Thursday, September 11, 2014

Normally Abnormal

During one of the Summer Camp "inside lessons" I asked the group of medium-size girls "What do horses normally do all day?"  The lesson was on how to tell if your horse is sick.  Generally, if your horse is not doing any one of the normal things, it could be ill. 

"Breathe!" was the first response. 

"That's true," I replied, "but usually if your horse isn't breathing, it's not because he's sick.  It's because he's dead.  But good thinking!"

The answers began to come forth as the girls pictured their camp horses' daily routines.

"Walk around!"
"Stand up!"
"Poop!" Actually, what was said was "Use the restroom!", which isn't semantically correct.  So the next camper chimed in with the updated version.  Then the last one, catching on to the path we were headed on called out, "Pee!"

Yes, little grasshoppers, these are all correct. 

An ill horse, or injured horse, is most likely going to refrain from normal, every day, horsey activities.  It does help to know your horse well.  At my barn, Gigi does not like to eat her breakfast grain.  Raffles doesn't want to eat hay.  Imy never drinks water in his stall.  Rocket drools all over everything.  Abbie uses her paddock like a home gym.  Henry takes several naps every day.  What is normal for these horses, may not be normal for any other horse. 

Just recently, one of the horses went from drinking one tub of water over the course of 3 days, to drinking 4-5 tub-fulls in one day.  After hundreds of dollars in blood and urine tests and multiple vet visits, still no one knows why.  She is completely, perfectly healthy and happy otherwise.  Weeks later, she is still drinking about 5 times the amount of water she usually drinks.  Her electrolytes, organ functions, proteins and enzymes are all textbook.  She isn't sweating more than normal, she isn't eating her salt block, her food and work load have not changed, her turnout is the same.  Absolutely nothing has been found amiss, other than the water consumption.  The answer may be revealed weeks from now, or she may return to normal water consumption as spontaneously as she deviated. 

In case you are wondering, yes, I did check to see if her tub was leaking.  

The point is, it helps to know your own particular horse's habits to know if anything has changed. The point also is, sometimes horses do weird things for no discernible reason.

If something seems askew, before calling the vet, take a moment to record current vital signs.   The vet is going to ask for them and if you haven't checked, you will feel very silly. 

Vital signs include, body temperature, pulse, respiratory rate, capillary refill time and in the case of possible colic, gut sounds.  It is handy to have a chart with the normal values printed on it and either displayed in a prominent place or kept with the medical kit because in a time of emergency not everyone can be clear headed enough to recall all the correct numbers. 

For some of us, recalling numbers is difficult even at the best of times. 

In order to determine vital signs you need a thermometer (and a little Vaseline or lube), a watch, and a stethoscope.  If available, a pen and paper to record numbers, and a second person to hold a horse or tell time is nice too. 

Keeping a horse still long enough to determine respiratory rate and pulse can be a challenge.  It's easiest to  time them for 15 seconds then multiply by 4 to get a per minute number.  It may be helpful to have a calculator on hand to do this. 

For some of us, doing math is difficult even at the best of times.

Knowing your horse, knowing what is normal for normal horses, and knowing the vet's telephone number are resources you will need to properly care for a horse.  Even if something is normal for your horse, it could still indicate a problem.  Just because a horse always coughs when he eats, or usually has runny manure does not mean it's okay.  There could be a reason for it that can be remedied. 

If something does seem wrong, observe, record, and call the vet. 

Oh yeah - and breathe.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Caveat Emptor

*Due to a lovely opportunity to have my writing published in the local newspaper, I have badly neglected my little blog.  However, like a fickle girlfriend, now that the more glamorous option seems to have run its course I have returned to "Ole Reliable".   Please continue to follow, I will continue to write (if a little sporadically) and feel free to share.  Thank you for your loyalty, it was greater than mine.*

 Although my livelihood depends on horses; teaching people to ride them, training them and boarding them, when people me if they should buy a horse I nearly always answer, “No.”.  Horse ownership is not for the faint of heart, small of bank account or possessor of little knowledge.

Should someone take riding lessons?  Definitely.  Should an experienced rider consider leasing a horse?  Probably.  It’s my personal opinion that buying a horse should be akin to obtaining a driver's license.  There should be classes, a required number of hours of practice and a test with the possible addition of a background check and mental capacity testing.

