Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Christmas List....

As we reach the end of the year, many of us find ourselves in a reflective state of mind.  It is natural to look back at all that we have gained, all that we have lost, and where the path of life took us in the year gone by.  For me, the feeling of introspection is deepened by the fact that my birthday is a week before Christmas, and the older I get, the more I have to look back on.  I certainly have a lot to be thankful for; 2011 was a fantastic year for me, both personally and professionally.  I have never been happier or felt more at ease with myself, and yet, I see that, as always, there is still work to be done.  I still have places to improve and room to grow.

So today I wanted to create a wish list; a list of wants and needs, and issues that I intend to give my attention to.....
  1. I intend to dedicate more attention to my personal health; getting check-ups, exercising (beyond riding, I mean aerobic, break-a-sweat exercise), eating right and getting enough sleep.  I do a lot in a day, for my family, my animals, and my business. And it is easy to put off things that nurture me. A good friend reminded me recently, as she was sweetly badgering me to get a mammogram, that if I don't take care of myself, all those other areas will falter and/or break down.  I know that many horsewomen out there are like me; we take care of everything else in the world before we take care of ourselves. That can only go on for so long before we start to break down.  I am going to be more vigilant in preventing that. (And yes, I made the appt. for the mammogram!)
  2. I intend to write, write, and write some more!  I love falling down the rabbit hole, immersing myself in a subject, crafting words to do my bidding, and emerging on the other side of the creative process feeling like I understand the world and myself a bit more.  However, if life gets in my way, and I have stretches when I just don't have the time to do it, I vow not to hold guilty grudges against myself, or feel as though I have failed.  Life happens, and that's how it goes.  I like to see my life as a banquet; I take a little of this, a little of that, and try to give myself a balanced plate of everything I love.  Too much of any one thing, and you will get full on it, left to yearn for the other things you didn't get enough of, or didn't have room to try.  It's about balance, and leaving space for everything.
  3. I wish for my kids to enjoy fully this horsey/country life that we have created for them.  I wish for them to appreciate the animals, fresh air, open spaces, friendly neighbors and all the other simple happinesses that we are so blessed to have.  I wish for them to grow strong from their deep roots of a happy childhood.
  4. I wish for the horse industry, fellow equine professionals and all of us who just love horses to continue to recover economically from the recession.  I hope that people get feed they can afford, and that we have a mild winter, so as to not drive up costs. May our old horses get through winter, our mares hold on to those foals, and may the young ones stay sound.
  5. I wish for kindness and compassion.  Lots and lots of that, please!  Less abuse, violence, doping, cheating and stealing, and a lot more gentleness, respectfulness, hope, generosity, honesty and good, old-fashioned values.  That's not a lot to ask, is it?
Dear reader, thank you for spending time with me this year.  I pray that your holidays are filled with love, laughter and time spent with the people you love the most.  I wish you a Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Colt

Have you had a moment in your life when everything changed?

This past weekend, I migrated, along with the rest of the reining world, to Oklahoma City, to attend the NRHA Futurity.  Those who can't attend still turn their eyes toward reining's figurative capital city, and with webcasts capturing every moment of the action, reiners on all corners of the globe can keep up with what is happening.  They are watching to see their idols, the horses they all want to own, to see who is emerging in the sport, and what bloodlines are doing well, which might affect their breeding and buying decisions.  For trainers, owners and breeders, it is a week of making deals and networking, and of course, checking out all the beautiful horses for sale and at stud.

I was there specifically because a two year old stud colt that I bred was going to be in the Futurity Prospect Sale, and all indications were that he was going to make a really big impression on buyers who would be attending.  The horse's name is Commanders Lil Step (a name I chose :) and he is by Wimpys Little Step and out of my mare, Miss Bam Bam Command.  He is owned by my friend Vaughn Zimmerman, who purchased him from me as an embryo and who had been telling me that this was going to be a great horse since he was a foal.  When Vaughn and I talked about this horse, it has always been "The colt is doing great, the colt is this, the colt is that..." and when I got to Oklahoma City, I said to him, "Ok, I want to know what this horse's barn name is.  I can't just keep calling him the colt!"  Vaughn's reply, "Well, I don't know why not.  That's what everyone else is calling him!"  Indeed.  The Colt's reputation was preceding him with force.  Everywhere I went, people were talking about him.  Some of the very best trainers in the biz tried him and raved. Total strangers came up to me to say that he was the best two year old around.  He was making an impression all right.

I was so excited to see him for the first time and put my hands on him. The Colt is a gorgeous dark sorrel - his coat actually looks maroon - with four white socks and a star, strip and snip. He is pretty-headed and smooth bodied like his momma, but you can see Wimpy's power coming out everywhere.  He is incredibly well-developed for a two year old, and all the credit belongs to Bobby Avila Jr. for the amazing job he did preparing him. Which brings me to another facet of The Colt's appeal - a mastery over the maneuvers that Bobby has imparted on him.  His stops are incredible. His turns are incredible.  His lead changes are incredible. And he is a beautiful mover with a quiet, trainable mind.  He is a great example of what Bobby can do with a horse, and I would be proud to have him throw a leg over any of my babies.

The night before the sale, after coming back to the show grounds after dinner, my friends and I decided to go see The Colt before heading to bed, to 'wish him luck.'  Silly, I know, but that's me - - I love my animals unabashedly, and while I didn't own him, Vaughn always has referred to him as "ours," so I guess I kind of wanted to say good bye too.  After all, I knew that in the morning, he probably wouldn't be Vaughn's anymore, so therefore, he wouldn't really be mine either.  So I went to his stall to say goodnight and goodbye.  I am so glad I did.

The Colt's stall was on the far side of the sale barn, on a quiet aisle facing the far wall; a quiet corner with very little traffic where he could rest.  It was about 10 o'clock at night, so there was no one around as we made our way to see him.  As my friends and I stood there, cooing to The Colt and admiring him through the bars of the stall, I realized that two people were now standing behind us, watching us watching The Colt.  It turned out to be Javier Mendez and Thiago Boechat, who work with Lorenzo Vargas, owner of Xtra Quarter Horses and Wimpy himself.  As we made introductions, I explained my relationship to The Colt, and I was graciously ushered over to Lorenzo to be introduced.  While the interaction was brief, he seemed to be a very friendly man, and the people around him also were warm and friendly.  They immediately asked if I wanted to meet Wimpy, as he was at the showgrounds that evening for a party at the Xtra Quarter Horses' stalls.  Well, heck yeah, I wanted to meet him!!

To meet a legend is a very special thing.  Wimpys Little Step is twelve years old now, and looks to be the picture of health and vigor.  And he was so sweet!  He is personable and gentle, and I think just really wants to be scratched on his sweet spot near his withers.  Everyone around him was so gracious - thank you to the Xtra staff for sharing him with us. 

The next morning, we arrived to join the crowd amassing in the sale arena before the Futurity Prospect Sale.  The sale arena at the State Fair Arena is a relatively small area, and during the sale, it gets just packed with people - every trainer and owner of merit is there, faces you most often see in the industry magazines.  People are speaking different languages, some are doing some last minute promoting, some are trying to arrive at their reserve price and everyone is people watching.  The atmosphere is electric.  So much money is at stake, and everyone is angling to play the game.  I was very nervous - how could you not be? - so it was probably a fortuitous twist of fate that The Colt was hip #3 and so early in the sale.  Better to get in there and get it over with!

When it was The Colt's turn, we stepped inside to watch the bidding.  The auctioneer's voice called out bigger and bigger numbers - I honestly felt faint! When it was over, The Colt was sold for $200,000 to Lorenzo Vargas, Wimpy's owner and the kind man that I had met the night before.  As I stood in the arena with Vaughn, his son Justin, Lorenzo and the Xtra team for a picture, it honestly felt surreal.  A colt I bred was the High Seller at the Prospect Sale!  It was the moment that everything changed.  I wanted to cry, I wanted to jump up and shout.  For my mare, this was a game-changer.  That is what this is all about for me; having the rest of the world recognize what I have known for a long time: that my mare Bam Bam is really special.  And any worry I might of had about The Colt changing hands was erased by having serendipitously met Lorenzo and his fine staff the night before.  The Colt is in excellent hands.

What happens now?  Well, The Colt is on his way toward a stellar career and I ask everyone to say a little prayer for his continued good health and soundness.  Anything can happen in the next year, but I have a feeling that The Colt is going to be a contender next year.

As for Bam Bam, she has a hot date with a gorgeous palomino stud....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Defensive Riding?

I am a country girl.  I was born to run barefoot, play in lakes and ride my horses.  Other than the years surrounding my time at college, I have lived most of my life outside the city limits, and enjoyed the freedoms that go with that.  One such freedom has always been having access to places to 'ride out' on my horses.  As I have gotten older, I have seen that being able to safely ride off your property is a luxury that we are slowly losing, and may someday disappear all together.

