Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nowt as Queer as Horsey Folk?

Since birds of a feather flock together it’s perfectly normal that, over the years, I’ve mingled with a lot of people who share my passion for horses. Even as a very young child I had a friend whose favorite thing to do was ride around the block on her bicycle with a riding crop in her hand which she’d use to thrash her thighs every so often. I did it too, didn’t you? Another thing we’d do, like most baby-horsey people, was trot and canter all over the place, one behind the other, a skipping rope or long piece of string wrapped around the front person’s tummy. I got burn marks on my stomach once from being halted a little too abruptly.

Nowadays, my twelve-year-old niece and her seven year-old sister both charge around their garden, elbows at their side, self-flagellating their thighs with their colorful little riding whips, hurtling over tree trunks and bits of garden furniture they’ve made into jumps. They even plant pretend refusals, give themselves a good thrashing, then circle and go again! At one point, the twelve-year-old refused to go to school until she’d gone down to the bottom of the garden to feed and water her imaginary ponies. Yes, even in the arctic conditions of mid-winter, when she’d have to break the ice in the fountain in the garden! Seeing as my sister’s mornings are timed with military precision, that she’s always in a rush, and not quite so horsey, these quirky capers drove her crazy. She thought it was a bit weird.

That’s the thing about horsey people. We’re a bit weird. Most of us are nice weird, and some of us are not so nice weird. And unfortunately, I can’t help thinking that I’ve met quite a few not-so-nice weird horsey people, especially among professionals.

It’s true. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been unlucky, or whether it’s because I tend to be over-sensitive and non-confontational, but so many of my encounters in the professional world of equestrian sports have been disquieting. Upsetting. Weird in a bad way.

Take riding instructors, for instance. The vast majority of riding instructors I’ve endured have been very scary, right from the time when I was a little girl. I remember having lessons with all kinds of bad-tempered, highly impatient whip wielding individuals whose big booming voices hurled scathing remarks at terrified children struggling with poor, disillusioned, grumpy riding school horses. I can still hear one little girl begging one particularly evil teacher to not force her to canter, can still picture that monster running after her cracking his whip, and still cringe at the image of that little girl’s horse taking off à la Speedy Gonzalez while she clung on as best she could, sobbing with fright, often falling off as her bratty horse bucked and kicked out and torpedoed around the corner. This happened week after week, until, finally, that traumatized little girl stopped coming.

That teacher terrified me, too, yet I somehow managed to get through those lessons, probably because I was so utterly obsessed with horses and had waited so long to finally be allowed to take lessons (you had to be at least 12 years old) and the only alternative was not riding at all. But, seriously, what was wrong with that man? How could such a creep be allowed to teach anyone anything?

A few years later I discovered a farmer who bred Welsh Mountain and Shetland ponies in the village close to where I lived, and who seemed happy to let me ride for free. Another girl, slightly older than me, already had her foot in the door with this farmer, and although she was happy to have someone to accompany her on long pony rides in the countryside, she never failed to remind me that she’d been there first, and basically acted like a right little despot, always putting me down and hogging the best pony. I rode past her house the other day and remembered the thrill of my first slow dance during a party in her living room when I was fourteen. It was Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and I somehow managed to nab the hottest guy there! Ha! Strangely enough, I don’t remember riding with her again after that night! Weird, eh? I wonder if she turned professional!

Anyway, when I finally was lucky enough to have a horse of my own, I endured many more years of obnoxious, neurotic behavior from yet another charming professional horseman. I was 27 by then, and looking back I can’t believe the disparaging, disrespectful remarks I put up with. Not that I was the only one getting crap rap; this guy was rude to everyone except for one young woman he presumably had a crush on and who, in his eyes, couldn’t put a foot wrong. The crazy thing was that I’d actually bought my mare from him, stabled my mare with him, paid a fortune for lessons with him, yet he constantly bitched and scorned and generally behaved like a dog with a smelly bone to pick.

Jumping lessons with him? A nightmare! I’d never really jumped before, and my mare was young and high-strung, charging towards the jumps with her head in the air, sometimes clearing it by a mile, often sliding to a stop and leaving me to do the mile-high clearing. That teacher ranted and raved at me in front of everyone else until I no longer remembered my name, let alone what side to get back on when I came off. How many times did that class end in tears?! Why did I stick it out for as long as I did? Why did it take about three or four years before me and a group of other disgruntled friends moved our horses to another stable, where we inevitably endured a different version of the same old insulting story. Weird, no?

Then, one day, following yet another hour of traumatic destructive criticism on horseback, I met a ruddy complexioned lady who owned two horses who had just started boarding her horses at this stable. She invariably showed up with half a dozen dogs of all shapes and sizes who bounded around unchecked, much to the horror of the crabby owners of the stables, who shouted and complained and threatened until they were puce in the face and smoke billowed from their every orifice, but this ruddy complexioned lady was clearly Teflon coated when it came to rude remarks. She’d just purse her lips, stick her nose in the air and nod, put her dogs in the car for a few minutes until the complainers had gone away, then let them out again and get on with riding her horses! She didn’t work with any of the stable’s bad-tempered instructors, instead she had her own private trainer fly in every six weeks or so from Holland. She was a dressage rider, and from the very first time I saw her ride her beautiful chunky-necked dapple-grey gelding I was fascinated. I’d never seen anyone ride like that before, not at close range, anyway, and I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do.

For days and days I sat and watched her ride, then finally plucked up the courage to ask if she could teach me to ride like her, explaining that I had become scared of jumping, and that in all my years of lessons “on the flat” I had never come close to having my mare move with the elegance and rhythm of her horses. Nobody had ever explained the importance of the outside rein in conjunction with the inside leg, all we seemed to do was rush around, our horses hind legs chasing their front legs higgledy piggledy. I knew there would be a lot of work involved, and that my high-strung, thouroughbredish mare didn’t have the big elastic movement of her beautiful dressage horses, but I simply couldn’t take anymore of those rushed, frantic, insult-ridden riding sessions. Could this Teflon-charactered ruddy-complexioned lady with a gazillion dogs give me lessons without giving me hell?

She could and did, and when a year or so later she fulfilled her dream of buying a stable of her own I followed her there, along with a couple of other ladies whom she “helped” ride (she said she didn’t give lessons as she wasn’t a qualified instructor, she merely “helped” us in between sessions with the Dutch instructor, with whom I also trained). For a while it seemed like I’d finally arrived in equestrian paradise, with all these lovely ladies swanning around on prancy horses, all of us a nicely bonded group able to sit down and enjoy coffee and croissants together while conversing about all sorts of things. Pretty soon I got a new horse with a little more movement than my mare. The Dutch trainer would come for two day clinics and we’d all gather around, watching each other’s lessons, as eager to learn by watching as we were by riding. Nobody insulted anyone, nobody made disparaging remarks, everyone was just pleasant and friendly and polite, and, well, normal!

Until, one day, one of the ladies wasn’t pleasant or friendly or polite, and, because of something weird and very unpleasant that she did, the ruddy complexioned lady fell out with the trainer, and all hell broke loose, with some ladies taking one side, and others taking the other. I stayed loyal to my ruddy complexioned friend, but from then on the spell was broken and nothing was the same. And it was sad, because it had been so nice. Or maybe it had been too good to be true. I don’t know. And then I broke my leg by falling off a sledge and was out for almost a year. Meanwhile, a new trainer was brought in, from Germany this time, but he was loud and scary and, in my opinion, rough with the horses. Personally, I never worked with him because by the time my leg was healed supposedly well enough for me to ride my horse again, I almost immediately fell off and shattered my shoulder, which put me out for close to yet another year.

This is when I quit riding. With two really bad injuries in the space of about fourteen months and yet another bad-tempered instructor to put up with, I figured life was trying to tell me something. Besides, with two young children, a husband, three dogs and a big house, and an increasing desire to write, I had enough on my plate. So I gave away my horse (to a great home, where he is still well cared for and loved) and all my tack and equipment, convinced I’d never ride again.

But my daughter also possessed the horse-crazy gene, and pretty soon I was taking her for riding lessons at a series of local stables where the majority of instructors also turned out to be bad-tempered, impatient or downright rude. Eventually, tired of the abuse, we found her a “demi-pension” (I think you call it half-board. It’s where you pay half of someone else’s horse’s keep) and set about looking for a private trainer, and eventually discovered the wonderful Marie-Valentine, who got me hooked dressage again, and later helped us find our now-retired, mega-fabulous Kwintus. She also recently helped me find our new horse, Qrac, and is as excited as I am about driving down to pick him up in the south of France next Thursday!

