Home of Bluebell

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We are just beginning to settle down at our wonderful new location, not just the home of the nokota mare Bluebell Star, but also by pure coincidence the protected bluebell flowers in great abundance.

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Right now there is a lot of interesting work to be done, both in and off pasture, so in due time a series of more detailed updates about our Nokota Horses Bluebell Windflower, Rosie and all about what is going on at our new location will follow.

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About winter and colic

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Our horses are doing great. We have had an unusually warm autumn here in Sotardalen and not until the latest week the temperature has dropped down to around 0°C/32°F. When this shift in season happens there are often reports about horses showing symptoms of constipation colic.

Colic is a very dangerous symptom for horses; it is the most common cause of death. At one large stable not so far from these parts 25% of the horses are suffering from more or less severe symptoms. Keeping horses safe and healthy is a constant concern for every horse person and as being blessed with three Nokota horses as full members of our closest family we always share that concern.

It seems that the causes behind colic are not quite understood, probably because there are different causes and different kinds of colic. Some of the causes can be found in feeding, housing, care, health, climate, physical characteristics, and parasites. Constipation colic is when a horse get impacted and it can happen for a number of reasons, but a combination of dehydration and decrease of exercise may lead to an impacted content in the intestinal tract and eventually a blockage.

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We are just simple horse people and have no degrees in the veterinary sciences, but the way I figure it horses living under domestication in an environment controlled by humans are due to certain unnatural circumstances. I am just a layman in this area so take these following ramblings as what they are, but as I come to think of it; some horses live under circumstances that seem like a perfect recipe for colic, i.e.:

  • Many horses are restricted to four hours a day outdoors often in a small corral and twenty hours in stall, only interrupted by maybe a few moments of hard exercise a week.
  • Feeding procedures often means that a full ration of hay and grains are given three times a day, same amount each time, each day, regardless of season.
  • Horses tend to drink less water in winter to reduce heat loss, especially if the water is ice cold.

Free living wild horses spend basically all hours searching for food, which means free movement in slow to moderate intensity and slow feeding.

The common recommendation to keep a domesticated horse at a constant weight is another manmade problem. Wild horses vary their weight over the year; in spring and early summer horses gain weight as they eat a lot of nourishing grass and legumes. When the summer turns into autumn grazing weakens in content and availability, then in winter very little remains and life on the plains becomes a test of endurance and by the end of winter many horses are undernourished with visible ribs. During low temperatures wild horses probably drink less to prevent heat loss, but that is combined with low food availability and unceasing search for food.

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We keep our Nokota horses out on pasture year-round 24-7. The stable is always open and our horses chose freely where to stay. We cannot let our horses starve during winter so we feed them as usual four times a day, but we soak the hay in buckets of lukewarm water. We are careful never to overfeed during winter; rather too little than too much, and no grains. We let our horses gain some weight during summer and it is okay if they gradually lose some weight during winter, but we check them on a daily basis.

We do not use an electrically heated water bucket, but since the hose is frozen we carry fresh clean lukewarm water by the bucket to our horses four times a day, just to encourage our horses to drink more water. As I recon, it always pays off to keep the horses happy; it is what we are here for.

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The outpost

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Keeping horses is a dream many cannot afford, but in a historical context horses actually seem quite inexpensive today. In the early seventeenth-century Sweden; a painter or a carpenter would have to cash up more than a two-year full income to buy a steady mount. It probably says more about their wages than the market price for horses, but that could not be foretold at the time so people simply had to abide, unaware of what the future may hold. And indeed so are we.

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Horses used to be a source or rather the means of income, like a tool or a helper. Many horses today earn their living in racing and competition as well as for recreation, but except for that; few horses do any traditional horse work anymore.

Times are changing, which goes for us too here at the farm in Sotardalen. Both horses and other animals at our farm are thriving, but still we are busy forging plans and searching for hidden paths towards the future.

To be able to keep horses for no other reason than because they are horses, not as prisoners but as equals (as in equal value), may be the first step towards something different, something better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”, inspires me to think that you do not neccesarily need to follow that annoying gps-voice.

The future is illusive, hiding behind mountais and in unchartered forests; and since there are an infinate number of directions to go you do not need a map, but a couple of good horses are indispensable.

Equine Visual Perception #2

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In this episode on Equine Visual Perception we will begin to scrutinize the internal features of the equine eye as compared to our human eye. First we need to get a general understanding of how an eye works. The science behind the eye, the different cells, their connections and functions, is a universe of its own and the more you dig into it the more you realize how little you know. So, right or wrong in order to reach a graspable explanation, we need to make simplifications.

There are basically five different types of cells in the eye retina that receives light and transforms it into signals compatible to our brain:

  1. Light receptor cells; rods for black and white and cones for color.
  2. Horizontal cells; primarily unite signals from cones. There are three types.
  3. Amacrine cells; some converge signals from rods, but there are 22 different kinds of amacrine cells and they do a variety of different jobs, many yet unknown.
  4. Bipolar cells; a kind of amplifiers connected between light receptors and ganglion cells. Some connects light receptors via horizontal cells.
  5. Ganglion cells; the transmitters that sends the visual information to the brain. They come in different sizes and connections.