I have kept horses in a variety of situations, and some were where we had access to trails through surrounding woods, or we had permission to ride around farm fields or orchards owned by neighboring farmers.  This is how it was when I was growing up; it was great fun to take the horses out with friends and just walk and talk.  I have also kept horses at stables that were smack dab in the middle of a busy urban area, where there was very little riding out unless you could haul out.  It is incredibly dangerous to cross a crosswalk on horseback at a busy intersection with six lanes of traffic, bicycles and drivers who know absolutely nothing about a horse - and think that the best thing to do is honk at them!  I haven't done this myself, thank you, but I have seen people try it, and it always worries me.  As soon as I was finished with school, I moved my horses out of the city, seeking that relaxed - and relatively safer - environment where I could ride out if I wanted.

And we found that place, or so we thought.  I have come to the realization that it is becoming more and more difficult to find safe places to ride, no matter where you go.  First, there is less land available for it, because of urban sprawl and because there is less public land available.  More roads are paved, which increases vehicle speeds.  And fewer people have horses than when I was growing up, so fewer people understand horses, and therefore, don't necessarily how to handle vehicles, ATV's, bicycles or dogs around them.  And maybe, just maybe, people these days are a little more self-involved, rushed or too distracted by techno gadgets to pay attention while they are driving.

Nowadays, if you are riding your horse next to a road or on public land, you really need to prepare as if your life could be in danger.  Always wear bright colored, reflective clothing, even if it isn't dark when you go out. Know your route, and take roads that have wide shoulders or ditches where you can take your horse well off the road when traffic passes.  Do not assume that the driver (or rider) coming at you understands a horse's body language - or is paying attention to it.  Wave your arms or hold up your flat palm to ask them to slow down if possible.  Be ready to jump down and just hold your horse if he seems antsy, and he risks putting you in front of traffic.  And please be prudent when taking young or untrained horses out.  It is kind of unfair, because the only way a horse really gets an education is to be exposed to things, but you really must choose carefully when and where that experience comes.

I live in an area where the roads have many shallow hills, just a big enough dip to hide a vehicle who is speeding your way.  Not very far away from my house, a farmer was nearly killed when he was hit from behind by an SUV while driving his tractor down a rural (dirt) road.  The SUV was flying had come up over a hill into a dip, where there was no way to see the tractor or slow down.  I have had similar things happen to me while riding, as you maybe have too. We have had so many close calls that we no longer drive our pony down our road.  The shoulders are so steep that it would cause the cart to tip if we had to get over there, and there would be little contest between our little old cart and a truck doing 65.  And again, I live way out in the country, where, you'd think, you'd be able to drive or ride your horse.  But reality is that those days may be ending.

So drivers - let's raise some awareness.  In my neighborhood, the people that speed past when we ride down our road, without giving us an inch, are not my neighbors that I know have horses.  So I have to assume, dear reader, that you are also a horse person and thus, slow down when you encounter someone riding next to the road in your area, maybe even give them a conciliatory wave and a smile.  I also hope that if you think they are having trouble with their horse, you would stop completely or pull off.  Twice in my life I have witnessed people being dumped next to the road (not because of me or my driving btw), and I got out and caught the horse for them.  Let's mentor that kind of behavior in other people.  Let's show our passengers the correct way to handle a vehicle when horses are near the roadway; by slowing down, being aware and courteous.  When we are passengers of people who aren't horse-savvy, a polite heads-up to the driver might, in fact, save someone's life, or their horse's.  Maybe by doing our part, someone will do the same for us when we are the ones on the horses.

Happy Thanksgiving and take care out there!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Extending a Warm Welcome

How diversified is your barn?  Do you own horses from several breeds, or are they all of the same breed?  I am wondering this because I myself love all breeds of horses, but have seen that not everyone is as accepting of breeds outside of their chosen one.  And I often wonder why there aren't more horses from 'other' breeds competing within associations that aren't breed specific, like in the NRHA.

I believe part of being open and accepting, not to mention knowledgeable, of other breeds is about where a person is raised.  I was raised in Southwestern Michigan, and when I was growing up, there were many breed associations that thrived there, and a person might see literally any breed being shown at the local fairs and horse shows.  Through 4-H and showing at open shows, I had friends who showed Morgans, Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses, Hackneys, Drafts, warmbloods, and everything in between, and because sportsmanship was something we were raised on in 4-H, we didn't treat someone differently because they rode a different breed or style. We were all horse lovers, and held a common thread.  And if there was a reining class offered, people would give it a shot, whether they rode a Quarter Horse or a mule.

Another truth is that I was raised on the conviction that a good Arabian could do anything - I believe that it was even the Registry's slogan in the 80's...."The Versatile Breed."  My horses all rode English, western, sidesaddle, did halter, trail, jumping, and the list went on.  At around the age of 12, I fell in love with riding western, and set out to make my purebred gelding into a western pleasure horse, which he happened to love.  From there, I met a trainer who introduced me to reining, and I was blown away.  It became my obsession, but it was obvious that my hard-working little gelding was not cut out for it.  It was difficult for me to take, and stands out now as the moment when the budding trainer inside me realized that in order to do really well at any given equine sport, you have to specialize, in both your breeding intentions and in your training regime.  You can do a lot of different things decently, even well, but if you really want excellence, you have to focus your energy.

It was around this time, in my early teenage years, that I rode my first QH reiner, and it was apparent to me right away that the horse fit his job perfectly.  For me, it was akin to the feeling that a race car driver might feel when they first experience a superior vehicle on the track; I instantly knew that I had to have one to continue to experience that rush.  Even though I showed my Arab for several more years, and loved him very much, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted more.  Eventually, I sold my Arab reiner (to a great home) and bought my first Quarter Horse.  I learned quickly, though, that I shouldn't tell people that I came from Arabs, because a lot of the QH people I met looked down on them.  And they treated "Arab people" differently.  I knew the bloodlines, the maneuvers, the trainers and the training techniques so I was able to "pass" as a Quarter Horse person, and eventually, it became that I was a Quarter Horse person.

That was 20 years ago. I have never regretted going in that direction; I love and admire Quarter Horses, especially reiners, and my life has been an interesting journey because of them.  I have met wonderful people, made great friends, and enjoyed watching reining become a world phenomenon. I am proud of every reiner that I have bred, and hope that the NRHA, and the horse industry as a whole, remains viable and relevant.  But I have kept up with other breeds too, and I have to speak up and say, why aren't we seeing more participation in reining events by breeds other than Quarter Horses?  Arabians and Morgans have come a really long way in breeding for better reiners.  They have learned, as I did, that in order to obtain excellence, you must focus your energy, and they have been breeding horses with bigger, rounder rear ends, more angulation in the hind legs and thicker stifles/gaskins, all of which enhance the horse's stop.  It is in the stop where you see the most discrepancy between a lighter breed and a Quarter Horse - they simply are heavier behind and can plant their butts easier.  A light breed can spin, circle and change leads as well as a Quarter Horse can, given their natural agility, so it is the stopping power that breeders have focused on.  And trainers can now access and share training methods so easily, so the playing field is getting more and more even.

Yet, rarely do you see other breeds show at NRHA events.  The NRHA is, after all, a performance association, and should want to attract anyone into their competitions.  To me, attracting people from other breeds is an easier endeavor than attracting people who have never owned a horse before, which is what many activities seemed aimed toward, like the WRL.  And by "attracting," I don't mean trying to get them to abandon their previous breed and just buy Quarter Horses; if they choose to buy a QH, great, but that doesn't need to be the goal.

What I mean is, finding a way to celebrate and reward participation in NRHA events by other breeds.  I am not a show manager, nor have I sat on any show committees, so I am not going to try to lay out exactly how that would be accomplished.  Counting points earned in NRHA events toward a year end participation award might give people from other breeds an incentive.   NRHA should understand, they now cut a pretty big, important profile in the global horse industry.  It is one of the biggest, most powerful horse associations in the world; the sport of reining has taken the world by storm, and is one of the only associations that hasn't lost money and numbers in recent years.  There is a lot of prestige associated with earning money with the NRHA association, and other breeds see that and want a piece of it.  Surely we can find ways of embracing what they can do and how far they have come. The first step, I think, is just being nice, and making people want to be there.  Then, give them a way to participate.

I mentioned all this in a chat room not too long ago, and while a couple people said that they knew a person that showed an "other" breed at NRHA events, not all the feedback was positive.  One person said, "The Arab people have their own shows, why would they want to come to ours?" and another said, "Oh, those poor little Arabs aren't even allowed to show against the Quarabs!'  Wait a minute....Isn't the goal to show reining as something that is fun to do?  An event that emphasizes control of the horse through maneuvers?  Something that has been described as Western dressage?  In dressage, huge-strided Warmbloods dominate the Olympics, but do you think that a local dressage trainer turns away a new customer because they don't ride one, or worse, tells them that their horse isn't good enough, and that they need to buy a Warmblood?  No, or at least, I hope not.

