Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Celebrate Good Times

In case you haven't noticed, it's been a while since I've written anything new. Well, it's been a while since I've written anything new here. This forum has been neglected while I've been carrying on an affair with the local newspaper. The editor of the "Outdoors" section has been graciously printing articles that I send him about horses and horse stuff and horse activities. Which is wonderful, of course, but that means that I now have to come up with more interesting topics and find interesting ways of writing about them. Sometimes it's a stretch to meet the demands of both this blog and the newspaper. It's always a stretch to come up with a topic that is going to be entertaining for both horse people and normal people for the newspaper, so getting that done usually takes up all of my writing time. Not to mention dancing showcases, Christmas gifting, Christmas parties, Mom stuff, the University job and the farm.... writing is kind of on the bottom of the list sometimes. Now, that holiday stuff is mostly out of the way and the dancing showcase is done, I have some time to devote to writing again. Except that I have a vacation coming up.

It's been about 10 years since I've taken vacation time longer than a weekend. My Mom, my son and I are all going to Disneyworld thanks to sponsorship from both my parents. When I went to DW as a kid, I was more thrilled with seeing the trolley horses than Mickey Mouse. I bought Breyer horses instead of mouse ears. One of the most memorable rides I went on was a trail ride at the DW ranch. I rode a buckskin mare named Little Gal and my Mom rode a chestnut gelding named Rooster. Clearly, I had some kind of a disease. Cerebral Equuscontagium - horses on the brain.

The DW ride that I frequented the most was the Carousel. Each time, I rode a different horse and gave it a name. Each of those horses became instantly real and they breathed and snorted and galloped and snorted and tossed their manes and snorted. I was a master at imitating a horse snort so all of my imaginary horses did a lot of snorting.

One symptom of CE is that the afflicted child has hallucinations that her bicycle, tire swing, and herself are horses. My first bicycle was a blue bike that was really a black pony named Thunderbeast. As I grew taller, I graduated to a bigger red bike that was a chestnut Thoroughbred named Fire Stalker. When I didn't have my bike around, I had imaginary horses. The first was a shaggy chestnut pony named Max. He came with me to Summer camp and saved me from homesickness. I added a Clydesdale mare named Celebration to my daydreamed herd. She was shy and flighty unlike good old reliable Max. Someone with some psychology training could parallel the creation of Celebration with my transition from the security of my childhood (Max) to adolescence (Celebration), with which I wasn't as comfortable. However, there is no explanation for naming a pony/bike Thunderbeast.

There is no cure for CE, but for some, the symptoms regress and are controlled with normal activities. For others, we continue to ride our way through life, living out our childhood imagination with real ponies, real horses and real snorts.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Rest Of The Story

As promised, from long ago, here is the rest of Gretchen’s story. The story is not all mushy and sweet, as some stories are. Gretchen was the bane of my existence for the entire time I had her. However, she was directly responsible for one of the major break-throughs I had as a horse trainer. Gretchen taught me that some horses just are not going to change. To ask those horses to change, or to make it a mission to change those horses is futile. From Gretchen I learned that you can not train away a horse’s personality. Sometimes, the trainer is the one that has to adapt.

Once I gave in to Gretchen and let her live outside, stopped taking her places in the horse trailer and got used to having to periodically change her feed because she didn’t like it anymore, she became a lot easier to live with. She was still horrible. But she had her moments. She was very sweet when getting her ears rubbed or her face brushed. She’d bite and kick when you groomed any other part of her body though. She loved to go riding, but she hated being caught, getting groomed, having her saddle put on (she did like her bridle) and having the rider get on, but once the rider was up, she was quite happy and willing. If one could survive the process of getting ready, she was nice to ride.

Gretchen was a perfect longe lesson horse. She was consistent and obedient on the longe line so that I could use her for students when they needed position work. She became a good horse to learn cantering on because she would make a smooth transition. As she got older, her canter got weirder with a sort of corkscrew action going on, but she was good about cantering and staying in the canter and staying on the rail. She loved to do lateral work and was great for teaching leg-yield to beginners. She had a fantastic extended trot and loved to do it so she was good for teaching students what a real extended trot felt like.

Gretchen was actually very good at horse shows, it was just the trailering that was a nightmare. She did some very nice Dressage tests although if you were not paying attention, she’d turn around and leave when you made your centerline halt.

Her next to last trailer ride was on the way to a horse show with her best buddy, Pooh Bear. I thought that this would be the one trailer ride that she might enjoy because she had Pooh along with her. She was fairly good until we got within 15 minutes of the showground. Then, she decided she was going to kill Pooh Bear. When the trailer started lurching around with screaming and banging issuing forth, I pulled over immediately and promptly removed her from it. In her efforts to make mincemeat of Pooh, she had lacerated an artery in her leg and was spraying blood like a fountain from just above her shipping wraps. I called for someone to come and get Pooh so he could get to the show (there were 3 students there waiting for the horses to arrive) and called my husband (at the time) to come and get Gretchen and take her to the vet. There was nothing I could do with her leg as each time I even tried to look at it, she went into a screaming rage and tried to kick my head off. My assistant and I could only stand and watch her, tied to the outside of the trailer, spraying blood on all the shrubbery near-by and occasionally making threats to kill everybody. I had a tranquilizer that the vet recommended I give her, but it only seemed to agitate her more. After Pooh left and husband arrived, we put Gretchen back in the trailer and he quickly drove away with her. His instructions were to not stop for anything and I’m sure it was a harrowing hour long drive. As I watched the trailer pull away,swaying with each mighty kick she gave and listening to her bellowing inside, I was relieved that I wasn’t the one making it.

She got to the vet and was stitched up in numerous places and x-rayed for other damage. Even with quilted shipping wraps and bell boots, she had many lacerations and had even fractured a splint bone. I can’t even imagine what damage she would have done without the wraps on. After she recovered from her anaesthesia, I was then faced with the problem of getting her home again. Thankfully, the vet loaned me the use of his 4 horse stock trailer. Gretchen was crosstied in the middle of it and tranquilized enough to make her drowsy, but not so much that she couldn’t keep her feet and I took her home. That was the most peaceful trailer ride I ever had with the old Sasquatch. It was also the last.

Some may say that there could have been a way to trailer her without so much distress; a different type of trailer, or having her stand diagonally, or rear-facing, maybe. The truth is, it just wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth the headache nor the financial distress of trailer repairs and vet bills, to keep experimenting. So Gretchen was grounded. Everybody was happier.

Gretchen was used in horse camp and a lot of lessons. She was a good horse for teaching kids and adults to be careful. If you were careless, she’d bite or kick. You had to be on your guard all the time. If you paid attention, you were okay, but let your mind wander for a second or get too complacent and she’d give you a swift reminder. She was also a great one for teaching someone to stand up for herself. If you backed down from Gretchen’s threats, she only got worse; the way a school bully preys on the weak and defenseless. If you gave as much of a threat right back at her, she’d respect you and settle down. If you coddled her or flinched, her power increased ten-fold and she became the wicked step-mother of all the most hideous fairy-tales.

Off the subject for the moment, but why was the step-mother always the wicked one in those stories? There were no wicked aunties or cousins, no evil father-in-laws or great-uncles. The step-mother got a bum rap.

I could write volumes about Gretchen’s exploits here on the farm. There was the time she trapped a student behind a tree. There was the time she tried to kill Rocket in the horse trailer, a half mile from home, and got hung up on the divider in the process so that I had to push her off of it. There was the time she ran away with a little girl in the field (all the school horses ran away that day) and the poor student ended up falling off Gretchen and onto a rock wall. For each of those times, there were more moments of her giving students a good ride in a lesson. For all of her quirks and disasters, I was fond of the cantankerous old mare.

She finally passed away at the age of 29 and she died the way she lived: on her own terms and making my life difficult. She passed away one evening after eating her dinner normally and giving no indication that it was her last meal. It is true that she was not in great health. She had Cushing’s, she was losing weight, her appetite wasn’t good, her teeth and eyesight were in poor condition and she was relatively feeble. She was discovered in the morning, dead in her paddock, with no signs of trauma or distress. It must have been a heart attack or aneurysm that took her quickly. I had a busy day planned with many important appointments and places to be that day, but it all had to be canceled so that I could arrange to have her buried.

Even after all of the times I cursed her, and all the times she hurt herself, I still grieved her passing. I accepted her for who she was and kept her until the end.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Doing More Than Riding

Here's another post that may get me in trouble. And when I say "may" I mean "will". It is not my intent to offend anyone, but someone, I'm sure, will take this the wrong way. Here goes nothing... Hold on just a minute, why do we say "here goes nothing"? What does that even mean? English is a weird language. Here goes the whole thing...

