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?


Mrs. Mom said...

Wow Laura- that brought back some memories for me. I had been asked to ride and train an Appy gelding who out of the blue began behaviors like Noble and Fine. I rode him for two years I think, and that whole time I never knew what type of horse I was on. He'd be out on the trail, and perfectly fine packing along- wildlife could bounce out in front or off to the side and he never batted an eye. Then, same trial, same type of situation, that deer would bob up and BAM-- it was like I was on a totally different horse. Same thing in arena work too. He'd be perfect for weeks, and BAM.... explode.

And all I can see now is that "dead" blank eye you talked about. That horse just checked out. I quit riding him after he dumped me about the 15th time. His owner held onto him for a while, and eventually sold him to a local trainer who had a good reputation. Turns out that horse did the same thing for the other guy-- go along perfectly, and BAM... flip out. That time though, the trainer got pinned under him when the horse blew, and both of them wound up breaking a leg. The trainer was OK after surgery, but the horse was put down.

The former owner bred that colt. Had his full brother too. I heard later on that the full brother acted the same way. And I was mighty glad that she did not call me to start that colt.

They are out there. Genetics? Specific breeds? (That I question- I've seen it in QH, Apps, TB's, and gaited breeds.) If you want a really pretty pasture pet, fine. Feed them and love them, and enjoy how they look. But if you need a working horse? No way man. Your life is worth too much. I try to be careful with the horses I am around now. Sonny is about the toughest one I am willing to tackle, and he isn't all that tough- just persistent when he wants to be a brat.

Good topic Laura. Thanks for making me think again ;) (And I'll pass along a big rub to Sonny from you, as long as you rub on Henry and your Sunny from me please!)

Mikey said...

Very interesting post, one I must comment on. I've saved a few horses from the kill pen myself, and I've had horses like that. I own one now. Like you said, they get a blank eye. We call ours the "blind bucker" and she does. Run into anything while she's bucking. Scares the hell out of everyone. Will do it as soon as you saddle her up, and tear down a round pen. We don't try to ride her anymore, and she's a relatively young horse. I choose to keep her because I'm afraid she will either hurt someone badly or someone will hurt her trying to ride her. Sent her to a trainer after I spent 4 yrs working with her, thinking I'd done something wrong, left a hole in her training somewhere. Never has she been abused. He concluded she is "developmentally disabled" to put it kindly. Said she can be ridden, but would have to be every day by someone very experienced and even then it would be disaster waiting to happen.
All I can say is, I value the good minded horses all that much more now and the truth is, there are some horses out there that are just like that. I hate to see them go to kill, but I understand why people send them there. Personally I'd euth this horse before I sent her to auction. I just think that's my responsibility as an owner.
Excellent post!!

Anonymous said...

You may know that we're currently dealing with an unpredictably violent horse whose eyes do that "going away" thing. She's never had a problem under saddle (yet) but can be dangerously aggressive on the ground, although the behavior had been gone for about 8 months as a result of my daughter's consistent care and training before it suddenly came back while my daughter was away. We think she has a neurological problem, whether innate or acquired (head injury, brain tumor or poorly done imprinting) we don't know. She did have one foal (before we got her) that we believe to be normal.

This mare was going to be euthanized for dangerous aggression before my daughter got her, for free, as a project horse - she was evaluated by several trainers we trust who thought she might be fixable. It looked for a while like it might work, but apparently not. In hindsight, should my daughter have taken on this horse? Probably not, as the end result is likely to be the same.

Laura Crum said...

Wow--Mrs Mom--your comment really made me hope I didn't do someone a huge wrong by passing Fine along. It was just so hard for me to see the whole picture at the time. One of Fine's half sisters did thrive as a pasture pet/halter horse for a woman I know--that was the perfect niche, as you say. But I never knew a horse by that stud (and I knew a bunch of em) that made a good working horse.

And Mrs Mom--so much for sunshine and riding out here. Sunday we got an inch and a half of water and yesterday two and three quarters inches. I'll rub on Sunny and Henry if I can make it through the mud to catch them (!) So far all horses are doing fine and still have dry ground to rest and eat on, but boy do I have a lot of mud.

Laura Crum said...

Mikey and Kate--Very good points. Near the end of his life, Noble was evaluated by a vet I think highly of who said he thought the horse had nuerological issues. Noble would often shake before he pulled back or did something violent. I have a hard time understanding how this trait could be present in so many colts by this one stallion--can nuerological damage be passed on genetically?

I agree with you, Mikey, that if I had such a horse now, I would euthanize it if I could no longer keep it. With Fine, as I said, I just didn't really understand the parameters. And still, would you euth such a nice seeming, sound young horse who behaved so well so much of the time? Its a tough one.

