Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Defensive Riding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving and take care out there!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Extending a Warm Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

Just Give It One More Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Good Horse Makes For Short Miles

Good morning and Happy Tuesday!

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

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

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

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

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

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