Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Ode to the Humble Lesson Horse

The other day I wrote about what different aspects of mental and physical preparation have on becoming proficient in the saddle when beginning to ride.  Today I'd like to explore the other half to the riding equation - the horse.  In order to create a great partnership while riding, you must have a willing and engaged equine partner.  When starting out as a riding student, you probably won't know all the differences in horse behavior, other than extreme cases, and therefore must rely on the honesty and trustworthiness of others to give you a fair assessment of your potential mount.  I hope to arm you with some things to look for so that you can make decisions for your own safety.

Having lived my entire life in the horse industry, and giving lessons for close to twenty years, I have found that nothing will stop a potential rider from continuing their riding education faster than a really traumatic wreck on horse.  Keep in mind, there is a big difference between falling off and getting thrown, and for some, falling off itself is too scary for them, and therefore, horseback riding may not be their sport.  Falling off a horse is as much a part of riding as falling is to learning to surf or snow ski, and those sports aren't for everyone either.  What I am referring to is a true wreck - where the horse runs off uncontrollably, the rider gets stomped on, or dumped into a tree, fence, or another equally unforgiving object.  A wreck usually results in a hospital visit and a memory for the rider that causes a fear and distrust of horses that can remain for a lifetime.

My goal as an instructor has always been to prevent that sort of thing from happening and keep those people riding, and thus, in our industry.  Whenever someone comes to me with a scary story of how they once got hurt while riding, and they never got on a horse again, I ask them as many questions as I can.  Whose horse was it?  Were there any adults/competent riders around helping you?  Had you ridden or taken lessons prior to your accident?  Overwhelmingly, the wreck was a result of people riding horses that they shouldn't be riding, without any instruction or oversight, and riding them in a manner that just begs for them to get hurt.  For example, I have a very close friend who has told me over and over how she just loves horses, but is terrified of them.  Come to find out, when she was a teenager, she and two friends decided to ride one of the friends horses bareback - all three of them - all around a farm, all day long, by themselves.  Eventually, the poor horse got sick of carrying the three of them around and dumped them, and my friend was stepped on in the process.  Can you blame it?  Clearly, an adult should have stepped up and told the girls to give the horse a break.  There are thousands of similar stories out there, and they represent a huge loss to the horse industry in potential horse owners.  All of those people wanted to be a rider, but their initial interactions scared them off.

So, one preventative is to take lessons from a professional instructor.  Do not assume that your neighbor, who can ride really well, in your eyes, is capable of teaching you or your children to ride.  Nor should you assume that the horse or pony that someone else's kid can ride all over and run barrels on is a safe mount for you or your children.  There are many, many gradations of training for horses, and just because it is impressive to see a little kid jumping fences or loping around, doesn't mean that that horse is quiet and responsive enough to gently and conscientiously carry a beginner.  Taking lessons, rather than jumping in and buying a horse right away, also gives you the advantage of trying different lesson horses and figuring out what you want in your own horse, and could save you a lot of money, time and heartache.

Lesson horses are a breed apart.  They are tolerant of beginner mistakes, obedient in the face of temptation, and do not spontaneously follow an urge to flit off on their own accord.  It takes many years of experience for a horse to be seasoned in this way.  While younger horses may provide a fun challenge for intermediate and advanced riders, the best horses for beginners are generally over the age of ten, and have a long record of taking care of their riders.  I personally think that fifteen is a golden number for beginner horses; they are calmer, still have plenty of life left and by then, have proven themselves in what their personality is like. 

When you are investigating possible riding instructors, you should be asking lots of questions about the lesson horses you will be using.  How many are available to use?  The more, the better, as not every horse is going to fit you personally, and the more you have to choose from, the better the odds of finding one that makes your riding experience safer and more fun.  Also, how often are the lesson horses ridden, by students and by the instructor themselves?  Lesson horses that are ridden more than an hour daily by students tend to get sour; it is challenging to carry someone around who has no balance and is accidentally jerking your mouth or whacking you indiscriminately with their legs!  Also, after being ridden day after day by beginners, they may fall into bad habits and really benefit from an occasional ride by the instructor, or equally qualified advanced rider, as a tune up.  The frequency of these tune ups will vary by horse, but my opinion is that they should get a tune up once or twice a month minimum.

When doing your investigations, take a good look at how the lesson horses are kept.  Do they get frequent turn out?  Turn out in a large paddock or pasture is like a little mental vacation for a horse, and the more they get, the quieter they are.  Are they in good flesh and are their feet taken care of?  You should not be able to see every rib and hipbone; the horses should look muscled and fit.  And their feet should have a cleanly trimmed appearance, without ragged edges or cracks.  Does the instructor insist on using fly spray, for the comfort of the horses, and for your safety?  Horses being bothered by flies stomp, toss their heads, and frequently kick and buck to get rid of the bugs, and can endanger anyone close by.  Fly spray isn't just a comfort, it is a safety device.  Horses cannot do their jobs well if they are not physically well-kept, nor should anyone be supplying income to instructors that don't do right by their horses.  If they can't do these simple things for their horses, what other shortcuts will they take, with their equipment, facility and with you or your child?