My particular favorite equestrian sport or discipline, is Dressage. There are people who will snort with defiance at the mere mention of the word. Others scoff at how "boring" it is. Some will lambaste Dressage aficionados for their participation. Dressage isn't for everyone, which is fine. Good riding and good horses are a pleasure to watch no matter their classification. The equine world is vast and varied and that is what makes it so interesting and entertaining. However, Dressage appeals to me personally, in a lot of ways.

I have never been the type of rider that was satisfied with just riding for riding's sake. Even as a young girl, riding my pony, Ivy, around town, I yearned to do something with her beyond just going for a ride. My Mom used to do her paper route with her horse. Oh how I wished I had a paper route! I wanted to ride my horse to the store, do a little shopping and ride home. I wanted to ride my horse to school. I wanted a job for my horse and I to do. It's not that I didn't enjoy riding, because I certainly did. Ivy was a wonderful little horse and we canvassed every inch of the neighborhood, exploring, trying out new trails, riding down the street, checking out the beaches, and seeing just how far we could get. She was game and I was looking for adventure. Yet, as time went by I found myself not just wanting to go for a ride, but wanting to work on something. I guess that's why I became a horse trainer and not just a horse rider.

When I started riding in local horse shows, that hunt for something more was satiated slightly. With competition came goals to meet. We did Western and English classes, jumping, games, equitation, trail, costume... everything that was offered. There was still something missing.

It wasn't until I truly started to understand Dressage that I became interested in pursuing it. Dressage is much more than just following a pattern. It's not even until relatively recently that I have come to appreciate Dressage thoroughly. For those that don't like it or have negative things to say, I have to point out that not all Dressage is done correctly. As in any equestrian event, there are people who take things too far, or in the wrong direction and it spoils the perception of the sport. And yes, I will admit that watching Dressage tests at a show, especially at the lower levels, can have about as much thrill as watching fingernails grow.

The appeal, for me, is in moving up the levels, advancing the horse's fitness and suppleness, and doing more than walk, trot and canter around the ring. I'd rather watch Dressage tests all day than watch a Western pleasure class. It's like watching the equine version of the Stepford Wives. I realize I am making a generalization here, because there are some really good Western pleasure horses. It just doesn't appeal to me. It would bore me to the point of having to bring a good book with me to read while I rode. The top Western pleasure horses all look like drones. They are beautiful animals but look like they've had lobotomies and are wearing concrete shoes. Please refrain from snacking me because I said that. It just isn't in my genetic material to be satisfied with riding a horse around and around and around going as slow as possible.

I think that with competition, the original design of the sport is lost. A Western pleasure horse is supposed to be a horse that you could comfortably ride all day long. With the modern Wp horses, it would take you all day to ride anywhere. Instead of showing horses that are comfortable to ride, they have made them slow enough that you could build a house of cards on top. Relaxation has been replaced with unresponsiveness. Instead of a horse that carries his head level with his body, the horses look like they can hardly carry their heads at all. It's not just in Wp that the competition has trumped the purpose.

Modern, competitive Dressage horses have undergone an evolution as well. The horses getting the high scores today are the ones showing exaggerated gaits. The gaits have become more important than the harmony and calmness that once was Dressage. Mistakes in tests, disobedience, even leaving out entire parts, is forgiven if the horse has spectacular gaits. It should not be so. But so it is.

Look at what has happened to the Tennessee Walking Horse. Here was a horse with a naturally smooth gait that could be ridden over uneven terrain and go great distances for many hours and the rider wouldn't feel like a tossed salad. Now, the gait has been outlandishly exaggerated through often cruel and inhumane methods to the point that it looks bizarre. Watching a "big lick" TWH makes me cringe. The horses don't look like horses anymore. They've become a kind of spastic kangaroo.

I do compete but not at the risk of my horse. If he needs a harsh bit, a tie-down, several inches of weighted pads on his feet, having his chin tucked down between his front legs, rowel spurs or anything else that causes him pain, then I'm not going to go to the show. I also like to go to shows where more is offered than just walk, trot, canter around the ring. That's why Road Hack is my favorite class, I get to WTC but also extend the trot and hand gallop. Once, I even got to ride in a Show Hack class which had collected walk, walk, walk on long reins, trot, collected trot, extended trot, canter, collected canter, extended canter, hand gallop, halt and back up. I was like a duck in water for that one.

My sport isn't perfect. There is a lot of undesirable stuff that happens through ignorance or pursuit of prizes. The root of Dressage, training a horse to be responsive, supple, well balanced and happy, is what I find intoxicating. I like my horses, eager, yet controllable; comfortable to ride, yet with expression to their gaits; calm but not dull, and well-balanced, yet maneuverable.

I'm sure someone reading this will be put out by something I have written ("Hey!! I'm a Western pleasure rider and I am definitely more interesting than fingernails!") but this is my blog, with my opinions and thoughts. I haven't meant to pick on anyone, but only to point out that some of our riding has gotten out of touch with its original intent, just like I got out of touch with the original point of this post.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

ABC's Of Training

I love training horses. Not every second of it, but when a horse learns to balance itself and a rider, and its natural beauty is allowed to show, that part is intoxicating. The process of getting there isn't beautiful. It can be downright ugly. Kind of like when I am trying to learn telemarks in my Viennese Waltz. There is tripping, tipping over, cringing, dizziness and all manner of ugliness going on. Then, I get it right and it is fluid and graceful and easy. It should be the same for the horse.

Some training methods are barbaric and demeaning to the horse. Horses have an amazing ability to adapt and learn and the path to getting there should not be riddled with brutality. I can't make a horse do anything, but I can make it possible for him to do something. It is my responsibility to see that the horse is allowed to do things correctly and that I have set him up for doing the right thing. It's never easy. There is a certain type of person that can ride green horses. That person is stubborn.

In order to work through issues of unbalance or resistance when training a horse, I have to be prepared to ride it out. The only way to get from point A to point C is through point B. Point B is like one of those passageways in an Indiana Jones movie with booby traps, pointed sticks, icky bugs and snakes. Knowing that there is treasure on the other side (or that getting to the other side will save my life) creates great determination on my part to stick with it. You can not just go magically from A to C. You just have to ride through.

Working with Nova these past 2 months has made me feel very much like Indiana Jones. So much so, that I may have to get myself a fedora. At first, she had issues with her mouth that made her hysterical whenever any pressure was applied to the bit. After a visit from the equine dentist and a lot of experimenting with bits, she became more comfortable. She still does weird things with her tongue sometimes, but she is very rideable and improving all the time. The sticking point was the canter.

In the canter she would brace her neck against the reins and bit so much that she couldn't turn and couldn't keep her balance. Her naturally arched neck became like a steel rod and the more she pulled on her reins the more she freaked out about the pressure of the bit until she couldn't stand it anymore and would stop and thrash. This part was all witnessed on the longe line because there was no way I was getting on her back when she had an issue like that. I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid.

Gradually, she gave brief glimpses of understanding that if she relaxed her neck, that everything worked out better. Once I saw that glimmer of hope, I started riding her in the canter. There were still steering issues and trouble with staying upright on turns but the only way for her to learn was to keep plugging away at it. We did little bits of cantering, then back to the trot to re-supple and reaffirm turning. Then tried a little more canter asking for just a hint of give in her iron like neck and jaw. Then back to the walk to relax and work on bending. There started to be moments in the canter when she would let go for a second, or we would turn a corner and I didn't grit my teeth and hold my breathe waiting for her to tip over completely.

Yesterday, Nova cantered circles in both directions with softness in her poll, jaw and neck. She was using her topline to balance instead of hauling herself around by her front legs and the underside of her neck. It was a good canter. Not a medal-winning canter, but a huge milestone for her. Once she trusted me enough to do what I was asking her to do, she actually found it much easier and more comfortable. There was no way to force her to that conclusion. If I had tried to force her she would have continued to battle and eventually hurt herself. Or me.

There were no tie-downs involved. No crank nosebands. I did use side reins, but ones with rubber "donuts" so that there was give to them. I worked with what Nova needed to do and did not ask her to fit into a training schedule that may have worked for other horses. It was rough going for a while and I spent as many hours thinking about what to do with her as actually doing it. When I first watched her cantering on the longe line, I thought, as I do with a lot of horses that come in with unusual issues, "How the heck am I going to fix that? This horse can't canter (stand still, jump, stop, relax....) at all." Then, I am always amazed at what a horse can do with a little guidance, time and patience.

