Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book Contest

Hi Everyone - I just wanted to mention a contest (open until March 15th) to win a cool new book. It's a YA novel called RIDING INVISIBLE. For an interview with the author (also a horsewoman), a preview of the book, and instructions on how to enter: hop on over to my blog and check it out.

Then make sure to come back here, to Equestrian Ink for more great horse news and discussions.

Good luck, everyone! Happy riding and reading!

Linda Benson

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Good Deed....

by Laura Crum

My last post about abusive training practices and whether harsh methods are sometimes called for (or not) got me thinking about the flip side of that coin. Things are often not quite so black and white as we like to suppose. When is a good deed not really a good deed?

In my lifetime, I’ve saved a fair number of horses from ending up at the livestock auction to take their chances with the kill buyers. Some of these horses I kept, some I found homes for. And there is one that I “saved”, many years ago, that still troubles me. I meant well, and it seemed the right thing to do at the time, but now I wonder.

Twenty years ago now, my uncle raised QHs and stood one stud (among others) that ultimately proved to produce a great many very resistant horses (I’ve blogged about this before). Some of these horses were truly dangerous; they were willing to be very violent in their resistance, including bucking, rearing, flipping over backward…etc. But to begin with, when the first of this stud’s foals were two and three, what people noticed was that they were big, pretty horses that seemed very relaxed and gentle.

These horses were gentle to handle on the ground, and pretty easy to start. The problem did not become apparent, usually, until the horse was put to work and asked to exert himself. These horses did not care to work, and very many of them became very adamant about it. And so we come to Noble.

Noble was one of the early colts by this stallion, and he was a big, pretty, blaze faced sorrel (like most of em). A friend of my uncle’s bought the horse. Bill was a knowledgable enough horseman and he sent Noble to a good trainer to be started. The man had no trouble with the colt. Bill rode Noble for awhile, very gently, and all went well. But, eventually, Bill started to rope on Noble and ride him in the mountains and ask the (by then five year old) horse to do some things that required real effort. And Noble resisted.

Noble’s resistance took many forms. He would unexpectedly buck (very hard) and buck Bill off. He would rear and try to fall over backward while climbing steep hills. He began to pull back and go over backward when tied. He spooked violently and tried to bolt. He dumped Bill many times.

Those of us who knew Bill and liked him all advised him to get rid of Noble. I saw the horse pull some of these stunts and the gelding had a very blind look in his eyes, which really scared me. Somehow or other, when Noble decided to be resistant, he blanked out. He was perfectly willing to hurt himself, as well as his rider. Such a horse is virtually untrainable, in my opinion.

Now, remember, nobody had done anything bad to Noble. He was brought along in a responsible, kind way and Bill was really fond of him. In fact, he refused to give up on the horse, despite being urged to do so by all his friends. He kept riding Noble and trying to get along with him.

And now we come to Fine. Fine was Noble’s full brother, and another big, good looking, blaze-faced sorrel. My uncle liked the looks of Fine and decided to keep the colt. He broke and trained the three year old himself and at first all went well. Like his brother, Fine initially seemed to be an easy going, cooperative horse.

It was a year or more into training when Fine suddenly and unexpectedly bucked my uncle off—hard. My uncle took it as an aberration and kept working with the horse. But we both wondered. Noble, still owned by Bill, had continued to pull unexpected and violent stunts. And I thought Fine showed the same blank look when he bucked.

It happened again. Fine, for no reason that we could see, just came unglued and dumped my uncle. And my uncle, disgusted, told me to haul the five year old horse to the local livestock auction.

I had a hard time with this. I worked for my uncle at that time, and I had helped work with Fine some. In most ways he seemed a gentle, cooperative horse. And now we were going to dump him and take the chance that he would go to kill. I thought maybe I just needed to find him a home with a real good hand.

So I made a deal. I sold Fine (with my uncle’s agreement) very cheaply to a horse trainer I knew who was a good hand. And I told him that Fine had twice bucked my uncle off hard—for no reason. This trainer took Fine and rode him for six months—used him hard—as a turnback horse and for gathering and ranch work. And the horse gave him no trouble. At the end of that time the trainer sold Fine to a local rancher—for his teenage daughter to ride. The trainer told me this and assured me that Fine was, well, fine.

That’s all I know about Fine. But our friend Bill kept Noble until the horse was twenty and Noble continued to pull dangerous, violent stunts the rest of his life. He would go for months, sometimes a year, without misbehaving, and Bill would think he was over it. But something would inevitably trigger the horse and Noble would once again do some unpredictable and violent thing. Bill finally put him down when Noble injured himself severely pulling back—at twenty years of age. And Bill admitted that he should have done this a long time ago.

My uncle, based on Noble and Fine, got rid of the mare who was their mother and sold the younger colts of that cross. But over time it became clear that a great many colts by that same sire carried this violent, resistant streak. And these horses did not get better over time. They went to different trainers and owners, and were trained using different methods, and still the results were the same. Over and over people gave up on these horses because after years of training, the horses were still capable of doing something truly dangerous—with no warning at all. They blanked out. And I can’t help wondering if Fine some day hurt someone badly, and if I should have been more careful about who he went to.

At the time I really didn’t understand how pervasive and dangerous this attitude was among the get of that stallion, and by the time I did understand, it was too late. I had no idea how to track the horse down. So, I did nothing. And I still feel bad about it.

Yep, I meant to do a good deed by saving Fine from going to the auction. And I’m still not sure exactly what I should have done differently. Let him go to kill? Predjudiced everyone against the horse by saying his siblings were untrainable? Maybe Fine really did go on to be “fine”. I sure hope so.

I’ve learned to be a little more thoughtful these days—before I jump to the conclusion that I know exactly what abuse is or when I need to do a “good deed”. I still try to do the best I can for the horses that come my way, but I’m not quite as judgemental as I used to be. Sometimes the truth is a little more complicated than we like to suppose.

Anybody want to chime in on this? Have you seen something that looked “bad” that turned out to have some merit, and conversely, seen someone trying to do good, who instead created a bad problem? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra

Mark your calendars for Friday, April 9th, 2010. The two great race mares, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, arguably the two best race horses in the world right now, are set for a showdown in the Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Rachel Alexandra, left and Zenyatta, right

Ever since these two wonderful mares, (Rachel is now 4 and Zenyatta is 6) ran such thrilling, undefeated seasons in 2009, fans have wanted to see them run against each other in the same race. It was only recently, however, that the owners agreed on a time and place. Each horse still needs to complete a prep race in March, however, and stay sound and healthy. But if this match-up does take place, trust me, it will be billed as the Race of the Century. (And considering this century is only one decade old, certainly that would not be a stretch.)

Girl power! Both Zenyatta from the West Coast, and Rachel from the East amazed us in 2009.

Zenyatta, a strapping 17.2 hand mare who remains unbeaten in all 14 of her starts, thrills us with her come from behind stretch runs. In October 2009, after beating all the fillies and mares she ran against, she was entered in the Breeder's Cup Classic, a race that brings the best race horses in the world together. Viewers wondered if she could compete against this elite company, all colts and older males. She not only ran, but came from dead last to pass every horse in the race, becoming the only female ever to win the Breeder's Cup Classic!

Rachel Alexandra, the fluid and amazing mare with the distinctive white blaze, won all 8 of her starts in 2009 and was named Horse of the Year (against the only other nominee, Zenyatta, with many horsefolks calling for a tie.) Rachel won two of these races by a margin of over 19 and 20 lengths. Her jockey Calvin Borel chose to ride her in the Preakness over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. It proved to be a good choice, with Rachel winning the Preakness, the first time a filly had won that race in 85 years. She then went on to race and win against males in two more races, proving she is a racehorse for the ages.

These two great mares, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra have probably done more to get people excited about horse racing than any other horses in recent history. It was amazing to watch fans line the racetracks holding up signs that read "Girl Power."

If you get a chance to watch the Apple Blossom on April 9th, whether one or both horses run, please do so. It may be on a major network, but it also might be on ESPN or one of the two horse racing channels: TVG or HRTV. I will definitely be there - glued to my television set, cheering them on. Go Zenyatta! Go Rachel! You are BOTH Amazing!!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pondering My Future

Many years ago, as a college sophomare at Washington State University, I read about this horse sport called dressage in my friend's Practical Horseman magazine. I really liked the part about being one with your horse and how it's something you can do for a lifetime and keep learning.

Intrigued, I started "English" riding lessons at a local barn. In my part of the country, you don't see English saddles, let alone ride English. So after six months of weekly riding lessons, I asked my instructor if I could learn to ride dressage. She laughed and said that was what I'd been doing all along. Thus began a life-long pursuit of dressage.

I've always had it in the back of my head to ride Grand Prix, even better to show Grand Prix. After a series of inappropriate and/or untalented horses, I took my little Morgan/QH to Prix St. Georges. I never showed him at that level, but he did all the tricks.