Rods and cones

Rods are very sensitive and thus good for faint light conditions (scotopic conditions). While a rod under perfect conditions only needs to be hit by one single photon to react, a cone needs to be hit by a thousand photons. This makes a big difference in very poor light conditions, but not in full daylight. However once a cone reacts it responds more quickly than a rod does.

Rods detect differences in light intensity, but not in wavelengths (colors). Their sensitivity peak in short (blue) wavelengths, that’s why colors seems diluted in faint light conditions. Cones however dissolve wavelengths very precisely, meaning they give us the sense of color, but cones need fairly good light conditions to do their work. We will return to that later.

Rods are often connected in bundles to each bipolar cell, which means great sensitivity, but poor resolution. Cones in the fovea, in the center of the eye, are each connected to one bipolar cell, providing excellent resolution in good light conditions.

Eye size

Horses have the biggest eyes of all land mammals, 10 times bigger by volume than a human eye, which is important to consider as it probably enhances every aspect of horses’ visual perception, including acuity. Keep this in mind as you read on!

Differences regarding rods and cones

A human eye has 120 million rods and 6 million cones, which means a 20:1 ratio. In the absolute center of the macula (the yellow spot) called the fovea, there are tightly packed cones (160 000 cones per square millimeter) but no rods. The further away from the center of the retina the less cones. In the peripheral there are “only” 5000 per square millimeter.

A horse eye has the same 20:1 ratio between rods and cones. Horses have a horizontal streak or band instead of the human yellow spot. The streak have about 20 000 cones per square millimeter and 120 000 rods per square millimeter, but at the peripheral there are the same cone density as in the human eye. The area of highest density corresponds to the binocular field, but more on the binocular field later.

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The pupil

The horse has a stretched out horizontal pupil, as compared to the circular human pupil. It gives the horse a wide lateral field of vision, which is great for a prey animal on open range. When exposed to high light levels from one part of the visual field it can be problematic for the pupil to adjust the amount of incoming light without making other parts of the visual field too dark. This problem is solved by the third eye lid, corpora nigra, in the inside corner of the eye that closes diagonally over the eye. It can limit the amount of light that comes in from above as it shades the lower half of the retina. So in bright sunlight the horse can still keep a good sensitivity for faint light coming from the dark shadows. It is however not as effective if the light is reflected and evenly spread in all directions, like in a stable. Therefore it can be a good idea to paint the ceiling white, but the walls and floor in a darker color, to correspond better to natural outdoor conditions.

It is often said; the horse has difficulties to adapt to fast changes in light intensity, as when an artificial light is turned off or on. I am not sure that is correct, or at least it is a bit off subject. Because horses have such a large field of view they cannot easily get away from a sudden bright light by turning away the head as we humans can. Besides a horse is naturally suspicious to enter a dark place like a room, stable or transport, she may also react when the light changes quick, but all this is natural and logic reactions for a prey animal, it does not necessarily have anything to do with the eye being less good at adapting to changes in light intensity.

Horses have an inter-ocular transfer between the eyes, just as humans do. It means that e.g. a change in light intensity that affects one eye is also recognized by the other eye.

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Night vision

Horse’s scotopic vision is further enhanced by a reflective layer, tapetum lucidum, acting like a mirror behind the light receptor cells, a feature the horse shares with many other species. It gives the rods and cones a second chance to capture the photons, at the expense of loss in acuity since it scatters the light. The tapetum lucidum primarily reflects light coming from a downward angle. Thanks to this, horses can confidently move around in what we humans perceive as total darkness. The difference between day and night is much less dramatic for a horse than for a human.

Another feature with equine eyes is that detected light photons seem to be added from nearby light receptors to increase the visual contrast, although at the expense of some loss in acuity. (In CCD photography this is called the Blooming Effect, which must be considered by astronomers involved in measuring light variations from distant stars with high precision thru photometry e.g. as a method for detecting exoplanets. The definition of blooming is when the charge in a pixel exceeds the saturation level and the charge starts to fill adjacent pixels.)

The next part of this series on Equine Visual Perception will deal with color vision and binocular vision.

Equine Visual Perception #1

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Horses and humans visually conceive the same surrounding environment very differently because our eyes are different and because our evolutionary preconditions and experiences are different, but we do share the same world.

Introduction

When watching horses interact out on a free range it is easy to realize horses seems to benefit from good eyesight, just as we humans do. No one has a complete explanation of the differences between equine and human visual perception, but the more we know about it the better we can understand the sublime details in equine behavior most people never even see.