Marie-Valentine is a teeny tiny person with a big loud voice (a VERY BIG LOUD VOICE!) but it’s a friendly, enthusiastic, passionate big loud voice. She has trained with the some of the best dressage riders in the world (Klaus Balkenhol, for instance), collaborated on opening the first university dressage degree in America (in Ohio), and has ridden Grand Prix. She has a great sense of humor, endless energy and dedication, is never rough with the horses, nor rude or insulting with people, and has become one of the most sought after teachers in this area of Switzerland and neighboring France. She and I have become great friends, I love her to bits and have the utmost respect for her. Is she weird? Well, frankly, aren’t we all?! But like me and most nice horsey people, she’s only weird in the most wonderful ways!

What about you? Have your experiences with horsey professionals been as trying as mine, or have I just been really unlucky?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In Praise of Henry

By Laura Crum

Its sunny and we’re riding again. The horses have had two weeks off due to bad weather. Monday we saddled up and rode in my riding ring—walk trot only because the ground is not perfect yet. The trails will be too wet for some time to come. Both Sunny and Henry felt pretty good—who can blame them. And yet both little guys were well behaved for a fairly sedate session of walk trot work. I am so grateful for them.

So yesterday, as I was thinking about writing a post, I decided I just want to sing Henry’s praises and through him, extol the virtues of buying your child an old, solid horse. So often people opt in favor of the younger, less solid horse, and I know the reasons for this. But the absolutely wonderful, 100% positive experience my son has had with Henry is a good reason to consider that older horse when you’re shopping. And for those who are not the boldest older “re-riders”, this applies to you and me, too. Don’t overlook the “Henry’s” of this world. Let me show you why.

Here is Henry. Henry is a registered QH gelding, of mostly running bloodlines. He is 14.3 hands. I’ve known Henry since he was a young horse. He belonged to a friend of ours, Harold Warkentin, who team roped on Henry until Harold was 80. The photo above shows Henry as a six-year-old at Harold’s place.

Henry was always reliable for Harold and when Harold gave up roping in his 80’s my uncle bought Henry. Henry was 15 at the time. My uncle used him as a practice rope horse and to mount his grandkids on. I watched Henry be perfectly sound and well behaved for an assortment of people for four years. His only vice was being a touch lazy, and I consider that a virtue in a kid’s horse. Henry had smooth gaits and was absolutely reliable, in the pen and outside. When my son’s pony died three and a half years ago (my child had just turned seven years old at the time), I asked if my uncle would sell Henry. Sure he would. For the same five thousand dollars he’d paid for him four years ago.

My friends told me I was nuts. I shouldn’t have to pay five thousand for a nineteen year old horse. And I was perfectly aware that my uncle was cutting a fat hog at my expense. (He’d done this before.) But I knew Henry was the horse I wanted for my son. And he’s been worth every penny.

Since I bought Henry, my son and I have been on hundreds and hundreds of rides together (I kept track the first year—we went on 120 trail/beach rides that year, not counting arena riding). Not once has my kid been hurt or even scared. We have seen many lovely things that will be with us forever. My son has learned to be a confident and effective rider. What price could I put on that?

The photos below show my son riding Henry. They’re not the best pictures, since I took them while riding my own horse, Sunny. But if you look you will see the relaxed, confident demeanor in both horse and child. They are enjoying the world together. And look at what they get to see. I could not have taken my little boy all these places without a horse as solid as Henry.

Henry in riding ring.

Henry on the trail.

Henry at the beach.

Henry is twenty three this spring and still perfectly sound. He colicked when he was twenty and I paid for colic surgery to save his life, but that happens to horses both young and old. The odds are that he doesn’t have ten more years left as a riding horse, as a younger horse might have, but certainly many younger horses have more soundness issues than Henry—who currently has none. He is completely sound and goes barefoot. And if I lost him tomorrow, those last three and a half years are a gift I will value forever.

Henry—twenty three years old.

My son rode Henry yesterday—another pleasant walk/trot session in our riding ring, which still has some muddy spots. Nothing special. Took about twenty minutes. Just what you see in the riding ring photo, which was actually taken last fall. But I cannot think of one single thing that I consider a greater gift than this regular, pleasant, confidence-building interaction my son has with this great old horse. When my son was done he gave his horse a cookie (which we have taught Henry to take politely) and we turned him loose to graze in the ring (which has plenty of grass right now) for an hour. We were all content.

So thank you, Henry, for all you’ve given and are giving us, I will take care of you and love you until the end of your days. And to all of you who are looking for a horse and are offered a chance at a rock solid oldster—do not discount the pure joy available in the reliable ride, free of fear and struggle. Does this look like happiness or what?

Henry and kid—loping in the springtime (last year at this time).

Anybody else have an older riding horse you just love?

Monday, March 28, 2011


I was reading through the last several blog entries by Jami, Alison and Laura and it dawned on me that although we have never met in person, how connected I feel to everyone on this blog. Now of course we all have 2 very large things in common - Horses and Writing - but those are both fairly broad categories. So although Laura made a very valid point as to whether or not the hours we spend ruining our eyesight staring at computer screens are good additions to our sociological existence; I choose to look at this reality from another perspective. Without the addition of the Internet with its blogs, chat rooms and instant messages; how many people would we all have never gotten to know at least in cyber space. I am sure that all of us have numerous people that we correspond with primarily via e-mail rather than in person. That is sometimes a simple fact of too little time and not enough proximity. But what a loss it would be if we could not stay connected at all. I attended a very tiny private high school (where I was considered the horse nerd) with only 26 girls in my senior class. Today, sadly 4 of us have passed on (a scary fact of disease and old age) but I am still in touch via e-mail with 20 of the remaining 22. Without electronic connections that would not be possible. And although we live many miles apart, I completely relate to Jami's tales of surviving life as a dressage competitor. I do think that anyone who falls in love with dressage has to be just a little bit crazy, but it is great to read Jami's confession of a hay bale critic and know that I am not alone. I too know many people who could be the twins of the people Jami wrote about. Arm chair quarterbacks who are long on criticism and short on just getting out there and doing it. Jami I wish we were showing in the same area because I would love to hang out with you. The group of us who show consist of some professionals, some adult amateurs and many juniors often in combination with their parents who either also show or just come to support. I do my best to foster and insist upon an atmosphere of positivity and enjoyment of the experience not the color of the ribbon. Like Jami said, the horse's don't care, they just love us and just want to be part of the action. Although I will confess to going to the dark side from time to time and grouse about a blind judge or how one of my student's got robbed. As for me., I have developed quite a thick skin over the years. Having to compete as a professional in the Dressage mecca that San Diego has become, being of limited funds and on a thoroughbred to boot - well lets just say I have learned to ride more for my satisfaction that the judges. I am pleasantly surprised every once in a while but I have no delusions of ever riding like a Stephen Peters, Sue Blinks, Gunter Seidel or Elizabeth Ball who are often at the recognized dressage shows in my area. I would like to propose a new competitive division "open - but not rich and never been to an Olympics". Any way back to my original point, even though I think that e-mail at times makes my life infinitely more complicated rather than easier and that tech support people are inherently evil and rude, the good things about computers and instant connectivity they bring far out way the bad. How many of us have solved problems with a horse's health or behavior by consulting the Internet or posting on a website. What has been your experience? Has informational websites, blogs and chat rooms enhanced your knowledge, help to solve a problem or just simply made you feel connected to the other horse addicts out there?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I’m a Recovering Hay Bale Critic

As I struggle with my place on the horse world, aka what I want to do with horses when I finally grow up, I thought about writing a piece exploring whether or not you can move up the levels in dressage without showing. While that’s definitely a worthy subject, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend last summer.

Rebecca had just returned from a show. She hung out with a mutual acquaintance of ours, Sheila, in the evening at the show and had a somewhat disturbing experience. You see, Sheila wins everything. If she doesn’t score in the mid-sixties or higher, she has a fit. Blaming everyone from the show management, judges, footing, and the horse, even when she’s won the class. Now her lack of humility might be another topic for a future post, but it’s not where I’m going either. Sheila wanted to spend the evening going through the show program and criticizing every rider in it. Rebecca didn’t want any part of it, yet couldn’t find a way to discourage Sheila from her mission.

Now back in my showing days, I’d seen Sheila and her cronies sitting near the arena as I rode in at A and thanked God I never knew what they were saying about me. Yes, I, too, been near them in the stands and heard their remarks and exclamations over certain riders. I knew the types of things they were saying.

Ah, yes, the hay bale critics. We all know them, whether you show dressage or some other horse sport. Often, they don’t compete themselves, or they tried it a time or two and gave it up because the judges didn’t award them a “fair” score. Or maybe they never showed at all. Showing was beneath them. They’d seen the light, and showing was the root of all that ails the horse industry, bringing about all sorts of horse abuse. Or perhaps, like Sheila, they’ve had enough success they feel tasked with detailing others’ faults. Actually, this particular quality of the hay bale critic doesn’t require success just a sense of self-righteousness.