My dream was to own a warmblood, but the money was never there. When I turned forty, we refinanced our house, and I had money to buy a nice horse. I bought my current horse, Gayliena. Everyone loved Gailey. She was talented, though difficult because her tendancy was to go downhill and run. Over the years I had several offers for her, including trading me any horse in my trainer's barn for the mare. But I kept her. Over the past few years, the very thing that made her comfortable to ride started to be her downfall. Her pasterns have a lot of give in them and her suspensories were stretching. Regardless, last fall we were mastering all the movements for 4th level and Prix St. Georges. She already knew more than I did, as I kept her in half training with my instructor. I was even considering showing next summer.

Then came cellulites. I won't go into the details here. You can read my old posts if you've missed them. Unfortuantely, my mare is one of those horses whose swelling isn't going down. Her leg is twice the size as normal. The swelling has stayed the same since December, despite the vet's and my efforts.

I've had a few lessons on her. She seems shockingly sound and unaffected by the big leg. In fact, she's sounder than she was before this issue. Yet, she can't really do laterall work because the big leg gets in her way. I can't help but thinking that she's uncomfortable, even if she doesn't show it.

I'm at a crossroads, and I don't know which way to go, or if I'll even get a choice. There is no money for another nice horse. My husband and I did an addition on our house last summer which ate up our expendable income. I'm facing the facts that my life-long dream of riding Grand Prix dressage might be dying a slow death. What do you do when faced with the reality of losing your dream?

I've been dealing with coming to terms with the inevitable, if it is inevitiable. It's not just the riding, it's the barn atmosphere, the friends I've made, and the exercise I get all year round. Is it the end of an era for me?

Do I breed the mare? Lease her to someone to breed her? Keep her at home for a trail horse? If I do breed her, do I really want to wait for four to five years for a horse to ride? These are my delimmas.

My biggest delimma is starting over or not starting over at all. Do I give up when I came so close? Or do I find the joy in trail riding? So that's my story.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reader's Write Saturday--Pam aka Topaz

I big welcome to Pam, aka Topaz. Thanks so much, Pam, for submitting this post.

I met my sweet Fudge in the summer of 1997 at a summer camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (camp is also where I got my nickname Topaz.) I wasn't part of the riding staff (I had specialized skills in rarer areas) but when I could find some free time they would let me ride. Fudge was often my mount and it was love at first sight, love at first ride. Camp was stressful, but it all melted away when I was on Fudge's back. She was quiet and incredibly kind, the type of horse you want campers learning to ride on. Hundreds of children have been on her back over the years, from first walks to long trail rides. With someone who knew what they were doing she could really move and was a wonderful jumper. She had unknown breeding, just a short, pudgey, grade Quarter Horse mare. Regardless, I was in love and spent the rest of the year thinking about her.

I spent three summers at that camp and switched over to working with the horses halfway through the second. I rode Fudge often, leading campers on trail rides through the incredibly tall pines. I spent the fall after the third summer working for the people that the camp leased the horses from, guiding trail rides outside Yosemite. Fudge wasn't there, she was down at their ranch, but I asked frequently if they'd sell her to me. Every inquiry was met with a laugh. Years passed and every so often I'd ask again. After my husband and I bought our 42 acres in Colorado they finally said yes. She was old at this point, 24ish, but my love for her had never faded. True love doesn't.

Fudge was officially mine in January of 2008. The last two years were hard, but I'd gladly do it again. She already had a swollen hind leg (lymphangitis) from getting it stuck in a panel fence in 2000. When she got to my house in May (she'd spent the intervening time in Salt Lake City while we waited for the snow to melt) she had ringworm and rainrot, the start of near constant skin crud. In August of 2008 her respiratory problems started. In March of 2009 her skin worsened, starting with crusty oozy sores on the insides of her hind legs (overgrowth of fungus, bacteria and yeast according to the biopsy.) In August of 2009 we thought she had laminitis, but it turned out to be navicular. She got her orthopedic shoes and steroid injections. We went through all this and she kept her stoic happy outlook on life. But this winter she stopped eating. Many theories, only one confirmed: the internal form of pigeon fever. In external pigeon fever the horse gets oozy abscesses from their chest to their genitals. In the internal form those abscesses form in and around internal organs. The treatment was going to be long, not cheap, and had no guarantees. We decided the kindest, best thing to do was to put her down.

She was so kind, so accepting of everything around her, except gunshots and snow falling off the roof. She didn't have a mean bone in her body and her manners were exemplary. My vet loved her. She could be grumpy, all mares can be, but it was always a good natured grump. All that is good in a horse was encompassed in her. And now she's gone. I don't regret the decision, it wasn't even very hard to make under the circumstances. But the right decision was a very painful one and I miss her so much.

I can't drive down my driveway without passing her grave, though at least recent snowstorms have covered the scar in the earth. The crying comes and goes; each reoccurrence is as painful as the first, because I miss her as much today as I did five minutes after her passing. My barn is empty, her sweet face and pricked ears don't greet me every morning. I've been told the pain will lessen; it certainly doesn't feel like it.

Above photo is from when we were models for a wedding photographer friend last summer.

The following was written the morning after I'd made the decision.

Nothing quite equals the love of a pony
From when they are young till they get old and bony.
They take up a big huge chunk of your heart
Then at their death it gets torn painfully apart
I will miss you my best equine friend
But I will do my best for you up till the end
I hope that you're happier on the next plane
But right now all I can think of is pain
I hate that this is causing me such horrible grief
But I know that the end will be your relief.
RIP Fudge. I don't think I'll ever not miss you.

Topaz aka: Pam

Friday, February 19, 2010

Setting Kind Boundaries

Hi Everyone--I owe readers and my other writers here an apology for not participating lately. Lots has been going on and I have had to let some things fall to the wayside. My blogs have kind of taken that back seat and I apologize.

Anyway, I've read over the latest posts and am appalled (not necessarily shocked) by some of the training practices out there. I understand teaching a horse boundaries and respect. I get that, but I am one of those crazy horse lovers that treats my horses more like my own children. I'm fortunate that I grew up with parents who also adored animals and especially our horses. We may have been ignorant, but the joy we've received from our animals has been immense. My mom wasn't much of a rider but she loved to just go out and groom the horses. My dad and I spent our free time out on the trails together. We didn't have the money for a "real" trainer and for me to show, so I grew up very backyardy (I know--not a word, but you get it). We had good, kind horses who like all horses did silly things at times--like spook or bolt or buck (that would have been my pony Charlie). But they were never abused. Dad taught me how to use a pulley rein at an early age and basically said, "Keep your heels down and your butt in the saddle, and you should be good." I came off plenty, and there was only one time I ever saw Dad get sort of rough with my pony--and now as I look back it really wasn't rough at all. We were out on the trail. I was about seven or eight. Charlie bucked me off. Because this was something he'd been known to do, Dad had the foresight (long before helemts became mandatory) to make me wear a hard hat. I felt so dumb, but that helmet saved me as I came off the pony and banged my head pretty hard. Dad was mad at the pony, and he got on Charlie and took the ends of the reins, smacked his butt a few times and put him in a lope up and down the dirt road for a several minutes. He worked the pee out of him and I believe he was cursing at him quite a bit. Charlie pretty much stopped his antics with me after that. He made the decision that the little kid on his back was a lot better than the Dad on his back. Like I said, Dad wasn't mean. He didn't beat him, he didn't break him, he just let him know that throwing me off time and again was not a good plan.

I get why my dad got so angry at Charlie now that my daughter is out on Monty day in and day out. It's scary when your kid is out on an animal MUCH larger than them, MUCH stronger than them, and with a mind of their own--and when they pull shenanigans you pretty much want to step in and ring their neck. But here's what I learned about setting boundaries in strong but kind ways--I became a better rider, my kid is a better rider than I ever was and that's because she is learning good boundaries, but she isn't mean. Terri has taught her so much about being the leader with Monty, and you can visually see this partnership happening. I don't think that cruel tactics, mean training sessions--the kind that makes a horse fearful--is ever useful. It's kind of like the dog who gets beat down, or the kid who gets beat down--eventually that dog bites back or that kid retaliates. Horses are emotional beings and although they need to understand who the leader is, I believe there has to be a better way than some of the tactics I've read about over the last week her on EI.

I kind of got off on a different tangent here than I planned. I was going to write about what's been going on with my mare Krissy (part of my dissapearing act), but I'll save it for next week.

I'd be interested in knowing how you establish boudaries with your horse(s). Have they changed throughout the years? I know that there are two schools of horse people--and I respect both kinds. There are those who view horses as commodities and it's about a business. Then there are those who view them as family. I'm wondering where our readers lie in that mix--if you're one or the other or a combination of the two. Please share your thoughts and stories.

