bareback). The only time they would use reins was to enforce a command, and they would immediately disengage once the horse obeyed. Anderson doesn’t comment on driving techniques, but I imagine drivers relied more on voice commands and the whip/driving stick signals with bits like that.

In regard to training horses, trainers would start with a more severe bit first. Once the horse learned to respond to it, they would switch to a smoother one. That might be why the bits on display in Olympia aren’t nearly as spiky as the examples in Anderson’s book.

Severe bits still exist nowadays, but their function has completely changed. Instead of acting as a punishing force to emphasize commands, bit and reins form a constant line of communication with riders applying light continuous tension on their horses’ mouths. Somewhere along the way, either the bits got redesigned or the philosophy of horsemanship changed. Either way, I’m sure the horses are happy not to have spiked plates pressing against their lips.

Next up: horseshoes.

Unsung Inventions: Buckles

As mentioned in my June 20, 2013 post, I’ve been reflecting on humble yet revolutionary inventions that ancient Greek horsemen lacked, and today’s focus is on buckles.

Hardly anyone would think of a buckle as an invention nowadays. They’re so ubiquitous it seems as if they’d been with humankind always. But they haven’t. The first buckles came during the time of the Romans. A development in armor, the first buckles were expensive so only the military and the rich could afford them. It wasn’t until the 15th century that a cheaper way of manufacturing them made general use of buckles possible.

Ancient Greek horsemen, however, were completely without buckles. Consider that and then consider how many buckles are used by horsemen. I don’t know the last time you passed a stable, but buckles are everywhere. On bridles, saddles, harness… They not only make it easy to secure tack onto a horse, they allow different animals to share equipment fairly quickly. I was at a horse show in Norco, California, where two animals were using the same harness and cart for the same course. The owner only had a few minutes to switch out the horses, and I was impressed by the speed at which she swapped them out.

But without buckles, what would you have?

In ancient Greek world, the answer was knots. Lots of them. Saddles weren’t an issue because, as mentioned in my previous post, riders went bareback. Securing a bridle properly, however, was critical, especially given the type of bits the Greeks used (more on that later). As such, every bridle was fitted specifically to one horse. None of the straps could be undone or adjusted except for the throatlatch, which was a secured by a quick release knot on the near (right) side.

I’m the type who considers tying shoelaces a chore. I can only imagine how time-consuming it was to tie and retie and adjust all those knots to harness up a chariot team.

So to all you horse folk out there, next time you tighten a girth or lengthen your stirrups leathers pause a moment and hail that handy bit of technology called the buckle.

Next time: bits

Unsung Inventions: Stirrups to Cavalries

As mentioned in my last post, ancient Greeks were more likely to think of a charioteer than a jockey at the word “horse racing.” This was partly because Greek sports were essentially peacetime military exercises, and armies used chariots long before mounted units. If you read Homer’s Iliad, there are numerous mentions of chariots, but nary one of a mounted warrior.

To Americans, a charge of the light brigade might seem a lot more practical than chariots rolling about on the battlefield. But again, our ancient Greek predecessors lacked a little thing called stirrups. If you think riding bareback on a galloping, weaving horse sounds hard, imagine doing that holding weapons with arrows flying through the air. War chariots, which were the tanks of their day, each had a driver and an archer. That way one could concentrate on steering while the other could focus on attacking. And if you fell off, stepping into a chariot’s a lot quicker (especially with a partner) than trying to scramble onto the back of a spooked, saddleless horse.

Of course, chariots weren’t without their drawbacks. Namely, they only worked in places where a wheeled vehicle could travel at speed. Given Greece’s terrain, it was only a matter of time before armies started incorporating mounted units.

These early Greek cavalries fought with javelins or a heavy curved slashing sword and used horses that were quick and handy. Their MO was to deliver a lightning strike: charge, attack, and retreat at once so the enemy could not engage them. Prolonged close combat they left to the ranks on foot. Because any extended engagement was liable to unseat their bareback riders.

But once stirrups came along, mounted warfare completely changed. They not only secured rider’s position on a horse’s back, they gave fighters something to brace against if they struck an enemy or sustained a blow. That way, riders could stay in the fray for the long haul, eventually leading to the development of mounted knights and Civil War era cavalries. If you don’t believe that, just imagine a jousting match between bareback riders (LOL).

Next up: buckles.

Unsung Inventions: Transistors and Stirrups

While I was watching American Experience’s Silicon Valley segment on PBS, one of the show’s observations really struck me. According to narrative, the success of the Apollo Space Program was only possible because of concurrent advances in computer technology. I’d never looked at it that way, but it’s true. In this age of smart phones, we take electronics for granted, but a 1950s computer took up an entire building and required its own maintenance crew. So constructing a computer small and light enough to fit into a space capsule was a real challenge. Only the advent of the transistor made it possible, and though most people at the time were unaware of that achievement in electronics, they certainly took note when the first man walked on the moon.