Please do not judge your lesson horse by what color they are, or how pretty (or not pretty) they are.  Pretty is as pretty does.  I have seen the plainest, most non-descript grade horses that were fabulous to ride, because they were compliant, handy, and, most importantly, gentle to their riders.  Keep an open mind as to what a good horse LOOKS like, but scrutinize closely what a good horse ACTS like - it will serve you much better!

Take care and have fun!

PS - You have heard me say it before and you will hear me say it again - wear a helmet!  If you fall off (which you inevitably will) you can recover from a bruise or a broken arm, but a head injury can be catastrophic.  A good instructor cares about the safety of their riders and requires helmets of every minor, and may require, or at least strongly suggest, them for adults.  For more on my stance on helmets, read this.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Are We There Yet?

I got a great question from a new rider today: How long will it take me to learn to ride?  I have been asked this many times, by both parents of young riders, and by adults just getting into our sport.  The question is a sign of the student's impatience to get in there and ride, and is really like the kids in the backseat on a road trip, asking, "Are we there yet??"  The answer to this question is best framed by more questions; How fit are you? How much time do you have per week to practice?  How often do you intend on taking lessons?  How well does your instructor motivate you to learn new things, and also review what you already know?  What is your attitude towards learning challenging things? 

Those with experience with horses can easily see why being fit helps a rider progress; if you are reasonably fit, you have an easier time getting on, have more flexibility and balance, faster reflexes and don't get winded as easily.  New riders don't realize how important this facet is, and often give up quickly because they get so tired and sore after their first few rides.  Being prepared beforehand, and doing a lot of stretching afterward, are keys to sticking with it.

As with any new endeavor, the time you spend on it is one of the most important determining factors in achieving success.  You can't learn to play an instrument well if you only pick it up once a week.  Daily practice is best, but if you don't have that much extra time, or don't own your own horse yet, get in as much riding time as you can.  Try to take a formal lesson once or twice a week, and then, negotiate with your instructor to borrow a horse for non-lesson practice time where you can just ride on your own (don't be offended if they don't feel you are far enough along that you shouldn't be riding alone yet; consider it their way of keeping you safe).  Keep at it, and keep your expectations reasonable - it will take months of riding several times a week before you could really be considered proficient.

Having a good instructor in your corner is absolutely invaluable.  A good trainer has beginner safety as their first priority, and therefore, may end up telling you, "No, you can't do that yet," more than you want to hear in the beginning.  A good instructor will start with basic concepts and build on them with every lesson, always pushing you to do something a bit better or a bit more daring, but will keep reviewing the basic concepts to drive home their importance.  A good instructor teaches you how to be a good horse owner and advocate, so expect to spend some time on the ground learning about horse care, equine body language, groundwork, first aid, and a myriad of other topics.  If you get the chance to assist the shoer or the vet, or even just observe, you will undoubtedly learn something. Watching your instructor, or other students, ride is also fantastic for picking things up or confirming what you are learning.

More than anything, your attitude will determine your learning curve.  To state the obvious, to be a good rider, you need to be a good student.  You need to be able to take direction.  You need to be able to face your shortcomings and faults when presented to you by an almost total stranger - remember, you are paying them to tell you what you are doing wrong!  You need to be willing to do things over and over that are frustrating because you can't get it quite right.  You might have to try something you haven't done, or may not completely understand, based on your faith in your instructor alone.  Above all, you have to have perseverance.  No one ever got anywhere in horseback riding by getting frustrated and quitting.  You have to just keep getting back on; even if your last ride was terrible, you're tired, it's hot/cold out, etc.  The greatest rewards are the ones you have to work hard for.

And your attitude will sustain you; anyone who is a lifelong rider knows that you are never truly done learning to ride.  Being a better horseman is something everyone is always working on, from the person who just trail rides, to the professional trainer who is always working to perfect their technique.  There is always something to improve, brush up on, or a new direction to go.  Riding horses is endlessly inspiring, and you could spend a lifetime learning new things about them! 

You notice I haven't said anything about the horses themselves....well, I haven't forgotten them.  Tomorrow I will cover what you should be looking for in lesson horses, and your first horse.  Have a wonderful day!

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Trainer Of Merit

So often we get stuck on the negative things in life - the things that go wrong, the injustices that we want to make right, the people that drive us crazy, and all the bad things in life that we feel powerless over.  This morning I would like to focus on the positive, and tell you about someone who has had a very positive impact on my life.  His name is Lee Mancini, and he runs a horse training facility in Howell, Michigan.

Lee trains Arabians, Half Arabians, and Quarter Horses and focuses on reining, stock seat equitation, and western pleasure, but because he is a very well-rounded horseman, he is able to assist customers with their english (hunter under saddle) horses too.  Lee is very talented with a horse; he has won many National, Regional and show championships, and is able to achieve great things in his horses by taking things one step at a time, layering the training and not blowing his horses minds (or bodies).  He is effective without being a bully, and is the kind of trainer that you can trust to respect your animal.