These restrictions would reduce the number of horses resold when they didn’t work out or the owner lost interest.  There are adoption facilities filled to the rafters with horses that people could no longer afford and horses that were mistreated or neglected by ignorant owners.  I suspect that most of those horses would not be there if the previous owners had done more research before buying a horse.

The relationship you can develop with a horse of your own is like no other.  The horse is completely dependant on you for survival but at the same time, can take you out if it feels you are not fulfilling that obligation.  Meaning, a horse needs a leader that it trusts and respects and if it doesn’t have that trust and respect it will set about saving its own skin.  That’s when people get hurt and horses are labeled “bad”.

Not only can a horse’s compliance deteriorate but it’s health will rapidly decline due to mishandling.  The declaration “healthy as a horse” is a precarious one at best.  Horses have delicate digestive systems and a propensity for finding something to poke in their eyes, twist a leg on or get caught in.  There is a horse I know who has a big ugly scar on one leg from getting tangled in a boat trailer.  First of all, horses should not have access to boat trailers, and second, despite having many other choices of places it could be, the horse ended up with a leg caught in a boat trailer.  How or why is of no consequence.  It is a horse.  There was an opportunity.  

The worst mistake, by a landslide, is buying a young horse for a young person so they can “grow and learn together.”  If ever existed a recipe for disaster, that one is top of the list.  Sometimes the pairing works out - but rarely.  If it does work, it’s usually due to the assistance of professionals and miracles.  

Somebody in the relationship needs to know what to do, so a young horse with an experienced owner or an inexperienced owner with an aged been there, done that horse generally work out fine.  Regardless of horse or rider education levels, there should be a professional trainer or instructor involved.  Even riders who compete in the Olympic games have coaches.  No one is immune from needing help.

My plan is not to (entirely) discourage everyone from ever owning a horse, but to forewarn and educate those who are ready to make the commitment.  If you do  decide to buy a horse, take a professional along during trials, take lessons, read books, watch videos, ask questions, consult veterinarians and farriers.  

Horse ownership can be fulfilling and rewarding if you decide to make the commitment.  Your relationship with your horse can enrich your life as you learn to be aware of your body language, stay calm in intense situations and exhibit leadership.  Buck Brannaman, a world-renowned horseman and author, says that your horse is a mirror to your soul, and to what is going on in your life.  Which means you may not always like what you see, but that doesn’t mean you throw away the mirror and go out and get a new one.  A horse can teach you to be a better person.

Maybe my first reaction is hasty.  Maybe instead of saying, “No.”, when people ask me if they should get  a horse, I should say “Not yet.”     I would say, take some time to educate yourself and then examine your motives.  If, after some lessons and studying, your reason for owning a horse has gone beyond “Because they’re so pretty!”, then certainly you can prepare for that life-altering experience.  

Friday, April 19, 2013

That's What It's All About

We need riding lessons, not because we don't know how to ride, but because we think we do.  If you don't take riding lessons you at least need photographs and videos of your riding so that you can see all of the things you need to fix because while you are up there riding around, you think you're either Buck Branaman or Buck Davidson when really you're more like Buck the Ice Age Weasel, but not as cool. 

I don't get to take riding lessons very often so I rely heavily on photographic evidence.  Evidence that can be appalling. 

What is my right leg doing there?

 All this time, I thought my heels were down...

So that's what behind the vertical looks like.

I hope I found what I was looking for down there in my horse's mane.

All this time, I thought my hands were down...

It can be embarrassing but extremely valuable to see those photos.  It can be more persuasive than an instructor's comments.

When I was younger and had access to regular instruction I often found myself silently arguing with whatever instructor I had, that I WAS doing whatever she/he asked me to or was NOT doing whatever he/she told me I was doing.  I was quite sure that I was holding my outside rein.  Or that my leg was back far enough.  Or that my horse was going forward.  But now, I am quite sure that I was wrong every time. 

