Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pirates and Thieves

Have you ever had a horse in training, and felt completely out of control of the process?  Bombarded by extra fees on your bill that you didn’t authorize?  Vet costs that you didn’t know about, didn’t authorize and are confusing as to their purpose?  Worried that your horse is being mistreated and feel powerless to protect them?   Have you ever felt annoyed or angry because a horse trainer expected you to show up at the barn with an open check book and a closed mouth?   Have you ever had a horse that you delivered to the trainer sound, healthy, and happy, only to have it given back to you a sick, quivering, lame, and terrified mess, and were then told, “These things happen?”  Then you, my friend, may be one of many interested in taking back control of the horse industry from those that would like to hold us, the owners and breeders, over a barrel – the trainers.

A friend of mine in the reining business characterizes big name horse trainers as ‘pirates.’  They sniff out wealth among owners and good horses among breeders, charge exorbitant fees in exchange for taking over your assets – your well-bred, well-loved animals, expect to rule their barn with absolute authority,  demand loyalty while they are free to behave like divas, gain fame and fortune to the outside world while treating the horse as a disposable commodity, and in many cases, doing unconscionable things to the animals in their care, even as they are climbing the ladder of success toward that enviable ‘million dollar’ status.   As owners, breeders, and amateur riders, we are at their mercy if we choose to put our horses in training.

In a perfect world, we would be working our own horses, and forming partnerships with them that would carry us to the winner’s circle.  But this is unrealistic for many people.  Some have careers that take up too much time, or have family obligations that are of a higher priority than spending the necessary hours working their horses.  Many people recognize that they aren’t physically capable, and yet want to be involved in the horse world, even if it is as an active observer and enthusiast.  Some people see their limits, and want horsemen with more talent than they themselves possess to take their horses as far as they can go in the competitive arena.  As a horse trainer and riding instructor, I encourage people to be as active in their horses’ lives as they able to be, but also see nothing wrong in placing a horse with a trusted trainer whose philosophies match that of the owner.  I myself have had many horses with trainers; some I admired a great deal and came away satisfied and inspired.  Others were a nightmare, and made me understand all of the things I DON’T want in a horse trainer, no matter how “big” their name is.

When a trainer takes your horse and mistreats it, causing it physical or mental harm, they are stealing from you.  If the horse experiences harsh training techniques that cause the horse to become afraid, sour, dull or dangerous, that horse’s worth is seriously impacted.  If the horse is physically injured due to rough care or negligence, not only does it diminish the horse’s worth, it may render it useless.  When a trainer authorizes a vet to use drugs to mask or change a horse’s disposition, way of going, or physical appearance, they are imposing serious risks to the horse’s immediate and long-term health, and are also risking the sullying of your good name, should it be discovered that your horse underwent this treatment in order to win.   For those of us that put in countless hours of handling, care and planning, plus thousands and thousands of dollars worth of breeding fees, purchase costs, vet care, feed, shoeing and land management costs, to have a horse ruined and wasted by an unscrupulous trainer is devastating.  Yet many are afraid to speak up, or have signed away our rights by agreeing to sign the pirate’s best weapon – a training agreement that includes a non-disclosure clause.   I think that the inability to speak up and advocate on behalf of your horse that has been maimed, crippled, or killed by a trainer so that they may retain some kind of ‘good reputation’ is the very definition of adding insult to injury.

We can, however, take back our power.  The trainer works for us, right?  So why not have our own contract that clearly sets limits on what the trainer is allowed to do to our asset, the horse?  I think this is a brilliant way to do battle with the pirates!  A friend of mine has put together an excellent contract that does just that – defines what exactly the owner expects and allows to be done to their horse while in the care of the trainer.  It can’t control everything – plain old bad training, for example – but it does protect the owner from deliberate diminishment of the value of their horse, and gives them legal ground to stand on if the trainer chooses to go against the owner’s wishes.  You can access this contract here.  I encourage you to use it within your owner/ trainer relationships, and spread the word to your friends who may be thinking of putting a horse in training.  There are plenty of ways to personalize this contract, so don’t feel as if this is a one-size-fits-all deal.  You may strike sections if they don’t apply or add caveats to them, or add your own conditions at the bottom.  I feel this is a good place to start in remaining in control of your horse, and, since even the most hands-on owner can’t be at the trainer’s all the time, is a little insurance policy against things happening behind your back.