Yet, I think what his customers appreciate the most about Lee is his attitude. He is honest.  He is funny and easy to talk to.  He treats all of his customers the same, regardless of how much, or how little, they have to spend.  He absolutely will tell you what your horse can and can't do, and will send it home, or help you sell it, if he feels it can't do the job.  He has a keen eye for good horses, and can match people to their perfect mount.  Soundness is of the utmost importance to him, and he doesn't take shortcuts.  His stable is organized and efficient, and he is not one to waste his client's money.  He has a excellent, well-deserved reputation, and I have never heard anyone say anything bad about him, because he consistently keeps it professional.

I started riding with Lee when I was a pre-teen, and stayed with him until I went to college.  Riding with Lee was wonderful; he never lost his patience and wasn't ever the kind of trainer to yell or belittle or intimidate - which can be just crushing to a teenager.  At the same time, he wasn't flowery with his praise or over the top with his compliments; in fact, he isn't one to blow sunshine all the time, which makes you really want to ride better for him.  A compliment from him was really worth something to me.  I can honestly say that riding with him shaped me as a person and as a trainer/instructor.  He still is an example to me of what a good trainer is like and how they should treat both people and horses. 

Nowadays, horse trainers with DVDs, million dollar earnings, gimmicks and big names get lots of attention, but I think people are beginning to see that those things don't necessarily make a really good trainer, nor do they make for someone that you want to do business with.  There are plenty of great trainers out there who are more than just flash and bling.  I feel so lucky to have learned the difference early in life, and Lee Mancini was the trainer who taught me that.  Please check out his website here, and if you already know Lee, please leave a comment here, and help me sing his praises.

Have a wonderful day!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riding for Consistency

Yesterday, I discussed what consistency means in our relationship with our horses (and dogs and kids) and how we can get better results by sticking to the rules and consequences that develop them into good citizens.  Today I would like to explore how I approach consistency in the saddle and how I teach that to my students.

First, being consistent when you ride requires awareness.  In this age of hurry and worry, multitasking and immediacy, riding our horses should be an oasis amid the chaos.  Turn the phone off.  Banish the distractions.  Before you mount, stretch a bit to become aware of your body and how it feels.  Take some deep, cleansing breaths - in through the nose, out through the mouth - to center your consciousness.  Relax, and get into the now.  I challenge you to only think about what is going on RIGHT NOW while you are riding. 

After you mount up, walk your horse to warm up and become aware of your limbs.  Keep in mind that both humans and horses are not naturally symmetrical; one leg may be longer, your back may be canted one direction due to injury or habit, one hip may turn out further than the other.  The same goes for your horse - most horses do not move perfectly straight unless their riders are very focused on straightness and obtain that through stretching.  So as you are warming up, become aware of how you are sitting, how your limbs feel, and how your horse is moving.  It can be very helpful to close your eyes while you are riding for a moment or two to really feel your body, and become aware of what it naturally does.  Through awareness, we can gain control.  If we aren't aware of what our limbs and seat are doing, how can we consistently use them?

As you work your horse, pay close attention to your cues. When you ask your horse to trot off, do you use the same leg cue every time?  Do you lean forward in exactly the same way, and use the same volume, and duration, in your verbal cue?  Imagine that your horse is a large musical keyboard, with keys everywhere on its body; the force with which you strike the keys, as well as the frequency and accuracy in hitting them, can create a beautiful orchestral arrangement, or sound like a second grader practicing their violin!  It takes much practice and awareness to play the same tune and have it end up the same every time.  Part of what sets professional trainers apart from amateur riders is that through hours and hours in the saddle, they are able to put their leg in the same place every time, use their voice in the same way every time, ask their horses consistently every time.  Because we are dealing with a mostly non-verbal animal, being consistent in cuing the horse cuts through its confusion, and gives a more predictable result.  Being aware of how you are asking right now lends itself to reproducing the same cue next time.

Here are some golden rules that I teach my students to help them become more consistent.
1.  Always sit up straight.  You cannot use your limbs effectively if you are leaning in any direction, nor can your horse react appropriately if it is compensating for your lack of balance.

2.  When using your legs, use the three strikes rule: the first time you cue, ask nicely and softly.  The second time, more firmly. If the horse still hasn't responded, the third time should be hard enough to get the horse's attention.  In always sticking to this amplification of cues, the horse will seek out the soft cue to avoid the more uncomfortable heavy cue.

3.  When using your hands, always take up slowly on the reins, but release quickly.  The horse will be more willing to respond if it trusts that you will let go the moment it gives to the rein pressure.  Trust helps build consistency too.

4.  Last but not least, use your voice commands in a very strict manner.  "Whoa" means all four feet stop now.  Not 'slow down,' or 'easy,' or 'I'm nervous.'  Do not use whoa for anything other than requesting a full stop, whether mounted or on the ground.  Also, differentiate your clicks and kisses; my horses know that when I click, I want them to trot.  When I ask for the canter/lope, I kiss to them, and I use a very distinctive, long smooch to add to the attention-getting aspect of the sound.  Horses are able to distinguish many different sounds and their meanings, so take advantage of it!

