Technology's Influence On Barn Life - Computers, Cell Phones, Veterinary Care

Horse Journal turns 20 years old this month, and we reflect on technology and trends we've seen in horse keeping, like computers and cell phones in barns.
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Horse Journal turns 20 years old this month, and we reflect on technology and trends we've seen in horse keeping, like computers and cell phones in barns.
When we started 20 years ago, we couldn't have predicted someone on a phone while riding.

When we started 20 years ago, we couldn't have predicted someone on a phone while riding.

Technology In the Barn - Can you hear me now? That’s the one phrase heard more in our barns now than 10 years ago, and 20 years ago cell phones weren’t in wide use. As horsemen, we’ve become tethered to our cell phones to the point where they never leave our bodies while cleaning stalls, riding or driving the trailer.

This cell-phone dependence persists even though many barns are cell-phone hell and you need to slink around to find adequate reception. If you’re truly a child of this millennium, you long ago traded your flip phone for a smart phone that’s the repository of all your important numbers, including the vet and feed store. It’s your calendar and daily to-do list, your online research tool and your camera.

The cell phone is just one aspect, however, of how technology has changed our lives as horsemen over the last decade. It’s almost impossible to maintain a horse business without a website and Facebook page. Print classifieds have all but disappeared, as we sell horses online. You can’t market a horse without a good-quality video, and if you want to buy a horse you can verify his show record online. Prize lists and entry forms now require a computer click rather than stamp.

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When Horse Journal marked its 10th anniversary in February 2004, we noted a significant impact on our horsey lives from our improved understanding of health issues, including ulcers, arthritis, laminitis and equine metabolic syndrome, plus the dramatic emergence of diseases such as West Nile, Lyme and EPM. Continued veterinary advances provide insights into horse health that challenge long-held beliefs.

“It ain’t just hay” is an old phrase rarely heard among horsemen today. The price and even the source of hay—due to decreasing land available to grow hay and increasing price of fuel to ship it—have become major issues addressed in a variety of ways, depending on where you live and what is available locally. While it’s true that equine nutrition should be centered on forage, it’s becoming difficult to maintain that focus when good hay is harder to find than good grain.

Instead of piling in hay bales, horsemen are turning to bagged forages: pellets and even the old standby alfalfa cubes, which they soak and feed in a bucket instead of on the stall floor. In order to reduce waste and gain the benefit of keeping hay available all day, many barns are using “slow feeding” techniques and products. 

Owners concerned about health issues are looking for seemingly “safe” feeds (i.e. low-carbohydrate), while overweight horses continue to be a growing problem—pun intended—especially when turnout and time to ride become limited. 

In trying to get a better handle on what to feed, horsemen continue their love affair with supplements, throwing money and tubs of powders at problems instead of focusing first on the nutritional content of forage and going from there. In many instances, new ingredients can help our horses, such as the addition of oral hyaluronic acid to joint products. 

But, all too often, they are a balm to the owner’s mind more than they are to a horse’s physical (and mental) well-being. Because there are so many supplements now, with more pouring onto the market, they’re confusing, expensive and not always safe and effective. Hence, we welcome the National Animal Supplement Council to identify quality products. 

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Where and how we buy supplements continues to change as SmartPaks dominate that market. Tack shops now often sell more fashion choices than supplements.

Health Issues
The last decade has seen our veterinarians better able to solve problems through improved diagnostics and treatment modalities. A horse that once might have been permanently sidelined due to a stifle or suspensory injury now often is back in the show ring in a few months, and “navicular” no longer strikes fear in our hearts. That’s the upside. The downside is cost. Vets can do so much more, but they have to charge more as well.

Then there is the price of drugs, an area where we have little wiggle room when manufacturers control patents and distribution. There is only one real (FDA-approved) cure for ulcers at present, and it’s more than $30/day. Doxycycline, once poured into the feed tub like water for a Lyme-disease horse, is now prohibitively expensive—if you can even find a supply.

And then there are the other professionals who can help our horses. We used to have the just the names of the vet and farrier pinned to the bulletin board. Now the contact list inside our cell phones contains a saddle fitter, chiropractor, acupuncturist, massage therapist, nutritionist and a floater with an impressive array of power tools.

Fortunately, these professionals—and publications like Horse Journal—can give horsemen new information. We know better now about how a bit should fit the mouth conformation, about weight-bearing issues, and about how movement affects soundness.

We’re learning more how syndromes can be related more to physiology than training: teeth grinding due to ulcers and headshaking because of allergies rather than bad hands, for example. Ulcers, indeed, can lead to a litany of issues that were once thought to have “behavior” or “training” as a source—treat the ulcers and your horse becomes easier to ride and handle.

Another issue from the last decade that looms for the next is the concern about resistance to deworming products. One answer is to analyze fecal samples to determine actual drug needed for deworming and do less of it overall. But, for now, most consumers still prefer to buy a broad-spectrum drug in a simple tube based on a calendar rotation.

At Home and Away
Along with increased costs generated by improved veterinary techniques and devices, therapies at home to help a horse stay sound or recover from training stress are becoming more popular and also more expensive, including such hands-free devices as treadmills.

A dramatic development is the advance in footing technology. Farms are turning to what looks like dirt mixed with dryer lint for rings, and the various formulas are wonderfully stable and dust-free. Again, the downside is cost. Another potential negative is when a horse works only on perfect footing and never gets out onto varied surfaces and terrains, which can be a problem when at a show or arena with different footing.

Show facilities now also face pressure from competitors if their footing is not upgraded to a similar standard. While we applaud the show facilities whose footing can withstand any contingency, from drought to flood, we can appreciate that the cost is being passed along to show management and thus to competitors in higher rentals.

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Indeed, the cost of showing continues to go up across every discipline due to increased use of computers (necessitating skilled paid staff rather than volunteers), higher insurance costs, and the higher price of gas to get there. People who show can look forward in the next decade toward dealing with microchips as IDs and DNA testing at breed shows.

Recent technology has greatly affected the clothes we show in. Fabrics, even for coats, are now more high-tech so that just about everything will stretch, wick moisture, and be machine washable. More boots are sporting zippers and more colors are being seen there. 

You can pay anywhere from $50 to $500 for the same proven level of protection in a helmet, the difference in price being factors of appearance, lightness and ventilation. Dressage in this country has gone full-scale for helmets since the devastating head injury to Olympic rider Courtney King-Dye, while that influence is spreading more slowly to other non-jumping disciplines. We predict 10 years from now that helmet use will be more pervasive.

Looking ahead
As Horse Journal enters its third decade, we recognize that media have also changed greatly. If a publication wants to keep its readership, it has to be multi-platform with an accompanying website, and it needs to identify and fulfill the specific needs of its readers. Horse Journal plans to continue our focus on the best way to care for our horses by keeping abreast of research, studying new products for their usefulness and safety, reviewing the best training techniques, and talking to horsemen throughout the country about the issues that affect their daily lives and the health of their horses. The essential horse doesn’t change, but what he eats and wears will indeed change.

Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman.