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Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Lately I’ve been exploring all the gray areas we face as ethical horse owners. I got started on this because I would read a blog that bashed something and I would start to think about it and realize that the subject wasn’t that simple (see my post “What Is Lame?”). And then I would read a post extolling something and think, again, but it isn’t that simple. There’s a dark side, too. For instance, in a recent post Terri described a three day event in which a little girl won her class and how thrilled the girl was and how much support she got and how great it all was. This post made me smile and I felt happy for the little girl. I know from reading Michele’s posts and Terri’s, too, how hard this girl has worked to achieve such a goal. But I have to admit, it crossed my mind—what about the others?
When I was nine years old I was not nearly as advanced a rider as the girl in the story. I did not have a horse of my own, but I took riding lessons at a nearby riding school. I was about nine when I participated in my first horseshow. It was a walk/trot/canter English equitation class—nothing fancy. It was only open to the riding school students. But it was a big riding school and there were at least twenty entries in the class. I was one of the more beginning students.
Now, I know you think you know where this is going. My tears when I didn’t win. As a matter of fact, I placed second in that relatively big class (I’ll never forget). I was thrilled. The truth is, I beat many students who were far more accomplished riders than I was. I was a beginner, some of them were advanced students and jumping three foot fences. I had yet to jump anything higher than a cavaletti. Why did I place against them? I have no idea.
I’ve always been good at test taking, whether on paper on otherwise, so perhaps I performed well. The judge was an outsider and had never seen the riding school students before and had no preconceived notions. It was the first class of the day, so she had no idea how well we rode other than what she was seeing. I had entered very early and managed to request and get as my mount a mare named Melody who was an old, experienced “schoolmaster”, with smooth gaits. Some of the others were riding much more difficult horses. Who knows? The fact is, I placed above many others who really rode better than I did.
There is a photo of me at this show and my grin is a mile wide. But I also remember going back to the barn and seeing the tear stains on the face of another little girl, who had not placed at all. Even at nine years old I was aware how much it galled this girl to have been so thoroughly beaten by a rank beginner when she was undeniably the better rider. And it bothered me, right through my joy. It didn’t seem fair. And even if, by some odd chance, I had appeared the better rider that morning, what was the point of glorifying me at her expense? We had both tried hard and done well.
And today I ask myself what I think about this. Would it not have been better to give us all a ribbon? My son’s school has changed the Science Fair to this system. Everyone who participates gets a ribbon. Competition is eliminated. I sure see a lot of happy faces and no tears.
I know there are two sides to this coin. It’s a gray area, like so much of life. I have many friends who love to compete, and they’re good people who treat their horses and their friends/competitors very well. I, myself, competed for many, many years. I know about the fun in competition. I’ve also written a lot here on the blog about the very real evils. But more than that, I question the underlying nature of competition, just as I’ve illustrated above. Like most everything else in life, it is full of paradox. I’ve come to the conclusion that truth resides in paradox—which doesn’t make it easy to describe or come to terms with. And perhaps that’s the point. Life is not simple.
Anyway, having got that far, I asked myself if there wasn’t something about the horse world I could extol in glowing terms and feel unequivocally happy about. Something simply good. And there is. There’s lots, really. But I’ll just tell one thing for now—keep it simple.
There’s Henry. Henry, my son’s twenty-two year old bombproof, lazy, red gelding. Henry that I spent way too much to buy and then had to dump $10,000 into for colic surgery..and followup. Henry who colicked again back in Jan (there went another $500). We don’t compete on Henry. He’s not worth much of anything on the open market. And you know what? Every time I look at Henry my heart just fills up with gratitude.
I love, love, love this honest, trustworthy little red horse who has done so much for us and brought us so much happiness and kept my son so safe and taken him on so many wonderful adventures. I love riding Henry myself. (He’s a fun horse for an experienced rider—will slide and spin a little…etc). But mostly I just love what he’s given us as a family. I love turning him loose to graze on our property and seeing how happy he is. I love seeing his bright-eyed, white-striped face come marching up to greet us. I love how my son loves his horse. I love watching my little boy lope circles in the arena or march up a hill on the trail. I love seeing how my son is becoming a competent horseman as he learns to make lazy Henry stay in the lope. I am completely happy every time I look at Henry—I don’t begrudge any money or time spent, and even if we lost him tomorrow, I would be glad that we had him while we did.
I didn’t always love Henry, mind you. When I bought him I saw him as the best and most logical choice for my son. And Henry is not a sweet, cuddly, easily lovable horse. He is a reliable, honest trooper, with a heart of gold, but he doesn’t much care for petting—he would far rather you fed him—he’s a real chowhound. Our pony, Toby, was much more “personable”. A year after buying Henry, when I had to spend a fortune (for me) to save his life, well, I won’t say I begrudged it, but I wondered if I would have done it if not for wanting to spare my son the pain of losing his horse. But you know, sometime in the in between, as I took care of Henry and rehabbed him, and rode him and went on rides with my son, something shifted. And when Henry colicked last January and I walked him up the driveway, the realization washed over me like a wave. I love Henry. I’m happy to spend what I have to spend (both time and money) to do the best I can for him. And that’s a joy.
So, there’s my answer. Loving a horse is not a gray area. Loving a horse is all white and shining. You may have to make difficult choices, and these can be hard, but if love underlies them, the bottom line will be good (though sometimes also sad). Its easy to bash what’s “bad” and I find that truth does reside in rather conflicted gray areas, yes. But love is something we can all do for our horses, if we choose, and though it will not make life simple, or truth black and white, or take pain away, it can shine like a beacon, bringing us through the hard times. I love Henry. So, that’s what I’m grateful for today.
So how about you? Any thoughts about competition, for good or ill? And who else finds joy in loving their horse, with all his quirks and drawbacks? What are you grateful for?
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Doing the Right Thing
My friend Wally came back from the local team roping a few days ago and told me a story. I’d like to pass it on here. This story really got me thinking. What is the right thing to do in this sort of situation? And this sort of situation is oh so common, as I’m sure you’ll all agree.
So, here’s the story. Apparently a team roper we’ll call Bob had a horse at the roping that Wally had seen before. Wally described the horse as a pretty nice buckskin heel horse who had taken to crowhopping when Bob kicked him up over the steer. Bob is an old guy who’s been team roping for years, but he isn’t a terribly competent roper, nor is he much of a horseman (there are a lot of ropers like this). Bob was getting lots of advice about what he should do, but he wasn’t getting his horse over this problem. And he was starting to get scared of the horse. At the roping the other day Bob asked a tough younger roper named Matt to get on the horse. Matt roped on the horse all day and punished him for trying to crowhop. Wally watched this and said that it was clear in his mind that the horse was behaving like this because he hurt. Even with a very competent rider on his back, the horse persisted with the behavior. Wally said he could tell by the horse’s expression and body language that something was hurting him. Wally told this to both Matt and Bob, who both brushed this unasked for advice off. So, Wally said to me, “What the heck do you do?”
It’s a very good question. If you insistently push your point of view at the horse’s owner, and recommend possible treatment options, you’ll likely just make yourself obnoxious and lose credibility, if the owner’s mind is set against your idea. You can’t force an owner to do something with his horse that he doesn’t want to do. And none of us can afford to buy every horse we see that’s in need of an “intervention”. Wally walked away, as most of us would do, shaking his head, and came back and asked me that question.
Since I’ve been working on this theme concerning the many gray areas we come across when trying to do right by horses, I pondered on this particular question awhile. I didn’t come up with any answers, just some stories that illustrate my thoughts. I’m going to share them with you today and ask for your advice. What do you do when you see someone doing something “wrong” to a horse? Do you interfere? And if so, how? How do you you “do good” is this sort of situation?
The potential “do gooding” can be grossly overdone and end up doing harm. For example, not so very long ago, at the pasture where I keep my retired/rescued horses, we had “Lisa”. Lisa was a neighbor of the pasture owner. She had taken on a rescue horse and gotten the pasture owner’s permission to put this mare in with our small herd. So, OK, we all did our best to get along with Lisa and the mare. But there was no “getting along” with Lisa. She was a perpetual wreck waiting to happen. Her mare seemed to have at least one soundness emergency, if not life threatening or property damaging emergency, a month, and Lisa’s personal life (with which she bored us all regularly) was the same. Friends and boyfriends and jobs came and went, with monotonous, if dramatic, regularity. And Lisa seemed to want us to be in the same condition.
She lobbied endlessly that various of our rescues/retirees needed this that or the other expensive new-agey treatment—from homeopathy to acupuncture to herbal supplements to various forms of therapy for their lameness issues. I’m not knocking this stuff—I have used all of the above mentioned treatments to good effect in my life. But Lisa didn’t seem to understand that our retired herd was comfortable enough as pasture horses, none of them were sound or young enough to be used, and that we realistically could not afford an endless stream of expensive treatments. Unfortunately Lisa was one of these people who don’t get boundries and she was intrusive in a number of ways. Eventually the pasture owner got tired of Lisa and her persistant interference and threw her and her mare off the property. Since Lisa could not really afford board for the horse and didn’t know what to do with the mare, this was a very unhappy state of affairs. And all Lisa ever had to do was relax and let her horse be happy in that field and all would have been well. It was the relentless do gooding that did harm.
I think we all know this sort of person. The one who comes up to you and says your horse needs a chiropractor cause he’s obviously hurting in his shoulder and they know just the one. Never mind that you explain that you know what’s going on with the horse. They just won’t let you alone. By the time you escape, you never want to hear the word chiropractor again, let alone look into it. Thus I don’t think the answer to Wally’s question is to hound the owner to recognize that the horse needs treatment. Once you’ve said what you see, you’ve gone about as far as you can go.
And yet, what about those times when something really rotten is happening? Shouldn’t you speak up?
Many years ago I was at a local team roping and a young guy showed up that none of us knew. Said guy roped awhile and then got mad at his horse for something—nothing big, just felt the horse wasn’t working well. He took the horse over in the corner of the arena and proceeded to beat up on him. Over and under and spur and jerk—relentlessly. This went on for awhile and everybody just sat there, watching him. Nobody liked it; nobody knew what to do. Call me hasty, but I couldn’t stand it.
I rode over to the guy and said, “Knock it off.”
Well, this kid was pretty mad and he shouted back at me that it was none of my business and it was his horse and he could do what he wanted to him.
I said, “Take him home and beat him up if you want to; you can’t do it here.”
I was about to get an earful from this still very angry young guy, but a couple of the other ropers, including the proprietor’s son, saw what was happening and rode over and told the kid to leave. Still in a genuine rage, this guy loaded his horse up and departed.
The proprietor thanked me, saying he “didn’t want those animal rights people getting after him.” But I wondered if I’d only made things worse. Maybe the kid would have gotten over his temper tantrum and that would have been that. Now that he’d been humiliated in front of the whole crowd, had he taken the horse home and truly crucified him? Or did he cool off on the drive back and leave the poor horse alone? I will never know. But I never forgot, either.
So, there’s my question for today. What do you do when you see someone “abusing” a horse? Have you all had experiences like this? What’s your advice?
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Vacation Horseback Rides
Although these guided trail rides are often in some fantastic country, they leave you feeling slightly guilty. Not only the cost, but also the fact that you have horses at home that need to be ridden. However, chances are you might not ever get to that part of the world again, especially to ride horses. Sometimes you have to just go for it.
But I do have a few hints if you are ever lucky enough to experience one of these rides.
#1) Go with a spirit of adventure. When you arrive at your destination, it might not always look like the glossy photo on the brochure. Be ready for anything.
#2) If you are in resort country (think tropics) no need to pack your usual riding boots in your suitcase. Usually (but see # 4) the horses on these rides are plumb gentle and know the trails, so just throw in a lightweight pair of jeans and some old tennis shoes. Often there is a bit of a hike involved.
#3) Eat a good meal before you go. Although some outfits offer more expensive dinner rides (and I’m sure they serve you lots of food on those) many are an easy 45 minute ride one way to a stopping point, a ten minute walk to a waterfall (where you can go swimming – if you’re up for riding back in a wet suit), and lunch - which might consist of just cheese, a few grapes, a couple of cookies and a bottle of water.
#4) There is usually a little box to check on the sign-in form where you state your riding level, i.e. Beginner (I know nothing about horses and in fact they terrify me), Intermediate (I’ve ridden enough to think I know what I’m doing) or Advanced (I’ve been riding since before you were born, raise and train horses for a living, nothing scares me, what have you got?) Always, Always, ALWAYS swallow your pride and mark BEGINNER. This way you will be assigned the most honest, dead broke, trustworthy horse in the whole string. Do not, absolutely DO NOT mark Advanced rider. If you do, heaven help you and I take no responsibility for what happens. Because sure enough, they’ll give you one of their – well, here’s what happened to me:
Quite a few years ago my mother and I decided to ride horses on the North side of the Big Island of Hawaii. The brochure pictured a hidden canyon with waterfalls flowing down the surrounding cliffs. It sounded like a grand adventure. Our pickup point was at a gift shop in a tiny, remote town. Then the 8-10 riders in our group climbed into a jeep where we navigated a pot-holed one-lane road that twisted and turned downhill into the jungle. After several miles of this, the jeep turned abruptly into a cleared area with a tiny shack, a corral made of two strands of sagging barb wire, and a few posts to which an assortment of horses stood saddled. Where was the ranch? The buildings? The bathroom? We gulped.
But the horses were fat and shiny and their feet in good condition. A wiry young guide in shorts and a t-shirt came out to size us up and estimate our abilities. No boxes to check or forms to fill out on this ride. Several people stated how well they did (or did not) ride and were matched with mounts. When the young man came to me, I started to mumble “yes, I can ride a little . . .”
“Oh, she’s an expert rider,” my mother gushed, as mothers tend to do. “She’s won ribbons and trophies and trained lots . . .”
I tried to catch my mom’s eye to shush her. Please, Mom, I’m thinking. No, please don’t. You’re going to jinx it.
But the damage was done. “Expert, huh?” said the young guide. He found a very gentle horse for my mother. And he brought over Amigo for me.
I sized my horse up. A big, muscular, bright sorrel quarter horse with a kind eye, he was obviously from registered stock and far nicer than any of the other horses in the string. How did I get so lucky?
I mounted up and as soon as the procession started, I knew why I had been assigned to Amigo. Before we even left the staging area, Amigo pulled his one and only trick – backing up as fast as he could go. I walloped him hard on the rear end, growled at him, and figured that once we started down the trail, that would be the end of it.
The ride took us back out onto the main road. Down, down we went, with high cliffs on one side, and a broad green valley appearing on the other. Avoiding the deep chuck-holes and the occasional jeep crossing our path, all the horses seemed gentle and willing. Amigo walked out well, except that about every few hundred feet or so, he’d have another “backing” attack.
And no matter what was behind him, he’d have a “reverse” attack more quickly than any horse I’ve ever rode, backing up into other horses, people, creeks, cliffs. Some of the riders in the group shrieked in horror at his antics, but I’d wallop Amigo again, turn him this way and that, untrack him and urge him forward, and eventually he’d start out in the right direction again, with me grumbling under my breath.
We waded through numerous streams, past loose horses turned out to eat the lush grass that grew everywhere, and farmers tending taro fields by hand. We picked fresh ripe mangos growing wild in the jungle from our saddles. And sure enough, Amigo acted up, every single time, just when I thought he was done with his shenanigans.
Obviously this was a good horse that had grown sour, and had pulled this kind of nonsense with beginning trail riders over and over and over again. Probably most reputable companies would not have kept a horse such as Amigo in their string. And probably I could have asked for another horse, but by then we were at the bottom of the canyon. Besides, I didn’t want that darned old coyote of a horse to think he was going to get away with it.
All of the other horses on the ride did fine, and we all made it back in one piece. And even though I’d spent the entire ride retraining this spoiled horse, I knew he would try that behavior with absolutely every new rider on his back. But even with Amigo’s misdeeds, it was worth every penny to be able to ride through that hidden valley, surrounded by cascading waterfalls. It was truly a spectacular and magical place.
So don’t hesitate to take one of these guided rides when you are vacationing. But just remember. No matter how good of a rider you are - never, NEVER state that you are an EXPERT rider. You might get a horse like Amigo.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Book Review of "Going Gone" by Laura Crum
Buy Link: From Perseverance
From Barnes and Noble
The Horse Vet Rides Again--Into Danger
“Bringing back Lonny and Bret in this long-running series is just what fans want. A good murder mystery that packs quite a wallop.” —Library Journal (3/1/10)
Veteran author Laura Crum has pulled together threads from the earlier books in her Gail McCarthy series, as an old boyfriend and a childhood friend re-enter Gail’s life in Going, Gone. Lonny Peterson, Gail’s significant other in the first few books, is now ranching in the Sierra foothills. And her longtime friend, former ne’er-do-well Bret Boncantini, is now a sheriff’s deputy in the same town—and has the painful duty of arresting Lonny on a murder charge. Of course the intrepid horse vet can’t let this situation lie, and she begins to investigate. Faithful readers of the series will be pleased at the return of these former characters, and those newly encountering Gail’s world will be hooked by the horsewoman’s courage in the face of danger.
Time has brought changes to Gail’s life. Bringing up her six-year-old son is now her main priority, which she does with the support of her husband. When a ruthless murderer kills four people, and Gail’s old friend is accused of the crimes, how can Gail explain such evil to her innocent and vulnerable child? A thoughtful meditation on life and death, as well as evocative writing on the solace of nature, the book will delight old and new fans. Culminating in a thrilling horseback chase through the coastal hills, Going, Gone features all the elements that Laura Crum is known for: fine writing about beautiful landscapes and authentic horse lore, as well as an exciting mystery. And for the first time in the series, this book offers illustrations by well-known equine artist/blogger Janet Huntington—an extra for readers.
I dived into this story while my husband and I were on a weekend vacation in Port Townsend. A fast read, it didn't take me long to finish it, despite my limited time. Going, Gone is a can't-put-down book, which is typical of Laura Crum's writing. If you haven't picked up her books yet, you're going to be pleasantly surprised when you do.
Laura's descriptions of riding through the Sierra foothills and the California coast make you feel as if you're there. I've never been to either place, but I could picture them vividly in my mind. In fact, I wished I could ride there with Gail. I guess in a way I did because the descriptions were so vivid. You felt Gail's joy as she rode through the hills, you also felt her anxiety as she rode near the mansion, whose absent owner was recently murdered.
You'll fall in love with her little horse, Sunny, who is introduced in Going, Gone. I want a Sunny in my life. ;)
Nestled nicely between the vibrant imagery of a vacation in a bucolic setting is the on-going mystery in which Laura's long-time friend, Lonny, is accused of murder. It's a setup, and you'll be surprised to find out the actual perpetrator of the crimes. You'll hold your breath as Gail investigates the murders and discovers evidence to clear Lonny.
This book even has a chase scene (on horseback, of course). You'll be hanging onto Sunny's back along with Gail as her little horse pounds along the ground in a desparate attempt to escape danger.
All in all, this next installment in the Gail McCarthy series by Laura Crum re-confirms her status as a leading author of horse mysteries.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Guest Blogger--Natalie Keller Reinert
It's always been about Thoroughbreds. I've ridden Warmbloods, Arabs, and Quarter Horses, but I always come back to TBs. At 13 I got my first OTTB, at 19 I got my first gallop job, and now I have a farm of my own raising babies, training young horses, and writing about it all. This is my passion. Thank you for sharing it with me here. - Natalie Keller Reinert
Who's having fun here, exactly?
I spend my days with Thoroughbreds. I breed, I train, I reschool OTTBs. In prepping my posts at Retired Racehorse Blog, I do a lot of research, lurk on a few message boards, and try to find out what people are doing with their Thoroughbreds. There are so many issues out there, so many OTTBs that are slipping through the cracks after their "forever homes" turn out to be very temporary indeed, that I knew there must be some sort of communication gap between the racetrack and the boarding stable.
What I find is that there is a significant population of riders and trainers which thinks that anything outside of perfectly contained, on-the-bit, submissive obedience, is nothing short of dangerous.
Horses are motion. They are prey, constantly on the move, scenting the wind, listening to the sighs of the natural world around them, waiting for the shoe to drop. When you are prey, you are always waiting for the end, and you know it will be messy.
Extreme submission calls for the horse to put away his instincts and follow blindly. Some might call this a beautiful expression of partnership. But submission/domination is quite the opposite. You might be having fun, but what is your horse thinking? Nothing. He's waiting for you to think for him. It really doesn't sound like fun for either party. You're working too hard - your horse is just going through the motions.
I went through a very windy spell as a teenager. My Thoroughbred, Amarillo, had taken me through some frightening rides, I'd taken some very bad falls, and although we had found a physical reason for the behavior and corrected it, the incident left scars. I'd grown up on his back, but now, after six years together, I was terrified to take him to shows.
I eventually got up the nerve and took him to a horse trials. Convinced that he was going to start leaping about and showing his heels to everyone (and I'd seen his heels, from underneath of him, and wasn't looking forward to a repeat performance), I took him for a walk around the grounds. He went like a giraffe, all neck and his head so high I couldn't have reached his nose, despite being just fifteen three. His reach was incredible; even at the walk, I could barely keep up with him. He pulled at the halter and broke the chin strap. I felt dread at the thought of getting on that beast.
But eventually, the time came to tack up and I swung into the saddle, sick with anxiety. I got the same reaction walking him under saddle that I had in a halter and rope. Amarillo's brain was clearly going at a hundred miles an hour, and I had nothing to do with it. We went towards the warm-up area to prep for dressage, and I felt like I was looking at the world framed by two pricked ears.
Then someone's voice called out to me across the ring. "Look at that horse, he's having such fun!"
And it clicked. Amarillo was happy.
He was happy to be here, amongst all the other horses and excitement. He was a racehorse. He was in his element.
I loosened my tense fingers, asked for a trot, and he ducked his head into the bit, not to buck, not to grab it and bolt, but to round up, trot with pleasure, do his job as he wanted to do it. There was no question of submission, there was simply the two of us, jogging across a field somewhere in Florida, surrounded by joyous, leaping horses. And if we didn't perform a Grand Prix dressage test, well, we got a few sevens and eights in a Training Level test, and we did it on each other's terms, not on my own iron-clad ones.
Thoroughbreds thrive on one-on-one communication. They know their jobs, as racehorses, and the very good ones know how to work with their jockeys to get to the front of the pack and stick their nose in front. Trying to dominate a racehorse is simply nonsensical. Asking for total submission, a denial of the heart and intelligence that makes them great.
Natalie Keller Reinert
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
What is Lame?
Not too long ago I read a blog post in which the blogger talked about how much she hated seeing people ride lame horses. My immediate reaction was yeah, that’s one of the reasons I quit competing—I got so tired of seeing all these poor half crippled horses being pushed to keep going and then dumped when they finally couldn’t go any more. Its awful. Right on.
Then I started to think about it. And I realized that just like many other things I’ve written about lately, lameness isn’t black and white either, much though we might like to think so.
What do you mean, you say, surely a horse is lame or he isn’t? Well, yes and no. Let me explain what I mean.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m gonna talk about rope horses, because that’s the sport I competed in most recently. But the same things hold true for the cutting horses and reined cowhorses I knew. I’d guess this holds true for horses in any competitive discipline, though I don’t know this for a fact. I’d even say it probably holds true when friends gather for a casual non-competitive trail ride.
Here’s what I mean. You go to a roping and watch the horses warm up. If you are good at spotting lameness (and I am), you can easily see that maybe ten per cent of the horses in the warm up pen are slightly lame at the trot. Some of them will warm up out of this. Now, if you took the rest of the horses out in the parking lot and trotted them in small circles on hard ground, as a vet would do in a soundness exam, the number of noticably lame horses would go up to about thirty per cent. Then if you added in every horse there who was on some sort of medical supplement to reduce symptoms of various lameness (bute or whatever) the percentage of technically lame horses would go up to at least fifty per cent.
At this point you realize that half the horses here are technically lame (feel free to dispute my percentages if you want to—I think they’re accurate). The horses who are sound are not (in general) the better horses. No, they’re the younger, greener horses. Most of the best horses in the ring are not truly sound. They’re “servicably sound”.
What does this really mean? Is it evil for these people to be using these not-really-sound horses? Here’s where you get into the gray area. Cause its not black and white at all. How do I know? Well, I was once one of these folks roping on a good horse who had a little bute in him to make him comfortable—because he was lame.
OK—now I’m part of the the evil empire. Before you jump to this conclusion, listen to the rest of the story.
I roped for several years on my good horse, Gunner. When Gunner was eleven years old, he developed bone spavin in his hocks, something which is relatively common in rope horses. This was long before the days of “Adequan”, “Legend” and various other similar products in use today. My vet advised me to keep the horse on one gram of bute a day and keep using him. I did so.
Gunner was sound on his gram of bute a day regime and I kept roping on him. But I had now joined the ranks of the folks who were roping on horses who were actually lame.
Why did I do this?
First off, because my vet said it wouldn’t do my horse any harm. We knew what was wrong with him. Bone spavin doesn’t get worse through use—often it improves. Second, because I didn’t want to retire Gunner and I didn’t have the sense Gunner was ready to be retired. Third because Gunner really seemed to do fine on this system. When Gunner was thirteen, he became increasingly reluctant to run, and I had my vet reevaluate him. This time X-rays showed that Gunner was developing navicular in a hind foot (unusual but true). My vet discussed my options with me, but I made the choice to retire Gunner from roping. I felt the horse was telling me he didn’t want to run hard any more. And unlike bone spavin, hard use does tend to make navicular disease get worse. I used Gunner as a riding horse for one more year—light riding only—and then retired him to the pasture. I still have Gunner today—he is thirty years old and trots sound, if stiffly, across the field where he lives. I’d say I took pretty good care of him, even though I did rope on him when he was technically lame.
On the other hand, I have been moved to tears and outright rage by the sight of a good old head horse I knew, mostly crippled at this point by navicular and ringbone, being loaded up with bute and used to run steer after steer until he bowed a tendon (and was then put down). There is a line (somewhere) between appropriate use of a horse who is not technically sound and abuse. The number of horses in many competitive events who are forced to keep going until they cripple up so badly they cannot even be retired (supposing their owners were willing to retire them—which is often debatable) is huge.
So, here’s my topic for today. Let’s discuss where that line lies. When is it Ok to keep a horse going, even when he isn’t technically sound, and when is it abusive? And you folks in other competitive disciplines, what’s your take on it? Are these other disciplines better in this respect than what I saw? Terri did a nice post on how well the eventers treat each other. Are they equally careful not to “abuse” lame horses by forcing them to work past the point where they should be retired from competition? And again, where is that point? I’m not saying I know. I think it may vary from horse to horse. And then, how can we judge others when we don’t know that individual horse? My team roping partner kept his great heel horse going for many years because the horse really didn't want to quit. I knew that horse; I knew how much he liked/wanted to go roping. I helped my partner retire the horse when the gelding literally couldn’t do it any more. We patched Pistol together so he had ten good retired years in the pasture before he got so painful he had to be put down. Should that horse have been retired earlier? It’s a tough call.
Again, I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. I’m saying that this is a subject worth discussing and thinking about. I’d welcome your insights.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Something very RIGHT with the horse world.
After the many negative aspects that have been discussed on this blog over the past several weeks, I thought I would post a very positive one. As many of you know, I work full time as a trainer and compete in both Dressage and 3 Day Eventing in addition to teaching and being a National Examiner for the United States Pony Club. This past weekend, I took several students, ranging in age from 9 to 20 years old, to a USEA Horse Trails and although sometimes long and hard, the show personified everything that I love about the sport of Eventing and Pony Club.
Eventing is a tough sport where your scores are combined from the phases of Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country jumping with the competitor with the lowest scored penalties being the winner. The show this past weekend was one of the largest amounts of entries that we get in southern California with over 300 horses entered in 7 divisions. The shows are a seemingly endless process of warming up, making your ride, then cleaning your horse, your stall, your tack and then doing it all again for the next phase. It is not a sport for the passively involved horseman or the faint hearted. Jumping for some at any level is scary but jumping at the higher levels of Eventing takes serious bravery and skill with horses jumping up to 4 feet in height, with spreads as wide as 6 to 8 feet depending on the type of jump, drops as much as 6 ½ feet, at speeds as much as 570 mpm (about 30 mph). I really think that it is the hard work and bravery factor that makes Eventors a tighter knit community than other competitive riding disciplines.
Unlike what I have seen at Dressage shows and Hunter/Jumper shows, Eventors are a friendly, helpful bunch who is genuinely glad to see each other at each show. It is that community part of Eventing that I like the most, the camaraderie and sense of teamwork even though we are all competing against each other. I think that even though we are all very competitive, type A people for the most part; we all also know that just completing a horse trial is an accomplishment and can easily be happy for others when they are the one with the ribbon.
There were several things that happened this weekend that illustrated this positive side of the sport. The first is the story of little Kaitlin. Kaitlin, who happens to be the daughter of Michele Scot who also writes for this blog, was one of the students with me at the show. She is just 9 years old, a very serious young horsewoman, and this was her first big show. She was understandable nervous and a bit overwhelmed, but rode beautifully. What was even a more beautiful thing to watch was the older girls encouraging and helping her throughout the weekend. Kaitlin unfortunately drew a very early (7:30 a.m.) ride time for cross country on Sunday which meant getting her pony Monty ready at 6:00 a.m. in order for him to be fed, tacked, longed, and then warmed up before her course time. She set her own alarm (how many 9 years olds do that!) and was up and ready without an argument or fuss. Oh and remember that Saturday night was the time change so this is also Sunday with 1 less hour of sleep.
It was only after Kaitlin was on course and had jumped her 3rd fence that I heard a large and very boisterous group cheering her on. It was all of my older students and several of their friends that had all gotten up at the crack of dawn on a very cold (35 degrees) spring morning to route on a little girl in her first big show. Now how many teenagers do that! Kaitlin got First Place for her efforts and everyone at the show, even the people that she had beat, made a huge fuss and made her feel like a star. That is an experience and a sense of accomplishment that she will carry with her possibly for the rest of her life. Isn’t that what showing your horse is supposed to be all about?
Another thing that is unique to Eventing is how we share pertinent course information, even with our competitors. One of my students in one of the higher levels, had been watching an earlier division and reported that a particular fence had caused several riders to have refusals. I then went out to watch and determined that it was because the horses were coming off of a somewhat blind curve and there were many spectators in that area that might be momentarily distracting the horses. I went back to the warm-up and discussed this not only with my students in that division but also several other riders that I knew, that are coached by other trainers. At one point that afternoon, there were at least 5 trainers hanging out together, coaching our students, sharing information, discussing training tips and enjoying each other’s company. Yes as trainers we all compete for clients and horses, but that never entered my mind and don’t think it did theirs. We all like and respect each other and love the sport and the horses more than the competitive element.
With all the bad things that have happened in the competitive horse world I thought I would share some good experiences. The sport of Eventing has had its bad press and has fallen under criticism for the potential high risk of injury to horse and rider at the highest levels, but the USEA does constantly reassess safety and we do regularly reevaluate courses, speed and qualification processes to keep the sport as safe as possible. But there is also a lot that is right about the sport that I wanted to share.
What positive experiences have you had showing your horse in any discipline? Do I have the wrong impression of the Hunter/Jumper world??? Don’t you think that showing your horse should be more about friendships and personal accomplishments than ribbons and trophies? I would love to hear your opinions.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Updates from Jami
First of all, if you're interested in reading updates regarding Courtney King-Dye, you can go to this link:
Her husband has been updating it regularly.
Friday, March 12, 2010
The Perfect Horse
OK, maybe the title should have been, “There is No Perfect Horse.” Because what I am going to discuss today is a spinoff on my last post about “Choosing the Right Horse.” (And thank you, Shanster, for giving me the idea.) Just as its important not to set oneself up for failure by expecting to train a sensitive reactive horse into a bombproof trail horse, its important not to expect to find “Mr Perfect.” As in husbands, all horses have their quirks and idiosyncracies. You will not find a horse that does everything exactly the way you wish he would. We need to focus on what’s important, and let go of the idea that every single thing must be exactly right.
Take my bombproof trail horse, little Sunny. He’s a bombproof trail horse, all right, which is what I needed. He’s also a clunky mover, not all that well broke, and constantly tries little dominance games. If I had required that my bombproof horse be sweet and cuddly, well broke and smooth gaited, I would have rejected Sunny.
We all know those horse people who are constantly swapping their current horse in for something “better”. No horse is ever quite right. I, for one, don’t know one of this type of horseman who has as much success as those of us who find a horse that fits our needs and stick with him, tolerating his quirks…as long as he is basically the right type of horse for us.
Just as you don’t want to persist with a horse that is the wrong sort of horse for you, you don’t want to give up too easily on a horse that is the right sort. The best partnerships between people and horses are forged over time. In a way, it really is like a marriage. You need to pick the right kind of guy, but once you have, you need to hang in there when the honeymoon is over.
Two years is the basic window. Once you’ve owned a horse for two years, you pretty much know what he is and whether he’s the right sort of horse for you. If you think that he is, then its time to hang in there and deal with what comes up.
And when you’re looking for a horse, its really important to sort out what counts for you. For me, when I bought Sunny, it was bombproof trail horse who is sound, not too tall, and has no dangerous vices. It didn’t hurt that Sunny was cute. I did not add into my equation that the horse needed to be a particular breed, or age, or color, and it is very helpful to finding the right horse if you do not focus on these things. If all you want to do is look at your horse, by all means select a pretty one of the color you like. If you wish to ride your horse, put the traits you need in a riding horse first. (See my last post on “Choosing the Right Horse.”)
Anyway, those people who go after the perfect horse always remind me of a story my friend told me. She worked at a nursery and knew just about everything about plants. She said that novice gardeners invariably showed up at the nursery wanting “planta perfecta”. It was evergreen, bloomed all the time, came with flowers in the color of their choice, was easy to care for, draught tolerant, disease resistant, could deal with shade or sun, long lived…etc. You get the picture. There is no such plant. If you approach choosing a horse this way, you will never be satisfied.
Lets face it, if you must have a (name your color) mare who is sixteen hands, pretty headed, can win at (name your event), is a registered (name your breed of choice), is sound (of course, we all want that), perfectly straight legged and with no confirmation issues, is no more than seven years old, is safe for a beginner, smooth gaited, very well broke and responsive, and doesn’t cost more than (name your price)….you will be looking a long time. And when you find this mare (if you do), by the time you have owned her awhile you will discover that she (like all horses) has some issues. And you will have to decide if you can live with those issues.
As I said earlier, a lot of people never figure this out and are always convinced (once they discover said issues) that they can swap their current horse for something better. Something that will be “perfect”.
You can find perfect all right. My trail horse is perfect. Not because he doesn’t have any flaws. No. Because he consistently and reliably does the thing I need him to do—he goes down the trail in his steady, unflinching away, taking me (and giving my son’s good horse a lead) on well over two hundred trail and beach rides to date (in two years), without once getting us in trouble. (Knocking on wood here—horses are horses after all, and stuff happens.) I know what perfect is. It’s a horse who does what you need him to do. I can put up with Sunny’s little attitude and his rough gaits. He’s perfect for me.
So, how about you guys? Anybody have any stories to contribute on this subject? Do you have the perfect horse?
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Choosing the Right Horse
Lately I’ve been reading some stuff about desensitizing a horse. The whole thing got me thinking, and I want to discuss a point that I think is worth considering.
The notion that one can somehow “desensitize” a sensitive, reactive horse through training to be a laid back, bombproof horse is just not true. The idea that you can ask someone what they want in a horse and if they say “bombproof trail horse,” that you can then proceed to teach them to desensitize said sensitive, reactive horse and turn him into a bombproof trail horse…well, it won’t happen. Like people, horses have personalities, and just as you won’t teach a closed, reserved introvert to be open and an extrovert, you will not teach an inherently spooky horse to be bombproof—no matter if you’re the best trainer in the world.
You can train that spooky horse to have a “good” spook, if you’re a decent trainer. That is, he spooks, but he stays controlable. He trusts you; you remain in charge. For most halfway experienced riders, this is perfectly acceptable. But you won’t train that horse not to spook at all, or turn him into the sort of bombproof trail horse that I have in Henry and Sunny. The kind of horse you buy for your seven year old son.
I’ve ridden many spooky, reactive horses in my life and I’ve trained more than a few of them. I speak from personal experience here. If you want a “bombproof” horse, you need to choose one who does not have a sensitive, reactive personality. Whether the horse is unbroken or a made horse, that rule stays the same.
Let me give you an example. Right now, in my barn, I have a horse named Plumber, who has been featured many times in my mystery series starring equine vet Gail McCarthy. I bought Plumber as an unbroken three year old and trained him myself. He is twenty-one this spring. He has been a very successful team roping horse, winning numerous saddles and lots of money. He’s also been ridden on many trail and beach rides. Nobody has ever come off of Plumber. He is 100% gentle and reliable. When I began to train him, I spent exactly three days working with him in the round pen and accustoming him to the saddle. Then I began riding him. He never gave me any trouble. He is always cooperative and willing to do what’s he asked to do. He is very well broke (if I say so myself). I can let any halfway experienced rider ride him—no problem. He is also a sensitive, reactive horse.
Plumber is one of the most trusting horses I ever trained—and all the horses I trained and kept for myself are very trusting. I treat them kindly and fairly—they know they have to mind and respect me, but they feel very safe with me. Plumber has no real “fear issues”—he’s never been abused. But he is inherently a sensitive, reactive horse. And despite how much he trusts me, he still spooks.
To this day, any little thing can cause Plumber to look at it askance. He doesn’t spook “big”, but he spooks and dances when he sees something “scary”, which can be a weird stump, or the wind in the branches. These spooks are not the least bit threatening, and Plumber will stay under control at all times. I feel perfectly safe on Plumber. For two years, from when my kid was three until he was five, I rode everywhere on Plumber with my little child in front of me. That’s how safe I felt. I knew Plumber would not lose me. I knew I could ride him through anything, and as long as I stayed on, my kid, safely held by me, would stay on, too. That’s how gentle Plumber is. But he is still a sensitive, reactive horse and he spooks at little things.
When the time came that I bought my son his own trail horse (bombproof Henry) and we began to take rides outside, I discovered that I could not do this safely riding Plumber. Plumber would spook at a rustle in the bushes and startle even steady Henry. Henry would give a mini-spook, but still...I could not give my son a solid lead across the street or creek, because Plumber was busy dancing and looking hard at scary objects. Yes, Plumber went where I told him, but he remained looky. Not only did he not give Henry a steady lead, but I needed to be able to ignore my own horse and keep my focus entirely on my son, and Plumber didn’t really work for this. I knew enough to know that I could not change who Plumber was, so I bought steady, bombproof Sunny to give my kid a reliable lead to follow on the trails. It has worked really well.
Mind you, Sunny is not bombproof because somebody did a good job desensitizing him. Its his nature. Same for Henry.
Of course, Sunny and Henry could easily have been mishandled and become dead-sided, stubborn, recalcitrant plugs. Whoever trained them did a good job. But he/she did not create these horses’ bombproof personalities through training or any sort of “desensitizing”. They simply taught the horses to be good, obedient rope horses/trail horses, kept their basic trust/respect intact, and allowed the horses’ inherently bombproof natures to shine.
If said trainer had trained Plumber, Plumber would be just what he is—a gentle, willing horse who is sensitive enough to be a little spooky. Though I was perfectly comfortable riding with my little three year old on Plumber, I won’t let my now nine-year-old and quite competent child ride Plumber solo. Why? Because I know Plumber is capable of spooking and suprising my kid, and if Plumber felt someone coming off, he would not stop, as bombproof Henry would, he would skitter away from the scary falling thing. A recipe for disaster. I am not foolish enough to think that any amount of training will change Plumber’s basic nature. Just as others report (not that I do this—I don’t), you can desensitize a horse all you want to to scary objects and still when you meet the exact same object unexpectedly out on the trail, the horse spooks at it.
And again, Plumber is a sensitive horse. A too harsh cue from an inexperienced rider causes Plumber to become anxious and fret. A rider who tenses up makes Plumber tense. Thus, I don’t put beginners or little children on him. Any rider experienced enough to stay relaxed and give appropriate cues can ride Plumber with no trouble. But beginners and little kids do sometimes pull harder than they meant to, and when the horse jigs in response, they get nervous and tense. In general, its best not to mount such people on a sensitive horse.
So…if someone wants a bombproof trail horse and they have a sensitive, reactive horse, they should probably get a different horse. Or learn to ride the sensitive horse, knowing that it will always be sensitive. It will probably always spook. Spooking is not such a big deal for a competent rider, if the horse trusts you and remains under control, rather than trying to bolt. However, if a horse that spooks is scary for the rider, who is afraid that he/she might come off, a sensitive, reactive horse is not a good choice. It all depends on the comfort level of the rider. I felt so safe on reactive little Plumber that I rode with my toddler in front of me (and never had one problem).
