Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ranger Jim's Ramblings for May 2021

Sorry I haven't posted for some time, but I've been rambling all over the place. The big news is I'm in the midst of starting my own  small publishing outfit, Yankee Cowboy Press More news on that as things get developed.

This month, I thought I'd go back to horses, and discuss some of the main injuries or diseases that can cripple or kill a horse, even today. Of course, such equine life-threatening issues were much more dangerous to both man and mount in the time of the frontier West, where veterinarians, like physicians, were few and far between. And of course, as in the case of human medicine, veterinary medicine and knowledge was far less advanced than it is today.

Today, the average lifespan of a horse, depending on the breed, genetics, etc., is 25-35 years, give or take. The barn where I keep Yankee just had to put down a quarter horse gelding who was 42, which is ancient indeed. Yankee is now 28, making him about 84 in people years, so he's an old man indeed. The oldest horse on record was a stallion in England during the latter 1700s, who lived to be 62! Amazing  as that is, considering the time he lived, it's miraculous. In the era of the frontier west, a horse ten years old would be considered a very old animal, and few lived to see 15.

Colic and laminitis, which an lead to foundering, are still two of the main causes of horse deaths. Since a horse's neck and throat muscles are so strong, they can't vomit. That makes any kind of stomach or intestinal upset, gas, or blockage a very serious situation. I lost Yankee's predecessor, Sizzle, at a very young age due to chronic colic problems. The symptoms are looking at the sides, pawing at the belly, or lying down and rolling, as the animal is in extreme discomfort. A horse that colics must be kept up and moving until veterinary help arrives. Treatment can include intubating with liquids to try and move the blockage, pain relieving medication, and lots of walking. Surgery is possible, but the outcome is highly questionable. I had surgery done on Sizzle, which was deemed successful. Unfortunately, scar tissue eventually developed in his colon, where a section had been removed, then the remaining colon sewn back together.. Since the scar tissue isn't capable of motility,blockages tend to develop. After three years of fighting, Sizzle's system finally gave up.

Laminitis in an inflammation of the tissues inside the hoof. It's extremely painful, and can be caused by overwork, eating too much green grass when it first grows in the spring, too much water when a horse is overheated, or a bruise to the sole of the hoof. The inflamed tissues create pressure inside the hoof, which can displace the coffin bone. The horse can go lame, or founder. In severe cases, the coffin bone can be forced right through the sole of the hoof. If left untreated, laminitis can be deadly.

Of course, most people know if a horse breaks a leg it's usually a death sentence. Horses have no muscles below their knees, just tendons and ligaments. These are so strong that when a horse's leg is broken, they pull the pieces of bone so far apart it's almost impossible to cast them to be allowed to heal. In addition, horse's can't lie down for any length of time (most horses sleep no more than three or four hours a day, in short periods of about 15-20 minutes), without major damage to internal organs. Since most horses won't tolerate being confined by a sling, hung from the ceiling aoround their belly to keep weight off the broken leg, surgery to repair the break is usuall a futile effort.

In the old West, bullets were another hazard. Anyone pursuing a person on horseback would aim at the horse, rather than the rider. The horse is a much bigger target, and once the rider was unhorsed, they were relatively easy to capture or kill.

Snakebite is another hazard to grazing horses. While a horse is large enough to survive the venom of a poisonous snake bite, in most cases, they usually suffocate. That's because a grazing horse is most often bitten on the nose or lower lip. The ensuing swelling closes the nostrils and air passages, so the animal can't breathe.

Interesting side note. A horse's brain is about the size of a grapefruit. Most of its head is air passages. A horse can literally have a hole pierced through the side of its head, below the eyes and brain, and survive.

Most horses won't eat poisonous plants, but if grazing is poor, they sometimes will. Horses actually enjoy bitter tastes, so they can be attracted to poisonous shrubs like yew (which wasn't around in frontier days). And of course a horse thirsty enough will drink poisonous water. While horses are generally good swimmers, they can drown if caught in s strong current, or get tangled in underwater vegetation or obstacles.

Moldy feed, grain or hay, can also kill a horse, either fro colic, or by poisoning.

So there's some basics about horse health. Hope it's useful in your writings.

Until next month,

Ranger Jim


  1. Some great content here, Jim. I really like how you give complete explanations such as the reason why horses suffocate from snakebites. I took several classes in equine health and science and they never mentioned that horses can't vomit lol.

  2. Very interesting and useful information. I've missed your post, and look forward to more.

    Wishing you the best on your new endeavor. Doris