And think about it...the dressage people are doing it pretty well.  There are far more dressage instructors in this world, far more people who ride dressage than reining - even though there is less money in showing it!  The reason is that dressage is seen as something any horse can do - maybe not all are able to do it equally well, but they are rewarded for what they CAN do.  Progressing and besting your own score is valued.  This is absolutely the driving force in my participation in the Western Rider Development Programme - an organization that celebrates and rewards individuals as they progress in training their horses to do western/reining maneuvers.  I think this is part of a grassroots movement to make reining more accessible. Check it out!

Do you have any ideas on how to open up reining to other breeds and associations?  I'd love to hear them.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Just Give It One More Try

Today I'd like to share a story about myself that might not seem immediately related to horses.  But then again, it might...

I grew up on beautiful Paw Paw Lake in Southwestern Michigan, a picturesque place where many of the grand houses are owned as resort homes by wealthy out-of-staters.  My family lived there all year long, and as teenagers, in the summer, we hung out with other lake kids, both local and city kids from Chicago and the like. We all had boats of some type and spent many gorgeous summer days cruising around, or hooking up with other boats of friends.  We also did plenty of tubing, but water skiing eluded me.  We did not own a speed boat*, and somehow, I just never got the chance to learn.  A friend of mine from Illinois happened to be a champion ski jumper - he even had a ramp in the water in front of his house - so I spent plenty of time watching other people water ski, but I was honestly a bit nervous to try.  This particular friend finally convinced me to try it with him, and so one perfectly beautiful summer day, I found myself at the end of a tow rope with two seemingly huge skis on my feet.

Now, I was an excellent swimmer back then, and I had good balance and strength from riding horses for many years, but still, getting up on those skis proved to be pretty difficult for me.  I crashed over and over and over.  I shudder to think how much lake water I probably swallowed.  Go ahead and laugh - it was awful!!  I flipped, flopped and was dragged.  I kept track- I wiped out 12 times.  At that point, my arms were shaking, and I hurt all over.  I was ready to get out, but my friend jumped in the water with me.  As we swam, we laughed at my last 'landing' and then he said, "Try one more time.  For me.  You are so close, I just know it."  Aaaahhhh.  Ok, fine.

Well, wouldn't you know?  I got up, that very next time!  It felt amazing - flying over the water, past the other boats, full of sunbathers watching ME ski by!  I probably looked like a gum commercial, skiing by with a big grin on my face!!  My friends drove the boat in the most gentle and steady manner so as to keep me up, and we managed to go all the way around the lake before my arms gave out.  I let go, and gracefully sunk down into the water, completely and utterly satisfied with myself.  I don't think I stopped smiling either, for at least a week! 

I didn't water ski too much after that, and if I tried it now, it would most likely take me more than 13 tries to get up, but I have never forgotten this lesson.  DON'T GIVE UP. You may make it on your very next try!  How many times are you willing to fall on your face for your dreams?

*Over the years, we had row boats, paddle boats, pontoon boats, and jet skis, but never a speed boat.  When my sister and I would beg our parents for a boat that we could tube or ski behind, my dad would say, "Well, we just need to sell the horses and the trailer, and then we could have a really nice boat."  Yeah, that shut us up fast.  haha!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Good Horse Makes For Short Miles

Good morning and Happy Tuesday!

The past few weeks I have been spending quite a bit of time in the barn and riding.  The weather has been great, and my training horses have been doing very well, so I feel very fortunate to be able to spend that time in the saddle.  It won't be long, and the cold will deter me, so I am taking advantage of it now.

On the 11th of November, we will reach the 90 day mark in Candy's training. [I have covered Candy before - read here]  This is a great time to evaluate how a young one is doing, as it is enough time usually for them to trust you so you can get something done with them.  Candy, whom I like to call 'Little Sister' in honor of her two wonderful older brothers, Atley and Broque, is doing wonderfully.  When she came to me, she had spent most of her life outside, in a herd, being handled only to do basic vet procedures and occasionally being tied up to be fed.  She has been a sweet girl from Day One though, never seeming to be adverse to the training process; rather, she has always been eager to please, even if she wasn't sure what exactly to do.

I am now riding her in a snaffle rather than a sidepull, and have moved from riding her in a round pen to working her in my large, open, riding area.  I am happy to say that she appears to handle much like her brothers - she is light on your legs (without spurs), sensitive to the rider's movements but not jerky or hot, follows her nose beautifully and is proving to have a nice, soft mouth.  She backs, circles well, and is just starting to rate her speed.  She is thoroughly un-spooky, and up until this point, she and I have not had any major blow ups, nor do I expect to.  I just LOVE riding her!  So often, a trainer must spend a big chunk of time fixing what the previous trainer did to a horse.  It is a wonderful thing to get one that is untouched and have the opportunity to create a horse free of bad behaviors and/or fear.  Her owner is very happy with how she is doing, and I am pretty sure Candy is happy too; when I walk into the barn to get her out, she nickers to me - - and no, she doesn't get treats! :)

One thing that I have had to adjust to, though, is a different saddle.  I have been complaining lately about all the wear and tear that my work tack is taking, and Candy's owner suggested that I try one of her 'extra' saddles - a treeless Sports Saddle.  I was wary*, but gave it a try, and have been pleasantly surprised.  First off, I love how lightweight it is.  And it is REALLY comfortable.  This saddle isn't meant for collection work, or for schooling fast turns at speed, but for putting miles on a three yr old?  Perfect!  And I don't have to feel guilty this winter about getting on my leather saddles with muddy boots!

Have you ever tried a Sports Saddle?  How hard is it for you to ride in tack that is different than what you are used to?

*I had tried to ride in one last year, on a different horse, and it felt very awkward to me at the time.  The one I had used previously had a fleece seat cover on it, making me feel like I was sitting WAAAAAY up on the horse, and it was 'roll-y' to boot.  This time, no seat cover, and I am much happier.  This saddle is tricky though - when you sit down in it, everything compresses, meaning your girth is immediately loose, which, of course, lends itself to rolling.  I have gotten very good at tightening the girth while mounted, which helps tremendously!

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Scariest Ride

Happy Halloween!  In the spirit of this spooky day, I was thinking about fear, and times that I have been scared while riding.  I haven't had too many bad wrecks, but like anything else, it is the anticipation of something scary that is the worst, especially since it can cause things to spin out of control when you are on a horse.  I'd like to share such an experience with you....

Many years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I went to work for an Arabian/National Show Horse trainer as her assistant. This meant that I was tasked with many different things; feeding, grooming, working horses, of course, but also starting young horses under saddle.  The trainer, myself, and the other assistant each had a list of horses that we worked, and of course, some of them were nicer to have on your list than others.

Through either fate or bad luck, somehow I got Ladyhawke on my list.  She was a tiny NSH mare, and deceptively cute.  She had had very little handling before coming to me, so I did the normal things with her; groundwork and lunging, eventually climbing on her while being led.  I would have described her as 'a bit squirrely'.  She was extremely sensitive to my legs, easily surprised when presented with new things, and not exactly "joined up" with us, but at the time, I was in my early 20s and had ridden some pretty feisty horses, so I was typically cavalier about it.  After working with her for about 2 weeks, I started taking her around the arena on my own, and had even started trotting her (no doubt BEFORE I was sure that she knew the word 'whoa').  As they say, hindsight is 20/20....

One day, I was riding Ladyhawke in the arena while the shoer was there working on horses.  The arena was connected to the barn by a dirt ramp that goes up to the barn, where, to the immediate right, there are crossties, and where the shoer had his truck parked, in the barn aisle, so as to have access to his forge.  The barn was very noisy that day, with everyone moving horses, people cleaning stalls, hollering over the forge and the shoer's hammer.  As I rode past that end of the arena, something spooked Ladyhawke, which caused my legs to bang against her, and she was OFF. 

There are times when flight animals are so terrified for their lives that they are no longer thinking; their only conscious desire is to get away.  That is where Ladyhawke was, and I quickly realized this as I did everything I could do to get the horse to stop.  But because the mare was so green and hadn't put any trust in me yet, every movement I made only scared her more, and she flew around that arena like she was on fire.  I had her head on her chest, see-sawing, trying to circle her, saying whoa over and over. None of it was did any good - and as the mare came back around to the ramp end of the arena, she saw it as her way out, and made a quick 90 degree turn up the ramp and another immediate 90 degree turn into the barn aisle, all while running blind in terror.  I managed to stay with her and she somehow made it past the shoer's truck; there was only enough space to lead a horse through there, and am surprised that I didn't take out his rear view mirror with my knee.

At this point, I was scared.  When I had been flying around the arena on her, I was upset, of course, but had tried to focus on solving the problem and getting her stopped.  The second she decided to exit stage right, I realized that this could end very badly.  As she ran down the barn aisle toward the two barn doors, which were partially closed that day due to a cold wind, I experienced for the first time my life flashing before my eyes.  She made it through the doors - I swear, if she had been any bigger, she would have broken both of  my legs - and out she went.  I remember thinking, as long as I am on her back, she is going to keep running.  Get off.  Now.  The anticipation of what that meant made me hesitate a moment.  You know it is going to hurt to hit the ground, but I knew running through a fence would hurt more.  And I saw a patch of grass and literally dove for it.