Some pirates will certainly be offended that you dared challenged their judgment in being the captain of their ship!  And may even ask you to walk the plank and take your horse with you!  But the contract contains nothing that is unreasonable, and I would be seriously wary of someone who wouldn’t agree to the simple requests stated therein.  They are probably doing you a favor by letting you know up front that they intend to mistreat your horse, so leave them to their own devices and seek out someone who is appreciative of you, your horse and your money, and will therefore treat all of those things with respect.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Some Keep Promises, Some Keep Secrets

Some stories need to be told, no matter how painful the telling.  And some promises must be kept, no matter the obstacles in the path of the keeping.  The reason for both is usually love. 

I recently finished a moving and thought-provoking book called "Justice For Speedy," which is the true story of the author's journey from dreaming of breeding her mare, raising the resulting foal with care, the charismatic colt "Speedy" growing up to show enormous potential, watching Speedy perform at his first show and winning a Championship class, and then discovering the horse was being abused by the trusted trainer, unbeknownst to the owner.  Judy Berkley describes in detail how she found out, after much investigation, that her trainer had gone directly against her very explicit expectations that her horse not be over-fed, not be abused, and not be given any steroids.  Sadly, Speedy endured all three, which caused a cascade of health problems resulting in him foundering and later, colicking, and being put down.  On top of the tragedy of Speedy's death, Berkley had the added insult of an industry in which the drugging of show horses is common and almost systematic, and where many of those with pull and influence are happy to cover up the ugliness of it.  Berkley had promised her horse that she would tell his story, and that she wouldn't let him be forgotten, so despite many hardships, personal, financial and emotional, she continues to bring to light some of the abuses that are deemed 'common practice' within the show and performance horse industry.

The story is about a Half Arabian gelding that was shown in halter and western pleasure, but please believe me, this story could be set in the reining world, the Quarter Horse or Paint pleasure circuits, the hunter/jumper world.....it is about how some are willing to do just about anything to their horses to move up the ladder of earnings, points, buckles, trophies and garlands, and how higher-ups within the industry try to quash the controversies with lawyers and lawsuits, confidentiality contracts, and the Good Ol' Boy Club.  We have all seen it - the corruption often goes all the way to the top.  Equally appalling is how the general membership (of any association) participates in this dysfunctional and enabling 'trainer worship' that allows many to get away with callous acts in the name of winning and money.  You will certainly recognize the characters in the story because they are universal.

Berkley is angry about what happened to her horse, it shows in her writing.  And as well she should be - we all should be.  The horse industry has been plagued with similar incidents for a long time, and a change within our culture - for the better - is overdue.  Don't our horses deserve better than to be used and abused, and then discarded? 

I believe so - but it is going to take three levels of change:
1) Those who are actually using abusive methods need to see their actions for what they are, and resolve to change or get out.

2)  Those who don't abuse their horses or drug them, but turn a blind eye/justify it, need to be willing to speak out, publicly or privately, against practices that they know hurts horses and that they know is bad for our industry.  They need to find it within themselves to do the right thing, because ignoring the problems won't make them go away.

3)  Those who are in a position of influence need to take a proactive, public stance against those practices that damage the integrity of our breeds, our sport, and our competitions.

I am not of the belief that everyone who shows or competes on horses is abusive, or drugs them, or is to self-absorbed to care.  I know that there are many, many people who feel like I do - that it is an incredible gift to ride a great horse, and to work in partnership with that horse to achieve something, whatever that is.  That horses have the ability to teach us, empower us, lift us up, heal our souls and bring purpose to our lives.  Those of us (and there are thousands of you who will read this, according to my view counter) who love horses must work together to actively try and change the culture.  Not only will we be protecting the horses themselves, we will be protecting our lifestyle and viable future.

