Saturday, February 1, 2014

If The Horseshoe Fits

When you hear the term ‘backyard breeder,’ what comes to mind?  Does this term call up negative connotations, complete with images of unwanted horses that are unmarketable? Or is it a term that you associate with the small breeder – a person who is simply doing things on a smaller scale than the ‘big boys?’ I have read a lot of articles lately that name the backyard breeder as the scourge of the industry, and deride those whom they see as backyard breeders as ruining everything for the rest of us.  Personally, I dislike the term backyard breeder because it is a misnomer and its meaning has been twisted to mean a person who doesn’t know anything about breeding horses.   But aren’t there plenty of people who are proud to say they produce horses that are of good quality on an individual (rather than mass produced) basis?  Some prefer the term ‘homebred,’ but again, I don’t think that term helps anyone make a distinction within the industry. 

I, for one, produce horses at my house, literally in my backyard/pastures, one at a time, with love and care, and with a substantial, lifelong knowledge of conformation, bloodlines, proper feed and care.  My farm is beautiful and safe, but modest and small (just 20 acres). My mares are good-looking, well-put together and have great dispositions; even if they themselves don’t have a show record, I am very critical in my decision to breed them.  I only produce a baby or two every few years, so my total numbers are really low. All of my babies are handled DAILY (which cannot be said for many of the big name farms), and receive excellent training when they come of age.  I breed/raise them to keep them because if something goes wrong (which is a real possibility), I will not, WILL NOT throw an animal away, selling them at the local auction where they are likely to end up with either someone who won’t or can’t treat them well, or being shipped on a long, tortuous journey toward a bolt to the head.  If we do sell one, I do my best to place them well, and am tenacious in following their progress.  Any horse I produce is always welcome back here. 

YET – I am not independently wealthy, nor do I have family money to prop up my horse endeavors.  I do not have a lavish facility.  I don’t advertise in industry magazines.  I don’t show (though plenty of others are showing my horses). I don’t schmooze with the current trainer-du-jour and prefer to keep a low profile.  I don’t follow breeding trends.  Again, I only produce a few horses compared to others within the industry. In other words, I am not a Big Name Breeder.  It would be easy for those with more money than me to look down their nose and throw around the negative connotation of ‘backyard breeder’ in describing what my husband and I do, but wouldn’t our absence from the industry be a bad thing?  We have recently seen many of the BNBs fold under the enormous financial pressure of breeding hundreds of mares per year, promoting stallions and sending tons of young horses to the show pen.  The costs for maintaining their gorgeous facilities are astronomical and the pressure to keep their brand visible at shows and in publications is crushing. 

The era of the BNB is steadily coming to an end.  Things I won’t miss:  Production sales where the culls are sold cheap or sent to slaughter.  Stallions that are over bred because they are owned by so-and so.  The cult of personality that goes along with believing that a famous name equals a great horse, and all the sucking up that attends to that belief.  A shrinking gene pool because one farm can produce hundreds of animals whose pedigrees are incredibly similar.  The list goes on….

Those of us who are conscientious small breeders are the industry equivalent of the middle class, and we are the base, the bedrock, on which the rest of the industry is built.  Most of us will still be here when the BNB are overspent, exhaust their trust funds or grow frustrated by a change in breeding trends that renders their stallion unfashionable.   Breeding out of your ‘backyard’ often means that you try to keep costs in balance with potential gains, you are frugal, have staying power because you don’t have to put on airs, and you are breeding for an animal that YOU like (with well-thought out reasons for being proud of it), not what you think will sell big at the NRHA/NCHA or whatever sales.   I am not trying to demonize the wealthy; it is just that I have been around long enough to have seen big spenders come and go, and watched too many folks get caught up in the aftermath of a breeding program based only on superficial accoutrements. 

I do believe that there are plenty of people out there who should not be breeding horses.  There always has been!  How do we address that element of our industry?  How about using the terms ‘substandard breeder’, and conversely, an ‘industry standard breeder’ to separate the classes of breeders?   While wordier, these terms are certainly more accurate and descriptive of the distinctions we’d like to make. 

A substandard breeder would be a person who breeds without regard to the future of the foal produced.  They can’t afford to feed/care for the animals they already own, and lack the knowledge, capability and/or means to train their animals.  They see Craiglist or similar internet sites as legitimate outlets for their horses – dump them cheaply and without care as to where they end up.  They routinely sell horses for less than $1,000. Their horses’ pedigrees have no recognizable names for several generations back.  They breed solely for color or some other singular trait.  They don’t see the danger in breeding horses ‘so their kids can experience having a baby horse’ or because ‘my horses are my fur babies’ or even because ‘my mare is so sweet.’  They see no need to prove any of the horses they produce, even at local competitions.  They lack even the most basic understanding of conformation, and cannot evaluate their animals objectively.  They won’t accept that some of their stock just isn’t good enough to be bred.  They throw away their horses when they get too old to breed or get injured, and are unmarketable.  And perhaps the worst thing, they don’t see their personal contribution to the over-abundance of unwanted horses on the market by their decision to breed horses that aren’t in demand (and this could also be said for those who breed dogs as well).