Kate, that is a really hard situation. I feel for you. I can only say that I think in the end Bill wished he'd put Noble down and gotten another, more cooperative horse, rather than struggle with that, shall we say, somewhat psychotic animal for seventeen years.

Unknown said...

Our Sebastian and his (now dead, she was hit by a car) sister sianna had the same temperment. They were full brother/sister. Both of them would/will kick you or try and intimidate you if given the chance. Their mother is (IMO) the best morgan as far as personality, work ethic and brains goes. Their half sisters? Awesome. Different stud of course. Both those two could be mean but damn did they ever work. Every once and a wile Sebastian gets stupid though. I recall last summer when he wigged out and would not walk so I trotted him 10 miles before it was too dark and I had to go back to the farm. Just one horse you can't tire out, tough sucker. Hes such a superb driving horse though that he would really hurt our business to get rid of him.

Laura Crum said...

Sydney--Sounds like you have reached some kind of meeting of the minds with Sebastian and he's not really dangerous, if I read your comment right. I'm guessing you would not call him a "superb driving horse" if he occasionally flipped over backward. Does this mean you were able to get through to one of these horses that "blanks out" and actually teach him to be a solid citizen?

Susan said...

When Tom and I were starting horses, we had some experiences that made us decide we only wanted to ride our own horses. Sometimes the owners lied to us, as we could tell when we worked with the horse that it had been handled rough and made dangerous. But one horse was crazy, and we were told the sire was the same way!?! We sent the horse home without riding him. In my opinion there's always a reason horses are dangerous, and lots of times it's because they're hurt and we don't pick up on it (how many horses do you think have ended up in bucking strings because they had sore backs?). But why keep breeding a bloodline that seems to have problems?

Laura Crum said...

Susan, that's a good point. In my uncle's case it took a very long time for all of us to realize that this one sire threw this "resistance trait". The horses were superficially easy going, as I said, and the oldest ones were ten or so before it began to dawn on all of us that none of them were really working out as we had hoped. Some were not crazy/violent resistant, but merely deeply lazy--they resisted through being unwilling to try, and sulling up when pushed. But a good many of them showed the violent resistant behaviors I decribed in the post. At that point my uncle quit breeding the stud. But there were a lot of his get around by then. Because, as I said, they were big, pretty, superficially easy going and gentle to handle. They were very deceptive. At the time I handed Fine off to my trainer friend, I had no idea that so many of his sire's get would prove essentially "untrainable".

lopinon4 said...

You know, I think most of us experienced horse folk just do the best we can do with the information we have at the time. We can't see into the future, and we can't change everything that needs to be changed for every horse. I think it's good character to wonder if you could have done something different or better, and I think it's a sign of a good person if you feel some guilt if things don't work out perfectly. However, there is just so much that we, as people, don't understand about horses. And, honestly, I think we're not intended to understand it. If we had it down pat, we wouldn't have this magnetic attraction to these incredible creatures. What a miserable existence my life would be if that were the case.

On that note, I think some horses are just pre-programmed to self-destruct. Or, at the very least, are just throwbacks of a truly wild horse. An Orca just killed it's trainer yesterday. It was well trained and "domesticated" by all known standards, right? Yet, this whale had been involved with previous deaths. A white tiger attacked his lifelong "friend" and trainer, Roy Horn. When we mess with animals, creatures that are not fully understood...there is a huge element of danger involved.

We get comfortable. We become confident. We learn a little bit, and then our egos take over. We forget. We push aside the knowledge that these animals are much bigger, much stronger, and have instincts buried deep inside them that sometimes "domestication" doesn't breed out.

A few years ago, I was attacked by an Appy gelding after a textbook round-penning session. He had been showing signs of aggression with the mares, and had recently been pinning ears and snaking at feeding time. The owner wanted me to see what was happening and try to help, as she had young children who helped with the chores. She was worried that they may get hurt by this horse if they tried to throw hay out.

My assistant and I drove out. We tried everything to prompt the horse to display the behavior. Nothing worked. We gave the mares all the attention; he dozed in the sun. We put out piles of hay and I stayed in the pen to see if he would show me any signs of not wanting me there. Nothing. He chose a pile and settled in quietly to munch away. The owner was, of course, very apologetic...she emphasized again that truly, he was being a jerk, and she didn't understand why he wasn't being his usual self that day. I told her not to worry about it, and offered to show her how to work him for respect. After we let the Appy finish up most of his hay, I walked over and haltered him with no problem. Led him to the pen, no problem. He was a bit tough to show signs of respect in the roundpen, but after he figured out the rules, he became extremely submissive. He would walk beside me, stop when I stop, back up when I faced him and took a step toward him, disengaged his hips at a tickle, and was licking and chewing like nobody's business. The owner was very happy, and as we were standing around him talking, he changed his mind. In the blink of an eye, I was on the ground, and he was over me, biting and stomping, squealing like a pig. My assistant had to beat him off of me with a whip.