The first step - getting educated.....You can check out Judy Berkley's book and website here, at  http://justiceforspeedy.com/home.html  I would also encourage you to take a look at her store, which has a collection of t-shirts, mugs, hats and bumper stickers that can help you declare your horse drug free.  I especially love the mug that says, "Bring back the 1979 Arabian horse" and the bumper sticker that says, "Unattractive, Unnatural, Just Plain Dumb - Peanut Rolling."  Also, if you read through the blog portion of her site, you will uncover the name of the trainer who abused her horse.

I would like to thank Judy for sharing Speedy's story, and commend her for having the guts to keep her promise to her horse.  I hope it inspires more people to speak up and name names.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Fractured Skulls and Broken Hearts

Last week I shared with you my thoughts on tying around, and why I think it is time to leave this 'training method' behind in our evolution as horsemen.  This week, with almost prophetic timing, the reining world was shaken by the unfortunate death of Bella Gunnabe Gifted at the hands of trainer Mark Arballo, who tied the mare's head and left her.  The mare apparently flipped over, fractured her skull, and was found by witnesses with blood gushing out of her nose.  The mare was later put down, but not before witnesses saw Arballo hitting the mare in attempts to get her to rise.  You can read the news report and watch video of the news report here.  The owner of the mare, Martha Torkington, also owns the ranch where the death occurred, River Valley Ranch, and was filmed smiling and calming saying that 'this is a very common training technique.'  San Diego County Animal Services is investigating the death of Bella, but this isn't the first time they have been to the ranch; in 2012, Animal Services investigated the same trainer and facility for having a horse die in the same manner. 

While I will respectfully wait for SDAS to do their job in investigating this incident, and will not make any conjectures as to what Arballo's fate should be, it is clear that Arballo did indeed tie this mare up with a shanked curb, left her alone, and when asked about the mare's death, the owner admitted knowing about Arballo's use of tying around.  I hope that, if found guilty of abuse, Arballo will face more than a slap on the wrist in facing the consequences of this mare's death, but what happens to him is less important to me than what we can learn from this tragedy, and from there, what the future of the industry will be.

My heart is breaking for this poor mare; she was so pretty, and had so much potential.  In the words of her former trainer, she was very sweet and willing.  She wasn't a crazy mare or dangerous.  She deserved better than to die this way.  But my heart is also breaking because of the aftermath of her death.  This week I participated in many discussions about this incident, and was shocked at how many people were quite blase' about the whole thing.  "Everyone does it" and "sh** happens" was expressed many times in forum discussions, often by well-known riders/owners, and one person tried to use the 'stupid animal' defense, saying that since animals have brains the size of walnuts, we should expect things like this to happen.  These attitudes are simply disgusting to me.  How can we, as an industry tolerate this callousness?  How can we be so flippant about a horse's needless and preventable death?  How can we justify the abuse of an animal that we make our living off of?  And in what universe is "everybody does it, so it must be OK" a good reason to do anything?  I think I learned by first grade that that is never an excuse for bad behavior!

The truth is, many people in our industry are stuck; they don't have the tools in their toolbox to train a horse without resorting to short cuts, gimmicks and devices of force and pain.  They don't want to share in Arballo's guilt, so they make excuses for his behavior and pretend he is being targeted by a 'witch hunt,' and 'personal vendettas.'  They are afraid that they will be investigated for similar abuses, so they shun outsiders and try to band together against change.  They don't want those "damn PETA people" to come after reining the way that the Tennessee Walking Horse people have come under fire, so they characterize anyone who advocates for more regulation as crazy, stupid, inept, over-emotional and potentially dangerous.  They just want to close their eyes and ears in hopes that this whole things will just go away.  Even Bella's owner seemed strangely unaffected by her death, and seemed to defend the trainer in the news footage.  This bothers me deeply because I really believe that these attitudes will be the undoing of our industry.

There is a lot at stake for trainers these days.  There is more competition money out there, and owners are vocal in their pursuit of it, so there is a lot of pressure on trainers to win, sometimes at all costs. There are fewer owners with bottomless pockets out there participating, so there is pressure to do well and attract bigger, better owners.  Everything needs to happen fast, whether it is when they are trying to get young horses ready for the Futurities, or when they are getting horses tuned up for aged events. There is a perception that the guy/gal who takes their time in preparing a horse is going to be left behind.  It isn't a surprise that some would resort to short cuts in order to chase the dollars more effectively.  But it is the horse that loses. We also lose, in that we lose our sense of ethics, and we lose the ability to face the public with a clean conscience.  For these reasons, I understand the fear that humane organizations will come after the horse industry - they certainly have grounds to in some cases, and the industry has so far been ineffectual at policing itself.