There are probably countless examples of such unsung technological advances that revolutionized different arenas, and the equine world has its share. For instance, if I say, “horse racing,” most people will think of jockeys riding Triple Crown races. (Congratulations to Palace Malice for winning the Belmont!) But ancient Greeks were more likely to think of something like this:

charioteer (1024x768)

That might seem odd to Americans, who are more accustomed to horseback riding than carriage driving. But there are a few reasons for this difference, one of which is a little thing that would hardly catch anyone’s eye nowadays: stirrups.

The ancient Greeks didn’t have stirrups. Stirrups didn’t arrive to Europe until centuries later, probably from Asia. That meant riders went bareback or possibly with a saddle cloth. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, imagine trying to mount a horse by yourself without the benefit of something to stick your feet into. Mounting aside, stirrups give a rider something to brace against.

It’s certainly possible to go galloping bareback. The Boyz’ Mom asserts that going bareback allows for better communication between horse and rider. But Julie who’s a less experienced rider, says that she’d never take her feet out of the stirrups unless she’s on a steady lesson horse. If you’re dealing with a skittish or unfamiliar horse, stirrups can make the difference between staying astride or going airborne.

More on stirrups next time.

Research Ramblings: Horse Workout Sweat Vs. Nervous Sweat

My current work in progress involves chariot racing, and given its substantial equine components, I’ve recruited the aid of horse owners Julie and The Boyz’ Mom to keep it real. (For more about them, read this post.) They love sharing about their horses, and I love learning from them, and hopefully you’ll get some entertainment out of our exchanges.

Not long ago I asked my horse ladies about the physics of horse sweat as described in this post. A couple days later I found myself with yet another sweat related question. This time, it wasn’t about the how but the when of horse sweat.

Sweating is not an across-the-board phenomenon in the animal kingdom. That’s why pigs lie in mud and dogs pant while horses and humans get drippy when temperatures go up. The thing about people though is heat isn’t the only thing that causes a sweat. Excitement or nerves can also put human sweat glands into overdrive.

So I wondered as I reviewed a scene where a charioteer’s palms grow damp right before race time whether his horses might be sweating nervously as well. A quick e-mail to my horse ladies ensued, and here’s the answer I got from the Boyz’ Mom:

Indeed they do, and like people, they can drip with sweat from excitement, frustration, nervousness. It isn’t foaming like when they are working. It is a clear dripping sweat that slowly foams. The working foam comes on quickly due to the exertion of muscles… Latherin, a soaplike protein in horse sweat and saliva, helps spread sweat over the coat, maximizing evaporation of water for heat loss, and causing the foam that we see when horses sweat profusely. Latherin is also found in saliva, which explains the foam often seen around a bitted horse’s lips.

Interesting! Not only can heightened emotions trigger a sweat response in horses, the sweat generated has different qualities than workout sweat!

So the take away (for me at least) is that a horse that has been working hard will look like he’s come out of a bubble bath while one who is jittery or excited will just be drippy. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the same were true for people, if nervous sweat was distinctly different than exercise sweat?

Research Ramblings: Horse Treats and Avoiding Culinary Anachronisms, Part 2

As mentioned in my previous post, ancient horsemen who wanted to give their horses a little something special didn’t have sugar lumps, but they did have access to fruit. Fruit, though, was both regional and seasonal in ancient times. For instance, oranges are an important crop in Greece now, but they weren’t introduced to Europe until the time of the crusades. And while it’s easy for North Americans to import fresh summer fruit from South America in the middle of our winter, the ancients didn’t have the benefit of modern transportation networks.

Fortunately for me, Dalby’s Siren Feasts lists fruit available to ancient Greeks. Among them are:

  • Strawberry
  • Apple
  • Blackberry
  • Sloe
  • Plum
  • Date
  • Pomegranate
  • Musk Melon
  • Cherry
  • Quince
  • Watermelon
  • Pear
  • Mulberry

The Greeks also had grapes and figs according to Dalby, but because they were deemed luxuries, not staples, I didn’t include them for consideration. After all, you might have access to filet mignon and love your dog, but I doubt you’d feed filet mignon to your dog.

Finally, I ran the list past my horsy ladies to see if any fruit candidates were potentially toxic to horses, the way chocolate is to dogs. Julie responded by saying that horses can eat pretty much anything, with a few exceptions. For horse owners, oak and maple leaves (which can get horses sick if ingested) are more cause for concern than fruit.

In the end, I chose apples for a fall scene, and plums and blackberries for  summer scenes. I wasn’t able to find exact dates on their seasons in Greece, but Greece has a Mediterranean climate as does California, so I used California fruit seasons as a best guess.

When I shared my choices with the ladies, Julie had me add one more detail to the scene with the blackberries: stains. According to her, even if a horse is being as gentle as can be, there will still be squished berries.

Research Ramblings: Horse Treats and Avoiding Culinary Anachronisms, Part 1

My current work in progress involves chariot racing, and given its substantial equine components, I’ve recruited the aid of horse owners Julie and The Boyz’ Mom to keep it real. (For more about them, read this post.) They love sharing about their horses, and I love learning from them, and hopefully you’ll get some entertainment out of our exchanges.

