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!!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Four Agreements

To start this week out right, I sought out some inspirational words that might truly serve as a pep talk, for myself and for all of you.  Monday mornings usually hit me like a ton of bricks; you see, Sundays are my favorite days.  That is the day that my whole family is together and we can do whatever we want  - no school, no work (well, almost now work), no worries.  Monday begins the weekly/daily marathon of routine, and trying to get everything done, and done well.  It helps to have clear intentions and a path to follow, whether you are working horses, dealing with the demands of your family, your friends and your job, or simply aspire to improve your life as a whole.

This morning's clear path comes courtesy of The Four Agreements, as presented by Toltec Spirit.

The Four Agreements are: 

1. Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

I love that all of these Agreements can be applied to working with horses.  Being impeccable with your word could apply  to treating the horse honestly - not trying to trick the horse or falsely gaining his trust only to treat him badly.  As with people, we shouldn't take a horse's lack of understanding or ability personally either. Nor should we assume our horse knows something or can do something we haven't gone over.  Both 2 & 3 reflect that horse trainers need to let go of a certain amount of control over the end result.   Horses learn in their own time; we have to have the patience to move along one step at a time.  At each step we take, the last agreement, to do our best, should be our priority.

These Four Agreements are certainly applicable as well to how we conduct our selves within, and represent, the horse industry.  If every trainer, breeder, instructor, shoer, judge and competitor undertook these as their personal creed, imagine how welcoming our industry might be!  Imagine how well cared for our horses would be!

Wishing each of you a happy, productive, inspiring week ahead!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Risk and Reward

Following up on Monday's blog post, "How Young is Too Young?," I thought I would address another issue that plagues many parents who want their kids to ride - how should falls be handled?

Every sport has its risks, and while we would love, as parents, to eliminate those risks, we also want our kids to grow up unafraid, and as well-rounded, tough individuals.  After all, the world is a scary place, and the only way to learn to deal with fear is to face it, and find ways to conquer it that are age appropriate.  Sometimes, it seems that there is a parental Murphy's Law in place: try to protect your kid in one area, and they find a way to hurt themselves somewhere else.  So, to stay sane and live a full life, we must simply accept a certain amount of risk with nearly everything we do.  The trick is to manage that risk, and find a way to learn from accidents when they happen.

Kids who ride horses frequently, with the intention of improving as riders, will eventually fall off.  [I am not talking about riding on a dude ranch once a year, on pony strings where the horses are chosen for their ability to walk quietly and ignore pretty much everything.  Those experiences are expressly designed to keep riders from falling off, and protect the ranch owner's liability.]  Riders who challenge themselves to get better will have to do things on horseback that throw them off balance, make them push their limits and ask their horses to do things they haven't yet done.  But if you choose a good instructor, and have chosen your horse carefully, the risks will be stepped up incrementally, so that the rider can face their fear, challenge their abilities and achieve their objectives - earning the right to ascend to the next level.  It is like allowing your child to take surfing lessons.  You know when you sign up that they will be wiping out and swallowing some ocean, but that doesn't mean you allow them to go out when the waves are 20 ft high.  You trust your instructor, and your instincts, to have good enough judgement to gradually increase the difficulty, so that the child isn't discouraged and doesn't get seriously injured.

So, there you are, watching your child take a riding lesson; they lose their balance, and hit the dirt.  What happens next is critical to how your child will deal with every unexpected setback that they have with horses.  Try very hard to control your emotions.  Most likely, your child will be more shocked, scared or angry than hurt.  They may cry, but they will get up.  As much as possible, let the instructor handle it.  They have dealt with it before, and as long as they aren't upset with the child, don't intervene.  When I have had kids fall, I calmly get them to their feet, check them over to make sure that nothing is broken, and then give them a pep talk, getting them back on as soon as they have calmed down.  I have had parents really freak out; and it is usually those kids that lose confidence afterward.  When a parent behaves as if the child narrowly avoided being eaten by a shark, the child is left to wonder how dangerous this activity really is, and doubt their own ability to handle it.  And this isn't good for their self esteem in any area of their life.  There is nothing worse to a kid than knowing that their parents believe that they can't handle something, especially something that they really want to try.

In all my years teaching, only once have I had a child break something so that they could not get back on.  This young girl was an excellent rider - one of my best ever.  Her mom also rode, and the girl's horse was a small Paint mare that they had bred themselves.  They had been having some difficulty with the mare though; she was lazy and a bit spoiled, and was always looking for a way out of work.  As a mount for the daughter, she was very much 'on probation' but hadn't done anything at that point to make us think she was dangerous. 

The day she fell off, they had come to my house for a lesson, which had gone very well.  We worked the mare for about an hour, and finished on a good note.  I told the girl 'good job' and told her to walk the mare out on a loose rein.  I was standing near the gate, talking to the mom, and the girl was on the opposite end of the arena, walking calmly, when the mare took off bucking, for no apparent reason.  Being relaxed and not expecting something like that, the girl was thrown.  I went to the girl, and the mom caught the horse (there were other riders in the arena, so the loose horse was a danger to them) and then she walked over to us.  We were both calm and matter of fact.  The girl was only temporarily upset - I think we were all shocked that the mare had chosen to do what she did - but it was apparent that she would need an x-ray for her arm.  I had to hand it to her mom - 100% in control, she did not blame the girl or the horse, she spoke to her daughter calmly and very matter-of-factly.  We gathered her up, got her to the car, and I took the horse.  It ended up that she had fractured her wrist, an injury that is pretty common from horseback riding falls. 