I want to be clear:  I love equine competitions, of all kinds (except for charro horse tripping, which is deplorable).  I want our competitions to continue, far into the foreseeable future, building on the training traditions that are worthy of continuation, while leaving those that no longer serve us in the past.  In other words, I want us all to EVOLVE.  There are a myriad of techniques used to train show horses that may be common, that may have been used for a long time, that may even be used by big name trainers, but that no longer serve us.  Like it or not, our interactions with horses will forever more be scrutinized under the microscope of youtube, by a more aware and more unified public.  We cannot stick our heads in the sand and go on as if we are somehow above questions from the public, or that the public will leave us alone.  Our training techniques need to become more transparent, and they must be humane when looked at in the bright light of public opinion.  And this doesn't just go for reiners; soring of gaited horses, hyper-flexing dressage horses, hitting jumping horses in the cannon bone so they avoid poles, cutting/injecting western horse's tails, etc., etc.....it all needs to go.  There isn't a corner of the horse industry that shouldn't be taking stock and weeding out abusive practices.  The time has come to clean house.

If there are trainers that insist on using force and pain to train their animals, we must be willing to speak up and stick our necks out, for the good of the horses directly involved, but also for the industry itself.  And if those people end up facing charges, being banned or are black-listed by the public, so be it.  We cannot afford to defend the indefensible.  Those who abuse horses need to take their lumps, and the rest of us need to up our game.  I don't believe that every trainer of western performance horses uses tying around, but there are plenty of other ways that they might be overdoing it.  Hopefully some are humble enough to say that they are not proud of what they are doing - be it spurring a horse till they are bloody, drugging a horse to mask pain, riding a horse to exhaustion or using equipment that is meant to inflict pain - and vow to stop.  I would have so much more respect for someone who is a big enough person to say,"I see that this isn't the right way, and I am going to do better" than someone who says, "Oh well, they are just stupid animals and sh** happens."

Tying horses' heads is a risky technique that not only puts our horse's at risk, it can make them more sore and resistant, and isn't necessary if a rider is willing to take a few extra minutes in the saddle each day and work on bending the horse. To get a horse really flexible and light, it is imperative that the rider use feel, releasing the pressure the moment the horse gives.  This is how the horse knows it is on the right track.  Tying a horse's head dulls them down and doesn't encourage a partnership between rider and horse; it's purpose is to get horses to submit and give in to the pain.  If the horse is unable to bend using a light handed technique, it probably has pain somewhere in its neck, poll, or shoulders, and should be seen by a vet or massage therapist.  I want newcomers, owners and non-pros to understand these facts so that they can make informed decisions for their horses, choosing trainers that ride based on feel, not force, and speaking up when they see a horse in distress.  Doing so may save a horse from a lot of pain, and may even save one's life.

One last thought.....as a child, I took lessons from a wonderful dressage instructor who ran a riding school.  Being a small, older lady, her training techniques were not based on force or strength, but rather on taking the time with each horse and rider to build a foundation of skills, filling the rider's toolbox with sound principles, and encouraging partnership.  She was adamant with us kids that we must remember: we are ALWAYS to be responsible for ourselves and our horses while we are riding or handling them.  If something goes wrong, we put the horse in that position and we are the one at fault, not the horse. Never the horse.  Taking responsibility in this way seems to happen less and less in our society today, but I won't lose hope that it will become fashionable again.  For this reason, I am glad that people are talking about this mare's death, examining horse training while doing a gut check that we are doing the right thing by our horses.  We are blessed and fortunate to be able to ride these noble creatures, and we should treat it as the privilege that it is.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Wrong Way to 'Get Loose'

For the past several months, I have been using the services of an equine massage therapist for one of my training horses.  This mare is doing very well, and her physical issues are very subtle, but the owner and I agree that in order to get the best possible performance out of her, and to preserve her soundness, massage therapy is a fantastic tool.  Basically, the mare is slightly crooked, and while I have done lots of stretching and bending, the crookedness persists, so we decided to call in a professional.  Massage therapy of this type is more than just rubbing the muscles; it is a form of physical therapy in which the muscles, tendons and ligaments are re-trained into a new frame, taught to lengthen and body symmetry is encouraged.  It has made a huge difference for this mare!  She is now taking both leads with more ease, is able to lengthen her neck and round her back, and moves in a much more soft and even manner.  The owner is thrilled with the process.