You see, I know of what I speak, as I am a recovering hay bale critic. Yes, I admit it. I was one of those women, superior in my knowledge of dressage, certain others were ruining their horses with their jiggling hands and bouncing seats, convinced the judges just didn’t get it. Add to that, my extensive reading on the subject of classical dressage, and I became even more unbearable in my righteousness. Not that reading classical dressage books is bad, but I’d gotten in with a group of catty women in my younger years who were essentially armchair dressage riders. We endlessly pursued the perfect circle, feeling superior in our quest. We turned our noses up at those poor souls who just didn’t get the deeper artistic meaning of dressage, certain we were better or more enlightened than they were.

We attended shows, now to show, but to watch and criticize. Our leader, Martha, had been kicked out of every dressage barn in the area because of her troublemaking and talent for spreading discontent. She's one of those disciples of classical "artistic" dressage who give classical dressage a bad name. I’m not a mean person or a catty person, but I was easily misled by Martha and sucked into her catty little world for the next few years. I even followed her around to a few barns in the area. Yes, but this was in my younger days, much younger days.

When I purchased Gailey and started showing her, it was a humbling experience and marked the ends of my hay bale critique days. My mare had talent, but I never did her justice. I became that fumbling, bumbling rider that previously Martha and I would have gasped at in abject horror. I was the one struggling so hard to do it right, to not embarass myself, or cause discomfort to my horse. And now, I was the one Martha criticized, her nose up in the air and disgusted expression on her face as she whispered to her cohorts.

After a particularly bad show, I expressed my frustration regarding my lack of dressage success to a close friend. I mentioned Gailey deserved a better rider than me. She laughed and said: “The horse doesn’t care what color the ribbons are. She adores you. You love her. Enjoy the journey. Don’t worry about the bling. It doesn’t mean anything.”

And neither do Martha or Sheila’s catty remarks, made by insecure people attempting to tear others down in order to build themselves up. I thought about this for a while. She was right. Gailey didn’t care about the ribbons. They were of no use to her. In fact, they weren’t of much use to me either. If I felt good about my test, that was what mattered. Not the opinions of a group of people who shouldn’t have an credence in my life.

Now when I go to shows, I hang out with positive people. We still discuss people’s rides, but we do it with kindness and empathy and as an educational tool among ourselves, not to impress others with our superior knowledge. Always, I have sympathy for the horse and rider. If you haven’t put your foot in that stirrup and mounted that particular horse on that particular day, you have no idea what’s going on during that ride.

I’ve been there, done that from both sides of the rail. Whenever I’m tempted to let the catty evil twin side of my personality slip out, I remember my days showing Gailey, and how much guts it took to put myself out there, and I zip my mouth shut.

I bet you all know a few Marthas. :)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Promotion, Promotion and More Promotion

Laura's previous blog got me thinking about all the time I spend on the computer. Since I make a 'living' writing and teaching, the internet, email and WORD are my constant and necessary companions. I use email to communicate with editors, young fans and other writers. The internet is crucial for research, and editors expect an electronically delivered manuscript. Right now, I am writing a bio of Wolfgang Puck for an educational company. Without the internet and online article databases, I would be lost! (How DID we research in the 'olden days'?) For teaching, I communicate with students through email and Blackboard and with collegues almost exclusively with email. None of the above, however, is really using the computer for leisure. However, for the past several years, time on the computer has increased due to what Laura touched on: promotion.

Unlike Laura's editor and publisher (who seem to be very supportive), the publishers I work with have not encouraged blogging or developing a website. It is an unstated rule in the industry that if you do not promote your books and keep sales high, you will not get another contract. (Unless you are a celebrity or big name author, then the publishing house will promote.)Thus blogging and online book tours/interviews etc have become increasingly important to authors who want to get their books 'out there' along with school visits (for children's authors), conferences and book festivals. (That's me above at the Kentucky Book Fair.) Even my Facebook page is for my YA mystery, Whirlwind. Promotion is incredibly time-consuming and often exhausting (think 250 thirteen-year-olds in one assembly)plus it takes away from writing, riding and home. For me, it does have a wonderful upside: I get to meet other teachers, authors and book lovers either in person or virtually, which is renewing and exhilerating.

Speaking of, Whirlwind and Shadow Horse are being given away on a wonderful blog written by Lisa, a mom and horse lover at (Sorry but I could not get the link to publish!) I never would have met Lisa without a 'real' friend to direct me to her blog, but through Lisa's giveaway, I have already met another blogger/writer who would like to host a giveaway and interview. Those online connections might take time away from 'life' but they are also fun, and the fun part is what makes them so addicting.

The virtual world is here to stay. For some of us, it is an absolute necessity for our work. For others, a way to reach out or play. Many of you already commented on Laura's blog post about how you use and manage your online life. Now that spring is coming (really, it is) I imagine most of us will be spending more time outdoors. Still, I would like to know, how do you use the computer to enhance your life and career?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Vicarious Pleasures

by Laura Crum

This post is on a topic that seems pretty paradoxical. Here I am, writing a blog post for a blogspot, and what I want to talk about is the fact that I don’t really like it that I’m staring at this screen rather than playing with my new puppy or watching the rain pour down (yes, its still raining). Much as I enjoy writing blog posts and hearing what others have to say, there is a little part of me that whispers that I need to readjust my priorities. I sometimes remind myself of folks who watch horses on TV and don’t ride their own horses any more.

OK—perhaps there is nothing wrong with watching horses on TV. I am a bit predjudiced on this subject, I guess. I don’t even own a TV—that’s how strongly I feel about watching TV. Certainly I do sometimes enjoy watching a unique sporting event on someone else’s TV, but overall I prefer to be free of that particular noose. They don’t call it “programming” for nothing.

But then there’s the computer. For many years I refused to use email, I wrote my books longhand and had them typed by others. I avoided the computer screen as I avoided the TV screen. However, eventually I caved.

My downfall was insidious. My husband taught me to use email when we were courting. Pretty quick I loved email. And not so long after that, email became the communication method of choice among most people I knew. No one used the phone any more. It was all email. So now I’m using email, too—sitting at the computer screen quite a bit, in fact.

Then, my books. It cost a lot to have them typed by others. For many years now, I can’t afford that luxury. I type them myself on the computer (using the hunt-and-peck method—I kid you not). Now I’m facing that screen a heck of a lot.

And finally came this blog. Despite using email and typing my books into the computer, I WAS, repeat WAS, relatively free of the computer as an entertainment device. I didn’t even know what a blog was three years ago. I don’t shop on EBAY (or any other computer oriented way). I don’t routinely “google” things or look them up on Wikipedia. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. As I say, I was still relatively free of the damn computer.

And then came this blog. When I received the invitation to join, I almost just deleted it. I don’t do blogs, was my thought. I don’t even know what a blog is. On a whim, I forwarded the invite to my editor. What do you think, I asked her.

Well, the editor wrote and begged me to do it. Great publicity for your books, she said. The publisher wrote and begged me to do it. They both thought it would sell books. Since I don’t tour and refuse to spend my own money promoting my books, I decided I should reconsider this blogging idea. After all, I could do it from home and its free. Why not?

So I started writing blog posts for Equestrian Ink. And in order to find out how to write such things, I read a few other horse blogs. And that was the beginning of my “addiction”. I liked reading horse blogs. I liked it a lot. It was very entertaining. I found I liked writing horse blogs and commenting on horse blogs. I liked getting to know horse bloggers all over the country and all over the world. I made some friends. And discovered, as well, that sometimes internet friendships are not what they appear (as those who have found internet “sweethearts’ can often attest). Anyway, I was hooked. I loved horse blog world. I spents lots and lots of time reading blogs, commenting, and emailing folks I “met” through the blogs. I was no longer so interested in promoting my books. I was involved in “social networking”.

It took me awhile to realize what had happened. Call me dumb, but it was a long time before I sat up and said, “My God, I’m devoting over an hour a day to this stuff.” And that wasn’t time spent working on my books. That was playing around reading horse blogs. I hate to think what would happen if I got involved with Facebook and Twitter, too.

The thing is, when all was said and done, I really didn’t have that hour to give. It gets taken from my family, my kid, my animals, my garden, keeping up the house, working on my books, and just being in the natural world…all things that mean far more to me than computer time. But guess what? I couldn’t give it up so easily. I was addicted. Or I was connected. I was something, anyway. Because I was interested in all the people that I had “met” through blogging. I couldn’t let go of hearing about them and their horses and their lives. I thought about them sometimes, when I was down at the barn with my own horses, or lying awake at night. They (you) were part of my life.

But now I was torn. Because though I know all of you are as real as me, and though I was now fond of you, I still didn’t want to spend this much time facing a screen. Real you might be, but you still equaled screentime instead of that same time spent at my barn or in my garden, or playing with my kid. And so now I’m in a quandry. And I haven’t figured any way out.