Conversely, if you have a laid back, relaxed, somewhat insensitive horse, you are probably not gonna win the cutting futurity. Henry, for instance, was a very good rope horse in his day, but he was always basically a lazy horse, who needed to be ridden with spurs if you wanted him to try. That’s his nature. Right now our big issue with Henry is teaching my son to be forceful enough, in an appropriate way, to get Henry to lope and stay in the lope until told to stop. Do I mind this? No, I don’t. It’s the trade off for Henry being bombproof.
In general, bombproof horses are lazy horses who don’t react a whole lot if you give em a good hard poke in the ribs. They can take a whack with the end of the lead rope and remain unfazed. This does not mean that you can’t train them to be well broke, obedient horses—you can. But you can’t turn them into sensitive, reactive horses. Most good riders would prefer a more sensitive type of horse and would pass on a horse like Henry or Sunny, considering the horse too “dull”.
In general, sensitive horses react a whole lot if you give them that same good hard poke in the ribs. And Plumber, for instance, you cannot whack with the lead rope at all—he comes unglued he is so upset. I can (and did) train Plumber to be a very gentle, reliable horse. I don’t believe anyone could train him to be a bombproof horse for a beginner.
Anyway, the point of this post is that I don’t think any trainer should encourage a beginner (or anyone else) to suppose they can train the spook out of an inherently sensitive, spooky horse. There’s a limit to what training can achieve. It won’t change a horse’s basic nature. You need to choose the right horse to fit the job you want to do. If people realized this, they’d be a lot better off. That’s my take on it, anyway. What do you think? Anybody have a different theory?
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
The Grazing Muzzle, or Why My Donkey Hates Me
I recently bought one for my donkey, Josie. She is the sweetest donkey in the entire world, pushing twenty years old, and I’ve owned her for nine years. I love her to pieces.
Last year, Josie suffered an unexpected bout of laminitis. Her pain and lameness were so severe, and continued for so long, that we even considered putting her down. But after several months of treatment, she very gradually got better, and is now (hallelujah) moving soundly. She was even playfully galloping around the pasture the other day.
Josie has always been on a grass hay and pasture diet, but I am assuming the laminitis was caused from years of having free access to pasture (which never seemed to give her any problems before.) The timing of the laminitis issue was puzzling, though, because her symptoms appeared at the end of a long hot summer, when all of our grass was dried up. But since lush pasture is the most common cause of founder/laminitis, I’m determined not to ever let it happen again, if there is anything I can possibly do about it.
So I am practicing tough love. At the beginning of March, (about a month earlier than predicted due to an early spring here in the Northwest) we fenced Josie off the pasture and built her a nice size corral, still with access to the barn. Here she will live (eating only grass hay) until the pasture becomes less lush and dangerous for the year, maybe around the end of June or possibly July. And I bought her a grazing muzzle, (which should only allow her to eat tiny amounts of grass) so that she can be turned out in the pasture from time to time, for exercise and access to her favorite rolling spots and a little social time with her buddy, my horse. Sounds like an ideal arrangement to me (but of course not to Josie.)
The instructions for the grazing muzzle say it should have one to two fingers of clearance all around the muzzle area, and be adjusted so there is a ½ to 1 inch space at the bottom. It appears to fit her well. Supposedly, she will learn to eat small amounts with it, grabbed through the small hole in the rubber bottom.
But here’s what happens when I fasten the grazing muzzle on Josie. She just stands there and stares at me with those big soulful eyes. She looks at me like I have rocks in my head. As if, why (since I love her) would I subject her to this weird form of bondage/torture device? Then she begins breathing heavily – a sound somewhere between Darth Vader and a dying rhinoceros.
I ignore Josie’s complaints and shoo her into the pasture. She puts her head down a little as if to graze, but can’t seem to figure out what to do. She ends up just standing in one place looking miserable, until after awhile I go and bring her back into her corral, where I can take the grazing muzzle off. I have been attempting this routine for about a week, leaving this contraption on for gradually longer and longer periods of up to almost two hours, and it doesn’t appear as if we are making any headway. Maybe she will just have to stay in the corral by herself after all, unless I take her out for a walk.
So my question for you, dear readers, is this: have any of you used a grazing muzzle successfully? (Or unsuccessfully?) How long did it take before your animal figured it out? I am trying so hard to do the right thing for this animal that I love, but I’m not sure if this method is working.
Also, a reminder - there is still time to enter two different contests for horse books over at my other blog www.lindabenson.blogspot.com/ Look for the posts dated Feb. 26th and March 1st.
Thanks in advance for your comments and/or advice on this grazing muzzle dilemma!
Sunday, March 7, 2010
It's Your Head, Protect it!
This incident made me think about the dangers we face every day when dealing with these large animals.
Many years ago, a very good friend of mine was in a lesson. She was riding a school horse. The horse was dead broke and dependable. She was walking him around outside after her lesson. She stopped to talk to someone. The horse rested a leg and caught her off gaurd. She lost her balance and fell off. She hit her head on the only rock in the entire area, which resulted in a severe head injury. She was in a coma in the hospital for a month. When she came out of it, she didn't remember anyone and had the mentality of a child. She was about 40 years old at the time. I never knew what happened to her, but I heard she ended up in a nursing home with no hope of a recovery. She lost her "future" because of a freak accident and no helmet. She did have the helmet on during the lesson but had taken it off afterward.
The tragic incident with this friend changed my attitude about wearing a helmet. I was in my 20s at the time. I've religiously worn a helmet ever since. To me it's like wearing a seatbelt, without it, I feel naked.
Where I ride, everyone wears a helmet, no exceptions. Yet, I know a lot of barns aren't like that. Dressage trainers are notorious for not wearing helmets. Even worse, at upper-level dressage, the majority of the riders wear top hats at dressage shows. Western riders and trail riders are even more inclined to not wear helmets. The trail rider wearing a helmet seems to be the exception, not the rule. Why is that? Take my friend, for instance, whose entire life was changed in one moment by a freak fall from a horse. Riding outside means trees and rocks and all sorts of terrain not meant to have contact with your head if you want to keep it healthy. It doesn't matter if you're just going for a leisurely walk on a beautiful spring day. Accidents happen. Horses spook. Riders lose their balance.
About ten years ago, I was riding in the outdoor arena. I forgot to wear my helmet (probably the only time this has happened in years). Being lazy, I didn't go back to the barn to get it. The outdoor arena was very cushy bark, so I figured I was safe. While practicing changes on the diagonal, my bomb-proof gelding hopped up in the air to do a change. I flew off and hit my head hard. I realize now, I had a small concussion. I didn't know it at the time, but I did walk around in a fog most of the week.
Do you wear a helmet? Are you one of those that hates to mess up your hair under a helmet? Do you think you don't need one because your horse is one-hundred percent safe? Do you hate how hot your head gets under a helmet? Do you succumb to peer pressure? Do you think a head injury won't happen to you?
Think again. Head injuries are the number one horse-related injury. All it takes is one mistake on your part, one moment of inattention, one unexpected incident. Please consider wearing a helmet. Go to the local tack store and buy a good one. It's your brain, the only one you'll ever have. Make sure it's an ASTM/SEI certified helmet, which means it meets safety standards.
If you don't wear a helmet, I hope you'll reconsider your decision. It's your head, protect it!
Saturday, March 6, 2010
To Lope or Not To Lope?
That is the question. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But, in truth, I have an interesting (or I think so) idea to discuss today. As always, when I bring up these horse training concepts, this post is not meant to instruct any one on how to train horses. I’m just raising points I think are interesting in the hope of getting some equally interesting feedback. And, perhaps, to help others to clarify their own ideas, even (or especially) if what that amounts to is “I sure don’t agree with Laura on this; in contrast, this is what I think.”
So, the other day I read a comment on a horse blog along the lines of “to get a good lope you have to spend a lot of hours loping circles”. And I had a very mixed reaction to that comment. First I felt, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” And then I felt, “Yuck, how boring for horse and rider.” And then, being who I am, I tried to figure out the nature of my reaction. Which led to this post.
First off, the comment I read had a lot to do with developing a successful show horse lope—meaning western pleasure. And this is a very specific thing in which I am not interested. But, when I thought about it, I realized that a good lope, or canter, for you English types, is the foundation of a broke horse in all disciplines. And yep, I mean all.