The massage sessions generally take an hour and a half to complete, and were scheduled every 2 weeks at first, and are now monthly.  While the therapist is doing her work, I am there to hold and assist, as well as observe, and of course, as anyone would when they meet a fellow horse person with whom they have a lot in common, we share stories and observations about the horse industry.  This person has worked in the reining world for many years, and knows many of the same people that I know.  We recently had a discussion that brought to light that we also share a pet peeve: the widespread and inappropriate use of 'tying around.'    Tying around is when a rider will tie a horse's head to either its saddle or its tail with a short rein in order to force the horse to bend in a small circle.  Perhaps the horse is resistant on one side or the other, or perhaps the horse is giving attitude; they believe that tying around will solve that problem by giving the horse no choice but to conform.  They mistakenly believe that the horse will 'learn' to give because the only way they can get relief on their mouths is to give to the pressure. 

The problem with this is that there is no release.  Even if the horse gives, they are not able to straighten their body, their neck must stay bent, and eventually the muscles get tired and they are forced to lean on the rein, causing pain in their mouths (and everywhere else).  It is commonplace in the performance horse industry for horses to be left in this position FOR HOURS.  Can you imagine the pain and the anxiety of a horse being trapped in this position while the rider leaves the premises to go have lunch?  And if the reason for the horse's initial resistance in bending was pain in their neck, poll, or shoulders, can you imagine how this would cause unbearable agony for an animal unable to free itself?

My first exposure to this practice was in the Arabian industry when I was a young teenager, when my family began using a 'big name' trainer who used this method to get more flexibility in our horses.  This trainer was very judicious with the practice though; we never used a rein to tie around, instead, we made a rubber 'bending rein' out of surgical tubing that had snaps on either end to go from the saddle to the bit.  Surgical tubing is not very strong, and the idea was that it would break if too much pressure was put on it.  This trainer was also adamant that we time the horses as they were bending, only doing it 10 or 15 minutes on each side.  And we were not allowed to leave the area; it was important to be nearby in case the horse got in trouble.  As I grew up (and we changed trainers), I realized that while this method was indeed safer than what many put their horses through, it was still intrinsically a shortcut.  And most real horsemen know - in good horse training, there are no shortcuts.

It wasn't until I started riding Quarter Horses at a reining barn in Arizona that I observed someone tying around with a leather rein to the horse's tail, and walking away to leave the horse for long stretches of time.  I saw the agony in the horse's eyes, and eventually, the defeat in its demeanor, and I knew that I would never allow that trainer to put my horses through that.  Amazingly, that reining trainer is still there, working for a big, fancy barn in Scottsdale, and over and over, throughout my years in the reining world, I have seen this same 'method' employed by many well-known reining trainers. It is accepted, by many, as part of training a reiner, despite the fact that, in the best case scenario, they are making their animals more sore and resistant than before they were tied around and in the worst case scenario, are risking their horses lives, as so many animals will just snap when put in this position, resulting in them falling down or flipping over, breaking their necks in the process.  Many good horses have been ruined or killed in this manner - though you aren't going to see it written about in a major industry publication.  That would just be attracting unwanted attention to a dirty little secret, wouldn't it?

What is especially sad is that it is not at all necessary to tie horses around.  If the trainer is doing their job correctly, they would be bending the horse from the saddle, where it is possible to FEEL the horse's mouth and body orientation, and respond with counter pressure, applying release when the horse responds correctly.  If the trainer is doing their job, then they would respond to resistance as an opportunity to discover that animal's areas of pain, from injury or abnormal physiology, and would then have that horse seen by a vet or massage therapist.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would understand that force will never beget a willing partner, and that shortcuts create more problems than taking the long (and correct) route to partnership.  If the trainer is doing their job, they would be safeguarding the horse's well-being and sanity over their own inconvenience.