I hope this inspires you to slow down, become aware, and build consistency in your riding!  Happy trails!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

All Good Training Is Consistency

I have a training philosophy that has stuck with me most of my life, and that is that whether you are training horses, dogs or kids, the principles are the same, and hinge upon consistency.  Horses, dogs and kids all crave leadership, routine, and affection, and if you can motivate their behavior with these three things, they will also learn independence, which makes the trainer's job much easier.  The key is to consistently present their choices of behavior, consistently adhere to punishments when they choose wrong, and be consistently affectionate when they choose right.  Sounds so simple, right?  Yet, in my many years as a dog owner, a horse owner and trainer, and as a riding instructor and mother, I have seen many who do not embrace consistency.

To become a good citizen of the world, a horse/dog/child must learn to be polite, respect others, and follow rules of conduct while working to achieve a goal.  Allowing them to get away with an infraction in any of these areas does the horse/dog/child no good, as they will eventually have to face their shortcomings in the 'real world' - whether that is at school, at a horse show, or when socializing, and truly, society's punishments are much harder to face.  A good parent/trainer sees their job as, not to be a buddy and enable poor behavior, but whose responsibility it is to give the horse/dog/child the tools to be a good citizen.  I have had many parents who bring their kid to me for lessons who back talks, is disrespectful to adults, throw tantrums and makes excuses or lays blame for their behavior.   Frequently, those same people have horses that are spoiled by treats, lazy or cranky, walk all over you, threaten to rear or buck when made to work, and are potentially dangerous.  And yeah, their dogs are the same way! 

The horse/dog/child gets that way because they know that they are in control of the situation. They know that if they beg and push long enough, and loud enough, they will get the treat, the toy, or whatever their heart desires.  In the case of horses, most of them really just want to rest and eat, so they can use various ways of intimidation, stonewalling, ignoring and aggression to achieve that ends.  The key to gaining control is to decide what you want them to do, give them a choice, and then back it up with a punishment that fits.  If you have a horse that walks into your space while you are leading them, you give them the choice - walk at arms length from me, or I will discipline you.  Then, when they break the rule, the punishment should fit; in this case, I would make the horse not want to walk on me, by using the end of my lead rope against the horse's chest, and if that wasn't enough, I would lift my arms and "shoosh" them off me, followed by getting them to back up and turn away from me.  Since most horses are strongly motivated by rest, whenever I have a horse that chooses bad behavior, I will make them work until they choose good behavior and then let them rest.  I rarely give horses treats, nor do I feed my dogs table scraps or give my kids a lot of toys (or sugary treats).  It isn't necessary to bribe them, and they will have more respect for you in the long run if you let them rest, share a pleasurable activity or give them an affectionate rub instead.

It seems that many people aren't sure, first, how to discipline, and second, when to discipline.  Many ignore bad behaviors when no one is around, and then, when the horse/dog/child does something wrong in public, they are embarrassed and don't want to discipline in front of other people.  If you have been practicing consistency all along, the horse/dog/child knows that it doesn't matter if other people are around; the rules still apply.  If you are riding a horse and would like to talk to someone, but your horse won't stand still, excuse yourself, lope some circles, and ask the horse to stand again.  If your dog is tearing around acting wild, they should take a time out in a kennel or in a stall or safe room. Kids who continually misbehave are playing the odds that either there will be no consequences, consequences that they can handle, or that the consequences equal attention.  Only when you consistently make the consequences of their actions worse than the desired choice will they begin to stop and think before they make their move. 

Sometimes it is very inconvenient to be consistent; it means working your horse longer and more frequently, it means taking your dog to obedience classes, or cancelling a fun outing because your child hasn't been following rules.  But usually you don't have to do this for long, as the lessons will sink in, and through positive enforcement, the horse/dog/child begins to see that good behavior pays bigger dividends than bad behavior.  It is important that the punishment fit the crime; it is just as detrimental to go overboard with punishment as it is to not discipline at all.  If your punishments are too light, they carry no weight and aren't a deterrent, if they are too harsh, you will lose their respect and trust.

Tomorrow I will talk about consistency in the saddle.  Have a wonderful day, and take care!!

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Black Eye for Bridle-less Riding

I recently learned about a piece of equipment being used to 'train' horses to stop harder, and I wanted to share this information with all of you.  It is called a tack collar, and while it is surely being produced by many manufacturers, I found out about it through Buckaroo Leather Products.  They recently posted an article titled, "Tack Collars, gimmick or useful training Device?" , which seems to imply that they are investigating the usefulness of this device, when, in fact, they do not criticize it at all, but rather defend it (that does make it easier to sell!).  So I guess I will be critiquing it for them...

This collar is simply a leather strap resembling a breast collar that has spiked rivets on the inside.  It is worn across the horse's chest, and when the horse is asked to stop, the collar is pulled against the horse's body, and the pain from the rivets causes the horse to stop harder and faster.  The spikes come in a variety of lengths, all the way up to 1/2 inch.  The article says that they are 'soft, gentle studs' but I can clearly see in this picture that pulling them into a horse's hide, even if they have a blunt end, would cause pain, especially when the horse is running hard to do a sliding stop.

The point of using this device is so that when the rider decides to move from riding in a bridle to going bridle-less, the horse will be impressive in its stops and responsiveness.  They even show a picture of Mandy McCutcheon, the NRHA highest money earning non-pro ever, in their ad, because if she uses this, surely, it must be acceptable, right?