Have a great weekend.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Abusive Training Practices

by Laura Crum

Jami’s post about rollkur and Terri’s followup got me thinking. So today I’m going to do a post about abusive training practices. And I want to warn you straight up—this post is not for the faint of heart. If you’re squeamish, don’t read it. Also, this post is not about rollkur. Not only do I not know anything about rollkur, but I couldn’t even get my ancient computer to view the video clip that Jami put up. However, certainly both Terri and Horse Of Course expressed the opinion that this practice is abusive, and I believe them. It got me thinking about other abuse I’d seen and it brought up a question that I’ve raised before—I mentioned it in my comment on Jami’s post. So here’s my story.

A long time ago (more than twenty years) I worked as an assistant to a well known reined cowhorse trainer. Next door to this trainer was a western pleasure horse trainer, who just happened to be his girlfriend. She was always riding in his arena, and I got to know her horses.

Now I knew squat about western pleasure and I was never very interested in it. But I knew that the star of her barn was a coming three year old they called Wilbur. She hoped that Wilbur would have a good chance to win the western pleasure futurity, which was a big deal.

To my eye Wilbur looked more like a TB than a QH. Over sixteen hands tall and very refined, Wilbur was apparently what was in vogue in the western pleasure world at that time. He was a gentle, sweet colt and could execute the super slow collected lope and jog and all the other western pleasure stuff (which I don’t know much about). He had one little problem. As befitted his refined, sensitive looks, Wilbur was a tiny bit spooky.

It was nothing that would bother anyone in “real life”. But every so often this coming three year old would look askance at something on the rail and arc his body away from it. We’re not even talking untracking his feet. Just a tiny little half shy. But it wouldn’t do.

Apparently, to have a chance at winning this futurity, Wilbur couldn’t bobble in any way. He could not look askance at anything and bow up his neck. He had to be completely flat.

The pleasure horse trainer tried to take the spook out of Wilbur in various ways and failed. She became more and more upset by his flaw, and turned to her boyfriend, the cowhorse trainer, for advice.

The cowhorse trainer was one tough guy. It was this fella that turned me off to reined cowhorses forever, by the cruel methods he used to achieve his goals. And he came up with a plan to take the spook out of poor babyish Wilbur. They took this three year old, they jerked him down, tied his feet together, put him under a tarp, beat on him awhile, and then let him lie there for a few hours. I know they did this; I saw them do it.

Wilbur fought like crazy and skinned up his legs, the pleasure horse trainer shed tears, and they all kept saying they had to do it. I asked them why they thought they had to do it. (I was pretty pissed off—I quit the cowhorse trainer not too long afterwards after an even more abusive episode.) They all explained how important it was that Wilbur stop spooking, and that this would take the flinch out of him.

The thing is, I knew about the tarp routine. I’d been around some tough cowboys in my life. And the point of the whole thing is to make a horse feel helpless. I didn’t see how feeling helpless was gonna stop Wilbur from spooking. And guess what? It didn’t.

It took long weeks for Wilbur’s torn up legs to heal. He still spooked at stuff. And he had a very sad look in his eyes. That’s all I really know, because I quit that bastard cowhorse trainer and never went back. The one thing I learned best is that winning isn’t worth torturing horses. I don’t know whether Wilbur did well at the pleasure futurity. I do know that what they did to him was cruel and horribly unecessary. Simple, huh?

OK, now here’s another true story. Some not too knowledgable folks around here raised a colt they thought, in their ignorant way, should be a stallion. He was reasonably well bred, reasonably good looking, reasonably athletic. Trouble was, they didn’t know anything about stallions. They didn’t know much of anything about horses, actually. They raised up their colt and they tried to break and train him themselves and it was a disaster. These people were not mean to their young stallion, whose name was Playboy. Oh no, they were very, very nice to him—always.

Playboy was tough minded and he quickly learned to bully his owners. He got mean. They were afraid of him. They sent him to a not very handy trainer, who rapidly became afraid of him, too. Then to another trainer, who told them they had to geld him. They did. Playboy was four years old by now and the gelding didn’t change him much. He was mean as a snake. I’m talking not just a horse you couldn’t ride, you couldn’t even lead him around without him striking at you or trying to bite you—and I don’t mean nip.

His owners were scared of him. Two more trainers gave up on him. And the owners, having ruined what might have been a good horse, sent him to the local livestock auction, to take his chances with the kill buyers, or perhaps wind up with some innocent buyer that Playboy would probably put on the wrong side of the lawn. However, as luck would have it, there was a tough old cowboy there who knew Playboy’s story (it’s a small world and the trainers had talked). This guy bought the horse at killer price and took him home. And guess what?

The very next day, this cowboy led Playboy into the arena and when the horse struck at him, he jerked Playboy down, tied up all four legs, put him under a tarp, beat on him awhile and left him there for twelve hours (and no, this one I didn’t see, the cowboy told me about it). Every so often the cowboy would check on the horse and when he did, he made sure to look that horse in the eye and put his hand on his neck. And then he left him there under the tarp.

At the end of the day, the cowboy put Playboy away. And lo and behold Playboy did not bite or strike the man. He kept his distance and his eye was wary and respectful. The next day the cowboy went to work training this horse to be a useful ranch horse and rope horse. And Playboy made a good one. The cowboy kept him and rode him for many years and he always said Playboy was the best horse he ever owned. He was very fond of telling how he acquired the horse, which was how I heard the story.

So, now, here ya go. Was the tarp a cruel and abusive thing to do this time around? I’m not defending it. I’m just telling the story. Remember, Playboy did not get the way he was because people were mean to him. He got that way because people were too nice to him. He had absolutely no respect. Feeling helpless clearly addressed that issue in some very fundamental way for this horse.

This is my question. The training method was the same both times. It’s a method that most of us would call abusive. I’ve never used it. I’ve never retrained a horse like Playboy either. Was this method appropriate in this instance? I don’t know.

Here’s what I see as the main points. In the first case the method was used not to address a “real” problem—Wilbur wasn’t really doing anything wrong. It was used because someone wanted to win a particular event. Winning was the motivation. In the second case it was used as a last ditch effort to salvage a very dangerous horse from the killers. A completely different motivation.

Second point: Wilbur was a very sweet, sensitive horse and did not need such cruel treatment. And, in fact, the treatment did not help achieve the goal. Playboy was about as mean (and dangerous) as a horse can get and desperately needed to learn who was boss. They were very different individuals.

I think it comes down to two things. The individual situation and the motivation. If you are truly trying to help a horse to have a good life, and the horse is a certain sort of individual, some pretty tough methods may have to be used. If you simply want to win, and are willing to torture sweet, giving horses to that end, its an entirely different thing.

Another factor that comes into play is the skill level of the trainer. It takes an experienced, intuitive horseman to know when an extreme method is really called for, and when it will actually help a horse. Tying up all four legs, for instance, has to be done right, or a horse will just hurt himself. The trainer has to have both a complete knowledge of the method and what it can achieve, as well as truly understanding when it might benefit a given horse.

This is a very extreme example, and I’m not gonna defend it as a method. I just think it presents the point I am trying to make. And, for instance, I’ve seen certain “bitting up” exercises that can be very abusive if used to excess, also used to good effect on certain horses when the trainer employed the methods judiciously to solve specific problems and did not overdo things. The methods themselves aren’t right or wrong. It’s the way they’re used—or abused.

OK, there’s my thoughts. Please chime in with your own. It’s a complicated subject. Where do we draw the line? Could Playboy have been “rehabbed” in kinder ways? I don’t know. Is it a good thing that tough old cowboy got through to that very dangerous horse? I think so. What do you think?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Be the best you can be, BUT, first do no harm!

Be the best you can be BUT
First do no harm.

By Terri Rocovich

Hello to all EI readers. First I would like to apologize for my absence of late. Between a heavy work and travel schedule, getting the flu and an unexpected death in the family, life simply got away from me in the last several weeks. I promise to try my best to be more consistent, I really enjoy writing this blog and hearing from all of you.

With that said, I set forth to catch up with everyone by reading through the last several blogs. Welcome, welcome Linda!!!! I was so enraged and appalled by the example of rollkur in Jami’s last blog that I decided I had to carry it over into mine, if for no other reason that I can vent. I have been a competitor, enthusiast and a trainer in Dressage and Eventing since the late 1980s (did barrel racing and reining before that) and what Jami showed in that video clip does not remotely resemble anything correct in Dressage.

Now, like most of the horses coming out of Europe that horse is quite lovely with fairly spectacular movement, but I really hope that that type of bad training and riding is not being rewarded by the judges, although by the less than impartial judging that we all saw in the Dressage competition in the last Olympics, sadly it probably is. In the comments to Jami’s blog, HorseofCourse gave a great quote from Walter Zettl’s book about Dressage in Harmony. I have had the privilege of riding with Mr. Zettl and can tell you he teaches and practices what he preaches. What was on that video clip even goes against the bible of dressage training – the German Training Scale (Pyramid).