The massage therapist that has now become my friend shared with me the story of her gelding, who is out of some outstanding reining bloodlines but is now a reining 'reject.'  Why?  Because a well-known trainer had him, tied him around for 'having attitude' and the horse ended up freaking out, and nearly cut his tongue completely off.  He is healed now and she uses him for dressage, where they have been quite successful.  Success in this case is relative to the fact that this horse was not only physically damaged, but also mentally fragile, and so finding him a job that he can do happily and comfortably is a triumph in itself.

What is terribly sad for me, and extremely disappointing, is that the trainer who did this to this gelding is someone I know quite well, someone who has had horses I've bred and someone who I thought I might want to send my own horses to in the future.  But now I cannot un-know what I know.  I have considered that if I put a horse in training in the reining industry, would it be possible to have a trainer sign a 'no tie around' contract, to attempt to save my horses from this fate?  I have a feeling that such a request would be met with arrogance and defensiveness, so my only hope is to find a trainer who is against such methods already.  I encourage everyone to do the same.  Ask your trainer if they tie around.  If they do, expect to hear a lot of justifications and excuses.  Just remember that they are consciously using a short cut, and this represents a hole in their methodology and a very real threat to your horse's well-being.  Then take your horse and head the other direction.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Witness the Opening of Pandora's Box

The American Quarter Horse Association recently lost itscourt case over cloning, which means that eventually, cloned Quarter Horses may be able to obtain registration papers.  While AQHA makes it’s appeal, most of the membership share a common standpoint of disappointment and disgust on this turn of events.  Only a very small group of people want clones included in the registry, and despite years and years of consistent opposition, they have used vast amounts of money to force cloning upon us.  I can’t help but feel that in the trajectory of history, this decision could mean ruin for our breed.  

I have written previously about all the reasons I believe allowing clones in the registry is wrong; if you’d like to read that, clickhere.
If no one wants clones, then how did we get here?  Money!  It costs an incredible amount to get a cloned foal on the ground, and only in a case where a person stands to make a ton of money is an individual cloned.  Dr. Veneklasen, who has set up an equine reproductive clinic in Texas to do clones, is at the center of the lawsuit – I can bet that his biggest motivator is NOT that he is trying to further the breed, but is instead thinking about how much money he will make once registration legitimizes his practices.  It is, after all, a breach of anti-trust lawsuit.  But what impact will this have on the breed?  What will the 20, 30, 50 year affect be of breeding the same individual horse (or small group of horses), over and over and over?  How will we be able to track those clones when line breeding starts to occur? How will this affect genetic disorders, both the ones that we know of now, and those that have yet to emerge?  Once we go down this road, we will not be able to turn back.  What might seem like a small rule change will have lasting detrimental effects that we can't even begin to understand right now.

I am horrified at the thought of going to a competition, and witnessing clones competing against each other.  How about many multiples of clones competing against each other?  Now, wouldn’t that be fun? We already see the same bloodlines endlessly crossed on each other in the show pen – next, it will be literally the same horse over and over.  Raise your hand if you think this would be a HUGE turn off, for members and for people outside the business that we might want to draw in.  Cloning will remove the glorious ART of breeding, the ability of the studious breeder to blend bloodlines, assess strengths and conformation, taking chances on outcrosses that might produce the next Great One.  Cloning reduces it to creating widgets.  The next widget is just like the one before it.  "'Cause that widget made us lots of money!"