After much soul searching, it was decided that the little mare wasn't going to be suitable for the girl, and despite their attachment to her, they decided to sell her.  After finding her a good home, they purchased a POA that, while not always perfectly behaved, was much more willing to work than the Paint mare.  When I asked the girl later how she felt about what happened, she told me that she wasn't afraid of riding, but rather, that she realized that falling off wasn't the worst thing in the world.  Yeah, it hurt at the time, but she healed up and was riding again before her cast was off.  Fear of falling wasn't going to stop her from riding.  And she still hasn't stopped.  Since then, I have moved and her family has moved, but we have kept in touch.  It has been fantastic to watch this beautiful young woman continue to ride and challenge herself.  She now competes in dressage and eventing, but also excels in life, in no small part because she isn't afraid to take risks, and because her parents lovingly allow her to take them.

Not matter what you do, life will throw you curve balls.  It is how you handle them that makes all the difference.  You will find that your child will flourish when you model for them how to handle adversity: by staying calm and cool, and by shrugging off the fear that cripples us.  Only when we face great risk do we reap great rewards.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How Young Is Too Young?

What is the proper age to start riding?  I have gotten this question over and over, and as an instructor and a mom, I recognize that the answer to this question is not black and white.  It is clear that no matter what sport you intend for your child to participate in, the earlier you introduce them to it, the easier it is (usually) for them to figure out proper technique, understand the basic rules and gain the confidence necessary to excel.  But there is a line that mustn't be crossed in pushing them too young.  If there is too much pressure to perform, the child will get weary of the activity quickly, and begin to rebel against the parent's constant direction and over-encouragement.  And there is, of course, social pressures too; for girls, all their friends may be into 'girlie' stuff, princess themes, clothes, and taking dance classes.  For boys, there is an underlying pressure to be a jock type, or a gamer.  Not all kids fit these stereotypes, nor does every parent want to cater to them.  Still, the pressure to start these activities starts young.

I am, by no means, knocking traditional sports or dancing - as long as the child really does love doing it, on their own accord, and they are doing well enough at it that it boosts their confidence, then good for them.  However, I am biased toward horseback riding, and other, more 'outside the box' activities for kids.  Being different from their peers gives them a chance to shine all on their own!  And horseback riding teaches things that learning to tackle or being a pretty dancer cannot.  Being a good rider teaches confidence, balance, bravery, persistence, subtlety, a sense of humor, gentleness, body awareness and control, and consistency, along with the double edge concept of respect for a large animal that could hurt you, but also empathy and kindness for an animal that is at your mercy.  Horseback riding allows kids to get dirty, work hard, and see immediate results for their work, but also long-term accomplishment of goals.  And all the while, they are building a love for nature and animals, and an understanding of the natural cycle of life.  Invaluable experiences in my book.

Many parents begin feeling the pressure of choosing a sport by the time their child is four.  And this is usually the age that they call me asking if they are too young to begin riding lessons.  My response is to start asking questions:  Can the child follow directions well?  Are they able to control their movements, with the strength to sit up straight and use their legs?  Can they handle the occasional frustration?  If the answer is yes to these questions, I usually invite them to come out for a lesson with the intention of just getting the child's interest going.  There is no pressure to perform any difficult tasks, rather, we just introduce them to the routine: first, we get our trusty lesson horse out and tied up, do some grooming, saddle up, lead them around, teaching them to hold the reins and say the word "whoa."  Afterward, they help unsaddle, and return the horse to their pen, where they are allowed to feed the horse a carrot.

Then, I tell the parent to wait and see.  Some kids will just think that the whole thing was a fun diversion, others will hang on to the experience and start begging to come back.  That will tell the parent how much they want to pursue horses.  It must be child-driven.  It is not a good idea to push your child into any sport, but especially horses, since they are expensive, time consuming, and are a living, breathing being in need of care.  And I always advise them to have their child take lessons as long as possible before buying a horse.  If they aren't begging to do it, you could find yourself owning a horse that isn't getting enough attention.

You might think that because I am a life-long horse person, and an instructor, that my kids were loping around while still in diapers.  Nope.  With my own children, I have taken it slow.  Yes, we have ten horses here, and they have been out in the barn since they were infants, 'helping' with chores, and riding with me or being led on our old-timers.  But I have not given them a whole lot of lessons yet.  My boys are four and five, and my five year old has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism.  Until this year, he has had much difficulty following directions, and has been known to have meltdowns when faced with something frustrating.  Rather than push him to do it, and risk ruining the experience for him, I have chosen to wait and let him ask me to do it, keeping his experiences on horseback as short and as sweet as possible; such as when we had his birthday party last November and invited his entire preschool class out for a party and to go for rides around the yard on Jazz, one of our old horses.  Not only did his classmates have fun, Miles got to show off what he knew about horses, and he was very proud to do that.

Recently, we acquired a miniature horse named Sugar, who is broke to ride and drive, and has had lots of experience toting kids around.  Both of the boys LOVE him, and the effects of having him here were immediate.  Both boys talk about the horses more, whether it is what color horses are, naming the equipment used, what they need to do to care for them, or even just role playing with their horse toys.  They are gaining confidence in working around Sugar, leading him, grooming him, riding him, and taking the lines when we are driving him.  I am hoping to take them to a local show this spring, even if it is just for the leadline class.  No pressure, no matter how much their mom might want them to join her in the horse world.  My intention is that their love for horses will come from within themselves, even while my husband and I stoke the fire.

My four yr old son, Owen, leading his beloved Sugar.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Buck and My Bucket List

Last night I saw the movie “Buck” at a local art theater, and was completely blown away. “Buck” is a documentary detailing the life and continuing work of Buck Brannaman, a highly esteemed clinician and horseman. Though I have never attended one of his clinics, I was somewhat familiar with his methods, so I had a few ideas about what to expect from the movie; however, I was happily surprised to discover so much more about him than how he uses a rope halter or how he conducts his clinics. I came away inspired, motivated, and with something new to add to my personal bucket list.