An industry standard breeder is, of course, the opposite of all those things, but also, one who embraces a long-term vision for the horse they’d like to produce which is based on study and experience.  I might also say that it requires an incredible amount of character; to take legitimate criticisms of their stock, to be flexible when the market changes and operations must be downsized, to see way down the road and anticipate, realistically, where they are headed, seek the advice of others who are higher in the industry pecking order than themselves, and to stick with it even when things get difficult.  Being a conscientious breeder, of any size, is not a whim or a hobby, and it isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s OK to be a small breeder, as long as you are doing it with integrity.

So which are you?  No one wants to admit they are substandard.  No one wants to cop to any of the traits of being a bad breeder.  But if you read through the paragraph above that describes a substandard breeder, and can see yourself in even one of those traits, maybe, just maybe, you should ask yourself if you might be one, and are impacting our industry in a negative way. It isn’t an easy thing to admit, but if the horseshoe fits…..The good news is that even if you suspect that you might be doing the wrong things, YOU CAN CHANGE.  You can stop breeding the horses that aren’t good enough.  You can get educated.  You can do right by the animals you have now, as well as the horses you want to have in the future. Be honest with yourself, and remember, if you aren’t prepared to do something right, you shouldn’t do it.  Don’t our horses deserve that?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pirates and Thieves

Have you ever had a horse in training, and felt completely out of control of the process?  Bombarded by extra fees on your bill that you didn’t authorize?  Vet costs that you didn’t know about, didn’t authorize and are confusing as to their purpose?  Worried that your horse is being mistreated and feel powerless to protect them?   Have you ever felt annoyed or angry because a horse trainer expected you to show up at the barn with an open check book and a closed mouth?   Have you ever had a horse that you delivered to the trainer sound, healthy, and happy, only to have it given back to you a sick, quivering, lame, and terrified mess, and were then told, “These things happen?”  Then you, my friend, may be one of many interested in taking back control of the horse industry from those that would like to hold us, the owners and breeders, over a barrel – the trainers.

A friend of mine in the reining business characterizes big name horse trainers as ‘pirates.’  They sniff out wealth among owners and good horses among breeders, charge exorbitant fees in exchange for taking over your assets – your well-bred, well-loved animals, expect to rule their barn with absolute authority,  demand loyalty while they are free to behave like divas, gain fame and fortune to the outside world while treating the horse as a disposable commodity, and in many cases, doing unconscionable things to the animals in their care, even as they are climbing the ladder of success toward that enviable ‘million dollar’ status.   As owners, breeders, and amateur riders, we are at their mercy if we choose to put our horses in training.

In a perfect world, we would be working our own horses, and forming partnerships with them that would carry us to the winner’s circle.  But this is unrealistic for many people.  Some have careers that take up too much time, or have family obligations that are of a higher priority than spending the necessary hours working their horses.  Many people recognize that they aren’t physically capable, and yet want to be involved in the horse world, even if it is as an active observer and enthusiast.  Some people see their limits, and want horsemen with more talent than they themselves possess to take their horses as far as they can go in the competitive arena.  As a horse trainer and riding instructor, I encourage people to be as active in their horses’ lives as they able to be, but also see nothing wrong in placing a horse with a trusted trainer whose philosophies match that of the owner.  I myself have had many horses with trainers; some I admired a great deal and came away satisfied and inspired.  Others were a nightmare, and made me understand all of the things I DON’T want in a horse trainer, no matter how “big” their name is.

When a trainer takes your horse and mistreats it, causing it physical or mental harm, they are stealing from you.  If the horse experiences harsh training techniques that cause the horse to become afraid, sour, dull or dangerous, that horse’s worth is seriously impacted.  If the horse is physically injured due to rough care or negligence, not only does it diminish the horse’s worth, it may render it useless.  When a trainer authorizes a vet to use drugs to mask or change a horse’s disposition, way of going, or physical appearance, they are imposing serious risks to the horse’s immediate and long-term health, and are also risking the sullying of your good name, should it be discovered that your horse underwent this treatment in order to win.   For those of us that put in countless hours of handling, care and planning, plus thousands and thousands of dollars worth of breeding fees, purchase costs, vet care, feed, shoeing and land management costs, to have a horse ruined and wasted by an unscrupulous trainer is devastating.  Yet many are afraid to speak up, or have signed away our rights by agreeing to sign the pirate’s best weapon – a training agreement that includes a non-disclosure clause.   I think that the inability to speak up and advocate on behalf of your horse that has been maimed, crippled, or killed by a trainer so that they may retain some kind of ‘good reputation’ is the very definition of adding insult to injury.

We can, however, take back our power.  The trainer works for us, right?  So why not have our own contract that clearly sets limits on what the trainer is allowed to do to our asset, the horse?  I think this is a brilliant way to do battle with the pirates!  A friend of mine has put together an excellent contract that does just that – defines what exactly the owner expects and allows to be done to their horse while in the care of the trainer.  It can’t control everything – plain old bad training, for example – but it does protect the owner from deliberate diminishment of the value of their horse, and gives them legal ground to stand on if the trainer chooses to go against the owner’s wishes.  You can access this contract here.  I encourage you to use it within your owner/ trainer relationships, and spread the word to your friends who may be thinking of putting a horse in training.  There are plenty of ways to personalize this contract, so don’t feel as if this is a one-size-fits-all deal.  You may strike sections if they don’t apply or add caveats to them, or add your own conditions at the bottom.  I feel this is a good place to start in remaining in control of your horse, and, since even the most hands-on owner can’t be at the trainer’s all the time, is a little insurance policy against things happening behind your back.