Since when is it necessary to use a spiked collar to get a horse to stop nicely?  A horse that is bred and built to do reining, receives patient, proper training, is physically fit and feels good, and has a rider that has good timing and body control doesn't need to dig spikes into the horse's chest to get a nice stop. Riding bridle-less used to be a novelty, meant only to show how broke a horse is - and a way to show how lightly controlled and how partnered-up the horse is.  This tack collar is the opposite of that!  Trainers like Stacy Westfall have made riding bridle-less trendy, and yet, we can no longer assume that someone who is able to ride without a bridle is doing so because they are completely in-tune with their beautifully finished horse.  I contacted Stacy to ask her what she thinks about these tack collars, and she didn't respond.  Does she use them?  I have no idea, but I would guess probably not.  It is all the people who want to be just like her, or at least maintain the guise that they are 'natural' horsemen, that are using them.

Arguably, this type of device is not much different than using spurs, but we have all seen that spurs have become so commonplace - and so overused - in reining that we don't even question them. And the result is that many reining horses are dead sided and spin their tails.  Now we have "spurs" for their chest too, so that in every direction a horse moves, it can potentially meet a hard metal poke.

The article goes out of its way to warn people that this collar should only be used by experienced riders on well-trained horses.  That is a good way for them to avoid liability, but has absolutely no teeth to it at all.  First, the purpose of this tack manufacturer is to make money, and second, how do you ask a customer to prove that they can handle a particular device?  You can't, and even if you asked, most people would say, "Of course, I am a great rider, and sure, my horse can handle this!"  But how many people, that are the type attracted to a spiked breast collar, actually have a soft hand, like that article recommends?  I would venture to say that if you truly are an experienced trainer with soft hands, what on earth would you need something like this for?

I was contacted by Mandy McCutcheon, who was pictured in the article for these collars by Buckaroo Leather Products; she stated that she did not give BLP permission to use her image, nor has she ever used this piece of equipment to train her horses.   Further, she said that the horse pictured, ARC Sparkle Surprise, is a good minded horse that went straight from the bridle to going bridle-less with just a rein.  Kudos to her for setting the record straight!!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Look Ma - No Saddle!!

Good morning!  I have been getting up at 5 am to ride while it is still cool, now that the weather has firmly settled into the summer heat.  This is a serene, quiet time, and while that is a nice way to ease into the day, sometimes I need to shake things up. 

So, this morning I decided to ride one of my training horses bareback.  I strongly advocate getting people to ride bareback as much as possible when they are learning to ride, and also after they become experienced, as a 'tune-up.'  Riding bareback is fantastic for balance, gaining an independent seat, getting the horse to listen to aids, and works wonders on a rider's confidence and trust.  The owner of the horse I rode this morning has been working on her bareback technique off and on for the past two years, and while she has made great strides, I know she had not yet ridden this particular horse without a saddle.  I thought I would give him a test ride for her, and begin getting him used to the idea.

Not every horse is a good bareback horse.  Some are uncomfortable just to sit on, with high withers or a prominent backbone.  I use a suede and wool felt bareback pad to add some padding, and to keep my clothes from getting filthy.  [I do not advise people to use pads with stirrups; first, if your goal is to ride bareback, what is the point of having stirrups?  Second, bareback pads are lighter weight, more slippery and have less structure to them than a saddle, so if you aren't balanced perfectly in the stirrups, they have a tendency to slide off to one side - obviously dangerous.  You are better off without the stirrups.]  Some horses are too spooky to be reliable for a beginner to ride bareback, so until you feel confident, use your older, quieter horse or borrow a friend's that you trust.

The getting on part is usually the hardest!  Even though I have been riding bareback my whole life, I have never been able to swing on from the ground, so I have adapted my strategy, and am able to use any little step or rise that I can find to give me a lift.  The easiest thing to use is a mounting block or the fence, but it is very helpful to have someone hold your horse the first few times you do it, as most likely, you will be shimmying around, and scootching yourself in to place, and your horse may feel more reassured having someone at his head.  Of course, this is a great time to practice having your horse stand still while mounting, something every horse should be able to do in a variety of situations.  Above all, take your time and be patient.  It isn't a race, and if you get upset or frustrated, your horse will be more hesitant to comply next time.

I suggest riding in a round pen, or small arena the first few times you try bareback.  Limiting the space available keeps your horse's pace slower, and the confinement will also keep them calm.  If you don't have a round pen, or just feel the need to have some more control, have a friend put a lunge line on your horse's bridle and use it as a safety line.  They need not do anything but be there to help if you get in trouble.  I often use a safety line when teaching children to ride bareback.  And don't forget to put on a helmet.

If you have never ridden bareback before, have your goal for the first ride to just walk and do some stops and turns.  Even simple maneuvers can feel much different without a saddle.  Your horse may seem more sensitive to your legs, since he can feel so much more of them, so make sure to keep your legs still and close to the horse's sides.  Try to relax and breathe and just enjoy the feeling of closeness with your horse.  As you progress, work up to the jog, posting trot (yes you can!) and the lope.  As you get better at bareback, your riding with a saddle will improve as well; you will be more balanced and less reliant on your tack to stay in the middle of your horse.  If you are an experienced rider, and just haven't done it in a while, you will find that riding bareback sharpens your senses and gives you a closer bond with your horses - and is such a nice alternative to a hot saddle in the summer.  For horses that spend a lot of time in training, drilling on the same old maneuvers, bareback is a nice way to freshen them up and give them a bit of a break in routine.