As I got up off the ground, slowly, and everyone came running out of the barn to see what happened, I was SO grateful.  While I was very sore for about a week, there were no broken bones, no serious injuries except to my pride.  It was terrifying to be so completely out of control of a horse I was on, but I learned some valuable lessons that day, like how to take my time with the young ones, and not to move on to the next step until you are really sure the horse is ready.  I also spend a lot more time in a confined space teaching them the basics, and I always wear a helmet when starting young horses now.  But most importantly, I think I have learned that the anticipation of an event can be worse than it actually is.  Sometimes we don't have good choices in life; we have to go through certain things to learn our lessons, but we can't let fear be a distraction.  We have to swallow the fear, take the leap, and have faith that we can handle whatever happens next.

* As for Ladyhawke, she ran to the other end of the farm, but was caught and brought back without any incident or injury.  A few days later, the head trainer had a local guy who did rodeo and rode broncs come out to work with her.  Unfortunately, she wasn't going to go along easy and dumped him the first time after he had only ridden her about 25 feet.  He got back on, and this time he lasted about a minute.  He wasn't inclined to get back on after that, and neither was anyone else.  The trainer, who happened to own her, then decided to turn Ladyhawke back out to 'grow up a little.'  I don't know what happened to her, but I hope that her good looks inspired someone to put in the time with her.  No doubt she would have been quite a project for someone, but ultimately worth it.  She was definitely athletic!  haha! 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mind If I Vent A Little?

Mondays are typically NOT my favorite day of the week; I usually feel grumpy and can never get enough coffee.  I might be a little bit picky, snippy, or *GASP* bossy on Mondays, at least more so than on other days.  ;) So, in reflection of my Monday mood, I want to vent a little about a pet peeve I have: horses that are "hip high."  This conformational fault is one that I can't abide, and I can't understand why anyone else would either!

To be clear, we are talking about a horse whose point of the hip is higher (sometimes MUCH higher) than the point of its withers, causing the horse to move downhill on its front end.  This trait is often associated with a long back, another fault that bothers me to a high degree.  You must always take into consideration a horse's age when evaluating his hip-to-withers height ratio, as horses grow unevenly, and you can't be completely sure of exactly where they are until the age of four or five.  But don't be blithely dismissive though - many three yr olds are so hip high that it is a real gamble that their front end will be able to catch up.  If they also have a long back, you probably are looking at a permanently hip high horse.  There are a lot of them around.

What is the problem with a hip high horse?  First, they are AWFUL to ride.  They tend to take pounding strides with their front legs, the concussion of which then runs up their leg to you in the saddle, jarring every bone in your body.  At the lope, their overly long hind leg coming up under their body causes an additional 'bump' to you in the saddle.  They are very difficult to collect, since rounding their back can be anything from mildly uncomfortable to downright impossible.  They are often very hard to fit a saddle to; the saddle slides forward, pinching the withers and jabbing the shoulders.  Worst of all, these horses are more prone to injury and pain, from the concussion to their joints, to strained tendons and ligaments to back problems.  A younger horse might be able to get by with this physical limitation, but by the time a hip high horse is aged, they are going to be hurting somewhere.  Being hip high shortens their useful lives.

Where are these horses coming from?  There is no doubt that this conformational fault is present in all breeds, but I sure see it A LOT in the Quarter Horse breed.  I attribute this to several factors.  One, QH cutting horses are bred to get low on a cow - to get down with its elbows in the dirt to look a cow right in the eye.  Having a long back and a high hip is an advantage here.  The problem with that is that those young cutting horses are only actually used on cattle for a few short years.  They may be taken out of training due to injury, or because the cost of training them on cattle outweighs the potential earnings in the show ring. [Keeping a cutter on fresh cattle is expensive, and so cutting training is a big investment in a horse.]  So a young, hip high cutter will inevitably have to transition to a new career, since opportunities to work on actual cattle ranches is also a shrinking percentage.  That career, if they are lucky enough to find a good home, will most likely be as a pleasure horse.

The high hip trait also comes from the infusion of Thoroughbred blood in the QH breed.  Being hip high is an advantage to young racehorses too, and since almost all QHs have some Thoroughbred in them, the trait was passed in this way as well.

Hip high horses might achieve a lot in their young lives in the competitive arena, before injury sets in, and so their name might carry a very high profile in the breeding shed.  This is when people begin to ignore the obvious fault, or even count it as a positive.  Have you ever heard someone brag about how big their horse's rear end is, how they 'have a huge motor back there,' or go so far as to attribute the horse's speed or prowess to the high hip ratio?  While it may be true in the short term, I always add silently in my mind, "Ugh, and I bet he is a pain in the butt to ride...." 

Who wants to ride a horse that is so rough you worry that you will seriously damage your spine?  Who wants to have to pay for bute and injections and cortisone to get your horse just barely rideable?  And will need to be euthanized at an early age because they are so crippled up you can't stand it anymore?  We cannot breed horses for careers that they will only have for less than 25% of their lives!  We have to balance the need to create an animal that can compete as a young horse with one that can have a vital, active, comfortable life beyond the competitive arena.  We need to breed fewer horses that have such a limited shelf life.

And for goodness sake - - we need to breed horses that are comfortable to ride.  Think of your horse's poor trainer's back, would ya?!?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Selling Horses, Saving Face

A good friend in the horse industry, with whom I did business with for several years, once told me that for a good deal to be struck, both parties needed to emerge from the deal happy.  What he was articulating to me is called "saving face" and is an important part of any negotiation, whether it is between two corporations or two individuals.  The definition of 'face' is that which affects our personal self-image, such as dignity, honor, status, or pride, and can fluctuate based on what we perceive as feedback within an interaction with another person.  In other words, it can be taken away, such as when we feel we have been insulted or threatened, and it can be given, such as when our worth is acknowledged, we are complimented and treated with respect.

When we practice the art of saving face, we are attempting to save face for ourselves, but also for the party with whom we are negotiating, and in doing so, we are helping to ensure that a deal comes out good for everyone involved.  In horses, that could mean the two parties reach a sale price on a horse that both the buyer and seller feel is appropriate.  But more importantly, it means that even if you don't reach an agreement on a price or other details, you both can walk away with dignity intact, and hopefully, with friendships and future business possibilities intact too.

The dance of negotiation is a delicate one, and is influenced by many different variables.  Dr. Stella Ting-Toomey did the most comprehensive study of face negotiation theory that I could find to (at least partially) explain how these variables work within a negotiation.  Her studies have won her accolades, and many of her concepts where introduced to me when I was studying communication in college.   She is a trainer, consultant and mediator for major corporations and universities, so her concepts have been proven in the real world.

First, let us consider a person's conflict style.  According to Dr. Ting-Toomey, these are:
  1. Dominating-emphasizes a person’s own position, one person asserts their dominance over the other, win-lose
  2. Avoiding-involves eluding the conflict topic, situation and party altogether, lose-lose as neither party wins and the conflict goes unresolved
  3. Obliging-characterized by high concern for the other’s interest above own, one individual gives in to the demands of the other, this is a lose-win situation and is useful when one party is not fully committed to his/her position
  4. Compromising-is the give-and-take approach, both parties give something up in order to find a middle ground and reach a solution, this is a lose-lose although a positive solution may result and is useful when both parties are equally committed to their positions
  5. Integrating-reflects high concern for one’s self and the other, win-win useful when both parties are equally committed to their positions and results in a positive solution for both parties.
The style in which you operate, along with the degree to which you attempt to protect mutual face-interest -  how diplomatic you are - is generated by the culture in which you were raised. Here in the US, we are collectively an individualistic culture, so we tend to favor the more direct routes to conflict, but on an individual basis, we certainly vary within these styles, sometimes from moment to moment!

Dr. Ting- Toomey also details another facet of negotiation that I find interesting: face content domains, which are the levels in which a person will engage in saving face.  They are:

  1. Autonomy-represents our need for others to acknowledge our independence, self-sufficiency, privacy, boundaries, and non-imposition.
  2. Inclusion-our need to be recognized as worthy companions, likeable, agreeable, pleasant, friendly, cooperative
  3. Status-need for others to admire our tangible and intangible assets or resources: appearance, attractiveness, reputation, position, power, and material worth
  4. Reliability-need for others to realize that we are trustworthy, dependable, reliable, loyal, and consistent in words and actions
  5. Competence-need for others to recognize our qualities or social abilities such as intelligence, skills, expertise, leadership, networking, conflict mediation, and problem-solving skills
  6. Moral-need for others to respect our sense of integrity, dignity, honor, propriety, and morality
The above is basically a list of all the ways that you must try to satisfy the person you are negotiating with, or conversely, all the ways that you could offend them.  Like the conflict styles, the amount of energy that you put into each of these different domains is determined by your personal upbringing.  There are some people that truly need to feel included more than anything, some need to prove their competence or intelligence, and others that are driven by status.