So today I would like to ask if any of you, like me, are puzzled and slightly alarmed by how much time you spend at the computer and find yourself ambivalent about how much emotional energy you invest interacting with people you’ve never actually met. Because I do think of you and your horses and worry about your problems and enjoy your triumphs. And I was hurt when my first internet “friend” turned against me. Is this connection/addiction a good thing overall? Looked at from one angle, I think, yes. From another angle, I wonder. I’m never entirely sure. Does anyone else ponder this question?

Sunday, March 20, 2011


by Laura Crum

The skies outside my window are a VERY dark gray as I type this. Rain spatters down and wind tosses the branches of the big trees I can see. And this is a lull in the storm. By my rain guage, we have had four inches since yesterday, accompanied by high winds. The rain is increasing as I type, pounding on my metal roof. It’s a pleasant sound—usually. But right now I can’t get my mind off my horses.

I’ve been down to feed them this morning and all seem healthy enough. Nobody lame, all eager for breakfast. But I have never had more mud than this. All the horses have shelter and a dry place to hang out, but there is muck everywhere. My riding ring looks like a holding pond. You should see the ruts that the storm has dug in my driveway in just one night. And we were pretty damn wet here before the latest deluge.

This sort of weather is more or less typical for March here in coastal central California, but this is an extreme version of it. The weather guessers say that it is going to rain pretty much non-stop for the next week. I can’t imagine what things are going to look like after that. And I actually have a pretty good setup here compared to those in low-lying areas. My property is sloped and faces south; the ground is sandy. We usually dry out pretty readily and don’t have a big problem with mud. Yeah, right. Tell that to the horses.

The rain pours down outside; I just want to whine a little. Usually I try to write interesting posts worth discussing, or upbeat posts about the joys of horse ownership. Not today. Today I want to whine. So please forgive this self indulgence and feel free to click that little X if you don’t want to listen to me complain.

I believe I have ridden my horse all of three times in the month of March. All through January and the first half of February we had sunshine and I rode a lot and posted lyrical pieces about the beach and the trail. That seems like a pleasant dream or a distant memory to me now. Since the middle of February it has rained pretty steadily. I caught a cold. On those few days that it was sunny and dry enough to ride, I did not feel up to it. Frequently after spending twenty minutes cleaning up and saddling my little boy’s horse, I was just done. I sat and watched my kid exercise his horse while Sunny stared at me accusingly. But I simply didn’t have the energy.

I have been through periods like this before, and for me, it sort of becomes a self perpetuating cycle. I get out of the rhythm of regular riding and pretty soon I feel like I don’t even want to ride. On sunny days (if there were any), I’d rather putter around the garden looking at what’s in bloom, or sit on the porch and drink a cup of tea. The horses begin to seem like more of a burden than a pleasure. Something I ought to do but don’t really want to.

I give myself the usual pep talks. I point out that the weather won’t stay like this forever (I hope), and that when I start riding regularly again I’ll enjoy it—I always do. And our steady horses are just as good after a month off as they are if we ride them four times a week (and this is true). I remind myself that I don’t have to ride if I don’t want to; our horses live in big corrals where they can run and buck and play (and they do—not at the moment though), and they are happy when I turn them out to graze (which I do most days—but not in the middle of a storm), and that if I want to just enjoy them and not ride them its fine. I think about how much my son enjoys riding his horse and what a gift this has been for him. I feel a little better.

Then I contemplate the fact that my next novel must be turned in at the end of April and I still have half a dozen chapters left to write. The well seems pretty dry right now—unlike my corrals. Maybe I should make it storm in the story. Hmmm…

Anyway, Jami is sick today and I offered to post in her stead—I hope you all don’t mind my whining and rambling. Do you, too, go through these periods where (dare I say it) the thought crosses your mind that maybe horseback riding is more work than its worth? (I know—I don’t really mean it). With all this rain it will be quite awhile before I can get out on my beloved trails—some years it is late May or early June before the north slopes dry out enough that they’re not slippery. That’s a long time to wait.

OK—rather than typing blog posts, I ought to be working on the book. I hope you all are having a good day with your horses. Thanks for listening to me whine.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sweating Buckets

Last week, while riding Qrac, my most most-likely-soon-to-be new Lusitano (pinch me, someone!), down in Avignon in the South of France, I really struggled trying to keep him straight. In fact, I struggled trying to do everything with him, really. Not in a disastrous, scary, out of control way; I wouldn’t be buying him if that had been the case. I just struggled because I tend to find it hard to ride a horse I don’t know. In addition, I was also riding a breed I don’t know, and I’d never imagined it would feel so different.

My main problem, apart from keeping Qrac straight, was keeping him in a steady regular pace. That Monday evening, I worked my core muscles more in the half hour or so I rode him than in three months of regular yoga classes. At least, that’s what it felt like. Two days after riding him, apart from sore abs, I even had sore ARMPITS, with my pectoral muscles on fire from hauling down my shoulder blades! I’d forgotten how much hard work can be involved in a half-halt, and goodness knows how many half-halts I did in those thirty minutes. All I know is that I did lots, and that I was drenched in sweat. Everywhere. Yes, I even had a sweaty bum. Lovely, huh?! Do you get a sweaty bum when you’re riding? Some people do, some people don’t. I wish I could toss my hair, shrug my shoulders and brag about belonging to the non-sweaty-botty riding group, but what can you do? Botox, maybe?! Gosh, imagine having a Botoxed bum!

Anyway, while I was out there sweating on Qrac, my trainer, Marie-Valentine, mostly kept a low profile. We’d figured it was important to establish how hard it would be for me to handle the horse on my own, knowing full well that almost any horse would be a challenge after having been lucky enough to own an angelic schoolmaster like Kwintus for the past few years. And I’m pretty confident it will be fine, especially as I’ve decided not to take him to where Kwint lives straight away, but instead stable him at another yard closer to where my trainer lives, and where there is a nice big indoor. The indoor at “my stables” should be up before the summer, and I’ll move Qrac back there as soon as it’s ready, maybe even before if I feel super confident. But I don’t want to do anything foolish, and my yard is simply too wide open: if a horse takes off with you in our outdoor arena it’s hasta la vista, baby, see you in Italy!

So I’m going to play it safe, get to know him, take lessons and set up a training program. I’m looking forward to the challenge, as riding a younger horse with nowhere near as much training as Mr. Kwint is going to be interesting. It’s also going to be humbling. Maybe it’s just me, but, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always found it difficult to climb onto any horse other than my own (or one that I’m used to riding) and feel like I know what I’m doing, which is why I really admire people like my trainer who can hop onto virtually any horse and make the most of it within a couple of minutes.

One thing I’ve always liked about working with Marie-Valentine is that, on top of being blessed with the most enthusiastic, positive and sunny personality I’ve ever met in a horsey professional, she also comes up with great images to help convey what she’s trying to get across. For example, when my daughter was trying to understand the concept of the half-halt, Marie-Valentine came up with the “I” image (as in the letter “I”). Back then, we knew someone who was always very stiff and rigid in the saddle, whereas Olivia and I tend to be a little too soft and supple in our backs. Of course, being supple is a great asset for following the horse’s movement, but the half-halt requires that split-second “rigidity” which doesn’t come naturally to my daughter and me. We’re just not, well, rigid people! I mean, I even have a floppy walk!

Anyway, in order to help us understand that split-second rigidity, Marie-Valentine told us to picture that super-rigid person riding. We have an expression in French for describing someone who holds themselves super straight: we say “as straight as an I”. Since she needed a discreet way of telling my daughter to think of that rigid person in the saddle whenever she asked for a half-halt, the “I” image was born. And trust me, when I rode Qrac last week, Marie-Valentine’s “I” image came in very handy. In fact, I’m fantasizing about half-halting my way to a six-pack by summer!

Another image that had amazing results on Qrac last week was one I picked up from the inside back page of the latest edition of Dressage Today (their inner back page riding tips are brilliant) This one involved imagining a bucket of water in my pelvis and having to avoid tipping it over. Since I’m very supple in my back, I also tend to collapse my lower spine too much when I’m riding, tucking my tailbone too far underneath me, which then tilts my upper body backwards. One of the few things that Marie-Valentine said to me last week as I trotted past her was “sit up straighter (in French “redresse-toi”), upon which I immediately remembered the bucket of water. I corrected the curve of my lower back to avoid the water spilling out of my imaginary bucket, and Qrac reacted by loosening up straight away. Isn’t it amazing how sensitive they are?

Other useful images I try to keep in mind while riding include stopping my pony tail from bouncing from side to side. This image forces me to stabilize my shoulder blades, which further stabilizes my back. It also forces me to keep our chin up, since one of my other bad habits is looking down instead of straight between my horse’s ears.