It can feel like we are doing something, or we can think we are doing something but the instructor can see what we are or are not doing.  At least, a good one can.  There are instructors who just shout "Good!" as if we just mastered Beethoven's' 5th on the second try when really we mangled Twinkle Twinkle.  And there are instructors who yell "Wrong!" but never proceed to tell us why or how to make it better.  I've had both.  They were not the one's I learned from, except to learn that I did not want to be an instructor like that.

From being a riding student, I know what it is like to be told I need to do something when I;m pretty sure I have been doing it all along.  Even recently, when I had a lesson with a very well -respected trainer who told me repeatedly to put my hands forward.  "I am putting my hands forward" I whined to myself, "Can't he see that?"  But then, when I put my hands forward more, the horse suddenly became correct.  *lightbulb*

If your instructor is constantly barking at you (or even gently reminding you) to do/not do something, you probably need to do/not do it.  Again, exceptions occur, such as the trainer I rode with who told me to "hit him harder" every time my poor frazzled horse bolted.  Instructors are not gods.  You've got to do what makes sense.  If an instructor tells you to hold your reins with your teeth and put your hands up over your head to get your horse to do a collected trot, maybe it's time to move on to a new teacher.

That reminds me, not completely relevantly, of the time one of camp kids, in the blink of an eye, slung her reins around her neck and said "Look at me!  I'm neck reining!"  If I hadn't been so panic stricken, I would have laughed because it was a pretty good joke.  A very dangerous joke, but funny after the fact.  Anyway...

The point is, have a little faith in your instructor.  He or she has (one would hope) more training than you, more experience than you, and can see what you are doing.  If she says put your hands down and the whine comes bubbling forth from your self-assured brain that you are putting your hands down, then put them down some more. Or use more outside rein.  Or ask your horse for more forwardness, or less neck bend or or more haunches in.  Whatever it is, you are paying this person to tell you how to do a better job so don't whine if you're told what to do.  Put a little Nike in your ride and just do it.  Or don't, but go somewhere else for lessons.  Instructors do not like to be argued with or whined at. 

If you have a question, by all means ask.  Many times I've taught lessons thinking my student clearly understood every theory I put forth when in reality I could have been speaking in tongues and my student would have nodded politely and said, yes that makes sense.  Riding sometimes feels like you are deep in a game of Twister or doing the hokey-pokey but it should all come together eventually if you have faith in your instructor.  Just remember that even though you feel like you are putting your right foot in, your instructor can see that instead, you are shaking it all about. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

You Say Tomato

"On the bit" is a phrase I try not to use.  Instead I will use "in balance", "connected", "accepting contact", "soft in the bridle", "round" and other semantic terms because, truly, the bit has very little to do with it.  In all actuality a horse can be "on the bit" in a bitless bridle, or a halter, or nothing.  It's a feeling, more than anything, that the horse and rider are of one mind and one body.  There is no resistance or tension from either participant and by merely thinking of what to do and where to go the rider gets immediate cooperation from the horse.

Just because a horse puts his head down or arches his neck does not put him "on the bit".  A lot of false postures can happen through strong bits or ropes and pulleys or restrictive gear that can cause a horse to adopt an appearance of being connected but in those cases the horse's body is not involved so he will still be bracing and uncooperative.

Other phrases I don't use are "head set" and "in a frame".  Both sound very fixed and rigid to me.  It may be a case of tow-may-toe, tah-mah-toe but I just can't bring myself to say the words when referring to a horse's balance.

A student once asked me if a horse ever learns to just stay on the bit by itself.  I told her no, that a horse can only respond to particular cues when applied.  That's not entirely true. Oops.  Should have thought my reply through a little before answering.  When left to its own devices, a horse, on its own, of its own free will, will move on the bit.  Horses arch their necks, collect their hindquarters, lift their backs and move across the ground as if on air when they are feeling particularly frisky or showing off for another horse (and sometimes just showing off in general even if no one is looking) and that is what we strive for as humans:  to ride a horse in a way that looks as if the horse is thoroughly enjoying himself and having the time of his life.

How is it possible to achieve that through a strong bit or restrictive gear?  Does the horse say "My head is tied down, and I am having the best fun!" 