This subject has undergone several changes since the days of Xenophon (431-355 BC) and his written works on horsemanship of his time. By his experience horses had an excellent ability to see over vast distances. Legends of the Arabian horse cultures tell the same. Then during the early years of natural science, another less flattering view upon the blurry equine vision was proposed, which has lived on until quite recently. We need to change that, because now we know better. However it is wise to point out that even if it is with the most humble intentions of accuracy, errors are inevitable as time will always prove time and again, which by the way reminds me of a poem by Alexander Pope:

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Eyes and vision, especially equine vision is complicated business, so even if this text has no ambitions to be a work of science whatsoever, it is necessary to “drink deep” otherwise it only leads to more misconceptions. Since we (yet) cannot connect an equine optic nerve to our own brain we cannot know exactly how horses see. At best we can find out about the technical specifications of the equine eye, but that alone does not tell us exactly how horses experience their own eyesight. Let us begin from the basics; vision is just one of many senses that help us interpret the reality around us. Our eyes receive light and transform it into signals compatible to our brain, as an input to create one important piece in our complete perception of the immediate surrounding reality.

What is light?

Light is electromagnetic radiation. In some ways it behaves like a wave and in some ways it behaves like a particle, or a package of energy. The best present explanation is that it is a point-like particle called a photon, an elementary particle which has no mass and no electric charge. In vacuum it travels at a speed more or less equal to seven laps around the earth in one second. The shorter the wavelength the more energy each photon represent. The visible spectrum for us humans is between 380nm and 780nm. (Equivalent to about 200 oscillations across the width of a single human hair.) Short wavelengths are perceived as blue and long wavelengths are perceived as red. Even longer waves, beyond the visible spectra, is low energy radiation; infrared radiation, micro waves and radio waves. On the shorter side, shorter than the visible spectra we find high energy radiation; ultraviolet radiation, x-rays and gamma rays. It is basically the same physical phenomena, only different wavelengths.

How does it work?

When these photons of light, originating from nuclear processes in the core of the sun (or from another source like a light bulb), comes rushing in a complete mix of a variety of wavelengths and hits an object they bounce off, but not all of them. Some wavelengths of light are absorbed or changed, depending on the objects’ properties. If e.g. only short wavelengths are reflected and we happen to look in the direction of the object, some of the reflected light enters our eyes, hits some of the photoreceptor cells in the retina of our eye and a nerve impulse is sent to our brain which in our consciousness creates a virtual picture of a blue object. So we do not really perceive anything as it really is; we only imagine virtual models out of bouncing photons. However it serves its purpose very well for humans as well as horses; we can see.

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In the next part of this series on Equine Visual Perception we will begin to scrutinize the internal features of the equine eye as compared to our human eye.

The Wild Bunch

werner nokota 346We are Nokota horses. On hot summer days we graze out in the field all day, but when the bugs gets too annoying we take a siesta and hang out by the front porch at our barn, away from the sun, away from the bugs. We accumulate a lot of raw energy from all that resting and grazing. Late in the evening when the sun gets below the tree tops, or on any cloudy day like yesterday, we turn up the heat and show our real colors.

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This is five year old Bluebell Star, a full-blooded Traditional Nokota© Horse and she runs this outfit. Her first three years of her life she spent in North Dakota at the Kunz family ranches, where she learned a lot from her mother Black Spotted Socks and all the other Nokota horses. She is a proud blue roan and perfectly aware of her beauty.

werner nokota 384She is the calmest and most trusty of horses, steady as a rock but also a bit shy, but make no mistake; underneath that calm facade unimaginable powers lurks. When her face switches expression she takes the lead.

werner nokota 352To catch her picture with a camera is not easy, it takes a fast well-oiled shutter, patience and a truckload of luck. She seems to like the camera though, so she gives us many chances.

werner nokota 349Bluebell’s friend is the three-year-old red roan Windflower Dancer. She is also very cool as a typical Nokota horse and very self confident. Bluebell can be a bit jumpy at times, probably because her mother taught her to be careful and always look out.

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Windflower is a quiet horse and easy to work with and loves attention, but she demands respect. I am convinced she can read thoughts so one must keep ones mind quiet when working with Windflower and with the right approach she welcomes you to her world with a big Little Missouri badlands grin.

werner nokota 366Wild Prairie Rose is our youngest, she is two summers. She came to us as a small filly freshly weaned from her mother Lucky Dust who was born in the wild and removed from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2003.

werner nokota 358Her beauty is impossible to catch in a photograph. She is a light blue roan, but her appearance bear witness of many fine ancestors in a colorful past. Because of her young age when she joined our family is very attached to us, but she is also a “teenager” and has a wild soul, able to switch temperament with the situation. A wonderful horse friend both competitive and safely calm.

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This was a summer postcard from the Werner family in Sweden, we hope you enjoy the look of these wild horses from the northern plains. The horses are here in Sweden to stay and in the future there will hopefully be many more. Together with their relatives in Linton North Dakota they make up an endangered breed of horses.

Visit The Nokota Horse Conservancy to read more about them and the work to save them.