Do you have any images you use to help with your riding? Would you care to share some useful tips?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Middle Road

by Laura Crum

After last week’s post on “Trust” and the discussion that followed (some of it on “A Year With Horses” and “Horse Of Course”, listed on the sidebar), Kate suggested a post on the subject of how difficult it can be to find the path between too harsh and too permissive if you’ve never learned how to use firmer methods. Other people also referenced this point. So today I want to elaborate on this idea.

First off I want to say that I am not at all a fan of overly harsh training methods. I have seen the great harm done to horses this way first hand. At one time I even participated in it. I will never do so again. At the same time, I have seen much damage done by well intentioned folks who simply did not know how to make a horse behave (or set boundaries, or however you’d like to describe it). Read my last post, “Trust” for a description of what I mean. I myself believe in the middle road. I expect my horses to behave respectfully and obediently and I enforce this. Not least because I want to keep us all safe. At the same time, I treat them kindly and fairly and they thrive and seem happy. Every single one of my horses meets me at the gate and sticks his head in the halter.

I think part of the reason that I get along well with my horses is that the way I handle them makes sense to them. I reprimand them as needed to let them know I’m in charge (which is how horses relate to each other), and they find this overall reassuring. I also provide them with many things they enjoy (three meals a day, turn out to graze, plenty of space). And (and this is a big one) the work I have for them is mostly pleasant for them. Light exercise and trail riding, the occasional small gather or a little cow herding and chasing is all they are asked to do. But I do, indeed, give them a whack with the end of the leadrope, or other appropriate reprimands when they need it—and I think this is a good thing. Perhaps the biggest part of this whole equation is that I operate out of confidence. I know I can handle what comes up with these horses. I know I’m in charge. I don’t need to operate from fear.

Part of the reason I don’t need to operate from fear is that I have purposely chosen two good, solid riding horses for myself and my son that are appropriate to our current use, and I am not struggling with a horse that has behavior problems. The other reason I don’t operate from fear is that I have spent forty years owning, riding and training horses and I can both read my horses accurately and respond to what comes up out of a large toolbox of things I have learned over these many years. And this is where all those training methods come in.

So now I am going to admit that in my twenties I was an assistant to a very well known reined cowhorse trainer who used some very harsh methods to make winning horses. His methods were, by and large, standard in that industry at that time. When I worked for him, I sometimes protested at what I was asked to do and he was as harsh with me as he was with the horses. It was his way or the highway. At first I was so in awe of his reputation and skill (and he knew how to make winners) that I just followed orders. A year later, much wiser in the ways of training reined cowhorses and fed up with the cruelty and abuse, I quit this guy and moved on, vowing never to participate in anything like that again.

I then went to work for several cutting horse trainers. They trained very differently and were overall not nearly so harsh. Nonetheless there was a lot of what you would have to call coercion involved. (Spur hard, stop him hard, to let the horse know where he erred.) It wasn’t done to be cruel. Overall it was done effectively and for a purpose. But it was still hard on horses at times. I learned a lot from these guys. Among other things, I learned when to let a horse alone and not pressure him. I trained my horse to be an effective cutting horse. And yes, I spurred him hard at some points.

Now I want to get down to the bottom line here. You will not see many horses winning at a high level in most competitive disciplines without some coercive methods being used. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) But whether you are talking about cutting or reining or dressage or whatever, you can rest assured that most of the horses that win big events were pushed pretty damn hard at times. And there’s a reason for this.

When I was showing cutting horses I practiced with and competed against Tom Dorrance’s wife, Margaret. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain who Tom Dorrance is—he’s the grandfather of all the non-coercive training methods out there. When I knew him he was an old man and a very magical person who could read a horse in amazing ways. His wife’s mare had a very pretty way of working and seemed to enjoy her job. She won quite a bit—at the intermediate level. She never progressed to the upper level classes, or was able to win at that level. And the reason was obvious to an experienced eye.

This mare had never been pushed past what she wanted to do. She liked working cows and was handy at it. She worked well, as I said. But to win at the upper levels, a horse has to do more than that. A horse has to be sharp and exactly on, not even a little bit late. If the cow stands still the horse does not stand still, mirroring the cow, he must dance from side to side in a fancy and dramatic fashion, even if there is no real point to this. Horses are taught to do these things with an effective and well timed spur, and some hard stops (in general). The horse has to work harder than he naturally wants to do. And this sort of pressure had never been applied to that mare.

We can argue all day about the rights and wrongs here and I might choose to own Margaret’s mare over any other winning horse if I were choosing today. But in those days, caught up in the competition, what I noticed was that those non-coercive methods only worked to a certain degree. And I continued to use plenty of coercion to train my horse.

The fact is that if you want to train a horse to be competitive at a demanding performance event (which I did for many years) you are going to need to use some coercive methods. Again, I’m sure there are exceptions—I personally did not know any. Certainly some trainers are much kinder than others. “Coercive” methods CAN be used intelligently and applied with kindness. All “coercive” means is that you sometimes insist that the horse do what he does not choose (at the moment) to do—you make him work harder than he would choose to work. You don’t have to push him past what he can do or overwhelm him, though many trainers do push too hard (in my opinion). But “non coercive” methods (meaning you never insist that a horse do what he doesn’t choose to do) will only take you so far. They may make a good riding horse/trail horse (in skilled hands)—in my view they won’t make a high level cutter, reined cowhorse, team roping horse…etc. I would really welcome hearing from anyone who has competed successfully at a high level in a performance event and never once had to use “coercive” methods or insist that a horse try a little harder than he felt like trying.

So let’s fast forward a little. I had learned harsh methods, and I had learned effective coercion. I eventually learned how to apply these things fairly skillfully and without overusing them to the point of abuse. I did a good job of training several horses to be reliable team roping horses. But I was getting tired of pushing horses so hard. And the root of what was driving this, as I came to realize, was the need to be competitive. Take that away, and all of a sudden you could go slower and do things in a way that was much easier on the horse. And so I quit competing, quit pushing my horses so hard, and began just enjoying them. I’m pretty sure my horses started enjoying life more, too. However, all those years of training had left me equipped with the skills to make them behave when I needed to. I did not feel helpless or fearful.

And now I get down to the root of the problem. Because as I became someone who mostly trail rode, I began to run into a whole different group of horsemen. Most of them had not been through the rigorous process of learning to train horses to be competitive in a demanding discipline that I had. Many of them had acquired a horse and were simply looking for a way to get along with it and enjoy it. And a great many of these people were proponets of some methodology or other that was “non-coercive”. They did not believe in “forcing” a horse to obey.

I thought and think that such methods are lovely—IF they produce well behaved riding horses that people can safely enjoy. And I think that its possible that these methods are effective, in skillful hands, at making nice riding horses and trail horses. But what I often saw was ill behaved horses dominating their handler/rider, and people who were quite simply afraid to “set effective boundaries” (to use the PC phrase) and had not a clue how to do this in a way that a horse would understand. In my view, these people needed a crash course in traditional horsemanship, so that they knew how to set firm limits. And at that point, they could begin to find that middle ground where we all ought to be (in my view).

Its very hard to be an effective horseman if you are coming from a place of being afraid of the horse. And its very hard not to be afraid of that big animal if your only tools are the hope that you can make him “want” to do something. What if he doesn’t want to? What I have seen is that when the horse doesn’t want to do the thing they asked, many of these people allow the horse to do something else. And they have various justifications for this. But the bottom line appears to be that they don’t know how to make a horse do something if he doesn’t want to. What the horse inevitably learns is that he doesn’t have to obey. He begins not to respect the human. He doesn’t consider the human his leader. He feels free to do what he pleases. The human doesn’t have any tools to cope with this. And in the end this makes the human fearful and the horse pushy. A bad combination. As a matter of fact, a very dangerous combination.

As I said in my post on “Trust,” the most important thing is that you and your horse stay safe and healthy, able to interact again another day. A horse that crowds you and steps on your foot and breaks it makes this impossible. Worse yet, the horse that runs off and injures you and himself so that neither of you can do more than hobble for a year, makes the whole idea of riding horses incredibly dangerous and downright dumb.

In my own view, if I ask for something and I know the horse knows what I want and knows how to do it and is resisting only because he does not wish to do this thing right now, I steadily and persistently insist he do it, using whatever tools I need. I never have much trouble getting this done (with my current horses), but yes, it does indeed look like reprimanding a horse (often) and it can be called coercive. My horses, however, are very pleasant to ride and handle and we all get along well. I think my horses prefer me as a strong leader who can set limits. I feel safe with them and they feel safe with me.