It is my experience that most horses LOVE to be ridden bareback, and Atley was no exception this morning.  He was a little flinchy the first few minutes, but then turned into a marshmallow - so relaxed and compliant.  I have been doing a lot of lateral work with him, and found that, without a saddle and saddle pad, he was very responsive to the engagement of my hip and leg, and positively zipped across the arena!  So much fun!  I think he enjoyed himself as much as I did, and while it was laid back, we still got some good work done.  Be bold - give it a try! And let me know how it goes for you! 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Vive La Difference!!

Have you ever been in a conversation with another horse person, possibly someone you just met, and inevitably, they ask you what kind of horses you have, and when you reply, they instantly get a look in their eye that tells you that they have catagorized you?  That they seem to think they know all about you based simply on the breed of the horses in your barn?  I have been musing about this phenomenon this morning, and would like to share my thoughts.

My first horse was a Half Arabian, and my second horse was a purebred Arabian.  We started out showing 4-H and at local open shows, where stock breeds were king.  I was undaunted though, and had enough pride in my horse that I bravely showed against Quarter Horses, Paints and Appaloosas in the western classes, knowing that typically, the judges chosen by the local horse show association were stock breed judges.  Sometimes we did very well, perhaps because my Arab was an excellent western horse (most of the time!) and occasionally, because we got a judge with an open mind, and an appreciation for a good horse regardless of breed.  And unlike some of the stock horses I competed against, my horse was able to do everything - halter/showmanship, english, and western, and even the occasional trail or games class.  (Yes, I still am proud of that fact!  :)

Throughout that period, I felt like the 'in' crowd were the kids who rode stock breeds.  There was frequently comments made by uncouth people who would say things like,"you do pretty well, for someone who rides one of them A-rabs."  It is amazing to me now how many adults were willing to insult my horse, based on breed, while I was really just a young, impressionable kid.  I loved my horse, and loved the heritage of the breed, so to me, the words stung.  We kept our horses, at the time, at a multi-breed stable, so I got to ride lots of different kinds of animals - which was both exciting and educational.  I sincerely loved all breeds - all horses, really - I just happen to love Arabians the most.  It wasn't until I started showing on the Arab circuit that I realized that Arab people didn't care much for Quarter Horse people either.

Having grown up in the horse industry, it is very apparent that we haven't gotten over our breed prejudices.  Here in the US, the Quarter Horse is the largest breed, so therefore, Quarter Horse people think they rule the roost.  Most other breeds are looked down upon from that lofty perch, and even if they don't express it openly, people who come from other breeds are not always allowed in the 'cool' QH club.  Some Arabian people think that the purity of their breed sets them apart from the rest of the horse world, and that they are inherently superior.  I have seen Thoroughbreds labeled as speed freaks and crazy, when they are reacting to a stimulus in the same way that any other horse would.  I have seen Saddlebreds labeled as too hot to be pleasure/trail horses, even when they are perfect for just that, especially when you just let them be horses.  I have heard people say terrible things about Appys, despite having met some that are the most dignified and intelligent animals on earth.

The truth is that within every breed, there are exceptional individuals and there are poor individuals.  There are horses that get great training, and become excellent representatives for their breed, and others that don't get a good start (or finish) and end up making very poor impressions as they wreak havoc around the stables they inhabit.  Within every breed, there are smart horses, friendly horses, pretty horses, affectionate horses, dull horses, common-looking horses, anti-social horses, and aggressive horses.  I say that if you really are a horseman, you love them, and try to learn from them all.  And if you want to raise the profile of your own breed within the horse industry, try reaching out to someone who rides a different breed or seat.  Be friendly and open minded, remembering that by learning about other types of riding, you aren't being unfaithful to that which you already pledge your support.  You may, in fact, inspire someone to come and give your breed a try, and make a friend in the process!

You may have read my blog header - "Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are."  By this, I do not mean, "Show me your horse, and I will tell you everything that I think is wrong with it."  Rather, I wish to know and understand what you value, how you view the world, where your priorities lie, and how you approach life.  Enjoy diversity - it is the joie de vivre!!

Monday, July 11, 2011

I Love Old Horses!

Today is my gelding Jake's 33rd birthday!  I have owned him since he was four, so that gives us 29 years of history together, taking care of each other.  It is always a wonderful thing when a horse reaches 30; so many encounter life-ending problems in their 20's and when I hear of one that gets beyond 30, I know that there is a dedicated owner, and some good genes, behind it. 

My Jake does have some good genes;  he is one of the most well-made horses I ever seen.  He is purebred Arabian (half pure Polish, half Crabbet), has a nice short back, straight legs with excellent bone, perfect angles to his hocks, fetlocks, hip and shoulder, big, tough feet, and has always been a fluid mover and easy keeper.  He is also smart and savvy, and has kept himself from any catastrophic injuries.  I think he also has a joyful life - he has attitude and spunk, which keeps him moving - so good for the joints.