The German Training Scale is a hierarchy of skills that horse & rider need to build upon in order to rise up the levels and be able to correctly perform higher level movements. The base of the pyramid is (1)Rhythm/regularity (that horse had neither), next up is (2)Looseness/suppleness (yes there was a degree of it, but it was incorrectly achieved by primarily the rider’s hands and the horse was very tight in his low back), next is (3) Contact and acceptance of the bit (that is not constituted by forcing the horse’s chin to his chest ) then there is (4) Impulsion (that horse was way too much on the forehand to be correctly impulsed – notice he was not even tracking up) and (5) is Straightness (none of that) and (6) is Collection (the horse’s poll should be the highest point with his head on the vertical line, his hind end engaged/free and his back supple for this to be achieved).

The list, in my opinion, of everything wrong with the riding in the clip is almost too long to mention but to point out a few. The horse was completely on the forehand and dramatically over flexed at the poll and obviously way behind the vertical. This over flexion forces the horse to break at the incorrect cervical vertical which is not only incorrect in terms of dressage but can also do physical/neurological damage to the horse. There are tons of quote un quote fancy moving dressage horses that are actually hypertrophic, which is exaggerated movement caused by neurological problems usually in the cervical vertebra. The horse was also too high in the croup and leaning on the rider’s hands. There was little, if any, self carriage evident and the rider was often in a chair seat – a big no, no for dressage riders.

OK, can we say I did not like what I saw!! Now that I have vented my indignation, I really hope that I am not alone. As many of you might have learned from my previous blogs and by my comments to Laura’s blog on trainers a few months back. I am a professional trainer that is guided by a strong moral compass and believes to my core, that we must all first and foremost do no harm!!!!!! Training, riding, competing, breeding – it is all hard and takes an enormous commitment, physically, mentally and financially. There are no substitutes and no shortcuts to consistent, sometimes slow, systematic training and conditioning. The horse must accept and understand what you are asking of them and be physically supple and strong enough before you move them on the next level. The levels of dressage are well designed to be used as building blocks to correctly develop movements. For example, leg yield is used to improve bend, which is essential for smaller circles in First and Second level. Travers, Shoulder-in and Renvers must be confirmed before Half-Pass is perfected, etc. etc, etc.

The same type of progressive training is necessary for any other discipline English or Western and all of it should and always be more about the partnership and harmony than winning and personal accolades. If my horses are not happy and healthy, the rest of it is hollow and worthless. Why is this so hard for so many others to grasp? Someone please explain it to me. Why would you even have a horse if you don’t care about them on a very fundamental level? I love to win and get compliments as much as the next person, we are after all human, but at the sacrifice of an animal’s well-being. Aren’t we supposed to be the “superior species”? Ok so I will stop now that I am getting philosophical, but I would really love to hear you feed back on this.

On a separate note, Laura wrote beautifully about the passing of Dick Francis. What an amazing man and author he was! Anyone who loves equestrian fiction knows that he made an enormous mark on the genre and really brought it more into the mainstream. As a kid who grew up around the race tracks (my Dad was an owner) it was great to finally be able to read books that we interesting and were obviously written by someone who really knew about the industry. Rest in peace Mr. Francis and God Bless.

Dick Francis

by Laura Crum

My fellow author here on EI, Linda Benson, just let me know that Dick Francis died yesterday, Feb 14th, at the age of 89. I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the huge debt I owe to this wonderful author, and to tell a few stories about how kind he was to me.

First off, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell anybody who reads this blog who Dick Francis was. A famous steeple chase jockey in his youth, he began writing mysteries which often centered around horses after he retired from racing. I don’t actually know the total number of books he published, but certainly it must be thirty or so. He was the master of the “horse mystery”, he was my inspiration as an author, and he gave me endless hours of reading pleasure.

I can't say how much Dick Francis' books meant to me. They were entertaining, yes, but he also had a way of describing the human condition that was amazingly accurate and moving. Always understated and subtle, never overwritten, always genuine, Dick Francis' depictions of horses and people and how heroic they can be will live in my mind forever.

Dick Francis had a hugely successful career as a mystery author, winning many awards and gaining great fame. Others can describe his path better than I can, no doubt, so I am going to stick to telling my own “Dick Francis” story, and recount the many, many ways this talented writer and great gentleman influenced my life.

In my twenties I read his books over and over and bemoaned the fact that he only came out with one a year. When the new book was released, I read it right away, and was instantly depressed by the fact that I would now have to wait another year for the next one. And this was the thought that ultimately propelled me into writing my own mystery series. “We need more of these. Maybe I can take my background training cowhorses and use it the way Dick Francis used his racing background, as a setting for horse related mysteries.” And so, at thirty years old, I began writing mysteries, in a very directed attempt to imitate Dick Francis.

I still remember sitting in the barnyard, writing away on a yellow legal pad on my first mystery, “Cutter”. Any time I would get stuck, I would open a Dick Francis novel and read a passage or two, to see how the master did it. And yes, I would say that “Cutter” had a very derivative feel. Several reviewers mentioned this. I was thrilled. I didn’t care if they thought I was a lukewarm reflection of Dick Francis. At least they were linking my name with his.

Right about the time Cutter was published (1994) Dick Francis did a booksigning tour here on the West Coast. I drove to the Bay Area, bearing in my hand a copy of my new book that I had inscribed to him with many thanks for the inspriration he provided. I waited hours in a long line of other fans, and when I was finally standing before the famous author, I humbly presented him with a copy of my own first published novel, even as I got his signature on his new release. Dick Francis received my book with many thanks and great politeness, as was his way. I spent a minute or two chatting with him and then moved on, out of respect to the huge line of fellow fans. And that, I thought, would be that. I got to shake the master’s hand.

To my surprise I received a letter from Dick not but a few weeks later, kindly praising a few strong points in my book and thanking me again. I wrote him back and thus ensued a correspondence between us. When my second book, “Hoofprints” was published, it contained a dedication to Dick Francis, as the author who had inspired me.

Dick wrote that he liked Hoofprints better than Cutter, and that I was improving as an writer. He was unfailingly cheerful and upbeat in his letters, even when he wrote about the hurricane that battered his home on Grand Cayman, and his wife’s illness. He sent me a Christmas card every year, signed, “love, Dick Francis”, and for many, many years he sent me signed copies of his novels when they came out. He was always polite, always gracious, always supportive, and he never failed to answer a letter. I believe that he had many, many correspondences very like the one he had with me, and from what I’ve been told, he made time for all of them. What a gracious person he was, with such a busy life, so much fame, and yet the ability to take time for the many fans who wrote.

I will always be a fan of Dick Francis, and nothing ever pleases me more than to have my books compared to his. Perhaps the greatest compliment I ever got was when Dick wrote and asked if he could borrrow some details from my fifth book, “Slickrock”, which he said he liked very much. I told him to borrow anything he wanted. I told him (truthfully) that I’d be honored.

My signed copies of Dick Francis’ many novels have the place of honor on my bookshelf, and I have a drawer full of his letters and Christmas cards. I will treasure them always. What a great writer, and what a kind and gracious man. Much love to you, dear Dick Francis. May you gallop through green fields again and always.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What Do You Think?

I'm not one of these dressage riders who espouses a certain type of riding is the only way. We've learned a lot about horses in the last several centuries, how their bodies work, how they think, how best to train them. So, improvements in training methods are possible, and classical dressage can certainly change and evolve as horses change and evolve.

Rollkur is a word sure to spark hot debate on both sides. If you don't know what it is, take a look at the embedded video below and read this definition. I also found a good article on it here.

I've managed to stay out of the rollkur discussion because I really don't know enough about it. Ttrainers I respect have told me it works well with hot horses. I've seen it used to a point by a few trainers, and it's never bothered me. Yet, when I watched his video it really made me sick. I'm not sure why. The horse doesn't really look unhappy. He's not laying back his ears, not swishing his tail. Granted, he does have his tongue over the bit in the beginning. Maybe what sickens me is that the animal seems to have lost its spirit. Am I right or wrong? Who knows? I'd almost have to see the horse in the actual class after this warmup. I tried to find a video of the class and couldn't. I did find another video of him at the European championships. The horse looked fine.

In dressage, submission is important. But where is the line between submission as a willing partner and slavery? I have never been an opponent of rollkur, but now I'm not sure.

Regardless, I've been wanting to discuss this video which made the rounds a few months ago. Take a look, and think about it. I also found the wide range of comments on the video's YouTube page very interesting.