I look at every horse and see its potential. Not every horse is going to go to the Olympics, or even a horse show at all, but in every horse is the potential to be elegant and cooperative. There are horses who, for whatever legitimate physical reason, will never be comfortable with a rider and those horses can not be trained and should not be trained to ride. The majority will be lovely willing partners with the right tack, good health care, the right feed, and training. Try to fix anything with aggression or force and you'll end up like one of those guys at the bottom of the pit impaled on a sharpened stick. No point C for you.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Born To Ride

When did you start riding? It's a question I'm asked often and a question I often ask. The answer, mine anyway, is complicated. Actual riding lessons began when I was 10 years old. Before that, I rode the dog, the ponies at the fair, the neighbors' horse (without permission), my bicycle (which was a horse in my imagination), stick horses and my bouncy horse, horses on guided trail rides, the mechanical horse outside the Kmart that you could ride if you put a quarter in the slot, carousel horses, and I sat on horses as a baby with my Mom when she rode. I once even rode a cow.

I think some people are just born to ride horses. Many, many people love to ride and are good riders, but there are some of us that are just made for it. It's what we live for and think about constantly. Certainly, some of my passion came from my Mom who had horses and rode, and still rides once in a while. With that influence, or maybe genetic material, I had a head start.

Horses were always the one thing I was sure of. Throughout my life, during strife, confusion, uncertainty, the one thing that I was consistently sure of was that I loved horses and that they were the balance for everything. That thriving obsession lost me more than one friend as those friends grew more well-roundedly with mainstream interests. I continued on in my pursuit of all things equine and along the way found friends who shared my interest, or at least put up with it.

My riding is something I have both taken seriously and taken for granted. As I started teaching others, it was frustrating at times when students didn't get it. When they couldn't feel what came so easily to me or when I couldn't put into words how to do something that was a second nature in my world, teaching became exasperating. Oddly enough, it took finding an interest in something non-horsey to put the learning path of others into a new light. It was when I started ballroom dance lessons and struggled with something that I desperately wanted to do, that I discovered an empathy for those learning to ride. My patience returned.

It's not that riding always came easily for me! I struggled heavily, especially through college, but I persevered. Determinedly and doggedly I pursued riding horses. I'm sure there were times when my instructors wished I would pursue something else. Backgammon, perhaps. Or knitting.

In the times when I have had to think about a new career, panic sets in, complete utter choking panic at the thought of not working with horses every day. My horses are parts of me. They are like 1000 pound external vital organs, just more hairy and less squishy.

I do worry about what will happen when I can't ride horses anymore. When I am so feeble and old and decrepit (which could be next week at the rate I'm going) that I can not physically ride horses or care for them anymore, what will I do then? I'll be back where I started, reading horse books, looking at pictures, collecting model horses, but not riding the dog. Or the cow. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Wheel of Ponies

It's a common sight, the "wheel of ponies", at the fair. Not a pretty sight, but a common one. The ponies are pretty but the job is miserable. There are, however, some pony ride operations that are concerned with the ponies well-being and have leaders for the ponies and enough ponies that they can be rotated throughout the day. I worked at one such operation as my first Summer job. The pony ride pavilion was a roadside attraction and even though the ponies were hitched to the wheel, an over-sized wagon wheel type structure with a slot for each pony, there was a grass paddock also, so that only 3 of 4 ponies were working at a time. During the day, I switched out ponies from one place to another. No pony had a shift more than 2 hours long. I loved that job. Some of the ponies loved that job. Some did not. The deal with the wheel is that whether or not a pony likes or wants to do his job, in the wheel, he gets dragged along or pushed from behind regardless of his motivation. The other ponies do the pushing or pulling. My favorite pony, Ruby, arrived each morning prancing on her way to the pavilion snorting, "Bring on the kids!"

With my supervision, the ponies were pampered, having their hair done, getting extra brushing, having frequent breaks and snacks, sprayed with repellent to protect them from mosquitoes dwelling at the nearby pond, and I made sure that kids too heavy for the ponies were politely told that the ponies were for small children only. Not all ponies fare as well. Some pony wheels are set up without a cover for shade or the ponies stay on the wheel for many hours each day. As a small child, I was oblivious to the plight of the ponies and could only revel in my joy of sitting on a real live pony, petting it's warm neck and whispering to it during my 2 minute ride, being completely sure that the pony recognized me as an expert equestrian. From the photos of those rides, it looks as though the ponies, while not in any way bursting with joy as Ruby was, at least were in good health.

Even though the pony wheel is a mundane life, for some ponies it is the only job they could have. Not all little-enough-for-the-wheel ponies have enough training to be suitable mounts for any other riding. It's hard to find a job for such small animals, and ponies , like all horses, need to have a source of exercise for their mental and physical health. Exercise does not have to be torturous, however. Before allowing children to contribute to the existence of pony wheels, please do a quick inspection of the ponies' condition. Are the ponies bony? They should not have hips like cows or have visible ribs. Conversely, neither should they resemble fuzzy manatees. Being obese is as bad for ponies as being underweight. Are the ponies under cover, protected from rain and sun? Don't be afraid to ask if the ponies get breaks from the wheel and for water. Do they look healthy in general with clear, open eyes, clean hair and skin, noses free of discharge and well-trimmed hooves? The hoof edges should be smooth, not splayed or ragged, and the hooves short, growing relatively straight down from the leg. If they are long and elf-shoe-ish, they need trimming. As I politely mentioned before, pony rides are for small children. If your child is taller than the pony, then find an alternative ride. A child weighing more than 80 pounds may be too heavy for the ponies. Some larger, sturdier ponies can carry over 100 pounds comfortably, but not your average pony-ride pony. For the ride, please instruct your child to sit quietly and not to kick the pony or squiggle about in the saddle.

Ponies are cute and fluffy but they are most definitely not playthings. They need to be treated with respect and dignity as should be all living beings. Except mosquitoes. I don't think anyone would fault you for disrespecting a mosquito.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

After the Race is Run

Most ordinary people (meaning non-horse people) have seen, or are at least aware of, horse racing. Between the relatively recent movies of Seabiscuit and Secretariet and the annual Triple Crown races that air on broadcast tv every Spring, there has been horse racing in the public quite a lot. If nothing else, it's fairly uncomplicated to the observer (first one across the line wins) so it doesn't require an educated eye to know what is going on.

Locally, we have our own racetrack, though this is a little different sort of horse racing. The Kentucky Derby and the ilk of the aforementioned race scenarios are run on a flat track (lacking jumps which would make it a steeplechase) with horses ridden at the gallop. In harness racing, the horses are driven with the jockeys in a sulky (small carriage) and travel at either a trot or pace. Trot and pace are similar 2 beat gaits, the difference being that the trot is diagonal (opposite legs moving in unison) and the pace is lateral (legs on the same side moving in unison).

Enough of the vocabulary. The impetus behind this piece are the ones we don't see. For every horse that makes it to the track, there are a hundred more that don't. The odds of breeding, raising and training a horse to the point that it can race successfully are about as good as the odds that Matt Damon will drop everything, move to Maine, marry me and pay my mortgage.

Where do the horses go that either aren't fast enough, not hardy enough, or maybe were successful but are at the point of retirement? They have to go somewhere. Some, are good enough or have good enough blood lines to continue on as breeding stock. There are horses, specifically the geldings, that are not suitable for perpetuating the line. There are organizations devoted to finding homes for those horses. CANTER (www.canterusa.org) is one. Another one that has the best racehorse rescue organiation name ever, is Rerun (www.rerun.org). For the Standardbred horses, there is the Standardbred Pleasure HOrse Organization (www.sphomaine.net) or the American Standardbred Adoption Program (www.4thehorses.com) ASAP! Get it? That's a good one.

The Thoroughbreds looking for their next job have a bit of an advantage to the Standardbreds because they have already had a rider on their back and they have been trained to trot, canter and gallop under saddle. The Standardbred is adamantly discouraged from cantering or galloping in a race so it can take a little more time and knowledge on the riders part, to bring that gait out of the horse. However, the Standardbred does know how to pull a carriage so someone looking for a driving horse would be all set in that department.

Our own University of Maine has a program for retired Standardbred racehorses. Students in the program work with the horses to re-train them to be riding horses and then the horses are sold to suitable homes to live out the rest of their lives as companion or competition horses. The horses are donated to the school and then are either put into the re-training program or are selected as good candidates for breeding. The University owns one stallion and each year a few select mares are bred and the offspring sold as potential race horses.

If it weren't for these types of organizations and programs, those horse not fit for racing would face a very uncertain future and unfortunately, there aren't enough rescues to save every one. There are still hundreds of horses that end up at auctions or feed lots and not in caring homes. It's a sobering thought and, frankly, a depressing one too. Not every horse can be saved. Kudos to those that do take in an ex-racehorse or work with an organization that strives to find homes for them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'll Show You

We are having a horse show at my stable in a few weeks. And by we, I mean me. Thankfully, there are many of the stable patrons who help out with the thousands of tasks involved in running a horse show, without them there wouldn't be one. However, the whole thing was my idea and regardless of potential hindsight, I will go forward with the shebang.

