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.