Buck and his brother lived the early parts of his childhood being abused by his father, which became nearly unbearable after their mother died. Their father was an alcoholic and a mean, punitive man, to the point that both boys lived in terror every day, until a gym teacher discovered whip marks on Buck's back, and intervened to have both boys placed in foster care. The family that took them in had rescued many boys through fostering them, and it was there that Buck finally found love and began to heal. They lived on a ranch, and Buck learned to ride a horse, and in turn, set on the path that would be his life's calling. Eventually, he discovered the renowned horseman Ray Hunt, and found a way to work with horses that wasn't forceful or coercive. Buck thrived in this knowledge, and saw himself in the horses, who needed understanding and a chance to do the right thing, rather than being treated as something that needed to be controlled at all costs. It has been his life's mission to help other people reach their horses through good solid horsemanship based on “feel,” and give them the tools to make their horses', and their own, lives better.

I have been giving lessons and training horses since I was a teenager, and I have said, often lamenting, that 90% of what I do is to be a psychologist for the the rider. In order to fix a horse's problem, you first have to fix, or at least face, your own. Horses operate on honesty; they can instantly assess where you are coming from, and what your personal modus operandi is. They know who you are in your heart, and behave accordingly. Watching “Buck” last night, I was struck yet again by how true this is. At one point, a woman brings a horse to a clinic that is truly vicious – I have lived my whole life only seeing one or two horses that were actually so dangerous as to warrant that they be put down, and this horse was definitely that exactly. While the story is tragic and unsettling, what is so great is that Buck is able to tell this woman how it is, and just nails the description of where she has gone wrong. I know that he was doing her a favor in telling her the truth, and most likely saved her life, or someone else's – and certainly, putting this horse down did the horse a favor too. It was impossible to work on the horse's feet, give him vet care, and had anyone tried to make this horse obey, no doubt the horse would have eventually been the loser in the fight.

After the movie, I was left with a renewed sense of purpose in my own life. I have also faced my share of painful adversity in my life, and clung to horses as a way to make sense in this chaotic world. I also have a natural ability to communicate to riders what the horse needs from them, and I also want horses to be treated with more respect and kindness from their human counterparts. While there is no doubt that Buck Brannaman is exceptional at what he does, I think that he would agree that we all can be exceptional in our own way, and through horses, we can heal ourselves and others. So, I have added a new entry to my bucket list: someday I want to ride in one of Buck's clinics, and hopefully, gain more insight into what makes him great. Until then, I will continue work toward elevating my game every time I step into the barn.

Happy trails, and take care!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Setting A Course For Improvement

Good morning! Had a conversation with a good friend yesterday, who is going through some problems, and feels very disillusioned with the horse industry.  She is questioning why she is doing it, and putting so much of her time and money into it.  I know she loves her horses, and wants the horse industry to be a place where she can fully enjoy them, but seems to keep butting heads with people who, while only a small minority of the whole, are extremely negative and are souring the experience for her.

So I want to ask all of my readers - what are we doing to make our industry better every single day?  Can each of us look at ourselves and say that we are helping it to evolve into a place where everyone is welcome?  Where horses are respected, techniques are both ethical and logical, and each horse is given a chance to succeed?  Do we value honesty, eschew gossip and encourage good sportsmanship? Are we willing to take people to task when they do wrong?

I have two little boys whom I would love to grow up as I did, showing horses and hanging out with horsey friends.  It gave me something to keep busy with, something to work toward, and something to hope for.  Back then, it wasn't cheap to show horses, but it was certainly more accessible, whereas today, showing horses requires a pretty big sacrifice for the average family.  In light of that huge sacrifice, there should be a huge payoff in doing it, because really, my kids could just stay home and ride.  If I am thinking this way, a life-long horse person, what might new people be thinking about getting in to horses?  How many others are considering not getting involved?

As a parent, it is discouraging to see where our industry is headed.  I see 'professionals' behaving despicably, cheating, abusing their horses, spreading lies about their competition, attempting to ruin other people's reputations, while people who are too afraid to stand up go along with it.  I know that there are great horseman out there, and I know that I will be the strongest influence on my children's show career, yet, I am hesitant, just like my friend, to put so much time and money into something that seems to value the wrong things.  I know we can do better, and I hope that we can return to some of the values that I grew up with - honest competition, respecting other competitors, seeing that the horse as a whole is more important than an single performance, just like acknowledging that the industry as a whole is more important than a single win.  Winning at all costs, and 'crushing' the competition, may have a short term gain for one barn, but causes us all to lose.  We all need to be aware of opportunities to make our industry better, welcome newcomers, and promote those who represent what is good and right about competing with horses.  If we don't, people will continue to leave the industry, or avoid it all together.  And we need everyone on board if we are going to survive.
Have a fantastic day!

Monday, August 15, 2011

New Week, New Horse

Late last week, I got a new horse in training.   Her name is Candy, and she is a three yr old dark dappled gray Half Arabian/ Quarter Horse filly, and is just as cute as a button.  She is the younger full sibling to two horses that a customer of mine owns; because those two have been doing so well, it was decided that this filly would be a good addition to the family.  They have only had her for a few months, and in that time, she has done little more than get comfortable in her new surroundings and her new herd.  My friend/customer has had family issues that she has had to spend time on this summer, and did not have the time to mess much with her.  Prior to coming to Kansas, Candy lived at the same ranch were she was born in Nebraska;  their common practice is for the mares to foal outside, on the range, with very little human contact until the horses are about ready to be started.  While this flies in the face of the imprinting movement (which I have used on occasion), these horses are quiet, confident, take care of themselves in a herd and are very hardy.  Additionally, they seem savvy and catch on quick to tasks when they are asked to, perhaps because they aren't spoiled as pets.  Now that I have had three from the same ranch in training, I can see that they are quietly respectful of humans, rather than looking at them as a source of food or as a lesser-ranking herd member.