In becoming a more competent negotiator, you need to know what drives you; however you'd like to evaluate that is fine - take the face content domains, rank them 1 through 6 in importance, or make a pie chart and decide what percentage out of 100% each represents to you.  Or maybe one just simply jumps out as you as your own personal Achilles Heel.   Look again at the list of conflict styles, and honestly ask yourself what your modus operandi is; do you try as much as possible to avoid conflict?  Do you truly know how to negotiate, or do you attempt to dig in until the other party gives in?

Next, ask yourself, how committed are you to helping the person you are negotiating with to save face?  You can see how there would be a WIDE variability on how much a person cares about making the other person feel good about the negotiation; some people simply don't care what the other person feels, as long as their personal needs are met.

So what if you don't bother trying to help your 'opponent' save face?  What does it matter?  It could matter a great deal in the long run.  According to Dr. Chester Karrass, another negotiation expert, "During a negotiation, when our self-image is threatened, hostility emerges. When an individual feels threatened they may make threats of their own, walk away, or become apathetic—but all usually get angry. Experiments show that people, given a chance, retaliate against the person who attacks their ego. Those who have "lost face" are willing to suffer losses to themselves if they can cause the abuser to suffer."  In this age of instant global communication, youtube, and all the social networks, the deal between two people over a horse that cost $X can turn into a huge mess that costs $X x10 in legal fees, loss of business and reputation, not to mention the personal losses and stress associated with being drug through the mud.  It pays to care about the other person in the deal.

In order to really learn and use the concepts presented here, one must look at themselves objectively.  Realize that You are not your conflict style, nor your face-content domain.  Rather, you are capable of using the style of your choosing at any time, and can also choose to emphasize and express different needs depending on the situation. That part is within your control. Secondly, put yourself in the other person's shoes.  Be aware of their needs and take responsibility for your actions toward those needs.  More than anything, recognize that you don't 'win' when the other person walks away defeated.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Art of Negotiation - Where To Begin

Trading horseflesh is a difficult thing to do; it has evolved into an art form over the past centuries in which humans have relied on horses as a means of transportation, conveyance of goods, war and prestige.  And while the means we have to help us sell horses has improved over the years, with the invention of photography, video and the internet, the actual dance of negotiation between the buyer and seller hasn't changed much at all.  It still comes down to how much the seller is willing to take, and how much the buyer is willing to give.  In between asking these questions and getting them answered, there is some gambling involved, some emotion, and even the occasional bluff.  For those who are seasoned horsemen, the task of getting a horse sold can be daunting, but laid in the lap of the amateur horse owner, it can seem overwhelming.

It is very easy for an owner in this situation to become overly reliant on a trainer's advice.  They are the expert in the business, and many new owners, or owners with a more casual interest in the sport, trust that trainers understand their wishes regarding their horses, and will translate those wishes into a smart sales plan.  They want to believe that the trainer has the owner's best interests in mind.  So often they are completely at the trainer's mercy; perhaps they live out of state, and can't see the horse in question first hand.  Perhaps they are too busy with work and life to spend much time analyzing the horse market and where their horse fits into it.  Or maybe they are in a financial position that requires an immediate dispersion of their herd.  In any case, the trainer is in the position of power in the relationship.

So you have a horse in training and for whatever reason, you make the decision that the horse needs to be sold.  You let your trainer know, and the very next question asked is, "What do you want for him?"  How do you proceed?  How are you supposed to know the 'right' price?  Setting the price too high could result in the horse sitting on the market, and setting it too low not only loses money, but also peace of mind.  The trainer is usually your link to expert opinion, but you still need to be aware that the trainer is in the business to make money.  If you have a good enough horse that the trainer would like to keep in his/her barn, they may want to find a deal where they can not only make a profit off commission in selling your horse, but also in future training/showing fees from another client in their barn.  It doesn't always pay to price a horse at what it is really worth when the future training fees far outweigh the sales commission.  This happens with breeding stock as well as performance horses.  Any trainer would love to come across a nice little broodmare sitting in someone's pasture  who is an own daughter of So-And-So where the owner has no idea of her real worth.  They buy her cheap and either keep her for themselves or resell her for big bucks.  There is a wide variety of scenarios that happen everyday in the horse industry, and while many of them are not illegal, there are plenty more that are borderline unethical.  Horse trainers come in every stripe; some are impeccably forthright in their dealings, others would sell their grandmothers for a buck.

The best advice?  Do your best to select your trainer carefully in the first place.  Take the time to talk to people in the area who can give you an idea of how a particular trainer operates.  Recognize that you have to be able to trust a trainer to make decisions in your place, and the placement of that trust requires more information than "a gut feeling."  Talk to vets, neighbors, former customers, current customers, local breed/show committee members.  Don't expect people to gossip with you, but if someone isn't a trustworthy business person or isn't kind to their horses, you will hear about it.  It will come out somewhere.  Here's another truth: when you first meet a trainer, and visit their barn, they are going to be nice to you.  Of course!  They want your business!  And while it is wonderful to be welcomed, remain circumspect.  Ultimately, this is a business transaction, and emotion should not be part of it.  So many people fail here... Every good horse trainer knows, "horses are bought and sold on emotion," so they become experts at playing those emotions for their benefit from Day One.  (Anyone selling luxury goods does...)  So try to find a trainer that moderates the relationship with their customers with honesty, and by listening to their conscience.

Secondly, take the time to know what you have in your stock.  The more information you have, the less you are at the mercy of someone else making decisions for you.  There are plenty of resources online for pedigree and performance information, and breed associations can direct you toward your appropriate source.  Check what similar horses are going for by searching ads, both locally and nationally.  Enlist your horsey friends' help, and get more than just a second opinion.  You may need several opinions in order to come to a true analysis of what your horse is worth, and where to market him.  If possible, find a professional horseman within your horse's competitive genre, and see if they would be willing to evaluate the horse for you.  This must be done delicately of course, as you do not want to insult your present trainer.  It is best to simply say, "I'd like to get several points of view before settling on a price."  Keep in mind that whomever you ask to give this second opinion should be a neutral party, so as to not create a competitive atmosphere.

Evaluating your stock requires an unbiased eye and an objective standard of judgement.  Your emotions toward the horse DO have a value, but only to you.  The buyer may also have emotions regarding your animal too, but don't count on them overlapping perfectly.  Do your best to honestly quantify your horse's strengths and how each of those strengths add up to a sale price. And be honest with yourself regarding your motivation to sell.  What is the most important factor in selling the horse?  If it is getting what the horse is truly worth to you, be prepared to wait it out.  If the most important thing is to get the horse sold quickly, give the sale a deadline, and adjust the horse's price accordingly.  Make sure your trainer knows that deadline.  If you are open-ended, the 'sale' of a horse can go on forever, and drain money away from your horse budget.

And lastly, don't be afraid to speak up and ask questions, and keep asking questions throughout the process.  Anyone who blows you off, or makes you feel silly for asking a question may not have your best interests at heart.  The next time you hear a horse trainer ask you "How much do you want for him?"  understand that they already know what he is worth.  What they are asking you is "where are we starting this negotiation?" It is OK to turn around and put the ball back in their court, and ask, "Well, what would you be willing to give me for him?"  but know that you will then be giving up the ability to name the starting point, which is where the advantage is.

I am hoping this line of thought gives you a wider perspective on negotiating a horse deal.  Soon, I will look at the art of saving face, and how that pertains to selling horses.  Thanks!  Have a great day!

PS - I really loved the scene in "True Grit" when Hailee Stanfield's character Mattie Ross deals with the town horse trader in a very mature fashion.  If only we could all be such great hagglers!!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Do-It-Yourself Meets the 21st Century

The world is getting smaller everyday, and the distances between us becoming shorter, thanks to the amazing technologies of mobile communications, satellites, and the world wide web. We are living in the future, folks, where we can remain in touch with anyone or anything we choose, with the touch of a finger or the click of a mouse. Information can be traded so easily that there is nothing in the world that you cannot access and learn through the Web, including horses. While the horse world has long used the internet to advertise and disseminate information, the opportunities to learn specific skills relating to horse training has been limited to more traditional, face to face instruction. Youtube overflows with videos demonstrating techniques, but in simply observing a video, the viewer is not able to ask questions, or have someone watch them perform the task on their own horse and give them feedback. Information only flows one way, limiting the learning opportunity.

A new online training system means to address this limitation – the Western Rider Development Programme. What if you could treat your desire to ride better the same as an online college course, but still get quality one-on-one instruction that was completely individualized to your needs? This is what the WDRP aims to do. They have organized a training syllabus into levels of ability that riders can ascend through at their own pace. Each individual lesson within the levels is fully explained in language that anyone can take out and use in their day to day riding. The rider may ask questions of a panel of experts, who are always available for support, and there are also articles that focus on the psychological aspects of riding. When the rider feels they are ready, they can submit a video of themselves performing the maneuvers required at that level, and can pass to the next level.

I am extremely pleased and proud to have been invited to contribute to the WDRP. I will serve on the panel of experts, taking questions and assisting in assessing individuals as they ascend the levels. I have already contributed an article, “Flexibility and Straightness,” to the website, so I invite you to check it out.

