You’re waiting at the in-gate for your turn to jump at a horse show, but the class is running late. You’ve been on for a while, and then your horse starts to stretch out to relieve himself.
Do you stand up in the stirrups? It’s something most of us were taught during our first riding lessons, with the instructor saying something along the lines of, “You need to get off his kidneys, so he can pee.” But is there a scientific reason to free up his back for urination?
According to Harold Schott, DVM, Ph.D., DACVIM of the Michigan State University College Of Veterinary Medicine, the answer is no.
“Can a horse pee when someone is sitting on their back? They sure can,” he said. Schott explained that the bladder is located quite far back in the horse above the sheath or mammary gland. The kidneys are in the loin, but behind where the saddle sits. “I don’t think we really know a true answer for that [common practice of standing up],” he said. “There’s no reason that sitting on the horse while they’re urinating would make a difference other than just intuitively when they stretch out to posture to urinate it might seem a little nicer to the horse to move the mass of weight they’re carrying forward. If you stood in your stirrups and move forward, you’d move your weight more over the front end and little bit less from the middle.”
In fact, this common practice of standing up in the English riding world is less well known in western and trail riding circles.
John Fisher, who managed large dude ranches in Colorado for much of his career, became fascinated with the question of what to do when a horse urinates after an East Coast equestrienne with a lengthy résumé first informed him of the practice of standing in the mid-1980s. He’d been involved with horses for about 20 years at that point and had never heard of it before.
He quickly ascertained there was no biological reason to stand—as Schott explained, there is no internal organ that will be affected by your position in the saddle—but no one was able to make a rigorous scientific argument for the horse’s comfort either.
Fisher guessed he’d discussed the topic with more than 100 horse experts of one stripe or another over the years including veterinarians, saddle makers and clinicians.
“I tried to get Colorado State University to do an actual research project on it,” said Fisher. “I offered to do the leg running to get the grant, but they weren’t interested.”
One veterinarian friend recommended the best way to find out if there was any scientific evidence regarding best practice would be to conduct an experiment where Fisher forbade his employees and dude ranch guests to stand. His friend’s theory was that if evidence existed that standing is better for the horse, someone would send it to Fisher in order to get the policy reversed.
“For a year I required everybody to sit,” Fisher said. “I said, ‘You’re going to get fired if you don’t. You’re going to tell our guests that they’re going to sit. If they’ve got proof, I want to see it.’ I did that for a year. I ticked off a lot of people. I received probably a dozen articles; there are people who have written stuff about it. But they were just somebody’s hunch. There was no proof.”
While many argued that it makes sense to get off a horse’s back as he stretches out, Fisher claimed just the opposite. “If you watch a horse get ready to urinate, they are careful in how they balance. And then you move,” he said. “What sense does that make? You’re knocking them off balance. It makes us feel good. It doesn’t make the horse feel better.”
He also said no horse suffered any ill effect from his yearlong experiment.
“I didn’t have a bunch of horses get bladder infections or urinary tract infections or anything of the sort,” Fisher said. “All I had were people who were ticked at me.”
He eventually reversed the decree due to how unhappy it made people.
“I can’t say that I have any scientific research that says yes, but I’ve got plenty that say you should do it because it really raises people’s emotions,” he said.
In the end, it may come down to paying attention to the animal you’re riding. Horses that are accustomed to their rider standing in the stirrups may take that as the signal that it’s OK to urinate. Others, such as Fisher’s trail horses that spend long days under tack, will take advantage of any break in the action to heed nature’s call, and they probably don’t care what you do, as long as you leave them alone to get on with it.
• A horse can produce up to two gallons of urine per day.
• Horse urine has calcium carbonate in it, which makes it cloudy, and mucus, which makes it bubbly. The mucus is secreted by the renal pelvis to lubricate the urethra and prevent the calcium carbonate from forming stones.
Is there a common practice in the horse world that you’ve always wondered about? Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might publish the answer in this series.
This article ran in the Sept. 18, 2017, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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