I have seen people write that cloning is like a bloodline that you don’t like; if you don’t like it, you don’t buy it or breed it.  So, if we just ignore it, it will go away?  Oh my, how I wish this were true!  While I do agree that we all should make a conscious decision NOT to feed the cloning beasts in any way, I must disagree that by simply not buying those horses, or breeding to them, that we are doing our best to safeguard the integrity of the breed.   It is the conscientious breeder's responsibility to protect the breed's integrity.  In the same way that it is a knowledgeable observer's duty to step up and do something when they see someone beating their horse behind a barn at a show, it is the astute breeder's duty to step up for the breed in the case of clones, and do what they can to block their being legitimized.  There will always be people who aspire to be a big shot, there will always be people who are only in horses to make a buck, there will always be people who want the newest, latest toy but don’t think twice about discarding it later.   We cannot allow those people to make decisions that will severely impact those of us that breed for a better horse tomorrow (instead of horses that are long dead) and want to be here for the long haul. We have too much to lose. Excellent horse breeding requires a long view, and the long view of clones is one of suspended animation and a shrinking gene pool.  
I am against giving clones papers of any kind.  I know there are people with the theory that by giving clones papers, even in some sort of appendix, we will be able to somehow control the clone producers, and keep them honest.   If a person is of a mind to be dishonest, and, say, switch a clone’s semen for semen from an animal that is the ‘real thing,’ a piece of paper isn’t going to stop them.   Won’t the real thing always be more valuable, and therefore, more profitable than that from a clone, even a clone with papers?  I’d love to think that people would do the honorable thing, but the problem is, I have met too many people in the horse business that would sell their granny up the river if it made them some money! The point is, once cloning starts happening on a larger scale, and is given more legitimacy by allowing registration, we are going to see the cost of producing clones drop, we are going to see more people doing it, and we are going to see more people doing shady things around it.  From what I have heard, it has already started to happen!  This genie is already out of the lamp!

 This at a time when AQHA , NRHA and NCHA are already facing incredible challenges.  AQHA is under scrutiny in their push to keep slaughter as a national option for keeping horse prices higher, even though over 70% of slaughtered horses are Quarter Horses, and polls show that most Americans don’t want slaughter.  Over-breeding is a shameful but commonplace practice within our industry, but AQHA won’t address it because they make money off those registrations, even if the horse is slaughtered before it reaches its three year old year.  NRHA and NCHA have been embroiled in scandal after scandal, many turning into lawsuits and embarrassing spectacles that have shed light on the greed many ‘elite’ members of these associations possess.   Since most of the clones produced so far are performance horses, and not halter or pleasure horses, I can only conclude that this decision will affect reiners and cutters the most.  Which makes sense, since reining and cutting has been the only segment of the entire horse industry that has consistently grown, in both members and prize money available, in the past ten years.   Yes, NRHA and NCHA are performance associations, so they don’t have the responsibility of registration, but the breeding practices of their members are driving the greed behind cloning.  There is so much money at stake, and so much pressure to rise within the ranks, that it is inevitable that some will be willing to do anything to gain status.  
I am of the opinion that allowing the registration of clones will hurt our industry at a time when participation is already starting to wane. Many people are leaving reining and cutting because it seems that an elite few in high places pull the strings, and the cloning case only furthers that perception. We are sacrificing the long term goals and success of everyone involved for the short term gain of a few well-connected individuals. Allowing clones in any capacity is shooting ourselves in the foot.
But don’t think that cloning is just an AQHA problem.  If those who stand to gain from producing clones can force their way in to a member-driven association like AQHA, they surely can do it to other registries.  I am hoping that AQHA continues to fight and that the case is heard by a judge that is familiar with breeding animals.   This is a precedent that affects all horsemen.  May we all thank Judge Mary Lou Robinson for her ability, with the stroke of a pen, to put the horses of the world, and the traditions the make up horse breeding, at risk for a downfall.

 In a recent conversation with another breeder, a metaphor came to me…..that of the difference between mass-produced plastic spoons, and heirloom silver, hand-engraved, spoons.   Which would you rather eat off of?  Which would you rather keep for your kids to use?   Horses that we have bred up to this point, that are a unique combination of sire and dam, whose bloodlines have been carefully developed and crossed , that may be from the only time a mare and stallion were crossed because soon thereafter, one of them died – those horses are the heirloom silver spoons.  The unique, wonderful gift that we can offer future generations of horsemen which will always be useful, and whose value rests on integrity of lineage.  The clones are the plastic spoons; sure, you might be able to eat off one, but it looks like every other spoon, it isn’t as good as the original, and because there are so many just like it, it isn’t worth that much to the next generation.  The only person happy about the plastic spoon is the guy who owns the plastic spoon factory.  The rest of us are just witnesses to the end of an era.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Far Would You Go to Look Cool?

