A virus may be behind some of the bizarre behaviour that is often observed in the horse obsessed, according to a recent study.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore have found that a heightened interest in horses and the compulsion to be around them at all times, is linked to the virus Ecus solidamentum.
“We’ve nicknamed the disease the ‘horse bug’,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Ivan Toride. “But all joking aside, it seems to be a serious affliction that has real repercussions for sufferers.”
The study reports that people infected with Ecus solidamentum lose all rational thought processes when exposed to equines. Sufferers will ignore physical injuries, strained personal relationships and financial troubles just to spend more time with horses. Dr. Toride admits it’s a startling discovery to find a physical cause behind what was once thought to be only a mental affliction.
People generally become infected through mosquito bites, which is why those who already spend time in barns and outdoors with horses seem to be more susceptible. Interestingly, the researchers found infection rates are higher among middle-age women and that they are the most symptomatic when infected. Teenage girls also have a high susceptibility to the virus, but the disease seems to resolve itself in many by the time the girls reach their 20s.
“It’s a multi-faceted disease that will require much more investigation,” says Dr. Toride. “We still don’t understand the exact viral mechanism that affects the brain’s functioning, or why women in particular seem to be more susceptible.”
Anita Notherpony, who was infected with Ecus solidamentum last year, participated in Dr. Toride’s study. In the last 12 months, her behaviour around horses has become more erratic as the virus has spread through her body. “I lost my job because I couldn’t stay away from the barn. When I did go to work, all I did was read articles about horses or look at horses for sale,” she says.
“It started slowly, I thought it was just a new interest at first. But when I spent my entire pay check at the tack store, I began to suspect there was something deeper was at play.”
When Notherpony read about Dr. Toride’s research in an article in a horse magazine, a lightbulb went off. “I just said, ‘this is me.’”
Notherpony immediately contacted the research team for help. “Dr. Toride diagnosed me. At least I now have an explanation for what is happening. I know this disease is ruining my life, but it’s a compulsion I can’t control. I just hope they find a cure.”
Recently, Notherpony secretly sold her husband’s car for a third horse. At the time of this writing, it was unclear if her husband would be able to continue his employment without a way to get to work, leaving them both in a precarious financial situation.
Betraying the seriousness of her disease, a rapidly deteriorating Notherpony didn’t seem to be able to grasp the severity of the situation during an interview with Horse Network. “He’ll just have to find some other way to get to work. I need to buy another saddle next week,” she said.
It’s situations like these that are pushing Dr. Toride and his team to work overtime to find a cure for Ecus solidamentum. “It’s frightening to see how this disease can affect a mind. We can only hope we stumble across a cure soon,” he says.
There are few things in the news that affect horsemen more than reading about yet another barn fire in which multiple horses have perished.
More so than from other tragedies, I find myself physically as well as emotionally affected by these stories. As the horses usually have absolutely no chance of escaping, I think it is probably the horse owner’s worst nightmare.
Emotions aside, in my job as a professional electrician, I am mindful that many of these fires are caused by faulty electrical wiring or fixtures. Over the year,s I have borne witness to my share of potential and actual hazards. Designing a barn’s electrical system to today’s codes and standards is a topic for another day. For today, let’s address what we can do to make the existing horse barn safer.
I can’t cite statistics or studies, but my own experience shows the main safety issues that I am exposed to fall into three general categories:
Using extension cords in place of permanent wiring
Exposed lamps in lighting fixtures, and
Overloading of branch circuits.
The first item I am addressing is extension cords.
I am often asked how extension cords can be UL-listed and sold if they are inherently unsafe. The answer is that cords are not unsafe when used as intended, but become so when used in place of permanent wiring.
The main concern is that most general purpose outlets in barns are powered by 15 or 20 ampere circuits, using 14 or 12 gauge building wiring, respectively. Most cords, however, for reasons of economy and flexibility, are rated for 8 or 10 amperes, and are constructed of 18 or 16 gauge wiring. That’s no problem if you are using the cord as intended—say, powering a clipper that only draws 1 to 4 amperes.