When Julie’s horses do well or if she just wants to spoil them, she gives them peppermints. I thought sugar cubes were the equestrian treat of choice, but in her barn, it’s peppermints. And it is an acquired taste. When she first got Elle and gave her a mint, Elle was very ho-hum about it. But after a few weeks, she’d start raising a fuss if she heard a whisper of cellophane. If Julie’s not quick enough unwrapping the mint, Elle will just eat the whole thing, wrapper and all.

Using special foods to show love is something I believe Julie’s ancient Greek counterparts would’ve done, but that raises the question of what they would’ve used. Many foods that are regional mainstays might not have existed in the area thousands of years ago. For example, potatoes became an Irish staple, but that was only after Columbus got to the New World.

Fortunately, I had A. Dalby’s Siren Feasts for help. In this book, he describes the food culture of the ancient Greeks. He even includes a simple fish recipe from an ancient cookbook. While diet did vary from Greek city-state to city-state, the text was handy in determining what basic ingredients would have been available in that part of the world.

One thing I quickly determined with that sugar lumps were out. Ubiquitous as it is in our culture, refined sugar is a relatively recent development. The sweeteners available to the ancient Greeks were honey and date syrup, and those were luxuries. Not to mention, they’re not exactly amenable to feeding to a horse.

However, something our ancient horse folk did have access to was fruit, something I’ll delve into next time.

Research Ramblings: Growing Horses and the Labels of Adulthood

My current work in progress involves chariot racing, and given its substantial equine components, I’ve recruited the aid of horse owners Julie and The Boyz’ Mom to keep it real. (For more about them, read this post.) They love sharing about their horses, and hopefully you’ll get some entertainment out of our exchanges.

Julie’s mare Elle is big as far as her breed goes. Morgans average between 14 and 15 hands (56 inches to 60 inches at the shoulder). Early last year, Julie was telling me and the Boyz’ Mom that Elle had gotten all awkward again because she had hit yet another growth spurt.

To which I responded, Elle’s STILL growing?

You see, I’d read that the cutoff between a filly and a mare is four years. At the time, Elle was already past her fourth birthday so she had to be a full-grown adult already, right?


While people do use the age of four to delineate between mature and immature horses, it’s no absolute. Rates of growth differ from horse to horse and there are definite variations between breeds. According to the Boyz’ Mom, Friesian horses don’t start training until they’re three and training continues on till they’re around six. That’s because they don’t fully mature until they’re six to eight years old. By that age, some thoroughbreds have already reached the end of their racing careers!

Once my horse ladies explained this to me, I felt a little silly. After all, I should’ve known better, considering what I’ve learned about ancient Olympic horse racing. The officials spent the month before the Olympics determining whether young animals would compete in the horse races or colt races. If physical maturity was simply a matter of age, they wouldn’t have had such a rigorous process.

So using age 4 to delineate between colts and horses is about as accurate as using age 18 to delineate between adults and children. I reached my full height (just over 5 feet) at age 15, but one of my guy pals kept growing well into his college years (I forget his exact height but he’s well over 6 feet tall).

By the way, Elle will be five this year, and her current height is over 16 hands and still going…

Research Ramblings: Horse Body Fluids and How They Fly

My current work in progress involves chariot racing, and given its substantial equine components, I’ve recruited the aid of horse owners Julie and The Boyz’ Mom to keep it real. (For more about them, read this post.) They love sharing about their horses, and I love learning from them, and hopefully you’ll get some entertainment out of our exchanges.

I recently revised a scene involving messengers on horseback. My critique group  didn’t feel connected to the main character, and I decided to elaborate on the sensory details as these riders come galloping up.

The thing is, I’ve gotten close to horses before, but not after they’ve galloped for miles. And while I understand horses generate a variety of body fluids, I’ve no idea what their aerodynamics are.

So of course I went to my horse experts to find out if any of the following could happen:

A. Sweat from the horses landing on my MC
B. Foam( spit) from the horses’ mouths landing on her
C. Her getting a big whiff of the smell of horse sweat

The last one scenario, by the way, was based off my experiences with my runner husband. After a marathon, I can smell him coming.

As for the answer… apparently all of them are possible.

Julie said:

A horse that is accepting of a bit will have foamy drool, and it can fly everywhere, including all over their chest and front legs.  If the horse shakes its head, it could certainly fly all over.  Same with lather, again, depending on how hot the horse is.  If the horse is right in front of her, it would be breathing hard from a long gallop, so she could feel the horse huffing on her.  I don’t think horses stink with they are working, but i am probably immune.  Most people who work around horses are.

The Boyz’ Mom added:

Yes indeed … Julie is on the money.
Horse sweat smells sweet and warm like musk or sandalwood. I love it.
Horse sweat and saliva can goooo flying to be sure.
The sweat is foamy and the saliva can be like a big foam stringer. I’ve been pelted many a time. Most horse people get their share so no biggy.

I love her description of the aroma of horse. Perhaps perfumers should take note and investigate horse perspiration as a potential new ingredient. (Or maybe they already use it and we just don’t realize it :))

At any rate, I am indebted to my experts once more (thank you!!!) and reminded yet again that a horse-sized helping of gross is all part of being an equestrian.