I'm not against bits completely.  I do wish certain bits were illegal to use in competition and that more bitless bridles were allowed but I do ride most of the time with a bitted bridle and I try to do it as compassionately as I can.  I expect the same from my horses as I give them which means there is no yanking on the reins.  Unfortunately, some horses, either through lack of training or poor training somewhere in their past, have learned to yank or lean on the reins.  Those horses, I call spoiled, not spoiled like a bratty kid but spoiled like a tomato left out on the counter too long. 

With work, those horses can be reclaimed but on the condition that any riders from that point on, ride them with skill and don't let them slip back into the bit-pulling habits.  Horses don't learn to lean on the bit by themselves.  It comes from a rider who is heavy on the reins or a horse that keeps the reins heavy as a defense against rough hands. 

In order to re-educate that type of horses it can be necessary to take the bit out of the equation and ride in a bitless bridle.  Other times, it means a change of bit.  But sometimes the habit is such that regardless of what is in or not in the horse's mouth, he will lean on the reins.  A human's hands can never be utterly steady and consistent so it can be very difficult for a person to work through that issue.  A rider should always strive to work on having steady, controlled hands - which doesn't mean fixed hands.  Fixed hands are dead hands, they just plant and stick in one place.  Fixed hands can be a step toward learning to keep hands steady and is a good lesson for a lot of beginners but at some point, the hands then need to come to life and communicate with the horse. One thing at a time.

For riders who haven't learned that nuance yet, or for horses that are particularly strong, I will use sidereins on the horse when it is being longed.  Side reins are not for riding in, that is a recipe for disaster.  Sidereins used when longing need to definitely be used with care.  They have to be introduced gradually, and fastened in such a way that the horse is not forced into a position but when he pulls on the reins aggressively, that the reins are tight and uncomfortable.  As soon as the horse relaxes, the pressure on the bit should come off immediately.  Just as with any piece of equipment, sidereins can be used wrongly and cause the horse more grief.

There are always going to be spoiled horses (which keeps horse trainers in business) just as, at least in this house, there will always be spoiled tomatoes.  At least the training I do allows me to be able to buy new tomatoes.  Buying a new horse is not as easy.

However, a spoiled horse can be reconditioned, unlike a spoiled tomato so there is not need to get a new horse.  Don't think of your horse as disposable, but put some effort into becoming a better rider, trying different or less equipment and get your horse out of a frame and into a conversation.  With some time and consideration you and your horse will start speaking the same language and you will both be having the best fun.   

Saturday, February 16, 2013

It's A Dirty Job

Recently, thanks to a good friend, I discovered a television show called "Dirty Jobs".  While I knew the show existed, I'd never seen an episode until these past few days when I watched several.  Okay, a whole bunch.  Quite a lot, really.  What can I say, it's a good show.  Hosted by Mike Rowe, the show gives a glimpse into the daily operations of jobs that keep the country functioning.  Jobs for which not many people will voluntarily sign up.  Gross jobs.  Wet jobs.  Stinky jobs.  Dirty jobs.

Mike Rowe is a fascinating person.  He has been in show business forever and came up with the idea for the Dirty Jobs show as an homage to his father and grandfather who both were blue collar workers.  In the show, Mike takes on the position of apprentice for jobs such as sewer inspector, leather tanner, and road kill collector.  Previously, he spent time working as a QVC host, opera singer, voice-over actor and other similar, clean occupations.

Certainly, I can relate to the dirty part of a lot of these jobs.  Dealing with poo, mud, large animals and smells no one would consider bottling and selling goes with the territory of a riding stable.  While Mike began the show as a bit of a light-hearted look at some disgusting work, he came to the realization that without people doing these jobs, life would come to a standstill and be buried under piles of muck.  Not every job is fancy.  As he points out, for every cell phone out there, there are hundreds of people putting together circuitry, packaging products, shipping boxes and making sure those phones make it into the hands of the public.   Mike developed a profound respect for the people doing dirty jobs and is now an advocate for tradesmen and women (  He also recognized that people in those positions assume responsibility for the risk involved.  They know how to be safe.  They know how to be careful.  They know how to stay alive.  Accidents happen of course, but these are not the people out there suing a fast food chain for making hot coffee.