My husband and I are dedicated to giving Jake (and all of our old horses) the best retirement that a horse could want.  He is fed 3 lbs of Senior feed morning and night, with the addition of flax seed meal and a vitamin/mineral supplement in the morning, and a pound of alfalfa pellets in the evening.  All of his feed is soaked in water in order help him chew and prevent choking.  He is given plenty of turnout; he goes out to pasture during the day and comes into a generously bedded stall at night, to encourage him to lay down and take a load off his legs.  We  make sure that he is well-protected from flies, to keep him from stomping and stressing too much.  Probably most importantly, Jake is never without his buddy Jazz, another older gelding.  They have been pasture mates since they were young horses, and keep each other happy and calm.  The two of them go out in a paddock by themselves, so that they do not have to compete with younger horses, or get accidentally roughed up.  And we keep a close eye on how he is eating, moving and behaving.  Things can go downhill quickly with an elderly horse, so it is important to evaluate them daily.

It is a lot of work to keep old horses healthy, but it is sooooooo worth it!  While many see horses over 20 as more of a burden than a blessing, I see them as quietly beautiful, and endlessly wise.  Jake tolerates my kids squirming around on his back, grabbing on his legs, and giving him kisses on his nose.  Jake and Jazz have comforted many a foal when it came time to wean them from their mothers.  Jake knows all my secrets, from the time I was a preteen, through high school, college, marriage and kids - and he hasn't given anything away yet!  I feel so comforted by his presence - he has been a constant in my life, when it is clear that life can be tumultuous.  I made a promise to him when we first met that I would always take care of him and give him the best life I could.  I am proud that I have done that; proud of the kind of person I have become in doing that for him.  I am certain that it has made me and shaped me, as much as he has given of himself to me and my family.  I think that is the definition of true friendship. 

What a gift having an old horse is!!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Not For Sale

I am blessed with owning a fantastic mare, Miss Bam Bam Command, whom I claimed as my own while she was just a foal on her momma's side, and whom I have owned officially for 19 years.  She is a beautiful palomino, put together very nicely, has outstanding, desirable bloodlines, a sweet, gentle attitude, and back in her early days, was very talented under saddle.  And she is the mother of one of the leading money earners in the NRHA, which makes her other babies a hot commodity.  I have had many, many offers over the years to buy her, but I won't. Ever.  And here is the story why...

Every horsey kid (and some horsey adults) has an Ultimate Fantasy Horse, a vision of what their perfect horsey soulmate would look like.  Mine came to me when I was a little girl, when my grandma gave me a beautiful palomino horse statue, like a Breyer.  The golden shading, the pure white mane...I was hooked!   I grew up showing Arabians and Half Arabians though, so since there are few palominos in that breed, I didn't get a chance to own one until Bam Bam.  I happened to be boarding my Arab gelding at the barn where Bam Bam and her dam lived while I attended college, and I first saw her when she was about a week old.  Now, at that time, I had already owned a bunch of horses, had won 3 National titles, and had been giving lessons and starting to train a few, so it wasn't like I was a newbie.  But I swear to you, the moment I saw her, I was instantly transformed into a little horse-crazy kid.  It was the closest thing I have ever felt to love at first sight.  The moment I laid eyes on her, I KNEW she was my horse.

I purchased her some months later, and when the time came, she received her under saddle training from John Slack.  At the time, John was at the top of his game, and he did an excellent job with her; getting the best he could from all her maneuvers, but maintaining her soundness and sanity at the same time.  I treasure a video I have of him riding her - both showed such talent!  Bam Bam was never shown though; at the time I was a college student at Arizona State, and just didn't have the time or money to go show.  So instead, she came home, and I started riding her myself.  Bam Bam and I rode all over the mountains of Arizona, with friends and by ourselves, and she was a handy, reliable, and cool-headed mount.  Truly, a Cadillac to take down the trail.  Later, I began using her for lessons, and again, the mare showed me how great she is - patient, safe, and careful with every beginner to sit on her.  I never regreted not showing her - she is still sound and happy at age 20!

At one point, I had to nurse Bam Bam through strangles.  I remember that she had a fever of 104, and I spent hours running cold water over her from head to toe, wiping her poor nose, and comforting her.  The mare would lay her head in my arms, and just exhale.  We were so bonded to each other.

A few years later, I heard that a friend had bought into a newly formed Boomernic syndicate, so I contacted him and struck a lease deal. The resulting foal was Commanders Nic, who went on to win $275,000, at a time when that kind of money was much harder to add up.  It wasn't long thereafter that I received a call from a prominent trainers wife, who wanted to buy her from me.  I am sure she thought I would be impressed with who she was, but I didn't hesitate to say, "Sorry, she isn't for sale, and won't ever be."  I didn't even ask what they were offering.  It just didn't matter.   This person was immediately irritated with me, and proceeded to ask if I would sell a filly of Bam Bam's that I had (and still have), to which I also said no.  That filly was my replacement for Bammie and wasn't bred for public consumption.  Well, this really pissed her off.  She began to belittle me, and eventually said that I would always be a back yard breeder if I was that attached to my horses.  Can you imagine??  I am sure her pride was hurt that she wasn't able to bulldoze little ol' me into giving her what she wanted, but she obviously didn't know what kind of horse owner she was dealing with.  My heart and soul are not for sale, for any price, and neither is my best horse.  I have always known that the pain of absence of that horse from my life could never be soothed with money.

