Monday, October 31, 2011

My Scariest Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mind If I Vent A Little?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Selling Horses, Saving Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Art of Negotiation - Where To Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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