Some pirates will certainly be offended that you dared challenged their judgment in being the captain of their ship!  And may even ask you to walk the plank and take your horse with you!  But the contract contains nothing that is unreasonable, and I would be seriously wary of someone who wouldn’t agree to the simple requests stated therein.  They are probably doing you a favor by letting you know up front that they intend to mistreat your horse, so leave them to their own devices and seek out someone who is appreciative of you, your horse and your money, and will therefore treat all of those things with respect.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some Keep Promises, Some Keep Secrets

Some stories need to be told, no matter how painful the telling.  And some promises must be kept, no matter the obstacles in the path of the keeping.  The reason for both is usually love. 

I recently finished a moving and thought-provoking book called "Justice For Speedy," which is the true story of the author's journey from dreaming of breeding her mare, raising the resulting foal with care, the charismatic colt "Speedy" growing up to show enormous potential, watching Speedy perform at his first show and winning a Championship class, and then discovering the horse was being abused by the trusted trainer, unbeknownst to the owner.  Judy Berkley describes in detail how she found out, after much investigation, that her trainer had gone directly against her very explicit expectations that her horse not be over-fed, not be abused, and not be given any steroids.  Sadly, Speedy endured all three, which caused a cascade of health problems resulting in him foundering and later, colicking, and being put down.  On top of the tragedy of Speedy's death, Berkley had the added insult of an industry in which the drugging of show horses is common and almost systematic, and where many of those with pull and influence are happy to cover up the ugliness of it.  Berkley had promised her horse that she would tell his story, and that she wouldn't let him be forgotten, so despite many hardships, personal, financial and emotional, she continues to bring to light some of the abuses that are deemed 'common practice' within the show and performance horse industry.

The story is about a Half Arabian gelding that was shown in halter and western pleasure, but please believe me, this story could be set in the reining world, the Quarter Horse or Paint pleasure circuits, the hunter/jumper is about how some are willing to do just about anything to their horses to move up the ladder of earnings, points, buckles, trophies and garlands, and how higher-ups within the industry try to quash the controversies with lawyers and lawsuits, confidentiality contracts, and the Good Ol' Boy Club.  We have all seen it - the corruption often goes all the way to the top.  Equally appalling is how the general membership (of any association) participates in this dysfunctional and enabling 'trainer worship' that allows many to get away with callous acts in the name of winning and money.  You will certainly recognize the characters in the story because they are universal.

Berkley is angry about what happened to her horse, it shows in her writing.  And as well she should be - we all should be.  The horse industry has been plagued with similar incidents for a long time, and a change within our culture - for the better - is overdue.  Don't our horses deserve better than to be used and abused, and then discarded? 

I believe so - but it is going to take three levels of change:
1) Those who are actually using abusive methods need to see their actions for what they are, and resolve to change or get out.

2)  Those who don't abuse their horses or drug them, but turn a blind eye/justify it, need to be willing to speak out, publicly or privately, against practices that they know hurts horses and that they know is bad for our industry.  They need to find it within themselves to do the right thing, because ignoring the problems won't make them go away.

3)  Those who are in a position of influence need to take a proactive, public stance against those practices that damage the integrity of our breeds, our sport, and our competitions.

I am not of the belief that everyone who shows or competes on horses is abusive, or drugs them, or is to self-absorbed to care.  I know that there are many, many people who feel like I do - that it is an incredible gift to ride a great horse, and to work in partnership with that horse to achieve something, whatever that is.  That horses have the ability to teach us, empower us, lift us up, heal our souls and bring purpose to our lives.  Those of us (and there are thousands of you who will read this, according to my view counter) who love horses must work together to actively try and change the culture.  Not only will we be protecting the horses themselves, we will be protecting our lifestyle and viable future.

The first step - getting educated.....You can check out Judy Berkley's book and website here, at  I would also encourage you to take a look at her store, which has a collection of t-shirts, mugs, hats and bumper stickers that can help you declare your horse drug free.  I especially love the mug that says, "Bring back the 1979 Arabian horse" and the bumper sticker that says, "Unattractive, Unnatural, Just Plain Dumb - Peanut Rolling."  Also, if you read through the blog portion of her site, you will uncover the name of the trainer who abused her horse.

I would like to thank Judy for sharing Speedy's story, and commend her for having the guts to keep her promise to her horse.  I hope it inspires more people to speak up and name names.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fractured Skulls and Broken Hearts

Last week I shared with you my thoughts on tying around, and why I think it is time to leave this 'training method' behind in our evolution as horsemen.  This week, with almost prophetic timing, the reining world was shaken by the unfortunate death of Bella Gunnabe Gifted at the hands of trainer Mark Arballo, who tied the mare's head and left her.  The mare apparently flipped over, fractured her skull, and was found by witnesses with blood gushing out of her nose.  The mare was later put down, but not before witnesses saw Arballo hitting the mare in attempts to get her to rise.  You can read the news report and watch video of the news report here.  The owner of the mare, Martha Torkington, also owns the ranch where the death occurred, River Valley Ranch, and was filmed smiling and calming saying that 'this is a very common training technique.'  San Diego County Animal Services is investigating the death of Bella, but this isn't the first time they have been to the ranch; in 2012, Animal Services investigated the same trainer and facility for having a horse die in the same manner. 