This innovative new way to learn about riding western will benefit many people; including those who live too far away from a qualified instructor to make lessons feasible, those who have a constantly changing schedule, or those who would like to learn new things and become a better rider on their own time. With internet/wireless technology, you can have the WDRP support and information with you anywhere! And for those riders who don't want to compete, they can earn recognition for the skills they master.

Judith Hubbard, one of the founders of the WDRP, says, “Here in the UK, and maybe in other countries around the world, it's not so easy to get access to regular western tuition. So we decided to find a 21st century solution - an internet-based training programme built around the www.westerntrainingonline.co.uk website. The website, and the online tuition provided, enables western riders to become more educated and develop their skills, no matter where they live. It's a simple concept, but it works! Over the coming months we'll add more to the website - there'll be more training articles as well as input from our growing panel of experts. And we're sure we'll be reporting lots of good news as our riders progress through the Programme!”

It is very exciting to share something in the horse world that is truly new and different and positive. I hope you take a look at it and give it a try.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ready, Willing and Able

Well, hello Autumn!  Yes, my favorite season has arrived, and I have been spending as much time as possible outside, soaking up the great weather that we've been having here in Kansas.  I have some wonderful training horses to work with right now, so the sunny skies have been matching up nicely with my sunny disposition in the saddle. One of them, a mare named Candy, was featured in an earlier blog posting, "New Week, New Horse," and I'd like to give you all an update on how she is doing.

Is it possible that some horses are just born to be ridden?  This fantastic little mare sure seems to be.  Candy has been nothing but good for the past two months that she has been with me.  When she got here, pretty much the only thing she knew how to do was tie; she had lived her young life in a pastured herd, with some recent experience being tied up to be fed.  When a trainer hears an owner tell them, "she knows nothing," we are usually more than a little concerned about what we are getting ourselves into.  But the owner is a close friend whom I trust in her instincts on horses, and I also trained this mare's two older full brothers, so I took her on.  I am glad I did.

My number one priority with Candy, as with any horse, has been to try to eliminate, as much as possible, any negative impressions or incidences the mare might have about being ridden and worked.  From Day One, everything my husband and I have done with her has been handled with great care so as to always foster Candy's confidence in herself and us.  Obviously, we had to start with the basics, and we made sure that the mare always understood before moving on to the next step.  The philosophy is that on any given day that you are working with a young horse, you can work on all the things you worked on the day before, plus one extra thing.  That's it.  When horses are young, they can't process several new things at once, and your chances of being successful begin to go down when you pile on a bunch of new challenges at once.  (And when I say successful, I mean, not just getting them to do whatever it is, but doing it with the least amount of negative emotional residue. If the horse walks away from a workout feeling frightened, stressed or confused, you have not been successful.)  Sometimes, the things you worked on the day before are enough, and you can't add a new thing, and that is OK.  When it comes to young horses, my belief is that it is better to err on the side of caution, take your time and build slowly.  I know there are people out there that pride themselves on how quickly they can "get a horse broke," but I prefer to ride the one that had careful, patient schooling in which the lessons were allowed to really sink and and be understood.

So Candy went from being led and free-lunged to lunged on a line in a round pen, to being lunged in an open area, then lunged saddled, then mounted and standing, then mounted and led, and finally to being mounted and ridden independently.  When I first sat on her, she wasn't in much of a rush to go anywhere; she wanted to just sit and adjust to the weight of me on her back. When I eventually got her moving forward, she was hesitant and a bit stodgy, so I worried that we would have a lazy one on our hands.  On the contrary, after allowing her time to build up the muscles in her back at the walk, she and I have been trotting around without any problems.  She has been calm and quiet and, dare I say, satisfied with herself every step of the way.  She is already showing sensitivity to my leg, and thankfully, a decided indifference to things going on around her.  I am extremely pleased!  I am riding her in a bitless side-pull bridle, so we will be introducing her to a snaffle bit sometime soon, as well as riding her outside the ring, and with other horses.

As for comparing her to her two older brothers, Atley and Broque (pronounced 'Brock'), she clearly favors Atley in her personality; she loves to be loved on, and is very affectionate.  I told her owner, "If you had to walk past a fire-breathing dragon with Candy, all you would have to do is put your hand on her neck and coo to her, and she will go anywhere you tell her."  I think she is very much like Broque too though, because both of them are very sensitive.  They respond to a slight, soft touch, or little shift, or a murmur. What is incredible about all of them is that they are so willing; none of them have given any major resistance along the way.  I know that this is due to three important facts:
  • It is readily apparent from examining these three sibling's conformation that they are the product of two fantastic horses.  And when you spend time around them, you can see that their sire and dam also imparted fantastic MINDS in these horses.  They are quick, but calm thinkers.
  • Allowing them to be horses in a herd with minimal human interaction can work well, as long as the interactions they do have are handled with care.  There is something to be said for a horse that grows up relying on itself and its herd, rather than seeing man as a treat machine and/or someone to rub that itchy spot.  These three are not spoiled in any way.
  • Taking the time to do things right actually makes the whole process go faster.  In allowing the horse to fully understand a skill before moving on, I don't have to go back and correct as much. 
  All three of them have been fantastic to train, and I am honored to have had the job!   There will be more updates to come, so stay tuned....

Enjoy your day!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keeping My Balance

Good morning, everyone!  This is a different sort of blog entry this morning; instead of the editorial commentary that I have felt compelled to do as of late, this is more of a human interest piece - starring 'moi' as the human - about what I have been up to lately.

I have not been posting as many entries here, and yet, have seen my page views and followers steadily increase, and I want you to know that I deeply appreciate your support.  I have gotten so much positive feedback and encouragement lately, and through this, I feel the need to be the very best writer I can be.  I have also heard you tell me to write in other forms and have been exploring new avenues of opportunity.  I recently completed a tutorial on bending and straightness that will be included on the Western Training Online website on October 1st.  This is part of the Western Rider Development Programme, which I will be lending my services to on their panel of experts.  I am very excited about this - I think it will be a great way to have access to good training methods no matter where you are.  I find it just amazing that I am able to connect to like-minded individuals half way around the world, and contribute to constructive horsemanship!

In addition to the writing that I have been doing, I have been a VERY busy girl....most days begin long before sun up and extend far beyond sun down.  My oldest son has Asperger's Syndrome, and while he is doing fantastic in kindergarten so far this year, there are certain challenges to keeping things organized for him, and staying on top of all of his needs.  My youngest goes to preschool a couple of days a week, and seems to be in between being a big boy and still needing his momma.  We own ten horses, plus we have three training horses, so I have time demands out in the barn, along with weekly lessons to give.  There are meals to prepare, messes to clean up, paperwork to do, and of course, endless laundry.  On top of all that, I try to make sure that we spend time together as a family doing fun, silly stuff and do my best to remain connected to my friends.  I am always striving to stay balanced within all the demands, and it can be very difficult to accomplish, as many of you who are in the same position can relate. There ARE days when I manage to get everything done on my list, but many more when I do not.  I appreciate your patience!

I have so many great blog/article/book ideas that I have been working on!  The past three months of writing have taught me so much, and I am starting to feel confident in adding my voice to the discussion. I believe that everything happens for a reason, so I will continue down to explore and challenge myself, asking questions and finding topics that are relevant to the horse industry.

Thank you so much for reading!

Monday, September 19, 2011

YUM! Horsemeat!!

One of the most divisive issues within the horse industry these days is slaughter.  The debate over whether the US should allow horses to be processed, who is responsible for the care of the horses prior to being processed, how the slaughter ban has affected the unwanted horses situation are all topics that have been burning up Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms and magazine editorials.  The anti-slaughter people are militant in their quest to save horses from being killed and eaten, the pro-slaughter people are equally as zealous in their advocacy that slaughter will restore the horse industry and is "more humane than starvation."

I have made my slaughter views public here on this blog;  I am firmly against it because it is wasteful, unregulated, and removes any consequences or responsibility people ought to face for their breeding and training practices.  I am well aware, though, that those who stand in favor of re-instating slaughter in the US are numerous, especially among those who are members of the American Quarter Horse Association. 

On September 6th, I received an email from the AQHA Public Policy office regarding the Agriculture Appropriations Act.  It urged members of the AQHA to put pressure on their Senators to vote it down, saying its, "...unintended consequences include a sizeable negative economic impact on the horse industry and incidents of inhumane treatment of horses has risen.  The facts are in, the restriction is hurting industry and hurting animal welfare."  When I received the email I was dismayed; since when does a horse association, tasked with registration, show approvals, and breed promotion, get involved in politics?  It makes me uncomfortable.  The fact that AQHA promotes slaughter as a reasonable alternative to more responsible breeding practices (registering fewer horses per year) makes me uncomfortable too.  Their willingness to throw their weight around in the slaughter debate make me wonder who benefits from slaughter being passed, both politically and economically.