Take responsibility for the risk.  If more people would do this then my insurance rates would go down.  Riding stables have tremendous liability insurance cost due to the number of lawsuits that arise from injuries in dealing with or being around horses.  There is a risk in being within 20 meters of a horse, you would think people would assume that, but no.  For example, a woman riding her own horse across the yard at a public riding stable, sued the stable owner when the horse tripped causing the woman to fall off and break an arm.  Should the stable owner have made sure the turf in the yard was completely level?  Or not allowed riders to cross the yard while mounted on a horse?  At some point, a rider has to take the responsibility for her own safety.  Despite any number of release of liability forms people are asked to sign before engaging in equestrian pursuits, a horse owner or property owner can still be taken to court and have to spend thousands of dollars in defense, on top of all the thousands of dollars spent on insurance.

At one of the barns where I work, more and more safety rules are put into force every week.  It seems the students can just not stay out of harm's way.  Before everyone ends up in haz-mat suits and protective eye gear with safety harnesses suspending them from cranes while horses are shackled and led by 2 burly men, students better start taking some of the responsibility on themselves.  If they are not fit enough to ride, then they need to hit the gym.  If they don't know enough, they need to read some books or watch some videos and pay better attention to the instructor.  However, it is never an instructor's job to keep a rider safe.  Nor is it the horse's job to keep a rider safe.  Who should keep the rider safe, then?  Her own darn self, that's who. 

Just this morning, while turning out horses here at home, my helper for chores strapped on ice cleats to her boots.  I didn't think they were necessary, didn't seem all that icy to me, but she was taking responsibility for her own safety.  She wasn't relying on anyone else to keep her fanny off the ice, or taking someone's word for it, but doing whatever was necessary, just in case of a slip up, to keep herself upright.  Just like the people featured in the tv program will tell you, you gotta do what you gotta do.  It may be dangerous, stinky or dirty (and often all three) but sometimes the job has to be done anyway.  

Risk isn't necessary, but responsibility is. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"I'll Be Back Upon My Feet"

I miss my horse!!!  He hasn't gone anywhere, he's right outside my door.  The trouble is, I'm stuck on the other side of the door.  My knee surgery on the 3rd prevented me from being out in then barn but now that I could be in the barn, I've been side-lined by daily migraines and nausea/vertigo attacks.  I did get out for a little while this morning and helped a wee bit with chores despite feeling ill and it was lovely to see my boys again.  It was very apparent that they have been being spoiled by my students who have been riding them while I'm laid up when they both immediately frisked me for cookies.  As of 8:00 this morning, they are on the no-had-feeding list, right at the top and underlined twice.

It was good to see those boys.  When my leg is a little sturdier and my head isn't pounding and I don't feel like I'm on the Tilt-A-Whirl, I'll spend more time with them.  And Venus.  Poor Venus is even more neglected because there aren't any students riding her.  For a walk/trot only horse, she's complicated.  She's a good girl but keeping her balanced so that she trots instead of pacing takes some delicate riding.  Not that I have anything against pacers, they are fun to ride, but I've tried to discourage her pacing so that she can go to horse shows.  That topic could be a whole post on its own so I'll save that for another day.

One thing I really want to try with Venus is some bridle-less riding.  We do a lot of groundwork without a halter & lead, but the riding would be something that would challenge both of us and give us another goal.  I need goals when I'm riding.  There has to be an event or horse show or level or something for me to work for.  There are days when I just want to get on and have a nice ride, but usually I need to have that destination in mind to keep my riding fresh.  I don't always need to work on the horse, there are lots of things I can work on for myself.  Looking at photos from last Summer it is very obvious that I have been lax about heels down.  There is the ever-present problem of my posture, which has improved but needs to be better and I need to work on jumping to help assuage my own trepidation.

As soon as I can, I'll be back out in the barn and back to work.  It will be at least another 3 weeks before I can ride due to my knee brace which is basically a shark cage on my leg. The brace keeps my knee from slipping sideways and undoing the ACL surgery I just went through, and should any Great Whites attack, my left leg is completely safe. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Perfect Fit

There is not much that I dislike more than trying on jeans.  There can be 12 pairs of jeans in my dressing room, different brands but all the same tag size (my tag size), and not a dang one of them will fit correctly.  One will gape at the waist, one is too short, one doesn't come up past my thighs, one goes up to my armpits, one is too tight, one is so big that I could fit another person in each leg, and so on.  It is also guaranteed that if I do happen to find a pair of jeans that fit and are comfortable, that the manufacturer will immediately stop their production.