I'm interested in a civil, open-minded discussion, as I'd really like to hear both sides.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Riding Bareback and Other Small Pleasures

by Laura Crum

I have to admit, up until last fall I would have said that I hadn’t ridden bareback in twenty years and probably never would again. In my early thirties I was very focused on competition, first at cutting, then at team roping, and I rode to train for my events. I seldom/never climbed on my horses bareback, though I had ridden bareback a great deal as a teenager (didn’t we all do that). I took a break from riding in my early forties to have a baby, and when I began riding again, it was always in a saddle, with my child in front of me. Then I ponied my child on his pony, and eventually, gave him a “lead” on my solid little trail horse—always in a saddle. Riding bareback never crossed my mind. I felt secure in a saddle. If you’d asked me, I would have said that I probably couldn’t stay on bareback any more.

I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was reading horse blogs. Maybe it was that my best girl friend and I (who had both given up training and competing) were talking a lot about the small pleasures we were now enjoying so much with our horses, since the constant pressure and stress of training to compete were removed. These things had always been available to us—we just never noticed them much. We were too busy. Always in a hurry, always trying to get something done. Now we had time to pay attention.

She talked of how sweet it is just to stroke a horse’s muzzle, and we both waxed lyrical about sitting in the barn listening to horses munch their hay. We admitted to each other how much we enjoyed the feeling that we didn’t need to ride unless we wanted to, and how some days we took great pleasure in simply getting our horses out to graze. The feeling of relaxation and spaciousness around our horses was endlessly gratifying. We were free to enjoy the small things. And we both love trail riding now, especially alone. (And yes we go together sometimes, too—but there is nothing quite like being alone with your trusted horse in the wild woods, or on a lonely beach.)

I’m not sure what exactly brought the urge to ride bareback into my head, but somehow connecting with these simple horsy pleasures reminded me of how much I had loved the feeling of riding bareback when I was young. So one day last fall, when I wasn’t feeling particularly ambitious, I put the bridle on my yellow horse and climbed on him bareback.

Sunny has a broad flat back and is very comfortable to sit on. I rode him for awhile, and managed a trot and a lope, though he’s pretty rough gaited, so mostly I walked. It was fun. But I still didn’t really make the connection.

This last month, however, it has really been too wet to ride much. We had two straight weeks of heavy rain and sporadic rain ever since. My riding ring has wet mucky spots and the trails are wet and slick. The horses are hairy and muddy and the impulse to ride just isn’t there. All my horses have plenty of room to run and most of them do. My son’s older horse, Henry, is pretty sedate, however, and he doesn’t move much. And, as I wrote about awhile ago, Henry eventually colicked (exactly one year after the colic that led to surgery—see my post “A Strange Story”). Since then, I have tried to get Henry out every day for exercise and grazing.

The exercise is just walking, because of the footing, and I got tired of hand walking Henry. Despite the fact that I haven’t climbed on a horse bareback in years (my husband legged me up on Sunny), I decided now was the time. Henry is only 14.3. How hard could it be?

Well, I had to get Henry pretty thoroughly downhill from me, but I did it. (I was pretty proud of myself.) So, for the last little while, I’ve been riding Henry bareback in a halter, at the walk and slow jog, to give him some exercise. And guess what? This is a real pleasure.

Sitting on his warm red back, in the spring sunshine, with the green grass all around us, going nowhere fast, I can completely relax. I can close my eyes, or I can daydream. Henry is bombproof. It feels so nice.

The sensation of completely relaxing on a horse is very novel for me. I have ridden young horses for so long that the habit of always paying attention is very ingrained. Even on Sunny, I pay attention. Sunny is a stong willed critter, though perfectly safe. But Henry is a babysitter. It is so much fun to ride him and be completely at ease.
I know wouldn’t have this pleasure if I didn’t own a completely reliable horse, so I’m grateful to Henry, not just for what he’s given to my child, but also for this unique opportunity. It’s a feeling I remember from my youth, riding my uncle’s gentle horses, lying down on their bare backs, sitting sideways, just relaxing, virtually taking a nap on a horse. I haven’t done this in so many years and now I’m doing it again. How cool is that? What a pleasure.

Anyway, I was wondering if this would resonate for any of you. Any simple small things you take pleasure in with your horses—that maybe you didn’t always notice? Do you ride bareback in a halter, too? For some reason it came into my head that the halter is part of it. If you go to the trouble of bridling the horse, then you’re having a formal “ride”. But somehow climbing on bareback with a halter is different. A return to a simpler world, perhaps? Any thoughts on this?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Just Climb On...

by Laura Crum

The other day I heard a woman I know talk about working her horse “around” before she got on him. She meant working him on foot in a round pen. Now this wasn’t a colt with thirty days on him that she was talking about. It was a seven year old horse that she’d owned for four years. He’d never none anything particularly threatening. Yet it was her habit to work him “around” before she rode him…pretty much every ride.

I thought this odd. Then the fact that I thought it odd got me thinking about why I think the way I do. OK, that’s a convoluted sentence, but I’m sure you get my point. Once a horse is past the very green stage (like 90 days of riding or less) I was never in the habit of working the horse on foot (whether in a round pen or on a lunge line) before I got on him. Despite the fact that I’m old and stout and cautious, I still don’t do this. Whether I’m riding middle-aged Sunny, five year old Smoky, or my son’s twenty-one year old babysitter, Henry, I saddle the horse up and get on. I don’t dink around on foot first.

To clarify this—I don’t throw the saddle on, jerk the cinch tight, and step up. I tighten the cinch in three steps and I walk the horse a few feet between each “tightening”. If the horse showed signs he was going to have a conniption fit, I would rethink the climbing on part. I still wouldn’t work him on foot—I’d probably tie him up and let him “soak” with the saddle on for a few hours. If he still didn’t seem flat, I might repeat that procedure for a few days before I rode him. But I wouldn’t be inclined to work him on foot.

I don’t consider myself particularly brave. I don’t think I’m completely foolhardy, either. If I were to describe myself, I might even say that I’m a big chicken these days. But I still just saddle my horses and climb on, though I no longer choose to climb on anything too green.

I am constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t do this. When I bought my horse, Sunny, the former owner went on and on about how the horse did not know how to lunge when she got him, and, of course, she lunged all her horses to warm them up before she rode them. I shrugged. In two years of pretty steady trail riding, I have never done anything but saddle Sunny and climb on when I’m ready. I don’t know why in the world anybody would bother to lunge this horse first.

Back when I was riding a lot of horses, whenever I got a broke horse that was new to me, I saddled them and climbed on and rode them. Again, if I thought the horse looked snorty, I might rethink the climbing on part. I rode trading horses and rope horses for years. I must have climbed on several hundred horses I didn’t know. Not one of them did I “work around” first. Sunny is the last horse I bought. I had reason to believe he was broke. The first day I had him home to try, I saddled him, climbed on, and took him for a trail ride. My concession to the unknown was to take a friend with me.

If I was breaking a colt I would take it to the round pen, while I taught that colt to carry the saddle and respond to my signals. Lots and lots has been written about the many different ways people accomplish this, and I think anything I would say about how I did it has already been said (better) by someone else. But even when I was breaking young horses, it didn’t take me very long to get them to the point where I saddled them and climbed on without working them on foot first (by thirty days, almost every time). Maybe I climbed on in the round pen, if I was nervous, but I didn’t work them from the ground much once they knew how to carry me. To address a specific problem, sometimes. If I really thought they were going to dump me, sure.

So why is this? Well, its partly because I was raised in the horse biz by a bunch of ropers, and they would all have disdained to dink around with a broke horse, or even a reasonably gentle green broke horse, before they climbed on him. It just ain’t the cowboy way.

And its partly because I’m lazy. Its easier to step aboard than to do all that fussing around on foot.

But there is another reason or two.

First off, horses know when you’re scared of them. Honest—they do. (I put quite a bit about this in my book, “Hayburner”, in which my protagonist breaks a colt.) If you’re fussing around on the ground cause you’re scared to get on, the horse knows. Its not a positive scenario. Thus, even if I am a little nervous, I act like I’m not. (I guess I think I can fool them.) I don’t spend a lot of time dinking around. I saddle the horse and get on.

Once I climb on, I just relax with the horse. I’ll walk a horse until he’s loose, if he’s relaxed enough to walk. Back when I was riding colts, a lot of them needed to move, so I’d let them trot, or lope(if they felt flat), until that urge to move subsided. It’s the equivalent of “working them around” or lunging them, except I’m on their back. I’m not asking much of them, just letting them get the kinks out. So, what’s better about being on their back, you ask?

Actually, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just really dumb. I’d sure be a lot safer on the ground, huh? However, I can’t think of a single time when a horse has dumped me during this warm up period, so I guess its worked OK so far. And, to quote a well known cutting horse trainer that I once worked for “If you dink around you make a dink.” This guy was very big on “just climb on em and go—don’t fuss with them,” and I absorbed a lot of his thinking.