Think about it. A collected lope (English folks just subsitute canter for lope) does not occur in a unbroke horse. Horses running free will walk, long trot and gallop. They will “high lope”, or gallop in a relaxed way, but they don’t collect and lope slow. The skills involved in teaching a horse a collected lope—giving the head, getting the hind legs up underneath, rounding the back, arcing into the circle, being ready to stop at a light cue—these are what make a horse broke.
And yes, there is no other way to teach a horse to lope, but by lots of time spent loping circles. It requires developing some muscle memory and there is no other way to do it. (OK, yes you could teach collection on a race track or loping in a straight line across an open field, but it would be a lot harder to do.)
And I cannot think of a single way to get a horse truly broke that does not include teaching the horse how to lope collectedly. This is obvious when it comes to show horses of most types, but I’m also thinking of trail horses and team roping horses for instance. The foundation of a horse who is “in your hand”, ie “broke”, is the collected lope. Even if, as is the case with team roping, you don’t actually use the collected lope when you compete.
This all sounds fairly theoretical, so I want to give a concrete example. Seven years ago my team roping partner, Wally, bought a very green six year old gelding named Twister. Twister had been broke as a four year old by some not very handy ranch cowboys (thirty days of riding) and then, as a five year old, a team roping trainer made him a “ninety day wonder”. You know, the very green horse who is taught to be a team roping horse in ninety days of training. Needless to say, Twister was not broke in any real sense. You could make a team roping run on him, but his head was in the air and his eyes were bugging out the whole time. He had very little idea about answering the bridle, but he did kind of know what a team roping head horse is supposed to do.
In another horse, this approach would have been disasterous. Many horses are pretty much ruined for life this way. But both Wally and I could see that Twister, despite his ignorance, was trying very hard to do the right thing. And we both really liked him. I wasn’t training horses any more, but I told Wally that I would help him train Twister if he would do the actual riding. So we brought Twister home.
Twister was about as unbroke as you could imagine. He did not know how to give his head at all. As for a collected lope, Twister did not know how to hold the lope in a circle in any way shape or form, let alone collect. He had many, many rough spots as a rope horse and Wally was very keen to address these, because he wanted to start competing on Twister. I told him, “Teach this horse to lope and all those other problems will pretty much disappear.”
Wally didn’t really believe me, but he did what I said. And for about six months, we worked at teaching Twister a relaxed, collected lope. Wally rode Twister three or four days a week and continued to practice rope on him, but he spent a lot of time loping circles, patiently teaching Twister how to collect and be “in his hand”, ready to stop in a gathered way (with his nose down and his hind legs up under him and his back round) in any stride. It took six months to accomplish this and a year to make it solid. By the end of that year, Wally was competing successfully on Twister and the horse was thriving. The very skills that enabled Twister to execute a collected lope enabled him to be an obedient, responsive rope horse.
So, there’s point number one. No matter your discipline, a collected lope is the basis of “broke”. Point two is that it does take lots of loping circles to get that good lope. And now we come to my “yuck, its boring” reaction. Cause once you and your horse really do know how to do this, there is no point in repeating it endlessly. It does no good. Its merely boring for horse and rider.
Nowadays, when Wally warms Twister up (Twister is fourteen), they walk trot lope until the horse is free, and then Wally lopes maybe three laps in a collected frame, max. That’s it. Then they’re on to do something interesting.
I treat my horses (Plumber and Sunny) the same. If we ride in the arena, I always do a couple of “reminder laps” at the collected lope. If they don’t ante up, I work on that lope until I like it. That’s it. I do not drill endlessly, loping those repetitive circles, on a horse that already knows how to do it. It merely makes a horse cranky and its not good for his legs and feet. Though I mostly trail ride on Sunny, I do need the feeling of him being “in my hand” as I lope across a meadow, and I want that gathered, collected, calm lope, not some scrambling out of control hand gallop. So, in essence, even in my trail horse, his collected lope is what makes him a broke horse.
OK—I’ve dissected my reaction to that comment. Now I’d love to hear your theories on this subject. Anybody agree with me? Feel free to tell me where I’m wrong. Cheers--Laura
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Choosing a Horse Trainer
Today I have a tricky question and I hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts. Cause I, for one, am majorly confused.
Last week I was asked by a casual friend who is a novice horseperson with a green horse (not the best combination, I know) if I would recommend a particular horse trainer she is considering working with. I know this trainer—lets call her Jane Doe. I never rode with her, but I’ve known her for many years, bought a couple of horses that at one time were in her barn; long ago we showed against each other in the local cuttings. We’ve always had a friendly “talking” relationship. And I was absolutely stymied as to what to say in answer to the question.
Here’s the problem. Jane Doe is a competent horseman, she’s been in the horse training business a long time. She has the same cowhorse background I do, and like me, she is now middle-aged and stout—unlike me, she has a bad back. She does not get on colts any more, she has her assistants do it. Jane doesn’t actually ride much at all any more. But she can talk the good talk.
OK, nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Except that I happen to know that Jane put her assistant (and best friend) on a colt that had some major issues and said assistant got bucked off hard and put in the ICU for several days—and of course Jane had no insurance and no money to help with the bills.
Well, OK, a lot of trainers are in this position, I know. But I didn’t think it was too responsible of Jane. Nor did it argue that she had very good judgement when it came to reading horses.
Jane has made some decent horses over the years. And she’s had some colossal failures. I think this can be said of most horse trainers. By and large, I don’t disagree with her methods. She’s well intentioned towards horses and people, I believe, but perhaps a bit blinded by her need to be the “expert”. Again, something that can be said of a lot of trainers.
And then, I was at a party with Jane not too long ago. Privately she confided to me about her bad back, and how she could hardly climb on the horses any more, even broke horses. She described trying to ride her old (broke to death) show horse when the mare was fresh and how this was a “harrowing” experience. I understood, of course; I would be in the same boat. But I’m not calling myself a horse trainer. (And I also happened to know that Jane is currently trying to sell the old show horse and is representing the mare as gentle for kids…uhmm, you can’t have it both ways. A horse that is gentle for kids should not be “harrowing” for an experienced rider to cruise around the pasture when the mare is fresh.)
At this same party, when a group of folks were gathered around, Jane proceeded to make fun of a young man who is just starting out as a horse trainer in this county. Granted, the guy is young and has a lot less experience than Jane. And Jane’s way of making fun of him was subtle. She just kept telling stories about things he’d done with horses and letting her audience infer how clueless he was compared to oh-so-knowledgable her. The other people had a fun time laughing about the young trainer. I wasn’t particularly amused.
I kept my mouth shut (for once), but I thought to myself that said young guy (who I know) isn’t afraid to climb on a colt, unlike Jane these days. He doesn’t put his assistants on to take the falls. A broke horse acting up would not scare him. Unlike Jane, he still rides the horses that are put in training with him. This guy is well intentioned and pretty handy. He may not have Jane’s experience, but he rides a lot better than she does now.
Jane’s main event nowadays is giving lessons and clinics. She’s good at this—very patient with beginners and kids. Jane feels very comfortable with people who clearly know less than she does about horses. She loves standing safely on the ground instructing other folks in “Horsemanship 101”. And she’s very respectful of big name trainers who have achieved far more than she has in the showhorse world. But anyone who might remotely be considered an equal renders Jane defensive and wary, eager to prove that she is the knowledgable horse guru in these parts.
Now this isn’t an uncommon trait in horse trainers. And Jane is never boastful. No, she’s quiet and seems humble; she just makes the occasional pointed comment or tells the occasional quasi-humorous story that essentially puts down the opinions of her peers. Like many people with fragile egos, Jane takes a lot of pride in keeping her mouth shut. She told me once that when she went to clinics with bigger name trainers she never asked questions or gave her opinion, she just listened. This was meant to show how humble and what a a good student she was. Of course, what this said to me was that she was too invested in her own ego to take a chance on looking silly. Because the way a person learns most is to ask questions and be willing to discuss ideas. But one can’t do this if one is afraid of looking less than knowledgable.
Jane and I have always gotten along pretty well over the years we’ve known each other. Nonetheless, I’m aware that Jane isn’t very comfortable around me. I think she can tell that I don’t buy her oh-so-much-more-knowledgable-than-thou pose and it bothers her. I have pretty much the same background in the horse biz that she does, though I never hung out my shingle as a trainer. I think she finds this threatening. I’m willing to bet that when I’m not around, she tells slighting stories about me, too. I can’t say that I really like Jane.