The problem comes when the cord is left in place, maybe tacked up on the rafters for the sake of “neatness.” You use it occasionally, but then winter comes and you plug a couple of bucket heaters into it. When the horses start drinking more water because it’s not ice cold, two buckets become four—or more.
If they draw 2.5 amperes each, you are now drawing 10 amperes on your 18 gauge extension cord that is only rated to carry 8 amperes. The circuit breaker won’t trip because it is protecting the building wiring, which is rated at 20 amperes. A GFCI outlet won’t trip either because the problem is an overload, not a ground fault.
Anyway, next winter, you decide to remove two of the buckets and add a trough outside the stall with a 1500 watt heater, which draws 12.5 amps at 120 volts. If you thought of it, you even replaced the old 18 gauge cord with a 16 gauge one that the package called “heavy duty.” Now the load is 17.5 amperes on a cord that is designed to handle 10 amperes.
In this case, it is possible to overload a “heavy duty” cord by using it at 175% of its rated capacity and never trip a circuit breaker. What has happened is, we’ve begun to think of the extension cord as permanent wiring, rather than as a temporary convenience to extend the appliance cord over to the outlet.
In doing so, we have created an unsafe condition.
Overloaded cords run hot. Heat is the product of too much current flowing over too small a wire. The material they are made of isn’t intended to stand up over time as permanent wiring must. It’s assumed that you will have the opportunity to inspect it as you unroll it before each use.
The second item on our list is exposed lamps (bulbs) in lighting fixtures.
Put simply, they don’t belong in a horse barn. A hot light bulb that gets covered in dust or cobwebs is a hazard. A bulb that explodes due to accumulating moisture, being struck by horse or human, or simply a manufacturing defect introduces the additional risk of a hot filament falling onto a flammable fuel source such as hay or dry shavings.
In the case of an unguarded fluorescent fixture, birds frequently build nests in or above these fixtures due to the heat generated by the ballast transformers within them. Ballasts do burn out, and a fuel source—such as that from birds’ nesting materials—will provide, with oxygen, all the necessary components for a fire that may quickly spread to dry wood framing.
The relatively easy fix is to use totally enclosed, gasketed and guarded light fixtures everywhere in the barn. They are known in the trade as vaporproof fixtures and are completely enclosed so that nothing can enter them, nothing can touch the hot lamp, and no hot parts or gases can escape in the event of failure.
The incandescent versions have a cast metal wiring box, a Pyrex globe covering the lamp, and a cast metal guard over the globe. In the case of the fluorescent fixture, the normal metal fixture pan is surrounded by a sealed fiberglass enclosure with a gasketed lexan cover over the lamps sealed with a gasket and secured in place with multiple pressure clamps.
The last item, overloaded branch circuits, is not typically a problem if the wiring was professionally installed and not subsequently tampered with. If too much load is placed on a circuit that has been properly protected, the result will be only the inconvenience of a tripped circuit breaker.
The problem comes when some “resourceful” individual does a quick fix by installing a larger circuit breaker. The immediate problem, tripping of a circuit breaker, is solved, but the much more serious problem of wiring that is no longer protected at the level for which it was designed, is created.
Any time a wire is allowed to carry more current than it was designed to, there is nothing to stop it from heating up to a level above which is considered acceptable.
Unsafe conditions tend to creep up on us—we don’t set out to create hazardous conditions for our horses.
Some may think it silly that the electrical requirements in horse barns (which are covered by their own separate part of the National Electric Code) are in many ways more stringent than those in our homes.
I believe that it makes perfect sense. The environmental conditions in a horse barn are much more severe than the normal wiring methods found in the home can handle. Most importantly, a human can usually sense and react to the warning signals of a smoke alarm, the smell of smoke, or of burning building materials and take appropriate action to protect or evacuate the occupants. Our horses, however, depend on us for that, so we need to use extra-safe practices to keep them secure.