The very best thing about running my own show, is that I get to make the rules. As much as possible, I try to stick to the standard horse show regulations and requirements. All the classes will come in the ring and go left then right. There will be a judge. English riders will have English clothes and tack, Western riders will have Western clothes and tack. The things that I can shake up a little are just some things which I feel ought to be allowed, or not allowed, at shows.

All of our riders will have helmets on. Yes, even the Western ones. Yes, even the little princess on a unicorn in the costume class. Even the showmanship handlers. Everyone. I, and my insurance company, feel that it is a small inconvenience to pay for your ability to walk and talk. No one will incur brain damage on my shift. I apologize if the rule infringes on your right to have neat hair and a coordinated outfit.

As for the tack, as specified, English riders have English stuff and Western riders have Western stuff. Jumping is considered an English class and horses should be tacked as such. You wouldn't think that would have to be mentioned, but not all of us are horse-show proficient. However, being just over the rebel line, I do allow snaffle bits on Western horses (regardless of age), hackamores in either discipline and flash nosebands on English horses. These rules came from trying to keep the welfare of the horse in mind. The flash noseband thing can go wrong though, if the noseband isn't adjusted properly or the rider has rough hands, but I'm taking a chance on that being a kinder gentler option to a strong bit. We'll see how that pans out.

We are offering four "jumping" classes. I am a firm believer that walk/trot riders should not be jumping so we have a ground poles class for them. All other jumping classes are for canter riders. For goodness sake, if a rider can't handle a horse in the canter then she certainly shouldn't be sailing through the air with one.

In addition to our rule deviations, we also step outside the box for leadline class. We have leadline classes for all ages. That means the cheruby 4 year olds can have their limelight as well as the boyfriends of some teenage girl riders or Moms & Dads even. It's a lot of fun and a chance for other family members to get off the bench.

Other than that, we offer standard horse show classes, Equitation, Pleasure, Showmanship, Costume, Road Hack and some more. Of course we have Road Hack! It's my favorite!

Horse shows give ribbons or rosettes for prizes and occasionally you get a trophy too. At our show, we give ribbons through sixth place (and if there are 7 or 8 riders in a class then we have "ties" for 6th place) and first place riders also get a small prize. My idea again. I'd rather have something useful that I could take home rather than a trophy so our first place finishers get brushes, trinkets, chocolate bars (yes, chocolate bars are Very useful), and other little items.

If only life were as easy as hosting a horse show. If I think tax forms should be different, I'd just make up my own. If the question on a test doesn't make sense to me, I'd write a new one. If the jeans are over-priced in the department store, I'd mark them down. Most importantly, chocolate bars would be the reward for every job well done.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hands On Activity

Jolly reminded me tonight, of why it is always important to run your hands over your horse daily. Whether or not you ride or even groom your horse daily, a brief run down with the palms of your hands can give you a lot of information about that horse's condition. In the Winter time, I make it a habit to run my hands across my horses' barrels to check for weight loss which may not be visible under a heavy hair coat. However, that tactile inspection is just as important in the Summertime.

I took a few seconds tonight to run my hands over Jolly's coat and noticed he had finally decided it was a good idea to shed out the last of his Winter hair (Jolly is 31 years old and slowing down in a lot of aspects) so I got out his curry comb and tackled what was left of his shaggy-ness. As the hair flew (and dirt and dried sweat and dandruff) and I worked my way back to his hindquarters *queasiness alert - anyone with a low threshold for yucky stuff might want to skip ahead* I noticed a wretched smell and a rough patch at the top of his croup. Further inspection revealed an old bite wound that had scabbed over and underneath the scab was a congealed mess of puss. Ew.

It wasn't a big deal, I scrubbed it out, cleaned it up and dressed it with some ointment. It was relatively superficial so he will be just fine. It was a good reminder to not be in too much of a hurry when going through the motions of daily handling. I always do a visual once-over of each horse that I handle during the day, checking eyes, noses, legs, and general demeanor for any signs of trouble but it's the touch that tells so much more.

I did not see the goopy mess on Jolly's croup because it was above eye level, but also camouflaged under hair and dirt. To be all NCIS about it, it was the smell of the thing that I noticed first, but even without that, I would have found it with my fingers anyway. Grosser that way, but it would have happened.

Regardless of which of the senses discovers something amiss with your horse first, your fingers can be very forthcoming with needed information directly afterward. If you find a swollen leg, exploration via touch will give you vital information. Does the swelling "pit", or leave an indentation when you press into it? Is it cool or hot? Is there crust or peeling skin associated? Does the horse flinch to the touch? Is there a wound (possibly hidden under the hair and dirt and harboring some nasty goo)?

Your fingers will tell you the condition of a horse's skin and coat - is it greasy? Dry? Itchy? Rough? Sticky? If he has lumps and bumps on his skin - are they crusty? Symmetrical? Itchy? Smooth? Hot? Oozing? If your horse is lame, you can check for heat in the hoof or digital pulses. You fingers are needed to check the heart rate by timing the pulse in the jaw. You can press the horse's gums with your fingertips to get a capillary refill time. A horse's ears will very often be hot when it has a fever. If you are so inclined, you can check your horse's teeth to see if they are loose, have sharp edges or may in fact be missing. If you are not inclined, you can use your fingers to dial the phone and call the equine dentist.

Not only are your hands important diagnostic tools but they communicate information to the horse as well. From a touch, the horse can tell if you are timid, angry, excited or weary. Giving the horse a hearty scratch along the neck and over the withers is an excellent way to make friends or soothe an agitated horse. Pressure from our hands is way of asking the horse to move forward, backward, sideways, lift a leg or lower his head. If your horse does not respond to that pressure, you use your fingers to dial the phone and call the horse trainer. My number is in the book.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Horse By Any Other Name

Fourteen is the age when I became a horse owner for the first time. Since then, I have owned 14 horses (I am now 37) but I have only had the opportunity to give a horse a name once. 13 horses all had names when I got them but Pooh Bear was purchased at an auction and he had no history, other than a quip from the family who owned him briefly beforehand, that went, "He don't want to lope too much." Before I even legally owned Pooh Bear, I had decided on his name and it turned out to suit him perfectly. He was orange-ish, and rather round in the middle which is why I thought of the name. He also lived up to the label by being really fond of eating and not so fond of doing anything physically demanding.

Some of my horses had names that they kept their whole lives and some had theirs changed before I got them. I never changed any of my horse's names other than to give a few of them a show name. Jolly showed as Just Like Eeyore, April is Wait A Minute, and Ivy was Little Lamzydivy. The other horses all had show names too. Except Gretchen. She was always just Gretchen. Like Madonna, she only needed one name.

All of those names came fairly easily to me and suited their horses perfectly. With the new horse, Dundee, I'm having a harder time coming up with a show name that suits him and maybe has something to do with his barn name.

During my first ride on Dundee, I was thinking about the potential he had and that he was a diamond in the rough so Rough Diamond came to me as a show name. Then, I remembered that there was a Breyer Horse called Rough Diamond and I didn't want to plagiarize. From the first time I heard the horse's name, Crocodile Dundee was there as a consideration. Not the most original name, but I did really like the movie (the first one) when it came out so maybe I could use it if nothing better comes along.

Continuing with the Hollywood theme, I have found myself calling him Dunder Mifflin as in the fictitious paper company used for the tv program "The Office". It's a good show, I like watching it, but I don't really know if I want to present my horse as an office supply store. That's almost as off-kilter as presenting him as a rugged Australian crocodile hunter.

Dundee is very low-key 90% of the time but has shown moments of hysteria. They are short-lived bursts of energy, but enough to keep him from being a complete couch-potato. He's an attractive horse, but not glamorous like Raffles. Dundee is like Robert Redford with just a touch of Rodney Dangerfield.

Even though he's named for a town in Scotland, Dundee is from Ireland, so I guess that makes him Gaelic not Celtic. Maybe there's fodder for a good name in the Gaelic language. However, there are also towns named Dundee in Florida, Oregon, Illinois and New York so I could use a name that references oranges, hazelnuts, deep-dish pizza or big apples.

There's no rule that a horse's barn name and show name have to have some sort of recognizable connection. For example, my Morgan colt was named Valleybrook's Mr. Showoff and called Norman. Dundee's show name does not have to correlate with his place of origin, his color, personality, history or even the letter D. It would be neat if his name did have some kind of relationship to him, but it's not required. Maybe, I could pick a random bunch of words and string them together and pretend it's some hipster kind of thing, so poetic that mainstream people won't get it.

In time, a good descriptive name will come to me. In the meantime, I will entertain any reader suggestions should you care to share them. Dundee is on the light side of chestnut with a small white star. He has a big head. He's a little tubby but has a nice tail. He has a cowlick in his mane and it's white. He's a good, but not great, mover and jumps nicely (so far - has only longed over crossrails). He is bossy with the other geldings and has the scars to prove it. He originally came from Ireland, but I got him from Massachusetts. He's lazy-ish but has a spook too. That's about all I know about him so far. After this week, when I have some lessons on him with my trainer, I'll know him quite a bit better.