So Candy has come to me as a blank slate.  She ties and leads, but has never had her feet done - her feet are in remarkably good condition, and have worn off from being kept outside all the time.  She is not used to being in a stall for more than an hour, and her new owner would like her to become accustomed to it, since there will be times when she will have to be inside overnight, or longer.  And Candy hasn't been very many new places in her life; while she had hundreds of acres to roam in Nebraska, her very first trailer ride was when she came to Kansas.  Obviously, I have a lot of work to do!  Haha!

The past few days have been dedicated to getting her used to us, our farm and what her schedule is going to be like.  Every morning, after I ride her brother, I take her to the round pen for a short (and so far, sweet) groundwork session.  I am teaching her to lunge, and she is taking to it brilliantly.  She figured out 'whoa' right away, stops and stands quietly while keeping her attention on me, and reverses direction toward the inside naturally, which pleases me to no end! 

After lunging her for a bit, I work on picking up her feet; at first, she tried to bow every time I picked up her fronts, but now is standing perfectly still while I tap on the bottoms of her feet, move them around, and rub her belly.  Her hind feet are going to require some more time, as she wants to swing her butt away from me when I go to pick them up.  After getting her next to the fence to block her, she is better; she will give them to me, but only for a second or two, though today, she seemed more patient with it.  I don't think it will be long and my husband will be able to give her the first trim. 

The last thing I have been working on is getting her to move away from pressure.  While standing at her shoulder, facing her hindquarters, I tap her butt with the end of the lead, and ask her to step away from me, essentially doing a turn-on-the-forehand.  Later, I will move the pressure point from her butt to her side, to replicate leg pressure while mounted, and after that, ask her to move her shoulder so that she is doing a turn-on-the-haunch.  She has been extremely willing with this, a little 'goosey' the first couple of times, but once she figured out what I was asking, and that she would get rubbed and rewarded afterward, she relaxed. 

Not only is this mare following her big brothers' lead in being smart and trainable, she is really nicely put together.  It is no secret that I just love the Arab/Quarter Horse cross; I have ridden a ton of them, and it seems to me that it is a perfect cross if you want a well-made, quiet, smart and pretty horse, and Candy is just that (I will post pictures soon, I promise!).  She has a big, beautiful Quarter Horse rear end, low set tail, lots of bone in her legs, broad hocks and knees, and a short back, while her head and neck are so pretty, she could easily compete with the purebreds in a beauty contest.  Her movement is fantastic too; not quite flat-kneed like a Quarter Horse, but without a lot of excess suspension, like an Arab - a pretty mover, but not overly flashy.  As far as her bloodlines go, she is by an Arab stallion named Rushcreek Kip, a Winraff++ grandson, with Magnat* and Al-Marah Knight (a very desirable name in endurance circles) on the bottom side.  Candy's dam is a QH named Kuda Freckles, a Colonel Freckles granddaughter, with some Leo, King, Skipper W, and Bert mixed in.  Overall, a great combination of working horses that are nice to look at.

I will update you all as to how Candy progresses; I am pretty sure that we will be saddling her soon!

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Will Happen to Your Horses?

A reader suggested this topic to me the other day, and last night, I got another reminder....

A customer of mine, who happens to be a good friend, came to pick up her horse last night, and dropped off another one for me to start working with.  After a great ride and some grooming, my family gathered around this wonderful horse, Atley, to say good bye.  We have worked with him a lot in the past two years, and we all just love him.  He is a sweet, loving horse who wants to work, learns new things easily, and is just plain fun to ride.  While I am enthusiastic about working with my friend's other horses, Atley is, and will always be, special to me.  Every horse is special, but some are REALLY special, and that is what he is.  As we hugged on him and gave him a treat, my two little boys saying, "We love you, Atley!  We are going to miss you!", my friend mentioned that she is going to change her will to include us, so that if anything happened to her, Atley would come to live with us.  This is so touching to me, not only because I know how much she loves her horses and takes their care very seriously, but also because I know that she recognizes how much we love him, and that she trusts us so much with him.

After they had left, the thought occurred to me that I needed to review my own will, and make sure that it is current as to what will happen to my own horses should the unfortunate happen, and my relatives are left to try and figure out what to do with our herd of ten.  This is so important for each of us to do, whether we have a barn full or just one.  If your horses' fates are left to a probate judge to decide, they may end up being sold at auction, which always carries the risk of them going to slaughter, or their care may be bounced between relatives who don't know what to do with them, can't afford to do it right, or are willing to sell them to anyone, just to get rid of the burden of their care. 

A will doesn't have to be a large, daunting document full of legalese; you can write it up yourself with simple instructions.  There are plenty of tutorials online that can help you, such as this one.  In regards to your horses, you will enter them under the section called 'Bequests.'  It is important be somewhat objective in choosing who will care for them after you are gone - Can they afford it?  Do they have room?  Are they knowledgeable enough to handle the horse in question?  This is not something that should be a surprise during the reading of your will; take the time to talk to them about your decision, and ask them how they feel about it.

Another option is to assign a separate executor to handle the sale of the horses for your estate. Choosing a person who is knowledgeable about your horses' bloodlines, abilities and worth ensures that they will be sold well for your estate, and if you choose someone who reflects your own values, you can be confident that your horses aren't slaughtered or end up in abusive homes.  Discuss in detail what your wishes are, and gauge your potential executor's reaction before your write up the document. 