Fitting a saddle to a horse is just as frustrating and 30 times more expensive.  Saddle fit is tremendously important for both rider and horse and a saddle that fits both is the Holy Grail of the equestrian world.  There are people with unlimited budgets who can afford to have a saddle custom made that fits both parties equally well.  And then there is us.  The rest of us, most of us, have very limited budgets and must make due with off the rack models.

To imagine how a horse with a poorly fitting saddle feels, put on a pair of shoes that don't fit, fill a back pack with 20 pounds of sand and then jog around the block.  Your feet will hurt, your back will hurt.  Hips, knees, shoulders, all of 'em - aching.  Now, do it again the next day. 

Saddles do not have to be $5000 custom made saddles in order to fit correctly.  An expensive saddle can fit as badly as a cheap saddle, if it's put on the wrong horse.  So how do you know if a saddle fits?  I can share what I've learned about fitting English saddles (excluding Saddleseat) by paying attention to saddle fit experts, reading and watching instructional videos.

First, examine the saddle.  If you pull the pommel and cantle toward each other does the saddle bend in the middle (it should not)?  Does the gullet (the channel underneath) go straight and evenly down the center of the saddle?  Are the panels of even size and shape?  Are the billet straps solid looking (no oval shaped holes, no splits, cracks or thin spots in the leather)?  Is the padding in the panels smooth (no lumps)?  When viewed from the front do the seat and cantle line up evenly (not twist to one side)?  If the saddle passes inspection, it can be placed on the horse. You will have to check if it gives the withers at least 2 fingers height under the pommel, if the gullet gives clearance for the horses spine, if the middle of the seat is the lowest point, if the billet straps point straight down (not angled forward or back), if the panels distribute pressure evenly down the length of the saddle and whether the saddle rocks from side to side.  If the saddle passes that test, you can fasten it on with a girth, which can then greatly affect the fit.  If the saddle is still in contention, it is time to sit on it on the horse's back.  If the saddle still sits level, gives wither clearance and clears the spine.  Then it's time to ride.  Knowing your own horse well, you should be able to tell if he is comfortable by the way he moves.  Is he stepping out freely, willing to go forward and relaxed, or is he mincing, grinding his teeth, carrying himself crooked, reluctant to go forward or round, swishing his tail, kicking, bucking or rearing?  If so, you should get off. Then try the next saddle.

All of the trials should be done sans saddle pads.  Pads can alter the fit for the better or detrimentally.  Sometimes saddles are built evenly and balanced, but horses are not.  A horse that is built downhill or uphill may need a balancing pad to fit a saddle.  A horse that is swaybacked or has tremendously high withers may need extra padding to level the saddle.  If a saddle fits all other criteria but needs a little balancing, then an auxiliary pad can be used.  No amount of padding can make a badly fitting saddle comfortable for the horse.  Do lots of extra socks make your shoes fit nicely - so nicely that you could either dance a waltz or run the hurdles?  It doesn't work that way.

The good news is (Sarcasm Alert:  all gullible people should skip to the end), as soon as your horse either gets in shape, or goes out of work, the saddle doesn't fit anymore!  And we start all over.

While you don't need to take out a loan to buy a saddle, getting the $150 deal (stirrups, girth, bridle and bit - all included!) isn't going to swing it.  The saddle (stirrups, girth, bridle and bit) is cheap because it is made of cardboard and was sewn together by nervous hamsters.  It isn't worth $150.  Unless you want to pay $150 for a saddle shaped paperweight.  Used saddles are certainly a good option, provided they pass all the pre-horse-wearing tests.  The prices can be very reasonable and if it's good quality leather and construction, a saddle can last for decades.  A good quality saddle will aslo have a good resale value should you run into the situation described above (which all the gullible people don't know about because they skipped ahead).

A saddle that fits well for both horse and rider will make your riding time more productive, more comfortable and more fun.  It is worth the time and hassle, much like the hunt for the perfect pair of jeans.