While I will respectfully wait for SDAS to do their job in investigating this incident, and will not make any conjectures as to what Arballo's fate should be, it is clear that Arballo did indeed tie this mare up with a shanked curb, left her alone, and when asked about the mare's death, the owner admitted knowing about Arballo's use of tying around.  I hope that, if found guilty of abuse, Arballo will face more than a slap on the wrist in facing the consequences of this mare's death, but what happens to him is less important to me than what we can learn from this tragedy, and from there, what the future of the industry will be.

My heart is breaking for this poor mare; she was so pretty, and had so much potential.  In the words of her former trainer, she was very sweet and willing.  She wasn't a crazy mare or dangerous.  She deserved better than to die this way.  But my heart is also breaking because of the aftermath of her death.  This week I participated in many discussions about this incident, and was shocked at how many people were quite blase' about the whole thing.  "Everyone does it" and "sh** happens" was expressed many times in forum discussions, often by well-known riders/owners, and one person tried to use the 'stupid animal' defense, saying that since animals have brains the size of walnuts, we should expect things like this to happen.  These attitudes are simply disgusting to me.  How can we, as an industry tolerate this callousness?  How can we be so flippant about a horse's needless and preventable death?  How can we justify the abuse of an animal that we make our living off of?  And in what universe is "everybody does it, so it must be OK" a good reason to do anything?  I think I learned by first grade that that is never an excuse for bad behavior!

The truth is, many people in our industry are stuck; they don't have the tools in their toolbox to train a horse without resorting to short cuts, gimmicks and devices of force and pain.  They don't want to share in Arballo's guilt, so they make excuses for his behavior and pretend he is being targeted by a 'witch hunt,' and 'personal vendettas.'  They are afraid that they will be investigated for similar abuses, so they shun outsiders and try to band together against change.  They don't want those "damn PETA people" to come after reining the way that the Tennessee Walking Horse people have come under fire, so they characterize anyone who advocates for more regulation as crazy, stupid, inept, over-emotional and potentially dangerous.  They just want to close their eyes and ears in hopes that this whole things will just go away.  Even Bella's owner seemed strangely unaffected by her death, and seemed to defend the trainer in the news footage.  This bothers me deeply because I really believe that these attitudes will be the undoing of our industry.

There is a lot at stake for trainers these days.  There is more competition money out there, and owners are vocal in their pursuit of it, so there is a lot of pressure on trainers to win, sometimes at all costs. There are fewer owners with bottomless pockets out there participating, so there is pressure to do well and attract bigger, better owners.  Everything needs to happen fast, whether it is when they are trying to get young horses ready for the Futurities, or when they are getting horses tuned up for aged events. There is a perception that the guy/gal who takes their time in preparing a horse is going to be left behind.  It isn't a surprise that some would resort to short cuts in order to chase the dollars more effectively.  But it is the horse that loses. We also lose, in that we lose our sense of ethics, and we lose the ability to face the public with a clean conscience.  For these reasons, I understand the fear that humane organizations will come after the horse industry - they certainly have grounds to in some cases, and the industry has so far been ineffectual at policing itself.

I want to be clear:  I love equine competitions, of all kinds (except for charro horse tripping, which is deplorable).  I want our competitions to continue, far into the foreseeable future, building on the training traditions that are worthy of continuation, while leaving those that no longer serve us in the past.  In other words, I want us all to EVOLVE.  There are a myriad of techniques used to train show horses that may be common, that may have been used for a long time, that may even be used by big name trainers, but that no longer serve us.  Like it or not, our interactions with horses will forever more be scrutinized under the microscope of youtube, by a more aware and more unified public.  We cannot stick our heads in the sand and go on as if we are somehow above questions from the public, or that the public will leave us alone.  Our training techniques need to become more transparent, and they must be humane when looked at in the bright light of public opinion.  And this doesn't just go for reiners; soring of gaited horses, hyper-flexing dressage horses, hitting jumping horses in the cannon bone so they avoid poles, cutting/injecting western horse's tails, etc., all needs to go.  There isn't a corner of the horse industry that shouldn't be taking stock and weeding out abusive practices.  The time has come to clean house.

If there are trainers that insist on using force and pain to train their animals, we must be willing to speak up and stick our necks out, for the good of the horses directly involved, but also for the industry itself.  And if those people end up facing charges, being banned or are black-listed by the public, so be it.  We cannot afford to defend the indefensible.  Those who abuse horses need to take their lumps, and the rest of us need to up our game.  I don't believe that every trainer of western performance horses uses tying around, but there are plenty of other ways that they might be overdoing it.  Hopefully some are humble enough to say that they are not proud of what they are doing - be it spurring a horse till they are bloody, drugging a horse to mask pain, riding a horse to exhaustion or using equipment that is meant to inflict pain - and vow to stop.  I would have so much more respect for someone who is a big enough person to say,"I see that this isn't the right way, and I am going to do better" than someone who says, "Oh well, they are just stupid animals and sh** happens."

Tying horses' heads is a risky technique that not only puts our horse's at risk, it can make them more sore and resistant, and isn't necessary if a rider is willing to take a few extra minutes in the saddle each day and work on bending the horse. To get a horse really flexible and light, it is imperative that the rider use feel, releasing the pressure the moment the horse gives.  This is how the horse knows it is on the right track.  Tying a horse's head dulls them down and doesn't encourage a partnership between rider and horse; it's purpose is to get horses to submit and give in to the pain.  If the horse is unable to bend using a light handed technique, it probably has pain somewhere in its neck, poll, or shoulders, and should be seen by a vet or massage therapist.  I want newcomers, owners and non-pros to understand these facts so that they can make informed decisions for their horses, choosing trainers that ride based on feel, not force, and speaking up when they see a horse in distress.  Doing so may save a horse from a lot of pain, and may even save one's life.