As you are getting your will together, make sure that your registration papers for your animals are in order, including current pictures, and always keep your vet records up to date, and easy to follow, for each horse.  Your vet records will help point your executors and caregivers in the right direction for specific needs, since you won't be there to direct them yourself.  This is extremely important for horses with critical medical issues, such as a history of founder, colic, or foaling complications.  It also doesn't hurt to have lists of accomplishments that a horse has earned, foals produced, or personality quirks so that whomever is entrusted with their care and/or sale knows the entire history of each animal.  Create a portfolio for each of your horses, and make sure that your executor knows where your files are located.  Don't forget to keep the phone numbers for your farrier and veterinarian amongst those papers.

It is never pleasant to contemplate our demise, or what will happen to all we love after we are gone.  It is our duty, though, to ensure that our animals are cared for beyond our own lives, and that we don't burden our loved ones with the responsibility of decisions that they may not be capable of making.  Make your choices now before someone has to make them for you.  Remember, we know not the day or the hour, so prepare as if it could happen tomorrow.

I wish you all long, healthy lives full of joy!  Have a great Friday!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Preventing Tragedy

Yesterday, I read a story that is truly every horseman's worst nightmare; a barn fire destroyed a show barn in Magnolia, Texas, killing 13 horses, and leaving one unaccounted for.  14 other horses were evacuated safely, however, the barn was not insured and was considered a total loss.  My heart goes out to the Goslin/Nix family; I have met Fred Goslin, and Gwen Nix, and know that they are good, responsible horse people who surely felt that their facility was a safe one, and took great care of the training horses entrusted to them.  I hope that they are able to recover from this setback, and return to their normal work activities soon.  I am also saying a prayer for all the horsey souls lost in that fire, as well as their human owners, who I am sure are heartbroken.

I subscribe to several equine industry news outlets, so this same story seems to cross my radar several times a year, and it never fails to give me a sick feeling in my stomach.  Barn fires cause millions of dollars in damages and loss every year, and almost always, they are preventable.  In honor of the horses that were lost in the Goslin/Nix fire, I'd like to review some fire safety strategies that we can implement to help keep this from happening in our own barns.

1.)  Clean that barn - REALLY clean it!  The air in the barn is full of micro-bits of sawdust, hair and debris that are extremely flammable.  Get out a broom and sweep the walls, corners, wiring, everything.  Used canned air to clean out outlets.  Take down your fans (or climb up to them) and clean them thoroughly with small brushes, rags, etc. taking care to inspect their wiring.  Horses and rodents can chew on cords, making them a fire hazard.  Replace a fan that is damaged - don't just tape it up.  The cost of a new fan is nothing compared to the loss of your barn and animals.

2.)  Have your wiring inspected by an electrician.  A professional can see things that you may not be able to, and can make recommendations that could save lives and money.  As much as it is possible, encase all wiring in conduit, and install protective lighting cases over bulbs.

3.)  Hay during the summer months can get very hot, and may combust.  Stack hay to maximize air flow, leaving channels in between bales.  Make sure you smell your stacks frequently; often you can smell a charred scent if a batch of bales is at risk for combustion.  It is also a good idea to store your hay and sawdust separately from where your horse's stalls are; if that isn't possible, make sure that the hay and sawdust is kept in the coolest area in your barn and is well-ventilated.  Also, keep loose hay or sawdust swept/raked up, so that it doesn't accumulate in areas where it could catch fire.

4.)  Make sure you have several large, fully charged fire extinguishers in several locations in your barn.  Also make sure that all your barn help know how to use them.

5.)  This may be obvious, but enforce a 'No Smoking' rule on your property.  Post signs and make sure that there are no exceptions to this rule.  Often, people who want to smoke won't smoke in the barn per se, but will stand just outside of it, and will flick their butt on the ground.  Other flammable activities include your shoer who uses a hot forge, or someone who does welding work.  Keep a close eye on those sparks!

6.)  Installing a sprinkler system is a big expense for most horse owners, but the payoff for this investment is the peace of mind that your horses might be saved from fire if you are not there to evacuate them, or if it is the middle of the night and you are unaware of a fire in your barn.  New construction should always have them, but older barns can be retrofit with them.

7.)  There are two small appliances that are commonly used in barns that increase the risk of fire substantially.  One is fans, and the other is heaters.  This summer has been incredibly hot, and to help there stall bound horses cope, many people are running fans 24/7.  Most box fans are not terribly well-made; make sure to turn them off occasionally to give the motor a rest, inspect them carefully and consider using larger fans in the aisles, rather than small fans in each stall (more small fans means more cords, which means more risk.).  If possible, consider turning your horses out rather than keeping them stalled; usually there is more breeze outside than in, and if there is shade available, the horses will be more content and comfortable outside. 

As far as heaters go, I am very much against their use in horse barns.  They are not for the horses, who are blessed with a natural way to stay warm - their coats.  Heaters are for people, but really are an accident waiting to happen.  If you are busy moving around in a barn, you won't be very cold, but if you are, warm up inside the house, lounge, your car or with some hot chocolate or hot pack, not in front of a space heater.  It just isn't worth the risk.  If you absolutely cannot live without your space heater, post large signs around the barn area, reminding you to turn off or check the heater, and always place the heater on a flat, stable, non-combustable surface, away from anything that might get hot and catch fire.