So I do believe that its very hard to find the middle ground unless you have learned how to be quite firm with a horse—in a truly effective way. It does not help to “beat a horse up” if you do it a way that makes no sense to him. Reprimands must be both timed and of a sort that a horse can comprehend or they do no good at all, only harm. You must first be able to read the horse (see my previous post on “Trust”). Perhaps the bottom line is that before you become a big proponet of some horse guru or other and espouse his methods, you need to pay your dues by simply working with horses for awhile and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

As a general statement, working with young horses involves much more focus on communicating what you want in a way the horse understands. It does absolutely no good to get forceful with a horse who doesn’t understand what you want. On the other hand, you almost inevitably reach a point where the horse would prefer not to do as you ask and then you must be able to insist—with some skill. A good trainer does not ask too much of a horse, but does insist that the horse make some effort to do as he is asked to do. Good trainers know how much and when to ask, and how hard to push for compliance. It is a true art and takes time to learn.

Working with older horses who are well broke is usually a matter of getting along pleasantly with the occasional correction when the old pro tries to take advantage (and they will). They expect you to correct them, and if you don’t do it they won’t respect your leadership. The third category is horses who have habitual problems of one sort or another—usually the result of poor training, often complicated by the horse’s innate personality. These horses are probably best ridden/handled by an experienced horseman, as training a horse to let go of bad habits is not easy, whichever methods you use. One of the most important things you can do to have a pleasant relationship with your horse is to choose a horse that is suited to your skill level and intended use.

The other thing that needs to be added in here is that if a horse resists you in a way you don’t expect, the very first thing to do is to decide if something is physically bothering that horse. I ALWAYS evaluate carefully for soundness and any other indication of pain or discomfort when one of my horses does anything resistant that is not typical of that horse. Even seeming overly lazy can be a sign that the horse is sore. If you can’t tell if a horse is sound, or hurting in some way, you need to be sure to get help with this before assuming that the horse is resistant.

That said, I have heard many well—intentioned people talk endlessly about the various physical therapies they were trying to “fix” a badly behaved horse. Because they have no tools to address the disrespectful behavior, they decide to assume that it’s a physical problem. Some of these quite healthy, sound horses manage to get out of ever being ridden again. And if that works for both person and horse, I guess its fine. Personally I don’t choose to be bluffed by my horses. But I am very, very careful to be sure that they are not hurting in any way. As I said in my last post, it all comes down to knowing how to read a horse.

My last point is that just as non-coercive folks are very offended by seeing harsh methods overused by ignorant trainers, doing no good and only harming horses (and I, too, am angry when I see this), some of us middle of the road people are equally turned off by watching a horse behave in very disrespectful and clearly dangerous ways and hearing the rider/handler deny that this is happening. “No, my horse does not run over me…etc”, while the horse is shoving at them right as we speak. This is going to end badly, is my main thought (see the bit about the stallion in my “Trust” post)—and I no longer try to interfere, because these people will not see what is so plainly happening in my eyes—the eyes of someone who has spent forty years working with horses and learning to read them. No, I don’t know everything. Nobody does. But I can tell when a horse feels free to be disrespectfully pushy, and I can tell (usually) when a person is basically afraid of that horse. And that is not a combination that leads to a happy horse and rider, any more than an abusive trainer will lead to that goal.

Anyway, please feel free to give your own take on this subject. Do you also believe that its very difficult to be an effective horseman using non-coercive methods if you haven’t at least understood how more traditional methods work—with first hand experience? Or do you see it differently?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Weathering the Storm

By Terri Rocovich

First of all let me apologize for not responding to anyone's comments to my last blog. Since the day of that last blog, life has been a bit of a challenge. Let me explain. I was actually in Kauai on a family vacation when I posted that blog and life was about as good as it gets. Kauai is clearly one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I was spending cherished time with family and just relaxing for a week which, as we can all relate, is a rare treat.

However, upon returning to my house on Tuesday morning, all holy he*l broke loose and my tranquility from the islands was gone in an instant. In a past blog, I have told everyone about my canine and feline family. The oldest in this group was my cat Orkin who was truly a cat of nine lives. Well sadly even a cat with 9 lives runs out of time. I returned home to find a very sick cat and my house sitter (who shall never be my house sitter again) was not attentive or smart enough to realize how sick she was, even though it was clearly obvious and alarmed me instantly. I scooped Orkin up in my arms and rushed her to the Animal Urgent Care but after a day and a half of supportive care and a battery of tests it was determined that Orkin's kidneys were diseased and not functioning. So in a flood of tears and regrets asd to my bad judgement in house sitters, I put Orkin to sleep. Boy after all these years of owning and sometimes losing beloved animals, why doesn't it get any easier.

Then to continue my ride on the stress train, less than a week later a friend of mine had serious life threatening complications after knee surgery, one of my former students was missing after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and then to add to the chaos, my horse Hank reinjured himself and is now extremely lame again. Boy they were not kidding when they said when it rains it pours. But the light in this tunnel (other than the train) is that life is made so much more tolerable by the unconditional love of family, friends and animals. As always my family, even though don't always understand me, are always around to support me and console my losses and alleviate my stress. My friends, who do understand me, are there to comiserate like kindred soles and then there are my animals. I am not sure how much they truly comprehend but they understand when I am upset and they are there. Cruizer, my cat who was the closest to Orkin did spends days wandering the house as if looking for her and took up residence on my lap (a place formerly held by orkin) as if to say, "she may be gone but I am here to fill the void".

Now there is also some good news at the end of this sad tale. My friend who had the knee surgery was finally released from the hospital (to recooperate at my house since she lives alone) and is steadily getting stronger. And the best news is that my former student was found safe and sound in Japan and was even interviewed on the Today show this morning. All of her possesions were swept away by the tsunami but she is OK and has stayed in Japan to aid in the relief efforts. She is an amazing young woman and I am proud to know her.

So to all that commented on my last blog, thank you. It was great to hear your thoughts on finding the right horse. I am still on my hunt but I have faith that the right one will come along soon. As for my poor Hank, that drama is still in play and will most likely be the subject of a future blog. I figure that all of the drama of the last few weeks is just part of life and is always good material for my book; although I don't quite know how I can work a tsunami into the plot.

How do you all deal with a firestorm of trouble? What are your ways of relieving stress and coping. God knows I could use a little advise. I usually try to take stock in what matters and take comfort in the simplest of pleasures like hugging my horse, chocolate, a good lemon martini and a long hot shower. But these days I think I need a few more tricks, so do share.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Yes, No, Maybe So?

I was hoping to sit down and write an enthusiastic, bubbly, yippedy skippedy blog about Mr Super Gorgeous Lusitano’s impeccable vet check, which took place on Tuesday morning down in Avignon in the South of France. But, as we all know, nobody’s perfect, not even beautiful horses, so vets need to make sure they’re not okaying a horse presenting obvious signs of potential problems. Furthermore, my trainer, Marie-Valentine, is wonderfully meticulous, and always goes out of her way to ensure the horse being vetted is screened as thoroughly as possible (that's her, patting the Jack Russell terrier when we arrived late Monday night).

Basically, the horse passed the vet check. After a long examination which included watching the horse move on a small circle on the lunge in various terrain, flexion tests, numerous x-rays (including the horse’s back), the vet pronounced him sound, fit to compete and saleable. But of course, as I said earlier, no horse is perfect. This gorgeous Portuguese hottie has a somewhat funky right front foot, and the vet expressed slight concerns about it, pointing out that the horse needs careful remedial shoeing so as to prevent serious damage further down the line.

Marie-Valentine had already noticed this funky foot during our first visit to see the horse two weeks ago. The right foot is narrower, more upright, but since it’s not absolutely mind-blowingly weird looking (I probably wouldn’t have even have noticed it if she hadn’t pointed it out), and doesn’t seem to bother him, we decided a good vet exam would tell us everything we needed to know.

When we made the initial arrangements for the pre-purchase examination two weeks ago, Marie-Valentine contacted a reputable vet in Lyon with whom she works regularly, but when it turned out that his upcoming holidays and busy schedule would mean postponing the exam for another three or four weeks, she asked him to refer her to a colleague further south. And since it’s always good to have two opinions, especially when you’re dealing with a vet you’ve never worked with, she asked the vet in Lyon to double-check the x-rays, which we dropped off on a disk at his clinic on Tuesday evening our way back home.

We also thought it would be a good idea for him to take a look at some photographs we took of the horse’s front feet, so I’ve emailed them to him.

Why is it taking the vet in Lyon so long to get back to us? He only came back from holiday this morning, but has promised my trainer he’d get back to her before this evening.

So, right now, I’m still in the “yes, no, maybe so” phase. My stomach is on the trampoline.