One last a child, I took lessons from a wonderful dressage instructor who ran a riding school.  Being a small, older lady, her training techniques were not based on force or strength, but rather on taking the time with each horse and rider to build a foundation of skills, filling the rider's toolbox with sound principles, and encouraging partnership.  She was adamant with us kids that we must remember: we are ALWAYS to be responsible for ourselves and our horses while we are riding or handling them.  If something goes wrong, we put the horse in that position and we are the one at fault, not the horse. Never the horse.  Taking responsibility in this way seems to happen less and less in our society today, but I won't lose hope that it will become fashionable again.  For this reason, I am glad that people are talking about this mare's death, examining horse training while doing a gut check that we are doing the right thing by our horses.  We are blessed and fortunate to be able to ride these noble creatures, and we should treat it as the privilege that it is.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Wrong Way to 'Get Loose'

For the past several months, I have been using the services of an equine massage therapist for one of my training horses.  This mare is doing very well, and her physical issues are very subtle, but the owner and I agree that in order to get the best possible performance out of her, and to preserve her soundness, massage therapy is a fantastic tool.  Basically, the mare is slightly crooked, and while I have done lots of stretching and bending, the crookedness persists, so we decided to call in a professional.  Massage therapy of this type is more than just rubbing the muscles; it is a form of physical therapy in which the muscles, tendons and ligaments are re-trained into a new frame, taught to lengthen and body symmetry is encouraged.  It has made a huge difference for this mare!  She is now taking both leads with more ease, is able to lengthen her neck and round her back, and moves in a much more soft and even manner.  The owner is thrilled with the process.

The massage sessions generally take an hour and a half to complete, and were scheduled every 2 weeks at first, and are now monthly.  While the therapist is doing her work, I am there to hold and assist, as well as observe, and of course, as anyone would when they meet a fellow horse person with whom they have a lot in common, we share stories and observations about the horse industry.  This person has worked in the reining world for many years, and knows many of the same people that I know.  We recently had a discussion that brought to light that we also share a pet peeve: the widespread and inappropriate use of 'tying around.'    Tying around is when a rider will tie a horse's head to either its saddle or its tail with a short rein in order to force the horse to bend in a small circle.  Perhaps the horse is resistant on one side or the other, or perhaps the horse is giving attitude; they believe that tying around will solve that problem by giving the horse no choice but to conform.  They mistakenly believe that the horse will 'learn' to give because the only way they can get relief on their mouths is to give to the pressure. 

The problem with this is that there is no release.  Even if the horse gives, they are not able to straighten their body, their neck must stay bent, and eventually the muscles get tired and they are forced to lean on the rein, causing pain in their mouths (and everywhere else).  It is commonplace in the performance horse industry for horses to be left in this position FOR HOURS.  Can you imagine the pain and the anxiety of a horse being trapped in this position while the rider leaves the premises to go have lunch?  And if the reason for the horse's initial resistance in bending was pain in their neck, poll, or shoulders, can you imagine how this would cause unbearable agony for an animal unable to free itself?

My first exposure to this practice was in the Arabian industry when I was a young teenager, when my family began using a 'big name' trainer who used this method to get more flexibility in our horses.  This trainer was very judicious with the practice though; we never used a rein to tie around, instead, we made a rubber 'bending rein' out of surgical tubing that had snaps on either end to go from the saddle to the bit.  Surgical tubing is not very strong, and the idea was that it would break if too much pressure was put on it.  This trainer was also adamant that we time the horses as they were bending, only doing it 10 or 15 minutes on each side.  And we were not allowed to leave the area; it was important to be nearby in case the horse got in trouble.  As I grew up (and we changed trainers), I realized that while this method was indeed safer than what many put their horses through, it was still intrinsically a shortcut.  And most real horsemen know - in good horse training, there are no shortcuts.

It wasn't until I started riding Quarter Horses at a reining barn in Arizona that I observed someone tying around with a leather rein to the horse's tail, and walking away to leave the horse for long stretches of time.  I saw the agony in the horse's eyes, and eventually, the defeat in its demeanor, and I knew that I would never allow that trainer to put my horses through that.  Amazingly, that reining trainer is still there, working for a big, fancy barn in Scottsdale, and over and over, throughout my years in the reining world, I have seen this same 'method' employed by many well-known reining trainers. It is accepted, by many, as part of training a reiner, despite the fact that, in the best case scenario, they are making their animals more sore and resistant than before they were tied around and in the worst case scenario, are risking their horses lives, as so many animals will just snap when put in this position, resulting in them falling down or flipping over, breaking their necks in the process.  Many good horses have been ruined or killed in this manner - though you aren't going to see it written about in a major industry publication.  That would just be attracting unwanted attention to a dirty little secret, wouldn't it?

What is especially sad is that it is not at all necessary to tie horses around.  If the trainer is doing their job correctly, they would be bending the horse from the saddle, where it is possible to FEEL the horse's mouth and body orientation, and respond with counter pressure, applying release when the horse responds correctly.  If the trainer is doing their job, then they would respond to resistance as an opportunity to discover that animal's areas of pain, from injury or abnormal physiology, and would then have that horse seen by a vet or massage therapist.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would understand that force will never beget a willing partner, and that shortcuts create more problems than taking the long (and correct) route to partnership.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would be safeguarding the horse's well-being and sanity over their own inconvenience.