I hope these suggestions inspire you to go out today and declare a fire safety day.  By being vigilant, we may be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring in your barn, and that would be the very best way to remember the fourteen horses lost yesterday.  Take care, and be safe.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Taking the Easy Way Out

I recently read an article about how slaughter should be allowed again in order to 'save' the horse industry, and it occurred to me that many people out there would fail to see why this is a very bad thing, so I have decided to turn myself over to this topic. In part, I would like to clarify my position, but also, I'd like to wake up those people who have become numb to the slaughter debate, and possibly, their own feelings in regards to the noblest of creatures, the horse. I am writing this from the viewpoint that while commercial slaughter is illegal here in the U.S., horses are still being slaughtered, only now they must endure a long trip via the killer buyer's trailer to Mexico or Canada.

First, slaughter gives breeders an easy way out. Many people breed horses without the intention of keeping them or investing in their training. Just as many breed them without the benefit of knowledge of bloodlines, conformation or expertise within a competitive arena. So often, they breed mares because they just want to experience it, for themselves or their children – the actual fate of the horse is secondary to the experience. This is akin to the family who continually lets their dog or cat have litters so that their kids can have playmates. Great maybe for the kids short term, absolutely terrible for the local population of house pets.

There are also many commercial breeders who breed as many as they can – they are usually located in areas where they have access to hundreds of acres of sustainable pasture, and therefore, can produce high numbers of horses with minimal investment. These breeders tend to have annual 'production' sales, in which hundreds of yearlings are sold, usually for fairly low prices, and the breeder is still able to profit because they have very little into them and the high numbers pay off.

Slaughtering the results from these ill-fated breeding practices enables these types of breeders to go back and do it some more. It artificially props up the horse breeding industry so that there is no consequence from breeding bad horses – or breeding too many good horses. If you produce widgets, and they are inferior, no one will buy your widget and you will have to either improve your design, or get out of business. Produce more widgets than what the market demands, and you lose money, and have to get out, or adjust. If you are a restaurant owner, and produce bad food, nobody comes to your restaurant, and it closes. But if you are a horse breeder, and produce a horse with crooked legs, with a fractious disposition or inheritable genetic diseases, you can get rid of the evidence, collect the meat price of your animal, and try again next year.

Slaughter also gives trainers a way out of horses that aren't going to be successful. I have seen this from the top to the bottom tiers of trainers; a local trainer who is not talented or patient enough to get through to a horse, so they use punitive means to coerce the animal, often producing career-ending injuries in the process. I have seen high-end, big name trainers who, with all the pressure on them to win for their high paying clients, push a horse beyond its abilities, ruining it physically and mentally. It would be nice to think that these horses get rehabilitated, or get to go home and be pasture pets. But invariably, the trainer blames the horse, and they are 'sold down,' to be placed in uncertain homes, or just sent directly to slaughter.

Slaughter gives owners an easy way out too. Lots of people don't have the time, patience and knowledge necessary to work with their horses, and make them good citizens. They may begin with good intentions; horses have a romantic appeal that is undeniable, but for a myriad of reasons, the horse doesn't get what it needs. Seeking the correct path sometimes seems impossible: working the horse yourself, finding someone else who wants it, getting professional help, getting proper vet care, finding a rescue that can take the animal, all require time, money and perseverance. Other owners feel that the horse owes them something, and so would rather take money for the horse to be killed, than spend $100 to have the horse put down peacefully at home. I credit the owner's personal selfishness for many of the bad situations that horses end up in: I have known people who never, ever miss an appointment to have their nails done or drive new vehicles, but swear they don't have the money for feed or vet care.

Slaughter gives all of us an easy way out. It enables us to get rid of those pesky mustangs who dare to forage on land that could be better used for cattle grazing, mining or drilling for natural gas. It keeps sale prices for all horses at a certain level because even in the worst case scenario, you can sell your unwanted horse for meat prices, without having to spend the time finding a good home for it. Slaughter 'takes care' of the old horses that cost so much to take care of, and whom aren't useful anymore as working stock.

And what evidence is there that people who neglect their horses, when given some kind of 'out' from those horses such as being surrendered to rescue, finding some type of euthanasia, or selling them to slaughter, NEVER neglect a horse again? I would venture to say that there are plenty of repeat offenders, from those who are hoarders (a psychological affliction) to those who are simply cruel and believe they can make a buck off of animals that they have no intention of caring for.

If only we could be sure that ONLY horses that are infirm, physically deformed, mentally/emotionally imbalanced or otherwise truly unusable would be slaughtered. If only those who were required to ship and handle these horses did so with a sense of dignity and compassion. If only we could be sure that in every step along the way, the horses were soothed and calmed, with the direct result that each horse did indeed die a good death. If only Americans actually ate horse meat, so there would be some justification for producing so many direct-to-slaughter animals. (While I think the prospect of eating horse meat is disgusting, I acknowledge that many in the world do not. What I do believe in is the Native American way of using animals – eat locally, take only what you really need, and use everything in the animal.) If only we could know for sure that the people who dump their unwanted horses wouldn't turn around and buy/produce more unwanted horses.

If only...if only...if only....Seems to me that the horse industry has had this reckoning coming for a long time. It is a market correction like any other; the public no longer wants to support the horse slaughter industry, and therefore, those who produce horses must adjust, those who work with horses must adjust, and those who decide to get into horses must adjust. We must take our medicine and take responsibility for the animals in our care – giving them humane lives, investing in their quality of life, and exercising prudence when producing more animals – rather than relying on slaughter to erase our mistakes.

As for myself, I have some fantastic mares that haven't been bred in years, not because they aren't worthy, but because I am at my limit in being able to care for the horses I already have. I own several elderly horses that aren't saleable – and deserve to be retired to enjoy their golden years. I own some horses that have had injuries (not related to overwork) and would be at risk of being sent to slaughter should they be sold. Rather than producing more animals, I have to be committed to spending my time and money to keep those that I have healthy. That is my way of responding to compounded problem of having a poor economy and a slaughter ban in place – RESTRAINT.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"New" Rules for the FEI?