If the vet in Lyon looks at the photos and x-rays and gives us the all clear, we’ll be getting closer to the edge of the woods. We’ll still have to wait for the results of the blood tests, sent yesterday morning to a laboratory in Paris, to ensure the horse wasn’t doped into goodie-two-shoes oblivion/recently injected with painkillers or anti-inflammatories/suffering from some scary pathology. And those results could take a full two weeks…


Are we paranoid? Were blood tests really necessary? As far as my trainer is concerned, it’s routine. She and I seriously doubt the people involved in selling the horse have might have resorted to any dubious tactics, or attempted to hide anything from us. They received us with such warmth and generosity on both occasions, inviting us for dinner, and insisting we sleep in their home instead of paying for a hotel. In fact, these people were so open and amazingly generous with us that we almost felt guilty about insisting the vet take a gazillion x-rays and then perform a blood test! But since buying a horse is a big deal, it’s better to be as careful and safe as possible than momentarily over-trusting and then seriously sorry.

With this in mind, during the drive back home, we also emailed photos of the horse’s feet to my farrier. In his opinion, the horse’s right front foot shouldn’t be too complicated to correct and improve, and I have utmost faith in his judgment seeing as he worked miracles on Kwintus’ stumbling problems for quite a few years.

What will the vet in Lyon say? Chances are he’ll echo his colleague’s opinion. Meanwhile, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings. Okay, so I’m not exactly fat, but the closer I get to 50 the more blubbericious I become around the middle, which is a bit of a bummer. But if this vet delivers positive news later today, I won’t be whining about a couple of spare tires around my belly. I’ll be belting out the Hallelujah chorus, and trying not to worry about the possibility of funky blood test results.

Tiddlywinks, anyone?!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


by Laura Crum

Not too long ago I read some interesting blog posts about “trust” on (and linked to) Kate’s blog “A Year With Horses” (listed on the sidebar), and this has prompted me to do some thinking about what I believe on this subject and why I believe it. I really enjoy these complex subjects Kate brings up and her thoughtful way of discussing them. And I don’t entirely disagree with the idea that if one puts out trust in a horse the horse may return that trust. I’ve had that experience. I liked the posts I read and thought there was some real truth there. However, I do think the discussion has tended to focus on the favorable possibilities, and not the negative outcomes that are also possible. And once you’ve had a serious injury (or worse) you may wish you had thought about the downside. So, I’d like to bring this up today.

As I wrote in my post titled “Reprimands”, I feel that staying clearly in charge is our best place when it comes to staying safe while working with horses. This has to remain true both while we are on the ground and while we are on the horse. This is accomplished in many ways, but the bottom line is there must be a good working partnership between horse and human, where the horse accepts that the human is in charge and obeys him/her. Ideally the horse is “willingly compliant” and throws in—but, in any case, the horse must not feel free to disobey the human. Horses that feel free to disobey and not respect their human endanger both themselves and the handler/rider. It is not a workable situation in the long run, even with a pasture pet. The day will come (and I’ve seen this) when that pasture pet runs over the person feeding, or strikes at them during an attempt at worming, or kicks them when they aren’t paying attention. Sometimes with dire results. And all these behaviors arise out of a lack of respect on the part of the horse for the human.

Before I discuss my thoughts regarding “trust”, I want to say that I come from the position of forty years of owning, riding and training horses. I no longer break and train young horses, but I have started over fifty colts in my life and ridden and trained at least fifty more green broke horses (riding for other trainers, for myself, and for friends). During these many years I saw many wrecks, and many people injured; I knew a few who were killed. I saw many horses badly injured, such that they were never sound again. Over time I refined my ideas about training and working with horses—by paying attention to the horses. I never bought into any one trainer/clinician’s theory, though I learned from many. In the end the thing that means the most to me is to be able to work with and ride horses in a way that keeps me and the horse safe. I have a pretty good track record here (knocking on wood). I’ve never been seriously injured, never even broken a bone. For the last three years I’ve gone on well over three hundred trail rides (solo, with my young son, in a group), and met various unexpected obstacles (as you inevitably do on the trails). And no one, horse or human, was hurt. No one came off. No one was ever even scared. Every single ride was “successful,” though naturally some had more interesting moments, so to speak, than others. These are the results I aim for, and my methods and thinking are geared to that end.

I find that many people today are interested in various methods of horse training espoused by various trainers/clinicians that basically deny the premise that the handler/rider needs to stay in charge. What most folks are forgetting is that the guys who are teaching this stuff are (mostly) pretty damn experienced horsemen. When a much less experienced horseman tries these methods, the result is frequently a horse that feels free to try to dominate the handler/rider. For those of you who have the expertise to apply these methods in a way that produces horses that are reliably “willingly compliant”, that’s great. But I have very often seen people who use this sort of thinking end up basically afraid to ride their horse (for good reason), unable to load their horse (except when the horse happens to “want” to load), and in general being directed by the horse’s wishes instead of vice versa. And the horse itself was a pushy, mouthy, disrespectful pain in the butt. And that is not a basis for a safe, effective working partnership.

The best way to forge this working partnership is to have the skills to understand what a horse is communicating. This takes a long time to learn, and if you are uncertain, you may want to work with an experienced horseman on “reading” your horse. If you are to be in charge you need to know when a horse is testing, when he is disrespectful of you, when he is afraid, when something is physically bothering him, when he is lazy, when he is ignoring you (which is disrespectful), when he is too scared to listen, when he is angry and “on the fight” and rebelling against you…etc. As well, you need to read the signs that tell you when the horse is accepting, when he is submitting, when he understands and throws in, when he is content, when he is curious and interested, when he wants something in particular, when he is relieved, when he is intensely focused on something other than you, when he is playful and enjoying himself, when he is working hard to do as you ask, when he is growing bored and resentful…etc. All these things are telegraphed loud and clear by a horse, once you get to know that individual. Some horses are harder to “read” than others. I can be unclear what a horse is saying when it is a horse I don’t know. I am almost never confused about what my own horses are saying, and any other horse that I do know well. I sometimes don’t know “why” they are saying it, but I can read what they are expressing. The foundation of all I do is based on understanding what a horse is communicating.

You also have to learn how to communicate back. Different horses require different methods. A tough minded, cold blooded horse requires vastly different reprimands from a sensitive, reactive horse. Essentially, you need to guide a horse in a way that works for that horse. It is absolutely futile to generalize about what “horses” need in the way of training and cues, and what sort of relationship is possible. Horses are as different from each other as people are different from one another. You are not going to be able to have the same sort of relationship with a man who is physically abusive as you might have with a gentle sensitive soul. You can treat them both equally well—it doesn’t matter. They are who they are and all the wishing in the world won’t change that, nor patience and kindness either (sometimes). This is something we need to accept about both people and animals.

The next thing I want to address is the notion that you can forget all of a horse’s past behavior like it was so much unwanted “baggage” and just “ride the horse you have today”. Sounds lovely, of course, and there is (obviously) some truth to it. We can cause a horse to behave badly, merely by expecting bad behavior. Quite right. It is always good to begin in a confident, relaxed frame of mind. However, it is also true that many horses, like people, have habits that they will not lose easily, and it is best to be aware of this and not live in dreamland while you are working with them. Again, this is the equivalent of the woman with the abusive husband saying that she should not assume he will hit her again—that she just needs to trust that he isn’t the person he was yesterday. This does not usually work out, as I think we all know. I am not saying horses are abusive. I am saying that a horse who has dumped you purposely and repeatedly, or consistently misbehaved in some way, is very likely to try that stunt again.

There are some extreme examples of this sort of thing that I have witnessed, and I want to give one here. A woman I knew very slightly raised horses and had a stallion that appeared to me (and many others) to be dangerously rank. He seemed to be getting worse as he got older—to all around him but his owner. This woman handled her stallion herself and would not hear the many well meant warnings directed her way. She said the horse loved her, that she trusted him, that he was her ‘heart horse” and that his obviously disrespectful behavior meant nothing—just a charade. That horse killed her. I mean that literally. He picked her up and broke her neck. She died.

The point of this story is not that your horse who is acting disrespectfully (in my opinion) will kill you—though she might. The point is that this trust concept can be taken to ridiculously blind and dangerous levels. Trust should ALWAYS be based on a realistic ability to read the horse. If the horse is communicating that he/she does not respect you and feels free to behave in dangerous ways in your company, the next step is NOT to extend more trust. The next step is to let that horse know that behavior is unacceptable…period. Every horse is different, so I will not generalize on what can be done to correct a given horse. If you are not horseman enough to remain in charge of a particular horse, you should probably not be riding/handling that horse. And there are horses that are dangerous for even a very competent horseman to deal with.

(I would like to add in here that, of course, no one is ever really “in charge.” The best horses can do unpredictable and violent things on rare occasions, and hey, guess what, the asteroid could hit the planet while you are out riding. You’re not gonna be in charge then. And certainly, when I was breaking and training young horses, I was not always completely “in charge” at any given moment. That’s pretty much impossible. But I had the skills to deal with this and guide the horse toward a working partnership with me as the leader. By “in charge”, for the purposes of this post, I mean that your horse accepts your leadership and respects your direction. I think it unwise for a person to handle/ride a horse that feels free to disobey said rider/handler, unless that rider/handler has the skills to train the horse not to do that.)