Again, if I really thought a horse was liable to buck hard or bolt or dump me in some way (and by this I mean I knew the horse had done this before), I would probably take them to the round pen and work them on foot first. That or refuse to ride them. Nowadays (and for the past twelve years) I’d definitely refuse to ride them. But any horse that had never shown any big signs of wanting to unload people, it was always climb on and go.

The second reason I just climb on is because I think we can train a horse to accept our method, and I don’t see any point in training a horse to expect all this dinking around on foot that’s inconvenient for me. Once a horse thinks he gets to fart around on the lungeline or in the round pen before you ride him, why then he feels entitled to act up if you don’t work him on foot first. I don’t want him having that expectation, so I don’t create it.

I still remember when I got my son’s pony, Toby. This was a gentle, older pony, big enough for me to ride. The first time I lunged him (I intended to give my son riding experience on the lungeline) Toby acted like an idiot. My impulse was to set his little pony butt straight, but, just to be sure, I called the former owner and asked her if she ever lunged this pony.

Well, turns out she lunged him all the time. As, you guessed it, a prelude to riding, to “get his ya-yas out”. Toby figured lunging was when he got to act up.

I couldn’t believe it. This was a gentle pony. There is no way I ever bothered to lunge him before I got on him, and once my son learned to ride, I never lunged Toby before my son got on him either. In one short session (Toby was a smart little guy) I taught that pony that he had to mind his p’s and q’s on the lungeline, too. End of problem.

So what if your gentle, broke horse is “full of suds” some cool spring morning? Do you lunge him first? I know a lot of people think this is the thing to do. And certainly, Plumber, who I rode for many years, could be pretty silly when he was fresh. He didn’t buck or come unbroke, but he’d hop and bounce around, skittering, and even squealing a little. You couldn’t even really call it crowhopping, but he was pretty lively. And no, I never lunged him or “worked him around”. Even when I was riding with my three year old in front of me, I just climbed on. This may sound dumb, I guess, but I knew Plumber. I’d broke and trained him myself and I knew just what he would do or wouldn’t do. My little boy, too young to be scared, would giggle and laugh when Plumber “scooted” around. And then we’d lope a few laps and he’d be over it. I think this is the way to treat a broke horse. You don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it really is, or the horse will start to think it’s a big deal. And the whole thing escalates.

I find this hard to put into words, but by trusting a horse you allow him to become trustworthy. A horse cannot become “trustworthy” if you don’t trust him. Again, I’m not talking about a colt or a problem horse you are trying to retrain. I’m talking about treating a broke horse like he’s broke. Rather than treating him like some half-broke colt you don’t trust not to throw you.

What about a cold backed horse you say? My steady mount for many, many years was Flanigan, who I loved dearly. Flanigan was definitely a “cold-backed” horse. Meaning he was majorly cinchy. Every single time I saddled Flanigan, he had a big hump in his back. Flanigan bucked a number of people off when they tried to rope on him without warming him up properly first. My concession to this was to tighten the cinch very gently in stages, walking the horse between each stage, until his back flattened out. Took about three minutes. Then I climbed on him. He would usually walk with a hump in his back for awhile, felt like he was tip toeing around. I walked him until he flattened out. And I always gave him a long careful warm up before I roped on him, being sure to “break him out” (gallop him flat out) a few times before I backed in the box. Flanigan did buck with me once in awhile, but he never bucked me off. A better horse never lived. And I never once “worked him around” or lunged him before I got on him. He would have been insulted at the thought of it.

This brings me to my last point. Broke horses, horses who know their job, don’t like being dinked around with. They don’t like being retrained. They don’t care for having the snaffle put on them and being treated like they’re ignorant colts. They don’t like being worked in a round pen by some know it all who thinks he/she is going to “fix” their problems. I’ve seen this many times. Broke horses want and expect their rider to be competent and to respect the horse’s competence. They want their rider to climb on and go do something that makes sense to the horse. I have many times seen a good solid rope horse go dramatically backward in the hands of someone who began “retraining”, starting over with the round pen and the snaffle…etc. The “trainer’s” intentions are good; he/she is going to fix something they think is “wrong” with the horse, but it doesn’t usually work out well. In my experience, its better to meet a broke horse in the middle, let him do his job and concentrate on doing yours. If it isn’t workable like that, usually this isn’t the right horse for you and you’d do better to pass him on and try another one than try to retrain him.

OK. There’s my two cents worth, as my grandmother used to say. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Feel free to tell me how dumb I am not to work my horses before I get on them, and explain to me the finer points of this and why it works for you. Tell me why it’s a good idea to put that old broke horse in the snaffle and retrain him. I’m not too old to learn something (I hope).

Don’t forget about the book review offer for my new book, “Going, Gone”. Email Susan Daniel at and request your copy. You will need to send her your snail mail address, your blog address, and your agreement to review the book on your blog and email Susan a copy of the review. Review copies will be sent out on March 1st, approximately, which is also the deadline for this offer. I’m looking forward to reading your reviews.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Horses

So – do you all remember your very first horse? The one you fell head-over-heels, achingly in love with, at least until you became a better rider and moved on?

I remember mine. He was a nondescript bay gelding and I named him Copper.

Growing up, I was the epitome of the horse crazy girl, reading everything I could get my hands on about horses, thinking, dreaming, and practically living and breathing horses. We lived out in the country, but my mother was a city girl and my father was busy working to support our family, and horses were big expensive creatures and a daughter could get hurt.

But I could not get over my dream so finally, to placate me, or maybe just to stop my begging, my parents made me a deal -if I could save enough money to buy my own horse, I could have one. (Hint: this technique still works with almost all children and teenagers, to find out how bad they really want something.) Anyway, prices of horses have varied over the years, but as I recall, the amount needed to buy a pretty decent kid’s horse back in those days was about $600.

Hearing the offer, I went to work. I babysat, pulled weeds, took care of neighbor’s animals - whatever a young teenager without a car could do. And I saved every penny. In about two years, when I was fifteen years old, I had the $600, and my parents, bless their hearts, made good on their promise. We set out to look for a very safe first horse.

And such horses, as you know, are scarce as hen’s teeth, probably because people generally hang on to good, reliable horses. Or they pass them on to friends and other horse people.

But after several faulty starts and one horse that didn’t pass a vet check, we finally found just the right one. He was probably 12-15 years old, a bright bay, common headed, straight shouldered, short pasterned, high-withered, sloping crouped, dead-slow gelding and I was TOTALLY in love.

On the day we went to get Copper, my parents let me skip school. Oh Happy Day! My parents even pitched in $75 for a good used saddle. Copper had the number one important trait for a first horse. He was lazy. And a horse that wants to go slow builds confidence in a rider. Because I certainly didn’t know to ride. I was entirely self taught. I remember riding Copper out in the pasture the very first time, with the old cowboy we bought him from riding alongside, giving me pointers. “Keep your heels down,” he said in a gruff voice, “and put more weight down through your stirrups.” And I did.

Once I got him home, I rode Copper everywhere, and he never batted an eye at anything. And even though I had a saddle, I loved to ride bareback. I remember hanging on to Copper’s mane for dear life, trying to sit his bone-jarring, teeth-in-your-eyeballs trot, kicking his sides, trying to get him into a lope. And that big smile when he finally did it! Surely that’s where the phrase flying by the seat of your pants comes from.

Because I did develop a seat from that old rough-riding horse. And I shortly outgrew him. He was a wonderful horse to begin on, but soon I wanted something with nicer gaits and a bit more get-up-and-go, and so I sold him, and progressed to a better-looking, more responsive horse.

I’ve often wondered what ever happened to Copper, and how many other kids he taught how to ride. Because you never really forget you very first love, do you?

So – tell us what you remember about your First Horse.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Authors' Journeys with Horses

This is the last of my series on books in my horse library. This installment I'm covering books which are biographies covering the author's experiences with horses. These are some of my favorites:

Taking Up the Reins by Priscilla Endicott--This is one of my favorite books. Back in the beginning days of dressage in America, Ms. Endicott journeyed to Germany for a year to train with a dressage master, Walter Christensen. If you've ever considered training in Germany, read this book. She tells it like it is with no sugar coating in an entertaining style.

Believe by Buck Brannaman--This book and Faraway Horses chronicles Buck's journey and experiences with various horses. I highly recommend both books for the insight they give the reader into the mind of the horse.

The Man Who Listens to Horses by Monty Roberts--In this book Monty outlines his philosophy about working with horses and how he got there.

Ahlerich--The Making of Dressage World Champion by Reiner Klimke--In the dressage world, Klimke is an icon. His account of selecting Ahlerich and the trial and rewards of training the difficult horse are eye-openers. Those of us who've watched videos of Klimke riding Ahlerich will find it hard to believe this was not an easy horse to ride at first.

Along the Way by Various Authors--This book was available through USDF at one time. It may still be. Its an anthology written by serveral authors detailing their unique relationship with horses. There are chapters by Conrad Schumacher, Betsy Steiner, Sylvia Loch, Anne Gribbons, Debbie McDonald, Paul Belasik, and Kathy Connelly, among others.