As I always state in closing my electrical safety discussions, I know that we all love our animals. Sometimes in the interest of expedience, we can inadvertently cause conditions that we never intended. Electrical safety is just another aspect of stable management. I often use the words of George Morris to summarize:
“Love means giving something our attention, which means taking care of that which we love. We call this stable management.”
About the Author
Thomas Gumbrecht began riding at age 45 and eventually was a competitor in lower level eventing and jumpers. Now a small farm owner, he spends his time working with his APHA eventer DannyBoy, his OTTB mare Lola, training her for a second career, and teaching his grandson about the joy of horses. He enjoys writing to share some of life’s breakthroughs toward which his horses have guided him.
The study also suggests that horses alter their communicative behavior based on humans’ knowledge of the situation. These findings were published in the online version of Animal Cognition on November 24.
Communicating with other individuals in order to get information about foraging sites and predators is a valuable survival skill. Chimpanzees, who are evolutionarily close to humans, are especially skilled at understanding others. Studies suggest that chimpanzees distinguish the attentional states of other individuals (seeing or not seeing), and they are also able to understand others’ knowledge states (knowing or not knowing).
Some domestic animals are also very good at communicating with humans—recent studies of dogs have revealed that they are excellent at understanding various human gestures and expressions. It is thought that these abilities were influenced by the domestication process.
Since they were domesticated 6000 years ago, horses have contributed to human society in various shapes and forms, from transport to companionship. Horse-riding has recently drawn attention for its positive effects on our physical and mental health. The high social cognitive skills of horses towards humans might partially explain why humans and horses have a collaborative relationship today. However, the scientific evidence for this ability is still scarce.
In this study, scientists investigated horses’ social cognitive skills with humans in a problem-solving situation where food was hidden in a place accessible only to humans. The experiment was carried out in a paddock belonging to the equestrian club at Kobe University, where eight horses from the club participated with the cooperation of their student caretakers.
For the first experiment, an assistant experimenter hid food (carrots) in a bucket that the horse could not reach. The researchers observed whether and how the horse sent signals to the caretaker when the caretaker (unaware of the situation) arrived. The horse stayed near the caretaker and looked at, touched, and pushed the caretaker. These behaviors occurred over a significantly longer period compared to cases when they carried out the experiment without hiding the food.
The results showed that when horses cannot solve problems by themselves they send signals to humans both visually (looking) and physically (touching and pushing).
Building on these results, for the second experiment they tested whether the horses’ behavior changed based on the caretakers’ knowledge of the hidden food. If the caretaker hadn’t watched the food being hidden, the horses gave more signals, demonstrating that horses can change their behavior in response to the knowledge levels of humans.
These two experiments revealed some behaviors used by horses to communicate demands to humans. They also suggest that horses possess high cognitive skills that enable them to flexibly alter their behavior towards humans according to humans’ knowledge state. This high social cognitive ability may have been acquired during the domestication process.
In order to identify the characteristic that enables horses to form close bonds with humans, in future research the team aims to compare communication between horses, as well as looking more closely at the social cognitive ability of horses in their communication with humans.
By deepening our understanding of the cognitive abilities held by species who have close relationships with humans, and making comparisons with the cognitive abilities of species such as primates who are evolutionarily close to humans, we can investigate the development of unique communication traits in domesticated animals.
This is connected to the influence of domestication on the cognitive ability of animals, and can potentially provide valuable information for realizing stronger bonds between humans and animals.
Figure 1. Horse making demands: The horse a) lightly pushes and b) looks at the caretaker standing outside the paddock. Food is hidden inside one of the two silver buckets behind them. When horses cannot obtain this food by themselves, they give humans visual and tactile signals.
Photo provided by Monamie Ringhofer.
Figure 2. Horse with caretaker at the equestrian club