And again, just thinking/believing/hoping that a horse who is habitually spooky or cinchy can be “different” today—that the past is not a predictor of the future—can be dangerously naïve. We can say that about people, too, but I’m afraid that, though it can be true that people change, it is more often true that they behave in the ways they’re familiar with. This is true of horses, too.

Let me give some examples. My horse, Gunner, who I loved dearly, was a huge spook. He never dumped me—mostly because I was always prepared for him to spook. Gunner always meant well; he was a sensitive, reactive horse with a very sudden startle response that was easily triggered (this is also what made him an effective cutting horse). Gunner did not run away or get out of control; he made one big jump and that was it. My uncle, an experienced horseman, wanted to rope on Gunner. I said sure. I warned him that Gunner was a huge spook, and he pooh poohed this. My uncle, the tough rodeo cowboy, was not worried by my spooky but gentle gelding. Well. Uncle Todd roped on Gunner and Gunner spooked and Uncle Todd, not prepared, came off. Next practice, same thing. Next practice, again. And Uncle Todd got up off the ground and swore he’d never ride Gunner again. Me? I roped on that horse for years and never came off of him. Why? Because I was always ready for him to spook…and ready to grab the saddle horn. I did not “extend my trust” or assume Gunner wouldn’t dump me. I assumed he’d do what he usually did…and we got along fine.

Every horse is different. Its really important to understand the message that your horse is sending you and respond appropriately. A horse can be afraid to get in the trailer. And a horse can refuse to get in the trailer, not because he’s afraid but because he doesn’t want to. He’s been hauled before and hauling just means going somewhere to work. He doesn’t feel like working today. He doesn’t choose to get in that trailer. This happened to me with a strong minded gelding named Lester. I was alone. I knew what was in Lester’s mind. I whaled on him with the end of the leadrope a bit and he gave it up and stepped into the trailer. Then he put his head under my arm. “Sorry, you win, boss.” Lester never resisted being loaded again. I hate to think how that smart little guy would have behaved in the future if I had not understood that he needed to be reprimanded that day.

Many horses will stop on an uphill climb and “ask” to take a breather. I always understand this request. I don’t always honor it. Here’s why. My Sunny horse is a basically lazy critter who will ask for a breather before he is even close to being out of breath (on a given day, in a certain mood). If I always allow the horse to stop when he chooses I would shortly have a horse who stops ten times in fifty feet. The next thing that happens is the horse resists going on when you ask him to. This horse has now decided he’s in charge and he’d rather not climb this hill. If you do not respond to this balking behavior with a very firm reprimand, you will find yourself going back towards the barn against your will. And once that happens, your horse and you have a dangerous problem.

On the other hand, I always understand what my horse is asking, and if I feel his request is legitimate (he is huffing and getting out of breath) I let him stand and take a breather. I absolutely never push my horses past what is good for them. But anyone who supposes that a horse only asks for a “breather” when he is truly tired has not ridden very many horses. It is important to remain in charge and be able to say, “no, we’re not stopping here,” and have your direction honored if you wish to have a good working partnership.

How about spooking? In my experience, spooking is usually a genuine startle response and should mostly be handled by the rider sitting loose, not pulling on the reins or gripping with the legs. Basically the rider responds by “ignoring” the spook, remaining calm and confident and relaxed, allowing the horse to take a good look and realize its not a big deal, and then asking the horse to go on. If the horse attempts to run off after he spooks, he should be stopped, if possible (duh). (Usually one rein is best for this.) If he won’t stop he is either panicked or disrespectful of your leadership, and you really need to be horseman enough to know the difference if you want to ride such a horse. I do not think it wise for anyone but a deeply experienced rider to ride a horse that has the potential to bolt blindly out of panic. Habitual bolters are almost impossible to cure—many of them learned this behavior because they did not respect their rider. The in between is a horse like Sunny, who will (rarely) spook and offer a “mini-bolt” –a second jump away from the “scary” object. This is testing behavior. Sunny is mildly startled (if that) and is using the spook as a way of seeing if I’m still in charge up there. I ignore any one jump spook (a startle) and carry on; the spook with a second jump gets a reprimand (in this horse’s case). Why? Because I am reading the testing for dominance in the second jump. Sunny is not truly afraid. How do I know I’m right? After the reprimand (a sharp one rein pop), he marches right by the supposedly scary object. You can read his body language perfectly. Relaxed, confident, accepting. OK, boss, you win.

And as for bolting, it is not always a fear response. When I was training a young horse named Danny and had reached the stage where Danny was actually having to do some work, this very intelligent horse tried several evasions. He bucked—didn’t get me off—and then, when I once again kicked this fairly lazy colt up to the lope, he took off, running as hard as he could. I read the testing in his “bolt” and, since I was in a big well fenced arena, I made him run—and run and run. I made him run until he begged to quit. That horse never tried to bolt again. Would this work on all bolters? No. A horse who is bolting in panic—or is not quite there mentally, or is a habitual bolter—is liable to run through a fence with you. Danny was bolting in a trial way, his mind was calm, and he wasn’t sure if he could dominate the situation with this behavior. I showed him he could not. End of problem. Danny was testing me and I read him accurately and was able to respond appropriately. I did not extend my trust and try to believe that Danny meant well and wouldn’t hurt me, nor did I fall for the idea that the poor little guy was scared. I reprimanded Danny in an effective way for this bad behavior (by running him until he was sick of running) and taught him not to do this in the future.

Now I want to get down to something that I have seen with folks who did not either “read” a horse correctly, or believed some sort of fairy tale about what the horse was really about. Like the woman with the rank stallion (who is with us no longer) I have frequently seen well intentioned people interacting with horses in a way that was obviously going to end in a wreck (in my eyes). Most of the time these folks were ignoring the basic rule of staying in charge. They were “playing” with the horse in an attempt to imitate the Clinton Anderson video on the sidebar, or standing in a vulnerable position without paying proper attention to what the horse was communicating, or riding a horse that was ignoring their direction. A lot of times they were taught by some horse guru or other to do these things. And the results were often disasterous. For both the people and the horse.

There is a certain trainer around here who makes a practice of putting inexperienced students up on not-yet-broke horses for their first ride and turning the several colts and riders loose in the arena together—the colts wearing only halters. “Trust your horse,” he says to the frightened riders on the equally frightened colts . Do you know how many people and horses have been hurt this way? And how unpleasant every horse I ever knew that came from him turned out? I don’t want to belabor this point—we’ll just say that many people and horses got hurt and most colts sent to him turned out resentful and pushy. The man himself made a practice of jumping on unbroken colts in the parking lot as the owner dropped them off—again wearing only the halter. Very flashy and impressive when it worked. And then he got dumped and badly hurt. I don’t believe he pulls that stunt any more. And it was all about “extending your trust”. God knows how many people have been injured who were taught by this man (and others like him) to place themselves in inappropriately vulnerable positions when dealing with horses and then “trust the horse”. I don’t think that’s admirable. I think its stupid. And not good for people or horses.

I guess you can see that this phrase, “trusting the horse,” has a lot of connotations for me, and they are not all positive. I have seen this concept used in the worst possible way, doing great harm. I also think it has the potential to do much good. I have myself extended trust to sensitive, willing, reactive horses and seen them blossom into reliable riding horses. I have extended trust to tough minded, solid old horses and had them guide me. Like many things I have written about, it is another gray area. I believe that like most things in life, the best path here is the middle road.

The bottom line is that the most important thing is that neither you or your horse get hurt. Extending trust to your horse is not worth a year in which you can’t ride and can only hobble about painfully. Its not worth it to your horse if he gets hurt and can only hobble. Better to forgo whatever emotional benefit you might derive from “trusting” a horse who is sending you signals he plans on bolting, bucking or otherwise unloading you, and instead try to be aware and keep both of you in one piece. And how do you do this? By staying firmly in charge, and if you can’t stay in charge, not handling/riding that horse until you get some effective help. And if you are in that select camp of very experienced riders (or riders who are young and brave enough not to mind risking life and limb) and feel it is worth it to you to work with very green horses or horses with difficult behavioral problems, more power and good luck to you. I was once in that camp but am no longer. I totally admire those who are willing and able to do this work effectively.

So my message for today is that I believe that extending trust can reap great benefits if the individual (horse or human) is sending you the signal that he/she is ready to be trustworthy. If the message is clearly not that, remain on your guard for the sort of behavior the horse is warning you he may pull. It ain’t worth it folks. Be careful about extending trust to those who are clearly saying they aren’t trustworthy.

And, to close on a positive note, extending trust when a horse is indicating he will come through for you is a way to move forward in your relationship with that horse. You just have to be able to read the horse.

(Please feel free to give your own take on this subject in the comments. I always enjoy hearing other views, even if they don’t agree with mine. That’s what makes it interesting.)