I have never experienced anything like this since then. I don't know if the horse had some type of flashback and this triggered his behavior, or if he had neurological issues. I had a heart-to-heart with the owner. She could pass him off or she could euthanize, but he had to go. And he went. He went to a cowboy trainer who was going to use him on cattle. Maybe they got on just fine. Maybe not. I always wonder if I could've done something different. I wonder if I should've pushed euthanization. There are no easy answers.

Sorry to ramble...

HorseOfCourse said...

Another good post, Laura.

I believe inconsistent behaviour is the worst. Where there is no apparent reason for a change to the worse.

I have migrain that drives me nuts sometimes. Maybe horses can get migraines too?

Laura Crum said...

lopinon4--Good example. I had a horse like that here once, though not so extreme. He was my friend's rope horse and was boarded here for somewhere between a year and two years. Three times during that time he "attacked" my friend. The first time the horse (Sammy) was being doctored for a cut on his hock and kicked out suddenly and without warning, really hard--the kind of kick that can take your kneecap off. My friend thought it was because of the cut being painful and let it pass. Six months later, when trying to catch the horse in a boxstall at a roping, Sammy attacked my friend, diving at him with teeth bared in an attempt to bite--hard. Sammy got severely reprimanded and my friend, dubious, persisted with the horse. But a few months later, when Sammy was being groomed, he again lashed out very hard with a hind foot, for no discernible reason, and my friend took him back to the horse trader. Sammy was a good rope horse and perhaps found a berth with someone who could stand his aberrations, but around my barn (and at the time I had a toddler) it was simply not acceptable. I think you did very right to convince the owner to get rid of the horse that attacked you.

Horse Of Course--I do wonder if these horses who flip out like this have some nuerological reason for doing so. I know that I am quite incapable of coping with such a horse--there was no point in my life where I would have been willing to deal with these issues. Such horses are too dangerous.

KB said...

This is an ongoing issue for me, as the adoption coordinator for our local rescue ( It's hard to know when to give a horse another chance and when to let go. How much of behavior is due to the situation the horse was in, and how much is innate to that horse? I have a hard time making that call, and I'm lucky to have lots of help, and wonderful volunteers to evaluate each horse. You never really know if you've made the right call though, and hope not to find out it's been the wrong one!

Laura Crum said...

KB--That's an interesting point. I have a "mini-rescue"--and no, I don't mean I rescue minis. But I do take care of half a dozen or so rescued/retired horses--the number has varied over the years. We have no donors--its just me, my team roping partner, and the lady that owns the pasture. We've discovered over the years that in order to give these horses a good life and for it to be workable for us, we cannot take any horse with behavioral issues--either towards humans or other horses (or fences). It just doesn't work out. The upshot is that I'm pretty careful to take on only sweet, gentle, broke horses that have worked hard their whole lives and are being dumped at the end...mostly because the owners feel they can't afford to feed them any more. And you know what? There are lots and lots of horses that fit this description and go on to be dumped at the sale and sent to be slaughtered--because nobody "rescued" them. And aren't they the ones who deserve our help? Why rescue instead a horse who is only a danger to others? Why not save your space for these good, kind, souls who have earned their reward?

Beth said...

There are horses that have mental issues, for lack of a better word. Just as some people are not wired right and commit horrible crimes. Some horses are wired wrong, as we see in your example, when a horse comes from a line of horses that all seem to have issues. Susan you ask a really good question: Why are these horse kept being bred? I have heard of mares that can't be ridden so they become broodmares. . . where is the logic to that? I can understand in Laura's uncle's case, it took awhile to realize that this line was not working out.

Other times it might be medical. I know of a saddlebred that would be fine for a while and then would start rearing for no apparent reason. One day the horse reared up and fell over dead. They found out he had a brain tumor.

The thing is, you don't know. We just got to do the best we can with the knowledge we have at the moment. Later down the road we may learn more and realize that we should have done something different, but we can't hold our past selves accountable for information we didn't have then.

Laura Crum said...

Beth, your last point is, of course, the bottom line. We do the best we can with the information we have, and if we're well intentioned, we mean to do good. Hindsight is twenty twenty. Its very true that I was doing the best thing I could think of to do when I placed Fine with that trainer. However, I think it raises an interesting issue, and even now, I'm not sure what I should have done differently--just as I said in the post.