Meanwhile, he will be just Dundee. Oh! Wait! I think there's something in that... like, a play on "just dandy"... Hmmm.... That could work. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pogo Sticks, Egg Beaters and Doing Your Nails

When I wrote the last post about playing with Breyer horses, I remember how one of the most important criteria for whether or not a model horse got a lot of play time, was how well it could "canter". If the horse had the right configuration it could easily be held and rocked from hind legs to front legs as it cantered across the floor. Ginger, from the Black Beauty set, was probably the all time best cantering Breyer horse.

Raffles is my Ginger. He has a super easy canter that can collect and lengthen and is easy to sit. He has a big stride but it is effortless. He doesn't lurch. Ivy had a lovely canter also. One lady who rode her in lessons said "You could ride Ivy's canter and do your nails at the same time.". Ivy and I cantered almost every where we went in our younger days. While Raffles and Ivy are both good cantering horses, of the two, Ivy was definitely the faster one. She could gallop! She'd stretch out and get real low to the ground (at 14.2, she didn't have far to go) and tear across the fields or down the dirt roads with very little urging on my part. Raffles likes to think he's fast, but he's too chicken to go full out. In order to get him to gallop, I have to have someone riding in front of him so that he has someone to follow. He'll go just as fast as the other horse, but no faster. Ivy would get in front in stay there.

I've always loved to canter. In photos of my early riding lessons, there are pictures of me cantering around with my toes turned right out, like wings, on the wrong lead but with a giant grin plastered on my face. Years later, after riding hundreds of horses at the canter, it's still fun. What's even more fun than an all out gallop, is that moment when a green horse finds its balance and canters easily under saddle for the first time. The initial canter attempts are not for the faint of heart. There is little steering, lots of leaning around turns and not a lot of speed control. It's just a process though, and with patience and guidance, the green horses get the idea very quickly.

Riding Image yesterday, I had one of those moments when he got it, and the canter was balanced. He had self-carriage and I had steering and speed control. Moments like that are what I strive for and to get one is always an affirmation of the worth of Dressage training. Normally, Image canters like a runaway Greyhound bus. Not because he wants to, but just because he is big so he has miles of legs to organize, and he's a little goofy. During his ride yesterday, when I was actually trying to get something else, I got collected canter. It was lovely, easy and light and controllable. I don't know that I could have done my nails, but it was certainly a nice ride.

Earlier in the day, I had ridden Alex. Alex is much greener than Image and much less athletically gifted. When Alex canters, it's like riding a pogo stick down a steep hill. Alex is built a little downhill so it is harder work for him to have a balanced canter. He's trying and getting better, but anyone trying to do their nails is going to need buckets of nail polish remover.

Another horse I've been working with has a terrible time organizing herself into the canter. Venus is an ex-harness racer who was a pacer. She now has a beautiful trot but has not been able to do a true, 3-beat continuous canter under saddle or on the longe line. It is absolutely a complete myth that Standardbreds can not canter. All of the other Standardbreds I have ever ridden have cantered quite nicely. Standardbreds are not genetically inclined to have a good quality canter, but they are capable. Except Venus. She has cantered nicely in the paddock so I know it is possible for her, but after several years of work, she has yet to canter more than 5 strides in a row under saddle. And that was only once that she got 5. She has 4th level Dressage trot work, but does not have a canter. Or at least, not a recognizable one. She thinks she is cantering and she thinks she is doing a terrific job of it. She expresses absolute joy and satisfaction with her performance. "Look how well I am cantering!", she says as she flies like a manic eggbeater around the ring. Her front legs are cantering. The hind legs are doing their own thing. They aren't even both doing the same thing. Sometimes, her hind legs are pacing or trotting, but most often, one leg is going like a piston while the other leg occasionally gets left behind and hangs in mid-air for an extra stride. It's completely ridiculous to watch but the feeling of earnest concentration she exhibits makes it (almost) impossible to laugh at her.

Venus has been able to gallop successfully, but I have not been able to help her organize herself for a canter. I have tried every method and combination of aids to try and help her, but she still goes skipping and churning and being fantastically proud of herself. "My goodness,", she snorts after cantering practice, "that was quite a good job wasn't it? I went very fast and did not fall over or anything! I'm pretty sure that was my best job yet."

Venus may never find a true canter but she is loved by her person just the same. Not every horse will have a nail-doing canter just as not every person can be a champion gymnast or a brilliant artist or a perfect-pitch singer. But we are all loved just the same.

Friday, June 24, 2011

It All Started With One Palomino

Even as a child, I was obsessed with horses. My bookshelf was filled with Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley and other horsey authors. My bed was buried beneath plush ponies, and my toy box (when I actually put toys in it) contained my collections of small plastic horses, medium sized flocked toy horses, Barbie's big horses, a green truck and horse trailer, and My Little Ponies among other things. The gigantic dollhouse my grandmother made for me became a stable at one point. There was an almost Shetland Pony sized ride-on plastic horse (named Ginger) in my room. Even stuff that wasn't a horse, became a horse once I got my hands on it. The marbles that I played with at the neighbor's house became a herd of wild horses and my bike was a horse. When I wasn't playing with horses, I was being a horse, and would trot around tossing my mane, whinnying and snorting.

On one birthday, my cake topper was a palomino rearing horse, my first Breyer horse. This palomino quickly became a favorite due to his life-likeness but his rearing stance made him difficult to play with. If he was tipped on to all fours, he did make a plausible race horse but the fragility of the angle of his legs caused him to have an early retirement and even the application of prosthetics. That little horse was the start of a collection, a portion of which I still own.

The Palomino was soon followed by a trio that I got for Christmas one year. There was a Clydesdale Stallion, a bay mare and a Shetland Pony. The three bays were deemed a family, even though I knew at that early age that ponies were not babies (but one can pretend) and were dubbed Prince, Lightning and Sugar. Each of them came in a cardboard box and inside the box was a fold-out pamphlet with pictures of all of the available Breyer horses. I was immediately hooked and pored over those pamphlets for hours.

My neighbor got some Breyer horses as gifts too, so I would go to her house with my little herd and we could play all day in the hallway upstairs in her house or in her living room on the braided rug. The braided rug made an excellent race track but it was hard to get the horses to stand up when they weren't racing. The hallway was unfinished plywood so it was better for keeping the herd on their feet and had great acoustics for the plastic-y hoof beats.

As my collection grew, I had to move up to carrying them to the neighbor's house in a laundry basket. I'd lug my horses, all tumbled together, across the yards to play. Our play horses most often became wild horses or domestic horses that escaped to become wild. We divided them up into families and each of the horses had a name and personality. Soon, my cousin got involved with Breyer horses and then the two of us spent almost every moment together playing with them. At sleepovers we'd play until my Dad would finally bang on the door and growl "Stop clomping those horses and go to bed!"

Clomp them, we certainly did. They raced and fought, escaped from barns and wild horse hunters with helicopters, and had grand adventures. Not without some casualties though. There were occasional broken legs with different versions of repair (everything from Scotch tape, to Super-Glue) a few broken ear tips and tails, but most of the damage came from rubs. The paint on the horses rubbed off on prominent places and the white plastic showed through. The rubbing occurred from the clashes of fighting, and travel damage (laundry baskets have no airbags) and hoof wear and tear from so much galloping and clomping.

As I got older and became responsible for buying my own additions to the collection, I also became more conscious of the care of the horses. When traveling, they were now wrapped in clothes in my suitcase or laundry basket to protect them slightly. They no longer fought with such vigor or raced with such abandon. I experimented with making tack to domesticate them more and with repainting battle-scarred horses. The collecting became more of the thrill than the play. I still named each and every horse and categorized them by breeds, colors, families, sizes, and alphabetically by name. The names became more glamorous and the horses each had "show names" and "barn names". Prince, Lightning and Sugar gave way to Springfield Fox (Foxy), PK Paco Boy (Paco) and Whispering Pines' Tipperary (Tippy). Some of the names were in jest (Zip It Kid and Little Brown Colt), some were named after real horses I knew (Impressive Chief, Tapeka), people I thought worthy (Andy's Birthday Girl, Justa Summer Squash) or in honor of fun events or special occasions (GP Says Sell It, Rum Tum Tugger) and then there were the ones I got as Christmas gifts that I gave holiday themed names (Yukon Cornelius, Stocking Stuffer, Christmas Fawn, Little St. Nick, Blitzen, Gabriel, King Wencelus...). Another good friend, who also collected Breyer horses, would even let me name some of hers.