The massage therapist that has now become my friend shared with me the story of her gelding, who is out of some outstanding reining bloodlines but is now a reining 'reject.'  Why?  Because a well-known trainer had him, tied him around for 'having attitude' and the horse ended up freaking out, and nearly cut his tongue completely off.  He is healed now and she uses him for dressage, where they have been quite successful.  Success in this case is relative to the fact that this horse was not only physically damaged, but also mentally fragile, and so finding him a job that he can do happily and comfortably is a triumph in itself.

What is terribly sad for me, and extremely disappointing, is that the trainer who did this to this gelding is someone I know quite well, someone who has had horses I've bred and someone who I thought I might want to send my own horses to in the future.  But now I cannot un-know what I know.  I have considered that if I put a horse in training in the reining industry, would it be possible to have a trainer sign a 'no tie around' contract, to attempt to save my horses from this fate?  I have a feeling that such a request would be met with arrogance and defensiveness, so my only hope is to find a trainer who is against such methods already.  I encourage everyone to do the same.  Ask your trainer if they tie around.  If they do, expect to hear a lot of justifications and excuses.  Just remember that they are consciously using a short cut, and this represents a hole in their methodology and a very real threat to your horse's well-being.  Then take your horse and head the other direction.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Witness the Opening of Pandora's Box

The American Quarter Horse Association recently lost itscourt case over cloning, which means that eventually, cloned Quarter Horses may be able to obtain registration papers.  While AQHA makes it’s appeal, most of the membership share a common standpoint of disappointment and disgust on this turn of events.  Only a very small group of people want clones included in the registry, and despite years and years of consistent opposition, they have used vast amounts of money to force cloning upon us.  I can’t help but feel that in the trajectory of history, this decision could mean ruin for our breed.  

I have written previously about all the reasons I believe allowing clones in the registry is wrong; if you’d like to read that, clickhere.
If no one wants clones, then how did we get here?  Money!  It costs an incredible amount to get a cloned foal on the ground, and only in a case where a person stands to make a ton of money is an individual cloned.  Dr. Veneklasen, who has set up an equine reproductive clinic in Texas to do clones, is at the center of the lawsuit – I can bet that his biggest motivator is NOT that he is trying to further the breed, but is instead thinking about how much money he will make once registration legitimizes his practices.  It is, after all, a breach of anti-trust lawsuit.  But what impact will this have on the breed?  What will the 20, 30, 50 year affect be of breeding the same individual horse (or small group of horses), over and over and over?  How will we be able to track those clones when line breeding starts to occur? How will this affect genetic disorders, both the ones that we know of now, and those that have yet to emerge?  Once we go down this road, we will not be able to turn back.  What might seem like a small rule change will have lasting detrimental effects that we can't even begin to understand right now.

I am horrified at the thought of going to a competition, and witnessing clones competing against each other.  How about many multiples of clones competing against each other?  Now, wouldn’t that be fun? We already see the same bloodlines endlessly crossed on each other in the show pen – next, it will be literally the same horse over and over.  Raise your hand if you think this would be a HUGE turn off, for members and for people outside the business that we might want to draw in.  Cloning will remove the glorious ART of breeding, the ability of the studious breeder to blend bloodlines, assess strengths and conformation, taking chances on outcrosses that might produce the next Great One.  Cloning reduces it to creating widgets.  The next widget is just like the one before it.  "'Cause that widget made us lots of money!"

I have seen people write that cloning is like a bloodline that you don’t like; if you don’t like it, you don’t buy it or breed it.  So, if we just ignore it, it will go away?  Oh my, how I wish this were true!  While I do agree that we all should make a conscious decision NOT to feed the cloning beasts in any way, I must disagree that by simply not buying those horses, or breeding to them, that we are doing our best to safeguard the integrity of the breed.   It is the conscientious breeder's responsibility to protect the breed's integrity.  In the same way that it is a knowledgeable observer's duty to step up and do something when they see someone beating their horse behind a barn at a show, it is the astute breeder's duty to step up for the breed in the case of clones, and do what they can to block their being legitimized.  There will always be people who aspire to be a big shot, there will always be people who are only in horses to make a buck, there will always be people who want the newest, latest toy but don’t think twice about discarding it later.   We cannot allow those people to make decisions that will severely impact those of us that breed for a better horse tomorrow (instead of horses that are long dead) and want to be here for the long haul. We have too much to lose. Excellent horse breeding requires a long view, and the long view of clones is one of suspended animation and a shrinking gene pool.  
I am against giving clones papers of any kind.  I know there are people with the theory that by giving clones papers, even in some sort of appendix, we will be able to somehow control the clone producers, and keep them honest.   If a person is of a mind to be dishonest, and, say, switch a clone’s semen for semen from an animal that is the ‘real thing,’ a piece of paper isn’t going to stop them.   Won’t the real thing always be more valuable, and therefore, more profitable than that from a clone, even a clone with papers?  I’d love to think that people would do the honorable thing, but the problem is, I have met too many people in the horse business that would sell their granny up the river if it made them some money! The point is, once cloning starts happening on a larger scale, and is given more legitimacy by allowing registration, we are going to see the cost of producing clones drop, we are going to see more people doing it, and we are going to see more people doing shady things around it.  From what I have heard, it has already started to happen!  This genie is already out of the lamp!