AQHA declared, "the facts are in."  Well, guess what....new facts are in!  An article came across my desk this morning that may make the AQHA, and every other pro-slaughter proponent, step back and reconsider.  This article discusses the real and potential risks of human consumption of horse meat.  An Irish research study of horse meat has found that Bute (phenylbutazone) is extremely toxic to humans, especially in children where it can cause aplastic anemia, a condition where bone marrow does not produce sufficient new cells to replenish blood cells.  Researchers have found that even a trace amount can cause these health problems, and that the compounds of Bute can remain in the animal's tissues indefinitely.   The European Union has made it a requirement that by 2013, all foreign entities shipping meat to Europe must comply with their traceability standards, in an effort to keep these dangerous drugs out of the food chain.

Americans tend to aspire to be mavericks, embracing a don't-tread-on-me attitude of independence.  We don't want to be regulated, nor do we want "Big Brother" to watch what we do, or have a hand in how we run our businesses and make a profit.  This has made it so that every time the governmental powers-that-be have tried to institute a national animal tracking program, the constituents of the horse industry have shot it down.  Every program was deemed to invasive or too expensive or impractical.  So we have no way of knowing where any of our unwanted horses came from, what they have been treated with and how safe they are to be consumed by humans. 

The Europeans have deemed that any horse over six months old must have a passport that details a completely clean drug history in order to be processed for slaughter.  Here in the US, nearly every horse over the age of six months has been wormed, most receive vaccinations, and, given that Bute is the most popular drug prescribed by veterinarians, a vast majority get Bute at least once in their lives.  How can we be sure what ANY of these compounds do to humans over time?  What about all the other drugs our horses get that we haven't studied yet?  We do not farm horses exclusively for slaughter here,  we breed them to perform, for pleasure and companionship, so almost all the horses that we send to slaughter are probably in violation of the standards that the EU is proposing.

Do we care - above and beyond our bottom line?  I know that there is a segment of our population that will continue to ship our horses to Mexico and Canada for processing, with the attitude that they matter less than us or that out of sight is out of mind.  But what if those neighbors of ours start to refuse the meat as well, taking a stand for their own public health?  I can only imagine what kind of liability nightmare this would bring to our country; given that we have refused to regulate and refused to track the industry.  What is ironic is that I bet the same crowd that refused to go along with governmental tracking of all horses in the US a few years ago are the same people that are proponents of slaughter. 

So let this be a wake up call to the horse industry.  We are being faced with a new reality.  Slaughter is not the way that we are going to save the horse industry.  We have to take responsibility for all the animals we produce; we need to breed fewer horses, we need to breed better horses. We need to educate people better so that they understand the implications of horse ownership, the consequences of breeding more horses, and how to give their horses basic skills that would allow the horse to be usable, and thus, saleable.  We need to consider our neighbors and our allies in other countries, and treat them as we would want our families treated. 

The horse industry has faced many eras of growth AND contraction, and it will survive, but we need to tailor our expectations of growth.  Growth at any cost has no place in an industry where lives, both of the horse and of those who consume them, are at stake.  Slaughter used to be an artificial corrector to the downward skew of quality vs quantity in the horse industry.  In other words, what we lacked in quality, we made up for in quantity, knowing a certain percentage of our horses bred would be high quality competition horses where money was to be made, a large percentage would be pleasure horses with a sliding scale from show horses  down to the undesirable horses that for whatever reason are deemed unusable.  Slaughter took those bottom horses out of the equation, erasing our mistakes and artificially painting a rosy picture.  Until we see our situation for what it truly is, and find proactive ways of solving it, we will continue to fight each other, and continue to risk poisoning ourselves.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

World Reining League Pt. 2

You may recall that last week I covered a new competitive equine organization being launched, the World Reining League. I have in my hand a copy of the application to become a rider for the WRL, along with the invitation letter that accompanied it. I am finding it very, VERY interesting.....

Not only is the WRL going to have professional cheerleaders, laser lights, a flying stage, be a completely choreographed and scripted entertainment event, finish with an award winning country and western music star, and let's not forget betting, it will:

  1. Introduce reining to a multitude of people that never even heard of reining before. (That is exactly as it was typed.)
  2. Make reining a spectator sport. (Isn't it already?)
  3. Bring reining to TV. (Again, isn't it already? How much of a market is there for reining TV shows?)

There's more big talk....”Each exhibition will be in different cities across the United States. Concurrently we will be initiating the same exhibition program in Europe,” as well as the intention to sell team franchises and engage in actual league competition. In an era in which the percentage of the general population that can own a horse is shrinking, when the number of shows held and the number of entries has gone down, when fan attendance is down across all major sports, I am finding it hard to believe that this level of grandiosity is possible, much less profitable.

You might be wondering how the WRL expects to pull in enough of an audience to keep this show on the road; it will be the showmen, elevated to the status of stars. It is abundantly clear on the application that this event is meant for the most elite show persons only; not only must you list your own *LTE, but also the LTEs of two horses that you intend to ride for the WRL exhibition. They ask for the AQHA and NRHA numbers for those horses too – I am wondering if the specificity of asking for an AQHA number precludes other breeds from participating.

Also on the application are two questions meant to gain release of the trainer's image for advertising purposes on their website, literature, DVDs and - this is important – any and all merchandise that the WRL may produce. In other words, they own your image, and they can put it on anything they wish.

But it is the last three questions on the application that really got my attention:
  • Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
  • Are you currently a defendant in any pending or ongoing criminal charge?
  • Are you currently a defendant in any pending or ongoing civil litigation?

What?? What is the purpose of those three questions? I am wondering how many $50,000+ LTE NRHA trainers there are out there that have a felony conviction or an ongoing criminal charge. And I am wondering who exactly they had in mind when they put this provision in their application.

The invitation letter also contained some interesting bits; such as, “Non-pros can ride for the WRL without affecting their NRHA Non-Pro Status.” Hmm, that sort of tells me that the WRL isn't really “in complete association with the NRHA”, doesn't it?

Another line in the letter states, “Once your application has been received you will be supplied with a complete set of Rules and Show Conditions.” Wouldn't you want to know these things before you signed off on it? Why the secrecy?

There is a lot of money at stake. The letter states that each rider selected to compete in a WRL exhibition will receive a $20,000 appearance fee, and each member of the winning team will receive a percentage of the gate plus merchandising sales with a guaranteed minimum of an additional $20,000 per rider. That will surely be tempting for some riders to give up a week of their time. But the whole thing is sounding like the WWF and the NRHA had a lovechild, who strangely resembles Dancing With the Stars. Is this going to be a big distraction from the traditional events that so many in the NRHA work so hard to put on and raise money for?

I called the NRHA to get their comments on the WRL, and was told that the WRL is not approved yet, as no conditions have been released by them yet. The NRHA is trying to determine if the WRL is going to follow NRHA guidelines, and that, I was told, should be finalized within a week or so. The NRHA is not sponsoring the WRL event in January, and it will only be promoted as a 'regular' event. It is not going to be included on the NRHA website, though the WRL would be able to purchase advertising as any other entity would. When I asked if the winnings would be counted toward a rider's LTE, I was told that it may be affected, but they are trying to figure out if WRL earnings would be counted toward the Top 20 Rider Standings.

I do not feel that this type of production is by any means a “regular event,” do you? This sort of sounds like a dance along the fence line. Either the WRL is a regular show, subject to the same terms, qualifications and conditions as the NRHA, or it's not. I understand that Silver Spurs has been a huge contributor to the NRHA in the past couple of years, but the NRHA going along for the WRL ride is something that we should all seriously consider this implications of. Once we buy the bed, we are going to have to lie in it.

*LTE – Lifetime Earnings

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Sky Is NOT Falling

An important part of my job as a blogger is to keep tabs on what is going on in the horse industry, and report my take on those happenings. One place that I frequently check for new subjects is the Quarter Horse News, and specifically, the blogs that they sometimes publish. I take everything I read there with a grain of salt; after years of subscribing, it is apparent to me that the QHN and its editors have a definite agenda that is evident in their writing and coverage of current events. Nevertheless, I recognize that a certain segment of our industry thinks like they do, and it is interesting and helpful to be able to identify those trends.

Recently, I read the most recent entry of “Katie's Blog” and was struck by the tone it took. The topic was on the USDA regulation of Tennessee Walker shows, and how it “had taken on a life of its own.” This blog entry characterized the inspections as inept, quoting a trainer (who had been disqualified due to scars present on his horse's legs) as saying, “The government went nuts. They don’t know what they’re doing. Absolutely don’t know what they’re doing.” Katie went on to question whether the government would soon be looking at other equine competitions, and would even go after people for tying up their horses.

She says several times that she isn't promoting cruelty, but I am puzzled....what is she promoting by trying to set the inspections of horses at competitions in such a negative light? The right of others to be cruel to their horses? That everyone should resist any monitoring, because “God forbid” it might lead to all of us losing our animals?