For those of us that follow international equine competition, we have seen a storm brewing around the FEI for some time.  The FEI (Fédération Equestre Internationale), which is the governing body for Olympics, the World Equestrian Games, and various World Championships, has seen several scandals in the past few years;  There was the myriad of doping allegations during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which included several top riders; there was the incident in 2009 where the president of FEI's husband and brother were caught doping their horses for an endurance race. The FEI president, Princess Haya, also saw her husband embroiled in a scandal over his involvement in a much-maligned Mongolian endurance ride .  In 2010, we had the 'Blue Tongue' incident at the World Cup, in which the FEI turned a blind eye to horribly coercive riding.  And most recently, at the 2011 World Championships in Malmo, Sweden, several reining trainers were caught on tape riding their horses in a manner that goes directly against the FEI's rules, while the stewards present were occupied with their phones, lunch or chatting during the warm ups.  

The compounding of these events has created an atmosphere of distrust of the organization, and many have been openly questioning whether the FEI truly has the best interest of horses at heart.  Repeatedly, they seem to turn a blind eye toward abuse and refuse to acknowledge rule violations - is this their way of maintaining a clean image?  

Within the flurry of attention given to the most recent reining scandal, the FEI demanded that the online news organization Epona TV, whose reporters were the ones to catch the poor riding during the Malmo warm ups, hand over all their footage recorded at those warm ups, in order to "review" it for rules violations.  Epona has refused, explaining their position in a well-written editorial.  Basically, they never expected the FEI to sanction any of the riders participating in the World Championships, nor do they believe that the FEI would after seeing the 'extra' hours of tape.  Epona's purpose was to further expose the FEI, in their unwillingness to enforce compliance with their rules, as well as the willful ineptness of the stewards employed by the FEI.  

This week, the FEI released a statement outlining a supposed 'new' rule structure that will cover training and warm ups. In this statement, the FEI blames Epona (without using their name) for not supplying adequate evidence of violations, so therefore, no further action will be taken toward the individuals caught on tape riding their horses roughly.  While their inaction is disappointing, it is certainly not surprising.  From the very beginning, when these videos went viral, the FEI made it clear that they would try to minimize this incident and distract from its steward's ineptitude by blaming Epona.  There was much hand-wringing and placations toward the concerned public, but it seemed quite obvious that nothing could retroactively be done about the riding at Malmo.  After all, what a mess it would create for the FEI!  Both the first and second place winners were among those caught on tape!  By sanctioning those riders after the fact, who were not given warnings (that we know of) or inhibited in any way from riding roughly in the warm ups, wouldn't they be admitting their own ineptitude? 

However, there are some positives to come out of this recent statement about the new rules structure.  It seems to me that they are admitting that they need to do better in monitoring reining activities, as well as educating the stewards in what is acceptable, and what violates the rules.  This is a victory for those concerned with the horse's welfare at FEI competitions.  In making a really big, international, fuss, the FEI could see that people are watching and we are serious about keeping coercive, rough riding OUT of our top level competitions.  Ian Williams, FEI Director of Non-Olympic Sports, said, "We absolutely understand the importance of learning from this alleged incident."  Does this mean that more rule violations will be issued at future events?  That we will see an end to ugly, coercive riding at FEI events due to intense scrutiny - not just from the public, but from the stewards employed by FEI?  Hard to say, but to be sure, we will be paying attention.  Actions speak louder than press releases.

If you would like to contribute to keeping the pressure on the FEI to enforce it rules, please sign this petition.  We all have a responsibility to speak up for horses.  Thank you!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What is the Ultimate Horseman's Challenge Association?

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend an Ultimate Horseman's Challenge Assn. (UHCA) event, held at the Chapman Ranch in Pleasanton, Kansas. I had never been to a competition like this before; my only exposure would be limited to watching various RFDTV shows, and I was worried that I might see some wild and crazy riding. I don't know what I was expecting really.....ponies leaping through rings of fire? Riders juggling knives at a full gallop? I just knew that I had seen all kinds of obstacles that would no doubt scare some of my horses to death! But I went with an open mind and a little notebook to take notes, and prepared myself for whatever feats of horsemanship lay ahead.

Saturday morning, the weather was not being very helpful toward getting a outdoor competition started. When I arrived, it had been drizzling off and on, but then the skies opened up and it poured! I was able to find a sturdy awning to shelter under, along with some nice people willing to share the goings on of the organization and who was who. They had a great turn out, despite the weather, and the competitors looked to me to come from every age group. In addition, I saw a very diverse herd being warmed up to compete too. Lots of gorgeous ranch-type Quarter Horses, of course, but also Appaloosas, Paints, Arabians, mustangs, a stunning Clydesdale, an assortment of ponies and the darling of the crowd – a little palomino and white painted mini ridden by the cutest little girl! Most people continued to ride in the downpours, or they sought shelter under umbrellas, tents and awnings. Of course, none of the horses seemed worried about anything, not the people running everywhere, the water pelting them in the face, nor the umbrellas over their heads. And because it has been so hot and dry here, no humans were complaining about the rain!
Cute kids - nice ponies!
When we were finally ready to get under way, I was able to go out in the middle of the course, and stand on a flatbed trailer used by the judges, and the timers. Truly a bird's eye view! The first class in was the colt's class. The course was as follows: Begin loping at the in-gate, lope all the way around to the other side of the course, at speed. Descend into the pond, and cross one side of the pond. Go down the side of a hill, negotiating a 'jump down' set of rail road ties. Lope down a grassy ravine, through the woods, go through a 'dead fall' (a narrow passage through brush), and enter a corral, containing 6 calves. Rope a calf (breakaway rope) within two tries. Lope over to a designated spot, dismount, and ground tie your horse. Run over and climb a ladder to grab a tarp, located on a hook on the side of a raised barrel. Take the tarp back to your horse, and mount, then take the tarp and hang it back on the mounted hook. Next, you jump over a log, stop and spin your horse both directions. Trot over to next obstacle, grab a rope attached to a sled with two bales of hay and drag it several feet. The next obstacle required you to dismount on a large plastic box, and while standing on the box, walk your horse around the box 360 degrees, having them step over two plastic tubes, and then remount. From there, you picked up a lope and jumped three large plastic tubes, and continued to lope around five posts. Then over a bridge, back down the dead fall, through the woods, to where you take the 'jump down' as a 'jump up.' Around the pond to the last requirement, where you picked up a gun loaded with blanks, and shot it while mounted!
Hanging the tarp up

