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 ( is one. Another one that has the best racehorse rescue organiation name ever, is Rerun ( For the Standardbred horses, there is the Standardbred Pleasure HOrse Organization ( or the American Standardbred Adoption Program ( 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.