The “Big Lick” Tennessee Walker people have a long history of hurting horses for the sake of blue ribbons, and they are now getting what is due to them. Let's give the good people of our USDA some credit; they are not complete idiots. They aren't blind. If they see a horse with scars or marks that fall within the predetermined standards for abuse, the horse is out. OF COURSE the trainers who are ousted are going to be mad, and are going to say that it was wrong, but I am pretty sure that most Walker enthusiasts want to weed out those that continue the nasty practice of soring, and make a statement to the rest of the world that they advocate for the horse. We should applaud them!

The attitude that there is something wrong with monitoring horses at competitions is paranoid and will not prepare the performance horse industry for the scrutiny that will inevitably come. Katie writes, “But what about hobbling a horse? What about using spurs? What about saddle spots? …...” Every single one of the listed methods of horse handling can and should be examined in a logical way. For example, spurs. They are part of the normal operating equipment for training horses (for many people, not all) and when used properly, do not cause significant harm. Are there types of spurs that are harsher than others? Yes! Are there trainers who abuse them? Yes! So, therefore, should they be regulated, both in type used and method? Yes! That isn't something I need the government to tell me, it is common sense, so why wait until an activist gets upset by watching a trainer bloody his horse with spurs, gets photographic proof of it, and then calls in the government to start writing sanctions? Can't we monitor and discipline our own now, and set a tone for what is acceptable? If we are worried that the USDA won't be capable of adequately monitoring our sport, shouldn't we appoint trained, and extremely objective, inspectors to monitor what goes on in the warm up areas and within the show pen at events? Isn't it prudent to be a step ahead of the scrutiny, rather than being reactive and defensive?

The performance horse industry has long operated under a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy toward training methods and abusive practices. Somehow, the right to put a bike chain in your horse's mouth has fallen under the same umbrella of willful ignorance as the right to carry loaded guns into bars. After all, how can you compete with the other guy if you aren't equally armed? How many people out there feel that their right to jerk and spur sounds something like, “I'll give up my 'brain chain' bridle....when you pry it from my cold dead hands!”? And questionable practices are certainly more likely to be ignored if the person doing them is popular, has a big name and lots of money.

This isn't the Wild West, folks. The performance horse industry must work in harmony with the rest of a global society in order for it to prosper. I am not a paranoid person; I don't believe that we are headed for some type of war against the humane activists. I also don't believe that an activist's end goal is to stop all horse competitions – they just want the horses to be treated with respect. For a very long time, we have turned a blind eye toward abusive training practices. It is my belief that the new spirit of activism has arrived to put a check on the attitude of disrespect toward the animals we make our living from.

And we have a choice now; keep our blinders on, continue to mind our own business, continue to accept that which we know is wrong, continue to dig in our heels at change. OR we can step up and move forward, toward better riding, better equipment, better rules and better competitions. We can choose to reach out to those who are concerned about the animals, and create a more transparent industry in which questionable methods that were previously hidden are nonexistent. And we can drop the scary rhetoric – it isn't “us” against “them.” We all should be for THE HORSE.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Let's Make a Bet....On Our Future

A new form of reining competition has come across my desk this week.  It is called the "World Reining League."  It a project started by Michael Miola/Silver Spurs Equine & an astronaut by the name of Charlie Dry (while his bio on the WRL website is extensive, there is no mention of prior experience in the horse world), and is touted as, "Transforming the equine sport of reining into an electrifying spectator sport complete with adrenaline-charged professional competition and world class entertainment."  Their vision for the WRL is that it "will employ professional cheerleaders, laser lights, a flying stage, etc. – a real entertainment production – completely scripted and choreographed."   Competition will be limited to 8 professionals who will have to have won at least $50,000, and who will be divided up into teams - the WRL hopes to eventually sell team franchises.  There will be quite a lot of money at stake to win as each event will have a minimum payout of $240,000 with $40,000 to paid each member of the winning team and $20,000 to each member of the second place team. And there will be betting - in fact, they already have a bookie in Las Vegas ready to take it on.

I am scratching my head over all this.  Is this where we are headed in promoting horse sport?  I think we all want to grow the horse industry, and many of us in the reining world would love to see more TV coverage and more fan attendance to events.  But lasers & flying stages?  It says on their website that , "a WRL event will actually be a reining competition wrapped around a rock concert."  And add drinking and professional cheerleaders, and you've got yourself a pretty rowdy atmosphere.  Anyone wonder what their drug policy will be for the horses involved?  Will these events be monitored for humane treatment and by whom?  (Yeah, I said it.  Whenever there is a prize at stake, we have to make sure the horses aren't misused in pursuit of that prize.)

Ya gotta wonder too, what the ticket prices will look like; if they are truly going to limit these exhibitions to arenas with no less than 10,000 seats, and you have all these extra people to pay, including putting on a concert (which, let's face it, for an artist that I'd actually want to see, the tickets aren't less than $65, and that is just for a concert), tickets to these events won't be inexpensive.

I am not a gambler.  I have never gambled at a casino, nor at a racetrack.  I have on occasion played Powerball, but only when the jackpots are huge, and my bets are never more than $5.  I just can't do it!  I see gambling as throwing money away, and, perhaps too, I don't want to fall into the trap of gambling addiction.  I realize that gambling is legal in many places, I understand that many people enjoy it, but it isn't for me.  So it isn't much of a jump to understand that I don't like the idea of betting on reining horses.  Betting hasn't done anything good for racehorses.  Yes, it has made many people very rich, but it has caused many horses' suffering (think tampering, think rampant drug use, think win at all costs), and aided many people in losing everything.  This wouldn't be like betting once a year on the Superbowl; the creators of the WRL see this as competing with NASCAR and other major league sports.  So betting on reining horses would become a weekly event?

I'd like to also point out that we already have "franchised teams" in a sense.  Owners of reining horses already put a lot of money into trainer's barns to go after NRHA sponsored titles.  If an owner wants to purchase WRL franchised team, won't that be spreading owner dollars thinner, and possibly take money away from our traditional reining events?

Don't even get me started on the whole professional cheerleaders thing....I mean, really?  Do we need to make reining horses sexy?  T & A with your Pattern #8?  As Joni Mitchell sings, "Sex sells everything..."

I'd love to hear what everyone's opinions are on this topic.  When I see something like this going on, I have to question, "Where do we want our sport to go?"  And I begin to wonder what visions of the future other people in the horse industry have.  While I have spoken on this blog about Michael Miola before, this isn't a personal attack.  I see it as perfectly logical that we should discuss this proposed competition, and if it has a place in the future of reining horses, and horse competition as a whole.  So....anyone wanna weigh in?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Every Little Bit Counts

Bits and bitting are endlessly fascinating for me.  I have been collecting bits since I was a kid; I actually have every bit I have ever owned, and most of them are still useful, even if they were manufactured 20 years ago.  Many things make them so alluring to me.  First, it is the myriad of configurations that bits come in.  The mouthpiece shapes, the side rings, the shanks, the differences in size and heft, and all the different functions that each individual bit is intended to accomplish point out man's long and complicated relationship with the horse.  Each bit tells a story of a horse and what his job was.  There is also the decorative allure of bits, from the sleek and simple English snaffles that I own to the fancy engraved western show bits, they are the perfect blend of functionality and beautiful design.  Yes, I have been known to decorate with bits.  LOL!

The most fascinating part of bitting for me, though, is the challenge that comes in finding just the right one for a particular horse that I am working with.  Each horses' mouth is unique, their age and training needs are different, and of course, there is their intended job that they need to fulfill for their owner.  I have never gotten rid of a bit because I almost always use them again.  Sometime, down the road, I will inevitably have a horse that needs a certain size or configuration, so I keep them on hand to try them when I need to.  I encourage everyone to keep and collect bits - you never know when you might need them!

I recently graduated one of my training horses, Broque, to a loose ring copper slow-twist snaffle.  He had been doing pretty well in the plain D-ring snaffle that I was using previously, but he was ready to get a little lighter, and needed to collect more at the lope.  And what a difference it made.  He was VERY happy in the new bit, light and responsive, and his lope was fantastic!  My philosophy toward changing bits is that it should be a reward for doing well in the previous, more 'elementary' bit - truly, a graduation up the ladder of education.  Usually, I find that horses like to learn the next step, if the bit fits them well and is a logical progression from where they just were. 

There are many riders who use the same bit all the time, and if it works well - all the time - that's fine.  Some people only use one bit because they understand that particular bit and trying something different is daunting.  I say, even a small change can make a big difference in your horse's performance!  Adding a dog bone (a small bone-shaped bar) to the center of your plain snaffle, or advancing to a light curb can do wonders for your horse's maneuverability, self-carriage, and rating of speed.  Always measure your horse's mouth and the bits you use to make sure the horse is going to be comfortable.  And remember the most important rule in bitting - the bit is only as harsh as the hands that hold the reins.  Make sure you are riding with an independent seat so that no matter what bit you use, your hands will be soft, still and responsive.

If you are interested in learning more about the art of bitting, check out "A Whole Bit Better," which is a fantastic aid in understanding how your horse's mouth works.  Another inexpensive addition to everyone's tack room is this tool that helps you measure your horse's mouth - makes it wonderfully easy!

Enjoy your day and enjoy your ride!!