Anky by Anky van Grunsven--This is an interesting biography of Anky's life and her horses.

True Horsemanship Through Feel by Bill Dorrance as told by Leslie Desmond--This book is a tough one to read. I struggled with as Ms. Desmond wrote it using the same dialect Bill Dorrance would use, which makes it difficult to understand. It's still a great book and offers incredible insight into this man who was the pioneer of natural horsemanship.

Riding Through by Debbie McDonald--This book is a combination of a biography of Debbie's life with horses and a how-to book. I find Debbie a delightful person in print and in person.

For now, this is the end of my horse book recommendations. I hope you enjoyed them and found a few keepers for your own library.

I'm currently struggling with the possiblity that my mare may not recover fully from her cellulites. The swelling in her leg hasn't reduced since December, despite our best efforts. It is easily twice as large as her other hind leg. My vet is currently consulting with other experts to see if there's anything we haven't tried. In the meantime, I've been riding religiously. In fact, I rode the last 6 out of 7 days. She is perfectly comfortable in walk, trot, and canter as long as I keep her up and forward so she doesn't get that big leg tangled up with her other legs. She trips over herself in any lateral work, so that appears to be out.

I'm struggling with coming to terms as to where I go from here if this leg stays the size it is. I may end up with a VERY nice trail horse, and my dressage dreams may be at their end, but I'll cover all that in my next post.

Until then, I hope all your rides are rewarding.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reader's Write Saturday--Shannon

This week's reader is Shannon. So welcome, Shannon, thanks so much for sending us a Saturday blog post. If anyone else would like to send one, please send it to:

I also want to extend a big welcome to Linda Benson. Linda has joined us as a regular contributor to Equestrian Ink. She'll be posting next week.

Hello Equestrian Ink -

I'm Shannon and I have 3 horses at home - Brandon, my 31 yr old, who I've owned since he was 8. I initially used him for hunt seat and hunters over fences but moved into dressage when I was around 18. I have NO desire and absolutely NO courage left for any sort of jumping or fences today.

My second and primary riding horse right now is Sera, my red headed, race track reject - she went to the track and was sent home because she was too slow. She never raced and isn't tattooed. I brought her home when she was 4 yrs old and she's 10 this year. We will show second level dressage this summer to get my silver medal scores and I love, love, love my mare. I was EXTREMELY fortunate to find her when I did because I know how long horse hunting can last. I'd lost my young 2 yr old Holsteiner colt in a bad accident and found Sera one month later. We named her Seraphim because she was truly heaven sent to us during a dark time.

My third horse and sort of my "booger" right now is Rosso, out of the same dam as my lovely Sera. We've owned him for 3 years now.. He raced 8 times, had a knee surgery to remove a bone chip and returned to the track. He won around $500, which is why someone like me has him now. He's 8 this year... he had one year off when we brought him home to acclimate from his life on the track while rehabbing from a suspensory injury, he was started and going well last year and then things sorta went South - we're working on it and he's my sore spot that I obsess about right now. (OCD anyone?)

He'll stay with me and he has come leaps and bounds from when we first brought him home but after this, I don't think I want any more younger horses to re-train for the life of a saddle horse.... it's hard on a cautious chicken like me. My trainer has all the faith in the world things will be fine and I can handle it. I'm not so sure and I really, really wish I shared her faith in my ability!

We live in Northern Colorado on a small 5 acre place along with my fabulous husband who is amazing and supports my horse addiction. We share our home with 6 cats (yes, I fully realize I am setting myself up to be the crazy cat lady) 3 great dogs, some chickens and a few Lamancha dairy goats for my milk and cheese obsession.... (oh. Did I mention OCD?) I milk my does twice a day and have a heck of a handshake..

The cheese I make from their milk goes quite well with wine and/or beer at the barn parties and horse shows so it all ties in one way or t'other...
I'm glad to read your blog and really enjoy your talents - thanks for sharing your creativity and wonderful writing skills!
(pictures are Brandon in an 2006 Christmas card picture with a few of the critters - and a picture of Sera and Rosso shortly after bringing Rosso home - they look VERY similar so you can see why I may have been tempted to bring him home. He was "free to a good home", tho I realize nothing is truly "free" and maybe that is why he's my "booger" now - I'm paying, paying and paying! grin. )


"Barn's burnt down, now I can see the moon" - Masahide

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Strange Story

by Laura Crum

As those of you who have read my blog posts know, my son’s horse went to colic surgery last year to save his life. They removed a stone as big as a cantalope from Henry’s large intestine as well as about two gallons of sand (which he didn’t ingest here) and smaller stones. The date of this surgery was Jan 31st.

So last Sunday, Jan 31st, I’m thinking about the whole ordeal, which is indelibly impressed on my mind. The sleepless nights, the worry, the anxiety and tears. I’m feeling glad we made it through and Henry is back to being a riding horse. Then I go down to feed the horses in the evening. Guess what I found? Yep, Henry was colicked. Exactly one year later.

He wasn’t colicked in any extreme way—he’d been bright eyed and normal all day. But he wouldn’t eat his dinner and he kept trying to lie down; he wouldn’t graze and he kept on trying to lie down when I got him out. He stood camped out, looked at his sides, and was droopy and miserable. He was definitely colicked. The scary thing was that these were all the signs he ever showed when he had the colic that led to surgery. He never got real painful, he did not sweat or thrash or have an elevated heart rate or respiration. But for 48 hours, as soon as the current dose of banamine wore off, he went back to showing these minimal colic signs. Exactly what he was showing now.

OK, I admit it. I freaked. I simply couldn’t believe it was happening. I yelled at my husband to walk the horse while I called the vet. My husband gave me a look. It was getting dark, it was Sunday night, I know we were both having the same déjà vu.

“I don’t want to do this again,” my normally very sweet husband said. “Just call the guy with the backhoe.”

He was kidding, sort of.

I ran up to the house and called the vet (cellphones don’t work here) only to discover that (hard times all over) they had no on call vet Sunday night. Nifty. Now my choices were to adlib (give banamine paste myself and walk Henry) or call a vet I’d never used for a first time emergency call. My husband and I looked at each other.

“Or,” I said, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. “We could just haul him to the equine center now.”

“Lets,” he said. “Let them deal with it. It’ll be worth it.”

We both knew that by the time we had a ranch call, holiday charge, after hours charge, emergency charge, exam charge…etc, the cost would be almost the same as what the equine center would ding us. And at the equine center, somebody else would be checking on Henry all night long. And if his colic went the wrong way, they could hook him up to fluids. They had the drugs, the equpiment, the big clean stall, the crew of interns to observe and do the work. I’m not sure I would have made this choice with another horse in different circumstances, but neither my husband or I could face a rerun of the two sleepless nights that led up to Henry’s colic surgery. We loaded him up and hauled him one hour to the equine center and I kissed him on the nose and dropped him off.

Well, as fate would have it, they gave him the dose of banamine that I could have given, they watched him all night and called me in the morning and said he was fine. I picked him up the next day and so far he’s been fine. So I pretty much wasted the five hundred dollars it cost. Oh well, hindsight’s twenty twenty. At least my husband and I got some sleep.

So how weird is that? Henry just happens to colic exactly one year after the colic that led to surgery? Do horses have "anniversary reactions" like people do?

I have to say, there are moments when I almost wish I didn’t have any horses. How about you? Any strange stories to share?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review Offer and What Do We Want In a Horse?

by Laura Crum

Yep, you can get a free review copy of my new book, “Going, Gone,” if you email Susan Daniel at and agree to review the book on your blog. I hope all you horse bloggers take my publisher up on this offer and I look forward to reading your reviews. There is a brief description of the book on the sidebar here, and you will find a synopsis on my website Those of you who have enjoyed my previous books and my blog posts here on EI will probably enjoy “Going, Gone.” There is a great deal in the book about horses and how we interact with them, and it is Gail’s horsemanship that saves her life in the climactic scene.

And this brings me to my subject for this post. The other day I stopped to think awhile about the question of what we want from our horses and how that changes at different times in our lives. When I was younger I wanted a talented horse who could win at cutting or team roping. I was careful to train and ride my horses such that they could execute the moves necessary to perform these events. I wasn’t particularly concerned with whether they were bombproof trail horses. I didn’t mind a certain amount of spooky, ampy behavior or a coldbacked horse who wanted to crowhop. I could deal with it. As long as the horse performed well in my chosen event, I was fine with it.

How things have changed. After taking almost ten years off to have and rear a child, I am now a 52 year old woman who wants to trail ride with her young son. I’m not interested in competing. I am interested (very much) in not getting hurt. I am very, very interested (I can’t overstate this) in my kid not getting hurt. I love riding through the hills of my home and taking in the beauty of the landscape. The only thing I really care about in a horse is that he be a completely reliable bombproof trail horse, one who can go anywhere and handle all the odd things that come up “outside” with aplomb. Not spooking is big. Never panicking is essential. I am completely unwilling to deal with any horse who might even consider bucking me off. I have no confidence that I could come off a horse at this point in my life and not be hurt.