So, where does this leave me when it comes to recommending Jane as a trainer? I’m not sure. If my friend (lets call her Mary) just meant to take lessons, I could honestly say that Jane is very good at giving lessons to novices. Many of her students part company with her as they get more experience—I think because of some of the issues I’ve described here. But Mary also wants to put her green horse in training with Jane.
Should I tell Mary that Jane is very unlikely to ride the horse herself? (Except, perhaps, when Mary is around.) That it will be Jane’s assistants who will ride the horse day in and day out. Mary doesn’t know this. Again, this situation is not unique to Jane—when I worked for a well known cowhorse trainer, there was one little Appy mare in his barn in whom he was not much interested. I was the one who broke and trained this mare. For six months no other human being rode her besides me. (Of course, the trainer collected his big monthly training bill.) The owners never knew about this (partly because they did not come around). This mare turned out fine, I did a good job on her…but you see my point. Should I tell Mary that this will happen in Jane’s barn? Should I tell Mary that I think Jane has a few, shall we say, personal issues? The number of former clients who are not on speaking terms with Jane is considerable. Mary is a forthright person, just like I am. Shall I warn her that Jane seems threatened by people who do not act properly subservient?
And if I do, and Mary says, “Who would be better?” then I’m stumped. Because I don’t actually know who would be better. That young guy Jane was making fun of in her subtle way…he is lacking experience and he doesn’t have a very good facility. The best known cowhorse trainer in these parts is very hard on horses. You see, I know all these guys. Jane is far from the worst of them.
So, I remain puzzled. When Mary called me up and asked me the question, I blurted out something inane. I think I said, “Jane’s fine, if you don’t expect too much.” When Mary said, “Would you recommend her?” I just said, “She’s OK.” Typical horse trainer talk. But later I went round and round with myself. Was I doing Mary a diservice? I wouldn’t put a horse in training with Jane. Not just because I know she doesn’t ride them (and isn’t actually a very good rider any more), but because I know that at bottom, I don’t really think I could get along with her and her too fragile ego. But I’m not sure if this would be a problem for Mary.
I do know a horse trainer or two that I really like, but none of them happen to be in this county. My friend and boarder sent his young horse to one of these guys, but it’s a three hour drive from here. Mary wants someone local, where she can show up once a week and take lessons.
I wish I knew the perfect horse trainer to recommend in this area, but I don’t. So, what do you think? What should I say, or not say? How do you guys evaluate a horse trainer? Do you run across this “trainer ego” problem, too? Should I let Mary work out if she can get along with Jane and not predjudice her against the woman? Is this more my issue than a real problem with Jane as a trainer? I’m confused. Those of you who are trainers feel free to tell me your views, too. I’ve never been a horse trainer (despite the fact that I was assistant to half a dozen) and am perhaps too willing to take a negative view of something a trainer may believe is no big deal. What do you think?
Monday, March 1, 2010
Bad Apples, Bad Experiences or Lack of Communication
I got back yesterday from a show, (got rained for 3 days oh joy!) and I was so impressed by the number of comments to Laura’s last post that I decided that it merited further attention. Laura and several of you that commented to her post chronicled some troubling stories of very bad experiences with some very bad horses.
Most of you know that I am a full time professional trainer who also happens to have a journalism background and am currently working on my first fiction piece. Any trainer would be lying if they told you they have never come across horses like those that Laura and the rest of you described. I have luckily only run across a few in my career and only 2 who just could not be figured out and as a result, could not be saved. As was pointed out, horses can suffer from psychiatric issues just like people. They actually now have anti-psychotics and mood elevators (like Prozac) available for both horses and dogs. I think the biggest challenge for horse owners and trainers is how to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and how to get closure as to when it is time to call it quits.
It would be so much easier if horses could talk our language, (I do believe they try to talk with us) since the biggest issue is that we understand their language in very limited ways. I have learned over the years that bad behavior is often only a symptom of a greater underlying cause. For example, many performance horses today are plagued by acidy stomachs, stomach ulcers, intestinal ulcers and bacterial imbalance in the hind gut. All of these medical issues can be difficult to diagnose and frequently manifest themselves in disobedient or destructive behavior by the horse. Horses with ulcers often buck or rear for no apparent reason and/or refuse to work or move forward. Over the years I have had several horses come into my barn, including the horse I currently compete on, who have exhibited cranky attitudes and training problems that could easily be misconstrued as poor work ethics, aggressiveness and overall unwillingness. Several of these horses have been dramatically turned around by a course of gastro guard (not a cheap endeavor) on by adding Ranitidine (generic Zantac) to their daily feed.
About ten years ago I was asked to work with a mare that had a kicking and bucking problem. Every time you would tighten up her cinch (she was a western horse) she would either try to bite or kick you and when that did not work, she would explode bucking taking out whatever she was tied to and whatever or whoever happened to be in her way. I tried every type of discipline and training trick that I knew of to no avail and was about to write her off as a “bad seed” when I observed her just standing in her corral kicking. I watched her over the next week or so and discovered that at random times she would kick at the air, the rails, her feeder, her water tub, anything whether there was another horse near by or not. I was baffled and was about to tell her owners that she simply had a screw lose when she colicked. Turns out that the mare had an intestinal stone that had been developing for years and it would cause her periodic pain when just standing and consistent pain when being ridden. This was a really nice reining prospect so the owners paid for surgery and after recovery and rehab the bad behavior never returned.
I have also seen lots of horses refuse to jump, or bolt or rear or buck or all of the above due to back pain and/or chiropractic misalignment. My niece bought an event horse several years ago who was initially a fabulous jumper and enjoyed great competitive success and then slowly over time they started to have problems. The horse at first started to stop and big solid fences on cross country but was still very reliable in the stadium ring. Then he started to get very strong and hard to control on cross country, almost on the verge of running away with her, and later also started to stop at fences in stadium.
After months of problems and consultations with various trainers, including me, and various vets, it was suggested that they get a nuclear cyntigraphy, commonly know as a nuke scan, done on the horse. The results showed that the horse had a problem known as “kissing spine” which is caused by an unstable vertebra that in turns causes them to pinch or kiss at various times of physical stress like using his back when jumping. There was no surgical solution for this issue so they retired him from jumping and he is now happy, healthy and easy to handle as a dressage schoolmaster.
Now I am not saying that all bad horse behavior can be explained by medical causes or even bad treatment or bad training. Just like we find in the human realm there are simply some bad horses out there. But I do think that when afforded a little more investigation, time and patience a lot of behavioral issues can be resolved to a positive result.
When raising foals, amateur owners, (not an experienced horseman like Laura’s uncle) can often spoil their beloved babies into very aggressive and potentially dangerous conduct. I had a young warmblood come in for training a few years ago who had been hand raised by doting loving owners who could not understand why their now nearly five year old 17.2 hand baby had been dubbed untrainable by 2 other trainers that I knew and respected. I explained to them the best I could about herd dynamics and that their horse thought that he was alpha which is, of course a problem, when you are attempting to climb on their back. I told them that I would take the horse on only if they would leave the horse and not come back to see him until I said they could and that this would probably be 3 or 4 months. Otherwise the horse was their problem.
I told them that I was going to have to get fairly rough with him because he needed to learn that he was several pegs down on the herd hierarchy and there was, to my knowledge, no other way. ( I was not looking forward to this because being rough with a horse is not in my nature but some times tough love is they only way).
The first time I worked him in my round pen he pinned his ears, bared his teeth and charged to which I responded by hitting him as hard as I could between the eyes with the hard handle of my longe whip. He staggered back, ran away, tried again to the same hard whack on the head and then decided it was in his best interest to keep his distance. This was not the simple fix, we had several altercations over the next few months but when he gave in, he gave in and accepted be under saddle with no drama. He still challenges his rider from time to time (but mild by comparison) and needs a little “aunt Terri” talk. All and all he has turned into a nice horse but if his owners had witnessed a few of our sessions in the beginning, they would have had a heart attack.
Working with horses is truly a journey filled with many adventures and many personalities – both human and equine. As much as we all love and adore horses, we all know that some of them are more bright than others; (I have a few in my barn that we refer to as special needs children) some have hearts of gold, some are perpetual delinquents and some are simply bad apples. What are some of your experiences? Have any of you been able to resolve a behavior problem through a medical solution? I would love to have your input. I do think that we owe it to ourselves and our horse to try to piece together the puzzle and look at the physical picture whenever negative behavior occurs.