TRUE TRAINING 81 - Dapples!

Aug 01, 2023 by Janet Jones

A friend and I were walking along the other day with our horses. I had just rinsed True with water and a jelly scrubber—I almost never use soap because it strips the natural oils that create shine—and he was drying in the late afternoon sun. My friend said, “Hey, look, True has dapples!” I stood back at just the right angle, and sure enough, his bay hindquarters and flanks were mottled in the sunlight with faint golden and dark bay circles. They’re hard to see unless the sun is low and you find the right viewing position.


That word “dapples” makes most horse people smile. They’re beautiful, of course. But they’re also a sign of good health and nutrition, of high quality care. True’s now in his prime, age seven, 17 hands high, and close to 1500 pounds of muscle. Gone are the growing days when his croup was higher than his withers for a few months, then his legs too long for his body for a while, and his head too big for his shoulders. Odd growing patterns are normal in all animals, but they can make it difficult to predict exactly what the mature adult conformation will be.


True will continue to grow a little bit over the next couple years. Contrary to old myths, horses are not mature adults at age four. Growth plates in the equine skeleton continue to develop until 5 to 7 years of age in all breeds. Warmblood horses, like True, often widen slightly across their shoulders, backs, and hips from age 7 to 9 as their muscles strengthen.


Dapples are partly genetic. That is, with good health and nutrition, some horses develop them.  Other horses can be just as healthy and well fed, but do not have the genetic component to acquire dapples. However, it’s also true that horses who have the dapple genes but do not receive good nutrition do not develop dapples. Some colors, like dapple grey, are the result of such strong genetic direction that dapples will show even if the horse is in poor physical condition. It’s a great example of how nature (genes) and nurture (environment) interact.


When I refer to “good nutrition,” you might imagine that True eats lots of fancy supplements and expensive non-GMO feeds. But no. True eats a mix of high quality alfalfa and grass hay. That’s it. For much of his life, he was on natural grass pastures 24/7. Until 5 years of age, he also got a small daily amount of high-protein ration balancer to help his skeleton develop and strengthen. On the rare occasions when he drops some weight, I add a pound of supplemental pelleted feed daily for a few weeks. I stop as soon as he is back to normal.


I weigh True’s hay to ensure he is getting the right amount, and I avoid feeding True too much. Many performance horses today are overweight, even obese. Even a little extra weight puts pressure on a horse’s hooves and legs, the skinny pillars that hold up 1200 pounds in an average sized horse. With proper weight, a horse’s ribs and hip bones should not be seen. But they don’t need to be covered with bulges of fat, either.


So, most of the time, True eats nothing but high quality hay or grass. That, plus clean water and a salt/mineral lick, are all the nutrition he needs for a strong, healthy body. With dapples!