So I acquired two horses that fit this description. My son and I are enjoying the heck out of them on the trail. We go everywhere on them…through the muddy creek, across the busy roads, up and down steep hills on narrow switchback trails, past the llama pen (and the goats and the geese and the little bitty ponies), in the surf at the beach, by the dirt bikes, you name it. Are they well broke? Uhmm, Henry’s not too bad, Sunny is not something to brag about. My two little trail horses can walk, trot, lope around an arena, they stop decently, they back, they have a nice neck rein, you can open and close a gate from their backs, they know how to turn with a cow (if you’re not in a hurry). That’s about it. You can rope off both of them (though we don’t). I would have sneered at them in my competitive days. Now I love them.

Contrary to what you might suppose, neither of these horses is a “plug”. They do not tune out the outside world, they are not dull and unresponsive. Both horses go down the trail with their ears pricked forward, stepping out briskly, watching everything and showing every sign that they are happy, alert, and interested in what is going on around them. They notice everything, but are confident enough in themselves and their riders that they don’t need to overeact. Neither of them shows this alert demeanor for arena work, which leads me to the simple conclusion that these intelligent critters feel the same way about going around and around in circles as I do. (They usually like to lope until the edge is off and they like chasing cattle—just like me.) In short, I’m finding that these two gentle, willing, bombproof trail horses are not desensitized to the world around them. They’re not tuning it out. They are both very alert and aware of their enviroment and quite interested in it (if its interesting). They are just confident and they trust their riders, answering the rider’s cue even when faced with “scary stuff”. For my purposes, this is a good thing. The fact that the horses are calm and not over reactive is a good thing. If I wanted to show them as cutting horses it would not be such a good thing. My old cutting horse, Gunner, was very prone to sudden ten foot sideways leaps when going down the trail. Fortunately at that time in my life this didn’t bother me—Gunner never did drop me (it was close many times, though). What made Gunner a good cutter made him a very spooky trail horse.

My two current trail horses are both willing to ignore unfortunate accidental rider cues. If my son loses his balance and kicks or pulls on Henry when he doesn’t mean to, Henry does not overeact and freak out. Henry understands the “signal” to mean nothing and he pretty much ignores it. From my point of view, this is a good thing. Again, if I wanted to go back to team roping on Henry, I would need to “remind” him that he needs to pay attention to my cues. But for what we do, a little tuning out of aberrant rider cues is not a bad thing. Both horses are completely obedient when it counts, if a little lazy when it comes to lots of boring arena work. Does this make them dull and desensitized? In a way. But it’s a way that works for me.

Looking back at my own life with horses I began to realize that there is no such thing as one good way that a horse should be. There is no one best training method. Some people can and do tolerate horses that are truly dangerous…and don’t mind. (We used to call these guys the “real hands”.) They don’t care if a horse stands still to be mounted, or if he wants to buck, or if he leaps ten feet sideways when a leaf blows by. They value his ability to cut a cow or go down the fence or some such thing. Some people want a gentle horse that stands still to be mounted and carries them reliably and willingly through the hills (this would be me these days). Some people really want and need a horse that is gentle and polite about taking treats and being brushed…cause that’s all they want to do. They don’t want to ride. They want to pet the horse. I might have looked down on these people at one time. No more.

The more I see the more I realize that there are as many different ways to be happy with horses as there are people, and if your way is working for you than I think it is a good way. There will always be someone who wants to tell you what you “ought” to be doing with your horse, or what you ought not to be doing. If you are unhappy with your interactions with your horse then it pays to get advice and help from one or more of these experts and change what you are doing until it is working for you. But I no longer believe that the horseman who is quite happy petting and feeding treats to his/her gentle well behaved pony is in any way lesser to the tough guy who can win at a cutting, reining or roping. Its who is happier with their horses that counts. Who is treating their horses right, retiring their old ones, showing compassion for all. Its whose horses are happier that may in the end count for the most. (I’m talking karma here folks.) If a given “trainer” uses harsh methods and seems to glorify flighty, spooky, half scared horses that are great performers at his/her event, and this trainer, say, is uninterested in gentle, reliable, kind horses that willingly pack their rider down the trail, maybe we who like gentle, reliable, kind, bombproof horses need to move on. I know I have learned a whole new way of evaluating horses and picking out what will work for me since I've been riding with my son.

If any of you have insights to share on how your goals have changed over the years since you’ve been involved with horses, I’d love to hear them. Do you find that you select different horses now and work with them differently? I know I’ve been amazed by how much my own goals and methods have changed and equally surprised by how much I enjoy my horses now…there’s so much less stress involved compared to the days when I was competing. (Of course, the current amount of mud in my corrals is pretty much creating the same level of mental stress that it always has—so I guess you can’t win them all.) Any thoughts on this? Have any of you moved on to a new trainer because the former one no longer fit your goals and needs? Or realized that you don’t need a trainer any more? I’d be interested to hear your ideas on this subject.

Again, for those of you who would like to read my new book, “Going, Gone”, my publisher has agreed to provide free review copies to horse bloggers who will review the book on their blog. Email Susan Daniel at with your snail mail address and your blog address and mention that you’d like to review the book and that you will email Susan a copy of the review when you post it on your blog. Susan will be sending the review copies out around March 1st, which is the deadline for this offer. I hope that many of you will take advantage of it, and I look forward to reading your reviews. Cheers--Laura

Monday, February 1, 2010

Get a Free Book

by Laura Crum

That’s right. All you bloggers out there with an active horse blog (by which I mean you update it regularly) can request a free review copy of my new book, “Going, Gone.” Email my publisher (Susan Daniels) at and give your blog address, snail mail address, and agreement to post a review of the book on your blog and email Susan a copy of said review when you put it up. The review copies will be mailed out on March 1st (approximately), which is also the deadline for this offer. So get your request in now.

The first review of “Going, Gone” has just come in, and here it is:

Fans of Laura Crum's marvelous series of "equine" mysteries featuring veterinarian Gail McCarthy will certainly remember Lonny Peterson, the guy Gail looked certain to marry during the early years of her literary adventures. So, you can imagine how she'd feel to pay Lonny a visit while on vacation with her husband and child only to discover he's charged with murder.

Naturally, Gail immediately concludes Lonny's innocent and is being framed for the killing of his most recent girl friend and her brother. Will she have time on her vacation to catch the real murderer and help her former lover clear his name? Well, of course she will! But author Crum makes it a most suspenseful and intriguing process, so there's nothing "ho-hum" about this mystery adventure.

I'm an unabashed fan of Laura Crum's mysteries. One obvious reason is that Crum lives in and writes about my home territory--Santa Cruz County, California--where both of us were born and raised. But before I ever came to know Laura, I was a big fan of Dick Francis, his mysteries about horses and the people who deal in them. Though Francis is still writing mysteries with the help of his son, I believe Laura Crum is now doing better "equine" mysteries and should be the heir to Francis' literary domain.

Laura has now written 11 mysteries featuring Gail McCarthy. It has been fun to grow along with Laura and her alter-ego. Gail is now settled into her marriage to husband Blue and raising her little boy, Mac. She's putting on a little weight, but she's certainly not slowing down any--as you will discover in the thrilling climax of "Going, Gone," in which Gail has to ride for her life as the real murderer comes after her bent on putting her out of business forever.

The title comes from the world of horse auctions, which Crum gives us a good taste of while laying out the structure of her mystery plot. The people Lonny is accused of killing were in the auction business and the clues to the real killer are rooted in that world, which Gail has to explore on her own without much help from law enforcement.

This is a fast-moving mystery thriller that you won't want to put down once you're into it. It won't be officially published until April 5, but you can order it now on and the other online book retailers. It's published by Perseverance Press, an imprint of John Daniel & Co., in the larger format trade paperback edition with the slick cover. List price is $14.95, but you will be able to get it for less online.

Perseverance Press has rounded up quite a few of the better series mystery writers who lost their publishers in the recent market reshuffling by the big publishers. It also carries the mysteries of Lora Roberts, Carolyn Wheat, Jeanne M. Dams, Hal Glatzer and several more. These are clean, handsome volumes that will look fine in your mystery library.

They've kept the Gail McCarthy series alive and well, which has made me more than happy to do business with them.

©2010 by Ron Miller.

Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He most recently was the television columnist for MYSTERY SCENE magazine.

Perseverance Press/John Daniel & Co.
Award-Winning Traditional Mysteries for the New Golden Age
Spring 2010: GOING, GONE by Laura Crum and MIDNIGHT FIRES by Nancy Means Wright