Waite Shows Festival Goers How To Care For, Train Horses
Being able to read a horse’s vital signs, gauge its weight, interpret its body language, and train it in showmanship are all fundamental for keeping a horse well-cared for and prepared to enter events like those seen in this year’s Mackinac Island Festival of the Horse, according to equine extension specialist Karen Waite. Ms. Waite, who works under the auspices of Michigan State University, hosted a clinic in the festival arena in Woodfill Park Friday, August 10, during which she demonstrated techniques for reading the body and body language of horses and training them in showmanship.
“Horses tell you a lot through their expressions,” Ms. Waite said, “especially with their heads.”
She proceeded to interpret the posture of the Mackinac Horsemen’s Association horses standing by her in the arena.
“Fiona here is the picture of an active horse,” she said. “Her head is up, ears pointed toward me, because she hears me talking. She’s alert and ready to go. Blaze, on the other hand, is one sleepy horse.”
Blaze, a Halflinger, stood beside Fiona with head drooped toward he ground and eyes half-closed.
“In other horses, this posture might be cause for concern, but I’m pretty sure Blaze is just feeling like a nap,” she said. “He’s, otherwise, very healthy.”
Ms. Waite demonstrated the health of each horse by measuring their vital signs, beginning with temperature.
“The average normal temperature of a horse is between 100.5 and 101.5,” she said, “but you have to remember that every horse is different. My own horse back home has a normal temperature between 98 and 99 degrees. The real way to tell if your horse is running an abnormal temperature or not is to, when you know the horse is acting normally, take its temperature over the course of a few days, both in the morning and in the evening.”
“Heart rate is the most difficult thing to measure,” she said, leading Fiona toward the audience. “There’s a few different places to measure it, but you have to have just the right touch for any of them.” She ran her fingers along Fiona’s face and front leg, showing the audience major arteries beneath the horse’s eye and near its hoof. “There’s another beneath the base of the tail where there’s no hair, but that’s only for the truly brave,” she added with a laugh.
“You have to rest your fingers on the blood vessel, but you can’t press on it at all, or else you block some of the blood flow and you don’t get the right measurement,” she said.
With her fingers placed on the artery beneath Fiona’s eye, Ms. Waite counted the horse’s heartbeats for 10 seconds.
“A normal heart rate for a horse is between 20 and 40 beats,” she explained, “and at 33 Fiona’s right there.”
“Typical respiration rates in horses are between 6 and 18 breaths per ten seconds, rest,” she explained, “and the best way to measure this without special equipment is to count the number of times the horse’s flank rises in a 10-second period.”
Ms. Waite also talked about dehydration in horses, a problem she has seen more this summer than many others due to the high temperatures and dry conditions throughout the state.
“Your horses should always have access to water,” she said, “and should never go more than 16 hours without drinking.”
She demonstrated for the audience a number of techniques for telling whether a horse is experiencing dehydration.
“If you lift a horse’s upper lip, the gum should be slick. If it feels more like a rubber eraser, that’s not good,” she said. “They should be pink in color, as well. White gums are also bad news. And if you push down on the gum and make it go pale, the color should return in 2 or 3 seconds.”
A final point of horse health that Ms. Waite touched on during her presentation was body mass.
“In order to gauge a horse’s weight and make sure it’s within healthy bounds, we have what’s called the Body Mass Index Score,” she explained. “It’s 1 to 10 scale, where 1 is severely underweight, 5 is healthy, and 10 is very overweight.”
According to this system, a horse with a score of 5, for example, would not have visible ribs, but upon running a hand across its body, a person would be able to feel them.
“If the ribs are either very apparent by looking or if you have to hunt for them to find them, you have a weight problem,” she said.
One of the major consequences of weight problems in horses is temperature control. A horse with too little body mass has trouble keeping warm, while one that is overweight becomes too hot too quickly.
The second segment of Ms. Waite’s talk centered on the equestrian event of showmanship, which involves a handler leading their horse by a rope, called taking the horse “in hand,” through a course, known as a pattern, with the intent of showcasing the horse’s training and the extent of its bond and cooperation with its handler.
“It’s not an event that gets a lot of attention, not a lot of press,” Ms. Waite said, “but, in my opinion, it’s the most important equestrian event, especially for young people. It helps them build teamwork with their horse, understand how they learn, and it’s a good way to start training the horse.”
Ms. Waite, with help from audience volunteers and handlers from Mackinac Horsemen’s Association, coordinated a demonstration of the principles of showmanship.
“Walking and trotting horses in a straight line is key to good showmanship,” she said, “and it’s a lot harder than it sounds.”
She directed the handlers to walk their horses in a straight line from their starting position to one of the audience volunteers, which they were able to do after a few tries.
“It’s important that the horse and the handler walk together, that the handler doesn’t pull the horse along,” she said. “The more you run a pattern with your horse, the more it learns to act with you, rather than respond to you. That’s the teamwork I’m talking about.”
Showmanship competitions are scored based on how well a team of handler and horse moves through different obstacles.
“Keeping your horse healthy and learning to work with it as a team, that’s the way you not only can move on to bigger events, but form that lifelong bond with it that you hear people talk about,” Ms. Waite said. “It’s what forms the foundation of everything else.”