Naming them became half the thrill of the collecting and I began keeping a notebook of potential names. To keep myself awake during class in school or long drives, I would either come up with new names or try to list all of my horses. As I approached the triple digit numbers for the herd, that became quite a feat. Soon, I had to resort to tags to keep all of their names straight. The ones that were major characters (Mikal Midnight, Lady Phase, Little Gal...) during play were never forgotten, but some of the newer ones that I acquired during adulthood and spent their days on the shelf, I was a bit fuzzy on. Shamefully, I would have to peek at their hang tags when I couldn't recall the name.

During my childhood, some of those horses seemed as real to me as any flesh and blood horse. I could see them cantering across a meadow, walking about with the wind in their manes, mares patiently watching the colts and fillies play, and I could swear that their black-painted eyes twinkled with life. For a while I was satisfied with the collecting. My motto was "It's not a matter of having too many horses, it's a matter of not having enough shelves." Then there came a shift, as it states in a diary I kept at about 5th grade, "I would trade all of my Breyer horses for one real horse!". Now, I have a stable full of real horses and my poor neglected Breyer horses, what is left of more than 300 models at one time, sit on their shelves gathering dust. Every once in a while, I take them down and dust them off and rearrange them (so they get to have new neighbors) but mostly they just stand as reminders of a time when possibilities were endless and I was only limited by imagination.

My notebook of horse names still exists, I have about 100 Breyer horses left after giving some away and selling others, but my days of clomping horses around on the floor are long gone. Now I spend my days with my real horses trying to teach them how to not clomp around, fight or race. My real horses are messier, more expensive, and much more trouble than my plastic herd. There is no way, however, that I would ever trade my real horses for 1, or 300, or all of the Breyer horses in the world.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hair Today Gone Tomorrow

Human beings are always trying to get rid of hair in some places and add it to others. This goes for men, women and their horses. What is it about the natural growth of hair that makes it distasteful and causes us to act contrarily to how our bodies operate? Don't get me wrong, I shave my legs and wish that the hair were thicker and longer on my head, so I'm not saying everyone doing it is wrong. Just weird.

Throughout the history of horsemanship, the grooming details of hair arrangement has undergone some drastic shifts. At one barbaric point, it was fashionable to "dock" a horse's tail to about six inches. A horse has a tail bone at least 12 inches long, usually more, so that meant chopping off a good portion of bone, skin & muscle. This practice is still seen in some Draft breeds although now it is done out of ease of management rather than as a vogue cause. Still barbaric, however.

Now, people go to great lengths to create a tail on a horse that is lush and long, sometimes even to the point of dragging on the ground. There are false extensions that can be added. There are miracle ointments and topical sprays that guarantee hair growth. There are even methods of keeping tails wrapped in socks, bandages, panty hose and special tail bags to protect the investment of the growing tail.

A horse being prepped for a show can simultaneously have it's mane pulled (thinned and shortened by pulling out the long hairs), a false extension added to its tail, the hair on its white socks clipped off and then replicated with a powdery spray, it's whiskers on the muzzle and around the eyes shaved off and a buzz cut given to the horse's ears and jaw. Again, trying to get rid of hair where it wants to grow and adding it to places where it doesn't.

Not all people fall into the equine hairdresser category. There are horse people who could care less about the horse's hair and let it be as it naturally grows. There are also people who fall in between. I'm in between. I do some clipping, but I draw the line at whiskers. The practice of taking off a horse's whiskers is atrocious. Whiskers aren't just wiry hairs, they are important sensory tools. Removing them doesn't render a horse senseless, but it does take away that little bit of warning to the eyes and muzzle that danger approacheth.

My horses that don't go to shows, keep the majority of their hair. I keep bridle paths clipped so that haltering is neater and sometimes, if it is very muddy, I clip the long fetlock hair to prevent the skin condition called scratches. There is a pony who doesn't shed all of her hair in the Summer due to a metabolic syndrome, so she gets a full body clip in the Summer. Otherwise if the hair grows on the horse, it stays on the horse. For horse shows, I clip fetlocks, bridle paths (a modest 2 inches) and the long fuzzy hairs on the outside of the ears. I also pull manes a little, but finish them up with scissors. Pulled manes are then braided. I do not take off whiskers or the hair inside the horses ears. Clipping those areas is unnecessary and detrimental to the horse's well being.

My horses have won classes at all types of shows and many types of classes with their whiskers on and hair in their ears. Maybe, for classes I didn't win, the fact that my horse's whiskers weren't shaved was a deciding factor. I guess if that is what it takes to win, then I don't want to.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Retiring Raffles

The story of Gretchen will continue at another time so stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, I'm preoccupied thinking about some upcoming horse shows, the last horse shows I will have with Raffles. Raffles is 25 years old now and still lively, sound, and athletic but I decided to retire him from shows while he is still competitive. It's not an easy decision because I look forward to showing him every year. Once I finally found a competition atmosphere that suited him, showing was a lot of fun.

We don't always do well at the shows. There have been a lot of classes in which Raffles performed at his best but the judge preferred a different type of horse. It was frustrating and discouraging at times to not get recognition for my horse's performance but that's all a part of horse shows. The judge is going to have an opinion and his or her own predilections about horses. The horses I compete against are varied, everything from Saddlebreds to Friesians to Quarter Horses and many more breeds in between. A judge who enjoys watching a Saddlebred high-stepping around, barely contained, breathing fire and rolling its eyes, will place one of those over an earth-bound, shuffling, Quarter Horse. Both horse may put in an equally acceptable performance for its breed standard but in an Open class, the judge gets to make a decision.

Getting back on track now... the judging doesn't always go in my favor but when it does, it is a wonderful feeling. The horses at these shows are of very high quality and for my horse to fit in, is like being a member of a country club (only with less golf and more hair).

Honestly, the fun of camping out with my horse for the weekend is half of the reason I like to go. For a weekend, it's just me and Raffles. The situation is more of a rock-star and his personal assistant, however. Over the years, Raffles has become a bit of a celebrity and people will stop by his stall to say hello and tell me how much they enjoy watching him. Not all comments are given in admiration, occasionally, I catch a sour grapes comment that ruffles my feathers, but it's all part of horse shows. For the most part, people are very interested in him (he's usually the only Warmblood there) and complimentary about his performance.

Lately, my son has been joining me at the shows, now that he's old enough to not need constant supervision, and my Mom has come along to some shows as well making it a more of a family event. Sometimes my friends and students will come out to watch Raffles and cheer us on too. As meaningful as that is, I think the most touching moment I've ever had with Raffles was when we were on our own.

It was a crummy weekend anyway, with rain and cold, but then added to that was the addition of a break-up. Steering away from the melodrama, I'll just say that I was sad and lonely on top of cold, wet and not placing particularly well that day. I stood hunched up in my soggy raincoat in Raffles stall (out of the rain for a minute) watching the other classes going on in the ring and may have even been dealing with tears, but that could have just been the rain. I was aware of Raffles behind me and sometimes he will put his head over my shoulder and pull me in towards him to see if I have a cookie. This time was different. He stood very close to me, with his head down by my cheek. He inched closer until his eyelashes brushed the side of my face. Like the "butterfly kisses" I used to give my son when he was a baby, Raffles stayed there for several minutes and every time he blinked, his eyelashes tickled my cheek.

Raffles is a tall horse so he really had to keep his head low to do that. He has never been an affectionate horse so the act surprised me. Even when he was friendly, it was only an effort to mooch another treat. I didn't want that moment to end but eventually the spell was broken and he went back to eating hay and I moved off to try and restore the circulation to my numb with cold fingers and toes.

The small moment that we shared was more meaningful than any of the ribbons we won. It was a moment when Raffles connected to me because he wanted to, not because I asked him to. It was exactly what I needed at that time and for some reason, the big show-off cast off his tough guy persona and was cuddly. Just for a moment though. But that was enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No One Will Give You An Education, You Have To Take It

My education is a continuous process so I can never say "I've gotten a good education.". It's not done and never will be done. What I can say, is that I have taken what ever I can from every opportunity I've had, to study horses, and I know enough to know that I have still more to learn.

As a kid, I would ride any and every horse, especially if it was a horse known to be difficult. It started with the horse that the neighbors owned and lived out behind our house. The barn was kind of tucked back in the woods, not visible from any where, which made it very convenient for little horse fiends to do some sneaky riding. *The following story is in no way a recommendation, or something to be emulated because it's a wonder I survived (plus it was totally illegal). I rode that horse. With no permission, no knowledge, no supervision, no tack and some may say, no survival instinct, I rode that horse. I would tempt the horse (a biggish Morgan gelding) over to the fence with Ritz crackers, and then, ninja-like, slide onto his back from the top rail. He would then go racing through the trees while I clung like a monkey to his back. He must have recognized my monkey-ness because he routinely tried to return me to my native habitat by scraping me off on low tree branches. My surreptitious riding wasn't discovered until I decided to let my fellow horse-fiend cousin in on the fun, and took her over to ride the horse too. I swore her to strictest confidence which lasted as long as it took for her to get back home. The first words out of her mouth, when we casually strolled into the house, were "I rode a horse!". My mom, knowing the horse and knowing his temperment was shocked that I had done such a thing (and lived) but was surprisingly light on the punishment. She told me to never do that again and that was it.