 This at a time when AQHA , NRHA and NCHA are already facing incredible challenges.  AQHA is under scrutiny in their push to keep slaughter as a national option for keeping horse prices higher, even though over 70% of slaughtered horses are Quarter Horses, and polls show that most Americans don’t want slaughter.  Over-breeding is a shameful but commonplace practice within our industry, but AQHA won’t address it because they make money off those registrations, even if the horse is slaughtered before it reaches its three year old year.  NRHA and NCHA have been embroiled in scandal after scandal, many turning into lawsuits and embarrassing spectacles that have shed light on the greed many ‘elite’ members of these associations possess.   Since most of the clones produced so far are performance horses, and not halter or pleasure horses, I can only conclude that this decision will affect reiners and cutters the most.  Which makes sense, since reining and cutting has been the only segment of the entire horse industry that has consistently grown, in both members and prize money available, in the past ten years.   Yes, NRHA and NCHA are performance associations, so they don’t have the responsibility of registration, but the breeding practices of their members are driving the greed behind cloning.  There is so much money at stake, and so much pressure to rise within the ranks, that it is inevitable that some will be willing to do anything to gain status.  
I am of the opinion that allowing the registration of clones will hurt our industry at a time when participation is already starting to wane. Many people are leaving reining and cutting because it seems that an elite few in high places pull the strings, and the cloning case only furthers that perception. We are sacrificing the long term goals and success of everyone involved for the short term gain of a few well-connected individuals. Allowing clones in any capacity is shooting ourselves in the foot.
But don’t think that cloning is just an AQHA problem.  If those who stand to gain from producing clones can force their way in to a member-driven association like AQHA, they surely can do it to other registries.  I am hoping that AQHA continues to fight and that the case is heard by a judge that is familiar with breeding animals.   This is a precedent that affects all horsemen.  May we all thank Judge Mary Lou Robinson for her ability, with the stroke of a pen, to put the horses of the world, and the traditions the make up horse breeding, at risk for a downfall.

 In a recent conversation with another breeder, a metaphor came to me…..that of the difference between mass-produced plastic spoons, and heirloom silver, hand-engraved, spoons.   Which would you rather eat off of?  Which would you rather keep for your kids to use?   Horses that we have bred up to this point, that are a unique combination of sire and dam, whose bloodlines have been carefully developed and crossed , that may be from the only time a mare and stallion were crossed because soon thereafter, one of them died – those horses are the heirloom silver spoons.  The unique, wonderful gift that we can offer future generations of horsemen which will always be useful, and whose value rests on integrity of lineage.  The clones are the plastic spoons; sure, you might be able to eat off one, but it looks like every other spoon, it isn’t as good as the original, and because there are so many just like it, it isn’t worth that much to the next generation.  The only person happy about the plastic spoon is the guy who owns the plastic spoon factory.  The rest of us are just witnesses to the end of an era.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Far Would You Go to Look Cool?

I admit it.  I don't always 'get' people. Sometimes I really don't understand some people's need to fight, argue and disparage others, even in the face of clear evidence that they are wrong.  Bring up any topic on social media and people will line up on either side and sling mud at each other, even at those who lay a subject out clearly and without anger.  It doesn't matter if a solution is right there in front of them, with statistics and truth easily accessible, they fight on, usually resorting to name-calling, vicious insults, and cry "freedom" when all else fails, because, well, we are surely free to remain stuck in our ways, heels dug in the dirt out of defiance and spite.  I stay away from debates on social media as a general rule; it is ridiculous to argue with someone who has nothing better to do, and wants to scream obscenities ALL IN CAPS with poor logic and punctuation.  No thanks.

But I witnessed an ongoing thread on FB that bothered me deeply, so I decided to bring the subject here, and examine it.

The subject was a photo of a tiny girl, age 6, riding a huge horse in a barrel pattern.  This is an itty bitty girl, much smaller than my own 6 yr old son, and the horse, who is really getting at it as it rounds a barrel, is a large stock type horse.  The worrisome part is that this child is riding without a helmet.  Many people brought up this fact in the comments, and each person who did was immediately attacked with such viciousness that it was as if they had suggested something vile upon this little girl.  Some of the replies to those who suggested that she should be wearing a helmet: "Real cowgirls don't wear helmets," "we stay away from people who wear helmets because their horses are always spoiled rotten and they can't ride" and "this little girl is a better rider than any of you who wear helmets" and my favorite, "All you granola crunching, mini van type idiots stay out of this!!!"  Over 28,000 comments, which were split down the middle, going back and forth between rationality and ugliness.

I have written about my opinion of helmets before, but I'd like to re-visit it in response to the sheer voracity of some who are not only resistant to putting them on their own or their children's heads, but also who treat those who choose to protect themselves by wearing one so incredibly bad.