Thankfully, other people have fallen in love with Bam Bam too, and I have done well in selling embryos from her.  She has been bred to the best stallions in the business, has produced some outstanding horses; some are money earners, and some are preparing to see the show pen.  But honestly, it doesn't matter to me if she had never had any foals at all.  She is a wonderful horse, in every way, and I know how lucky I am to own her.  I know that if I had sold her, she would have been used up by some big breeder for the money of selling her babies, and who knows what might have happened to her once she stopped producing.  As things are, she will be loved and cared for her whole life by someone who truly loves her.  So if that makes me a back yard breeder, so be it.  I have the MOST amazing mare, right in my back yard. 

Have a wonderful Thursday, and give your favorite horse a big hug today!!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Getting Up On A Soapbox

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the NRHA Awards Banquet and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies.  The setting was the beautiful National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and it was great to see everyone all dressed up to honor the importance of the night's events.  The awards given were fantastic; leather jackets, bronzes, and even embroidered hide pillows!  The dinner that was served to us was delicious, and everyone in our group thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie, and the pomp and circumstance that the evening brought.

I especially enjoyed some of the Hall of Fame Induction speeches.  Carol Rose and Tim McQuay speaking about Shining Spark was both hilarious and poignant.  The speech about Collena Chic Olena was bittersweet, and endeared her owner to me, as she seemed like someone I would know - down to earth, and someone who truly loves her animals.  Bob Kiser's speech was pure class; he embodies the dedication and commitment to both the sport of reining and his family, that we all should emulate.

And then came Boomernic's induction ceremony.   Instead of focusing on the stallion himself, it became clear that Boomernic's owner was using this opportunity to lecture the audience on what he sees as social infractions within the reining community.  He ranted that everyone needs to support Craig Schmersal, despite being caught on video using questionable means to school a horse at the FEI World Championships.  He lectured that the reining community needed to embrace his trainer Brett Stone, even though, "everyone knows that he has had drug and alcohol problems, but he is trying to make a come back."  He pounded the podium with his fists, and demanded respect, and the audience sat in stunned silence.  While all the other Hall of Fame inductees received multiple standing ovations, when Boomernic's was over, the applause was subdued and no one left their seat. 

Getting inducted into the Hall of Fame is a BIG DEAL.  Something that should be accepted with a huge amount of humility and respect.  It is not the time or place to hold an audience of your peers hostage, and try to force your opinion on them, and thus bend their future behavior, because of your momentary position of power behind the podium.  Having a microphone in front of you does not make you any more important, or your words any more palatable.  It only makes your opinion LOUDER, and allows more people to see you as you really are.  Everyone I have spoken to was appalled that Mr. Miola would use the honor and the opportunity of having a horse inducted into the Hall of Fame to push an agenda, and certainly, an agenda that many of us do not share.  People will not forget this type of hot-headedness very quickly.

Perhaps Mr. Miola has some things he needs to get off of his chest.  I have a few suggestions; first, he should confine his venting to those around him that can just listen.  Maybe even find a trustworthy therapist to do this job.  Second, he needs to consider that his peers in the reining industry are capable of making their own decisions and his spouting off is just a great big turn-off.  And third,  he should understand that there are consequences to this type of behavior, and most likely, his stallion's books will reflect how his 'speech' was received by the reining community.  In the polls of public opinion, we will vote with our checkbooks.

While I have not seen that NRHA has released a video of the Hall of Fame speeches, I have hopes that they will.  It is, after all, part of the public record of the National Reining Horse Association.   But, given that Mr. Miola's stable, Silver Spurs Performance Horses, is a corporate sponsor, perhaps they will feel the need to cover up this rant to protect their own image.  We'll see....

Monday, July 4, 2011

Never a Dull Moment!

Happy Independence Day!!  Over the weekend I attended the NRHA Derby in Oklahoma City, OK, as a spectator, but with a sense of voyeurism, as I knew that I would blog about it.  I wanted to see with a journalistic objectivity, and try to convey what it was like to be there.  I was able to attend the NRHA Awards and Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies, watch the warm up pen, walk through the stalls, and had a front row seat for the Finals.  You will see me writing about these experiences a lot in the coming weeks, because it is endlessly inspiring to see a sport operating at that level.  Good and bad, stunningly beautiful and plain ugly, I got to see a lot, and I will be sharing what I saw with you.

One thing is for sure, as I unpack, unwind, and try to get back into 'normal' life, I will miss the great people that I met over the weekend.  It was wonderful to talk, laugh and joke about silly horses' antics, mourn the loss of a good one we had, swap stories and histories, and makes some toasts.  I am sure I have made some friends for life! 

As they say, it is nice to get away, but it is nice to come home.  So I am going to keep this short, and go spend time with my family.  Enjoy your day - enjoy your freedom!