When I was 10, I started riding lessons and then had to quit them at 14 when Mom and I got our own horses. At 15, I started teaching the neighborhood kids to ride on my horse, and got a job working pony rides. Then at 16, I started working at a riding stable. It was there, that I was exposed to all sorts of different horses and made it a goal to ride every one of them at least once. That was a goal accomplished with the exception of the little Shetlands that I could have carried easier than I could have ridden. College was an Equine program and fancier horses that offered more challenges. I continued my trend of choosing to ride the more difficult horses but quickly found a favorite and then really wanted to ride him all the time. I couldn't ride him with any grace or skill but I loooooved him and struggled to learn how to ride him correctly.

While in college, there were opportunities offered to all the equine students to attend events, volunteer, compete, or ride in clinics. If there was a list I could put my name on, I did it. I took every chance to do something with horses that was available and put effort into doing everything I did. If only I could say as much about my Economics class. We all have our specialty.

Everything I learned I took home and told to my Mom and the little girls in the barn and my riding instructor and my friends I went riding with. There was so much cool stuff out there that I had not even been aware of and wanted to share with everyone else. Needless to say, I did not share my Economics knowledge, mostly because I didn't retain any.

Now, most of my learning comes from the horses I ride and work with. I take lessons when I can but learn also from the riders I teach. There are books, videos and of course the internet (which can be a source of information and mis-information equally) for tutelage. The deal is, though, that you have to want it, go and get it, retain it, and use it; not everything, but the stuff that makes sense for you and works for you. Even though I did a report and oral presentation of Combined Driving Events, I couldn't recite, right now, the scoring system. It was interesting to learn, but I didn't continue to use that information because it didn't apply to my sport or career choice.

Other than Economics class, I gleaned whatever I could from my college experience and squeezed every drop out of what I could learn about horses. As an instructor and trainer, it's my job to help other riders and horses to be more balanced, more effective and happier. If I ever think I'm done, than it will be over. I still want to ride that next horse. Unless my Mom tells me not to.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gretchen In The Beginning

Sometimes, I have an opinion on an issue or a training topic that I feel could benefit other equestrians and sometimes I just feel like telling stories about horses I have known. Today, I feel storytelling-ish.

Gretchen is a horse that no one in their right mind would, on purpose, own and lovingly take care of. That is probably why she had 6 different owners during her 30 years of life. She spent the last 12 of them with me. Gretchen was a Thoroughbred/Hanoverian mare, bay, 16.2 hands tall, an attractive horse, a good mover but a nasty wretch. Of course, she had moments when she was pleasant, but they were elusive.

The tale I have been told of Gretchen begins at the farm where she was bred; a place where the young horses spent their first year or two at pasture, growing, moving freely and socializing. As they reached the age of 2, they were brought in to the barn to begin their training. If they needed a bit more growing time,they went back out for another year. Gretchen was one that went back out. At 3, it was deemed that she needed yet another year, she wasn't quite ready to begin work. At 4, she still needed of more time. This continued until she was 6. The mare basically ran loose until she was 6. This is what I attribute to most of her belligerence. The rest just comes from her having a screw loose.

Gretchen had some good Dressage training under saddle as a young horse but a problem was discovered with her stifle joint (the equivalent of a human knee) which sporadically would lock up. In the horse, the ability to lock that patella is what allows them to sleep standing up. As useful as the endowment is when sleeping, it is not welcome when the horse needs to to trot. Gretchen underwent a surgery to permanently disable the locking mechanism so that she could continue her career as a riding horse. The surgery was successful which meant that her stifles would no longer catch as she was in motion but they no longer would catch when she felt like having a nap either. For Gretchen's entire life, she would do a perfect London Bridge is falling down when she got drowzy.

At a certain point, Gretchen topped out in her Dressage training. At 2nd Level, a horse is required to begin showing true collection and with her particular conformation (Gretchen's back end was a little farther away from her front end than is necessary or desired) and her stifle issues, she could not comfortably do the work into and beyond that level. Rather than push the horse beyond her capabilities, her owner was compassionate enough to find her a new home. This is when I met Gretchen. She came to the stable where I was working to be used in the lesson program, but to be sold to an appropriate home. I was 16 years old then. Gretchen and I had very little path-crossing at that time. I did ride her for the purpose of making a sale video and it was the first time I rode a Real extended trot. It was an amazing feeling to have so much air-time between strides and though I hadn't asked for the big trot, it was thrilling just the same.

One of the students at the stable bought Gretchen and eventually moved her to her own barn at home. Years went by, I went to college, moved to New York to work at a stable there for several years and then moved back home. While looking for a property where I could start my own stable, I went back to my high-school Summer job. Gretchen had also come back. She was now owned by the daughter of the woman who owned the stable but wasn't really doing anything other than being a nuisance. My own horse was inching toward retirement so I was looking for a horse to ride and remembered enjoying my ride on Gretchen as a teenager.

At this point in the story, you are probably wondering when the horribleness comes in. It had been there all along, I was just either blissfully ignorant or not exposed to the brunt of it. That would change in a hurry. My first few rides on Gretchen, as a more knowledgeable rider, found that she was very out of shape and had numerous resistances and imbalances in her body, but I was eager to ride and she was a potential Dressage horse for me to start with. Plus, that blissfully ignorant thing hadn't really gone away.

When I did find my own farm, the woman who had been a mentor for me for so long, asked if I would like to take Gretchen along with me. Her daughter would sell her for a $1 just to know she'd have a good home. My mentor also threw in a pony to sweeten the deal. She even offered to trailer Gretchen up to her new home for me. Here is when I should have been suspicious of why everyone was so eager to get rid of the mare.

Her penchant for destruction became evident upon her arrival. She had kicked dents in the back of the trailer. Going out to feed the horses the next morning, I found Gretchen, still in her stall, but the sliding door no longer sliding and instead, dangling from it's hanger. She took the door down the next night also and also smashed her feed tub. Now with a rubber feed tub on the floor and a stall guard instead of a door, she was tucked in for the night again. In the morning, water bucket was now slightly mangled and the stall guard lay on the floor with not one snap whole. The next night, rubber water bucket, feed tub on the floor and chain across the door and she greeted us in the morning, again still in her stall, but with the chain no longer connected in the middle. Being creative or determined or stubborn, I refastened the chain the following night and also connected it to the electric fence charger. In the morning, no destruction. It was not a safe or efficient method to contain her, so I made the decision to leave her out in the paddock at night. She was content, I was relieved.

Gretchen's claustrophobia was the tip of the iceberg. She also was anorexic and just plain grouchy. Having her in my back yard and dealing with her daily, made me quite aware of just how much trouble she was. The first time I went to get her for a ride, she alternated between threatening to flatten me and running away. After a lengthy determined and stubborn effort to catch her, I finally resorted to calling my mentor. "How do I catch this horse?!" I asked her in exasperation. At Mentor's stable, Gretchen was in a small paddock attached to her stall which didn't allow her much freedom to express her feelings on being caught. Here, all of my known methods had failed including tempting her with grain (doesn't want to eat, remember?) so I needed help. Mentor replied, "Take a whip out with you and show it to her." I was quite positive Mentor was losing her marbles because surely the whip would just cause Gretchen to run away faster. This was the first time I would see just how contrary the mare could be. I returned to the pasture, whip in hand, and when Gretchen threatened to run by me and flatten me on the way, I held up the whip and growled at her "GRETCHEN! Knock it off!". To my absolute surprise, she stopped dead in her tracks and stood calm and still (though with a sour face) while I approached and put her halter on. From then on, I never went out to get her without a whip. There were times when I forgot to get one beforehand, but I improvised with a stick. I could brandish the smallest of twigs and she'd stand and wait for me to get her. In her elderly years, I could go out to get her and just point my finger at her and say "Gretchen, you stand there!" but anyone else still needed the whip.

The whip was necessary for grooming her while she was tied in the barn too. When cross-tied, Gretchen would swing side to side, throw her head, snap her teeth, kick, and fling herself back and forth. Unless you held the whip. Whip in hand, I could groom her in peace while she stood. I never struck her with it (except for when she started in the lesson program and she tried to bite the students, then she got a swat) I just had to hold it where she could see it, which presented a problem when I would need to get something from the tack room. I would have to get the longest longe whip I had and hold it out the door of the tack room while I, with feats of amazing stretchiness, would reach for whatever I needed.