For those who say "we didn't grow up wearing helmets, and we survived,"  you need to wake up - it's 2013.  There are a LOT of things that we didn't do 'back in the old days,' such as use car seats, wear floatation devices, or disinfect medical instruments, that help our species survive better.  Hopefully, we are evolving to take better care of the bodies we are born into and have a better understanding of how and when injury is likely to occur.  If you grew up riding horses and never knew anyone who received a concussion from falling off their horse, either you didn't know that many people who rode, or you were just plain ol' lucky.  I have known many, many people who were excellent riders who had accidents resulting in concussions, some horrific and life-changing, and I know a similar number of people whose attending ER physician told them that the only reason they were still alive is because they were wearing a helmet.  The 'good ol' days' argument is worn out and tired.  Medical science's understanding of the brain and its fragility tells us that even one good thunk in the head can cause irreversible damage, resulting in memory loss, personality changes, depression, uncontrollable anger, higher rates of suicide over the long term, and death in the short term if the hit has caused even a small brain bleed.

For those who say, "a kid can get hurt just walking down the street, and are less likely to get hurt while riding a big ol' babysitter of a horse,"  I say, where in the heck do you live?  Benghazi? Islamabad?  According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, there were 14,446 reported head injuries from horseback riding accidents in 2009, accounting for 60% of all horse-back riding deaths.   A fall of just 2 feet can cause death from brain injury, and most rider's heads are eight feet above the ground.  In addition, children between the ages of 10 -14 are most likely to be involved in a horse-related accident.  Please read more about what the AANS says regarding head injury here, and scroll down to the section regarding horseback riding.  As my favorite instructor told me as a kid, "it isn't IF you are going to fall off, it is WHEN."  Hopefully it is when you are wearing a helmet.

For those who say "real cowgirls don't wear helmets," I suppose you'd jump off a cliff if all the other 'cowgirls' were doing it too?  This is peer pressure at its absolute worst; bullying for the sake of trying to look cool.  Some trends are not worth following, and I can assure you, you won't look cool after your traumatic brain injury leaves you in a wheel chair, drooling, not able to put together a thought.  What are you so afraid of?  That someone will see your helmet and assume that you are a beginner who can't ride?  Why not prove them wrong with your performance?  And perpetuating a tradition that puts people, especially children, at risk is far from 'cool.'

For those who say, "my horse is so good, he will take care of me," I say you are a fool if you think that a certain horse can make the experience 100% safe for you.  If you really are horse-knowledgeable, then you'd know that anything, literally ANYTHING, can happen while you are riding.  Some things may be the result of a horse misbehaving, but a vast number of accidents are due to miscues and mistakes by the rider or from simple, physical problems, like a horse tripping, slipping, equipment breaking, or something unexpected occurring in the environment.  I have been riding and training horses my entire life, and have done well at have no idea how many times I have had horses fall while I was riding them.  [I'm sure there are some that will somehow blame this on my ineptitude, without having seen me ride or know any of the circumstances.  The truth is, many of them were young, inexperienced horses, and in other instances, I was asking the horse for a certain level of performance or speed, which is necessary when you are training horses.]

For those of you who say, "my kid is a great rider and therefore won't get hurt;"  I say, really??  The little girl I mentioned above was 6.  How long could she possibly have been doing any meaningful riding? A year?  If you knew an adult who came to you and said 'I have been riding a year,' would you consider them an expert?  I wouldn't.  There is no way that any child, no matter how good of a seat they have, can have enough expertise to avoid an accident.  Even adults who have ridden their whole lives can't!  Consider the case of Courtney King-Dye, an accomplished Dressage rider who suffered a TBI when her horse tripped and fell and she wasn't wearing a helmet - yeah, I know, all you 'real cowgirls' probably say she isn't a 'real' rider because she rides English.  She went to the Olympics for goodness sakes.  Let's see you do some one-tempi changes or a perfect cantering pirouette.

People, riding horses is an extreme sport, similar to skiing/snowboarding, riding dirt bikes, or skateboarding.  Helmets (and other protective gear) is commonplace in all these sports, except horseback riding, for the sole reason that it doesn't 'look cool.'  Parents pass down the tradition of being afraid of not looking cool to their kids, and stuff their ears with their fingers when confronted with the truth of the real risks they are taking with their children's fragile brains, and scream "YOU GO BABY! COWGIRL UP!!" as they launch them full blast on a 1,000 lb animal.  This doesn't look cool - it looks reckless.  It is one thing if you are an adult and choose to not wear a helmet, assuming that you understand the risks and don't care.  But a child must rely on the good judgement of his/her parents to protect them, as they have no way of understanding all the consequences of an action, nor are able to see way down the road and anticipate their future with diminished mental capacity due to a TBI.

As an instructor, I want that little girl to ride with all of her heart, learning lessons of perseverance, patience, fortitude and strength along the way, but NOT while risking a brain injury.  She needs her brain, for school, for work, for her relationships, for happiness.  If we can prevent an injury, why wouldn't we?  It is an easy thing to put a helmet on.  They are comfortable, come in pretty colors, and it would be extremely easy to make wearing one into a trend - IF we make taking care of oneself more cool than wearing a straw hat.

I do believe the tides are turning.....I know of a particular little girl, age 11, who shows reiners, and is an excellent hand.  She has been riding all her life, having come from a family with a long history in horses.  Both her father and her grandfather are well-known and esteemed in the industry, and have furnished her with a wonderful facility along with top-caliber horses, and many opportunities to compete.  There is no doubt that one day, this little girl will be either a top non-pro or a top professional, if she choose to go that route.  It would be easy for her to go along with the crowd and not wear a helmet - but she does!  Even when she shows!  I am very proud of her, and have relayed my support to her parents and grandpa, who love her to death and want the best for her - - which is the full use of her brain.