I thoroughly expected that because it was a colt's class, and because some of the obstacles seemed somewhat difficult, that I would see many horses refusing. But really, I didn't! The horses all seemed well prepared, and even at the scarier things, most of the horses truly tried. Each obstacle is timed so sometimes the rider was unable to conquer an obstacle in the time allowed, but most of the time, you could see that if the horse had just a little more time, it would have finished it. Some obstacles gave the horses more trouble; the pond was pretty scary to some, and ground tying was a challenge for others, but the obstacle that gave the most riders grief was the big plastic box that you had to dismount onto and then lead the horse around you. Lots of horses did not want to move, and when shushed forward, they invariably swung their haunches out. A fantastic obstacle, in my opinion – simple, safe, challenging, and a very good measure of how much body control you have over your horse.
Eenie meenie miney moe
I was able to take in some of the 'Buckaroo' class (for kids), but because of several rain delays, I had to leave before I really wanted to. I had so much fun, and felt very welcomed by everyone I met. It was fascinating to sit with the judges and timers and hear their comments. I definitely feel inspired to try some of the things I saw demonstrated! I probably won't be roping any cows anytime soon, but you can bet that I will be throwing some tarps around, or maybe dragging some hay, with the goal of making my horses braver, more tolerant and controllable. I think that cross training a horse in this type of discipline will make them even better at your primary activity.

The mission of the Ultimate Horseman’s Challenge Association is to provide a forum to unite all breeds, disciplines and skill levels in a competitive obstacle course setting that emphasizes and rewards good horsemanship while encouraging sportsmanship, camaraderie and above all, fun and enjoyment with horses. I highly recommend you check out UHCA. They are a great group of people, ready to explain things to newcomers, lend equipment and laugh about mistakes. You may find yourself jumping saddle-deep into a pond, leaping over jumps, galloping full blast, and shooting guns – and all the while, you'll be grinning from ear to ear! 


Monday, August 1, 2011

A Surprise in The Mail!

Well, I was going to write about my visit to an Ultimate Horseman's Challenge Assn. competition last weekend, but that will have to wait, as this morning I received an email that gave me something much different to write about.

Ginger Schmersal felt compelled to send me a comment, meant to be published here, in which she mistakenly accuses me of saying her husband, Craig Schmersal, is the person pushing to have warm ups at reining events closed to the public.  You might remember Craig; he was the trainer caught at the FEI World Championships in Sweden hyper-flexing his horse.  I have stated in this blog that I do not like what I saw in that video. While I was not referring to him in regards to the petition, how telling is it that she assumes that I am?  Her message  was full of insults, as well containing possible slander about someone I know, so as much as I would like to, I cannot publish those comments.  Was this message an attempt to bully me into keeping my mouth shut? She also has tried on numerous occasions to convince me that I am nobody, nobody cares about what I have to say, and that everyone who reads me are nobodies - hurtful for me to hear, for sure, but not exactly unexpected.  Who is she trying to convince?

What all her squalling tells me is that I am on the right track.  If what a person says is truly unimportant, why would you go through so much trouble trying to quash them?  Why would you go out of your way to tell strangers on FB lies, and make yourself out to be a victim?  Fear?  Guilt?  I can only deduce that what I am writing about IS important.  In everything that I have written, I approach my subjects with a fair and balanced approach, even while reporting on Craig's video.  While many people have written about how Craig should be banned for life from being around horses, I haven't gone that route - not once.  Yet, it seems Ginger doesn't like me because I have dared to say that Craig's methods have no place in reining horse training. 

Feel free to make your own judgement; he was riding at a public event, and it is the responsibility of every horse person in the world to keep tabs on any type of abusive activities toward horses. 

It wasn't that long ago that it was perfectly acceptable to sore a gaited horse beyond comprehension to get their action more exaggerated.  Not long ago, it was perfectly acceptable to kill horses on movie sets.  It is only when reasonable, compassionate people spoke up on behalf of the horse did anything begin to change.  And it has become very evident to me in the past month of writing this blog that many are quite tired of seeing trainers ride their stock roughly and with the most important goal as winning.  Some reining trainers have nothing to worry about when it comes to the public scrutinizing their methods.  Others probably do, because adapting and getting better is a difficult thing to do.

So once again, I declare my dedication to the cause of bringing you the truth as I experience it, being humane to horses while training and competing with them, and being a voice for those that don't have one, whether it is the horse or the rider.  The rules of competition, and of society, apply to everyone, from the million dollar riders to us little nobodies. 

***This post has been edited and re-posted to clarify/explain certain facts related to my story.***