The grooming and tacking up process itself was a constant flip-flop between Gretchen snarling and being serene. She loved her curry comb, hated the brushes. Except on her face, she loved having her face brushed, especially her ears. She hated her saddle, but would almost put her bridle on by herself. She loved her bit and would take it into her mouth before I even asked her to. No matter how gently or slowly I did up her girth, she still fumed about having it fastened. She hated having someone get on her, even from the mounting block, but loved going riding. I never found any physical reasons for Gretchen's complaints. It was all mental.

After I had owned Gretchen for a while, Mentor found a sale video for Gretchen made by her first rider. It was delicately edited so that it shows the owner getting Gretchen's halter and heading out to the paddock, then it cuts away to a shot of Gretchen being groomed, but not tied. It shows the owner bringing the saddle to the horse but then switches to a shot of her riding. All the scary bits were left on the cutting room floor.

To her credit, Gretchen taught me, and many others, some valuable lessons. I'll continue Gretchen's story in the next post. The best and worst is yet to come.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Old School

The stats on these horses would indicate that they ought to be doddering, feeble, quietly ambling about the arena, content with a bit of a trot now and then, but satisfied with moseying also. I should have to say, "Let's let Jolly rest for a little while.", and "How about we give Raffles a break now.". I should not have to have someone lead Jolly around at the walk, to try and anchor him down so his rider can have some control.

The youngest one is Henry at a mere 17 years old. Then there is Raffles at 25, Rocket at 28 and Jolly at 31. They were all used in a group lessons tonight for adult beginner riders. Even after 2 hours, we were still having to hold them back. They were like war horses charging into the fray. "Bring on the dragons!"

Where had my steady, reliable school horses gone? Who were these nostril-flaring, speed-walking steeds? The poor college student who had come to help me out, left skid marks in the sand from trying to hold these old fools down to a walk. With my injured knee, I had no hope of keeping up with them so it was all up to poor college student to make lap after lap around the ring hanging, for dear life, onto the bridles of those horses who were determined to see who could get around the fastest. At the walk.

They could barely contain themselves. "Let's Trot!", they snorted, as if they were all stand-ins for the Black Stallion. Raffles, the only one allowed to trot, because his rider had done a bit of trotting before, went down the long side like a Saddlebred in a Road Hack class. His startled rider gamely tried to keep up with her reins up under her chin somewhere and her legs doing a kind of polka beneath her. After that he was only allowed to trot when sporting a poor college student sized hobble.

Before next week's adult beginner group lesson, I think the overly-enthusiastic, geriatric school horses are going to need some powering down. I'm not complaining, I'm glad my old horses are this spry and sound. It just caught me by surprise. I was unprepared for their effervescence.

My old horses look superb for their ages and apparently, they feel like they are half their ages. If I felt for one second that they were uncomfortable or feeble, then they would not be working, but rather lounging out in the paddock. For now, though, let's Trot!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bucking a Trend

One of my pet peeves (If I wrote a post for each of my pet peeves, I'd have a lot of posts.) is when someone says, "My horse threw me.". Trying very hard not to be one of those annoying nit-picking people, I don't say anything at the time (usually), but I always wonder if the rider was actually thrown, or whether she fell off. There is a difference.

In being thrown, the horse purposefully tries to get rid of his rider. That horse wants you gone, baby, gone and will perform strategic, gymnastic exercises to do so. This could be bucking, rearing, leaping, spinning, kicking, ducking, and running under low tree branches (in which case you should have been the one ducking) among other creative attempts. Some horses will try harder than others, some horses don't have to try very hard. Something you did irritated that horse enough that he is all done with manners and patience. Or it could be that your horse is fresh and feisty and not ready to settle down and work.

If you fall off, you were not thrown. You can not blame your horse for your own Humpty-Dumptyness. Even if your horse did something he shouldn't have, you still can't say you were thrown, unless he was really trying to toss you.

Being thrown is pre-meditated. Falling off is accidental.

Regardless of their motives, or lack of, horses will react in one of two ways when they lose a rider. Some will stand there and wait to see what happens next. Others will take the opportunity to practice doing their fanciest trots or galloping. There are horses that will throw you, on purpose, with intent, and then stand there quietly after succeeding. There are also horses like Image, whom I fell off of recently, that will, after parting company, take the opportunity to play Wild Stallions with the geldings over the fence and prove how fast he can go from one end of the ring to the other.

There is a gray area at that moment when the fate of the rider is in the horse's hands (hooves?). Whether it is a fall or a toss, sometimes the rider ends up in limbo either on the horse's neck or hanging precariously off of one side of the saddle. Again, there are two ways a horse can respond to this situation. I prefer the ones that will stand there and let a rider scramble, claw, and wiggle her way back into the middle of the saddle to the ones that take run backwards, drop or shake their heads or scuttle sideways. That is called an assisted fall.

Considering the times that I have hit the ground, it's usually been a fall. The times when a horse tries to get rid of me, are the times that I can stay on the best because I am prepared. As in the fall off Image, the times that I have gone air-borne are usually when I was not expecting a change in direction.

Then of course, there is a Category 3 fall, when everybody goes down. This is when the rider falls, but only because the horse fell too. It doesn't happen often. For me, it's been 4 times in 12 and a half years, and all for different reasons. A horse is much better at keeping his balance than say a motorcycle, but with the added effort and weight of a rider, sometimes a horse will miscalculate. You'd have a bit of trouble too if you had to run the hurdles wearing a backpack full of gravel to the tune of 20% of your body weight. Try dancing Swan Lake, in the sand, with that backpack on. Just attempt to chase down a cow carrying it too, while you're at it. Then you may have an idea of how it is possible for a horse to fall with a rider.

Now that you are aware of the difference between falling and being thrown, be sure to use the terms correctly. Let no more horses be falsely blamed for a rider's incompetence or lack of dexterity. No longer will horses be cast in a negative light when they are innocent of any shenanigans. On the other hand, if your horse does toss you, then he darn-well better not be expecting any carrots back at the barn.

Monday, May 2, 2011


This post is about horses but also about an elephant. The one in the room. It is the subject no one wants to consider when thinking about horses but is a serious and necessary issue. There comes a time in a horse's life, when that life comes to an end. As horrible as it is to think about, as morbid as it may seem, the question of what then to do with the horse's body comes about. Regardless of any religious beliefs about spirits, souls and the like, there still remains the shell of our beloved creatures.

With horses that have passed away at my farm, we are lucky enough to have been able to bury them. I have the space and there are no restrictions from my town. Others are not so equipped. When faced with the decision to euthanize a horse, there is the advantage of advance notice and preparations can be made. A horse may be shipped to a location where it can be buried, if not at home, or there may be a veterinary facility that offers cremation. These situations allow our horses the dignity of an organized, peaceful death. It's when a horse passes away unexpectedly that creates a more unpleasant situation.

One of my great fears is that one of my horses will expire while still in its stall. Moving the body can be at the least, ugly, involving dragging the horse's carcass to a burial location. Or it can be more destructive with having to remove barn walls in order to maneuver equipment or the body. Being a sentimental person, the thought of dragging my horse around disturbs me, even though, yes, he is technically gone. The visual image competes heavily with whatever practical sense I may try to conjure.

Having been with a horse (not one of my own) as it died, I am personally in favor of euthanasia when appropriate. The death of the horse was traumatic for him, and for me. We were both scared but he was in terrible physical pain, while mine was only emotional. At least, I had the fore-thought to get the horse out of his stall and into the yard. The vet had been called to come out, but the horse finally died as I saw the headlights on the vet's car coming down the driveway.

Now, years later, I have my own horses, and have been faced with making the elephantine decision. I have laid to rest, Ali, Pooh Bear and my cherished first horse, Ivy. Gretchen passed away on her own terms and thankfully she was outside at the time. It is never easy even when it is a very sure thing. Even when there is no possible way that the horse can recover from an injury or illness, even when the horse is dying anyway, even when the horse is experiencing pain which will not recede and only get worse, the decision to end the horse's life is convoluted.

We have the privilege of being able to help our horses to their final destination and all aspects must be considered. Will the horse continue to live in pain? Is the pain manageable? Will the horse enjoy the rest of his days? Am I keeping the horse alive because I want more time with him? Is he in danger of hurting himself further? Can I afford the treatment and care required to keep the horse alive? Do I have the time to adequately care for an ailing horse? Do I have a facility adequate for keeping the horse safe and comfortable through the rest of his life? These questions and more have to be contemplated.

As a pledge to my horses, I will keep them until the end. That means I am going to have to deal with many more deaths whether natural or planned. It is worth it. It is worth the pain of being part of their deaths to have been a part of their lives.