I admit it.  I don't always 'get' people. Sometimes I really don't understand some people's need to fight, argue and disparage others, even in the face of clear evidence that they are wrong.  Bring up any topic on social media and people will line up on either side and sling mud at each other, even at those who lay a subject out clearly and without anger.  It doesn't matter if a solution is right there in front of them, with statistics and truth easily accessible, they fight on, usually resorting to name-calling, vicious insults, and cry "freedom" when all else fails, because, well, we are surely free to remain stuck in our ways, heels dug in the dirt out of defiance and spite.  I stay away from debates on social media as a general rule; it is ridiculous to argue with someone who has nothing better to do, and wants to scream obscenities ALL IN CAPS with poor logic and punctuation.  No thanks.

But I witnessed an ongoing thread on FB that bothered me deeply, so I decided to bring the subject here, and examine it.

The subject was a photo of a tiny girl, age 6, riding a huge horse in a barrel pattern.  This is an itty bitty girl, much smaller than my own 6 yr old son, and the horse, who is really getting at it as it rounds a barrel, is a large stock type horse.  The worrisome part is that this child is riding without a helmet.  Many people brought up this fact in the comments, and each person who did was immediately attacked with such viciousness that it was as if they had suggested something vile upon this little girl.  Some of the replies to those who suggested that she should be wearing a helmet: "Real cowgirls don't wear helmets," "we stay away from people who wear helmets because their horses are always spoiled rotten and they can't ride" and "this little girl is a better rider than any of you who wear helmets" and my favorite, "All you granola crunching, mini van type idiots stay out of this!!!"  Over 28,000 comments, which were split down the middle, going back and forth between rationality and ugliness.

I have written about my opinion of helmets before, but I'd like to re-visit it in response to the sheer voracity of some who are not only resistant to putting them on their own or their children's heads, but also who treat those who choose to protect themselves by wearing one so incredibly bad.

For those who say "we didn't grow up wearing helmets, and we survived,"  you need to wake up - it's 2013.  There are a LOT of things that we didn't do 'back in the old days,' such as use car seats, wear floatation devices, or disinfect medical instruments, that help our species survive better.  Hopefully, we are evolving to take better care of the bodies we are born into and have a better understanding of how and when injury is likely to occur.  If you grew up riding horses and never knew anyone who received a concussion from falling off their horse, either you didn't know that many people who rode, or you were just plain ol' lucky.  I have known many, many people who were excellent riders who had accidents resulting in concussions, some horrific and life-changing, and I know a similar number of people whose attending ER physician told them that the only reason they were still alive is because they were wearing a helmet.  The 'good ol' days' argument is worn out and tired.  Medical science's understanding of the brain and its fragility tells us that even one good thunk in the head can cause irreversible damage, resulting in memory loss, personality changes, depression, uncontrollable anger, higher rates of suicide over the long term, and death in the short term if the hit has caused even a small brain bleed.

For those who say, "a kid can get hurt just walking down the street, and are less likely to get hurt while riding a big ol' babysitter of a horse,"  I say, where in the heck do you live?  Benghazi? Islamabad?  According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, there were 14,446 reported head injuries from horseback riding accidents in 2009, accounting for 60% of all horse-back riding deaths.   A fall of just 2 feet can cause death from brain injury, and most rider's heads are eight feet above the ground.  In addition, children between the ages of 10 -14 are most likely to be involved in a horse-related accident.  Please read more about what the AANS says regarding head injury here, and scroll down to the section regarding horseback riding.  As my favorite instructor told me as a kid, "it isn't IF you are going to fall off, it is WHEN."  Hopefully it is when you are wearing a helmet.

For those who say "real cowgirls don't wear helmets," I suppose you'd jump off a cliff if all the other 'cowgirls' were doing it too?  This is peer pressure at its absolute worst; bullying for the sake of trying to look cool.  Some trends are not worth following, and I can assure you, you won't look cool after your traumatic brain injury leaves you in a wheel chair, drooling, not able to put together a thought.  What are you so afraid of?  That someone will see your helmet and assume that you are a beginner who can't ride?  Why not prove them wrong with your performance?  And perpetuating a tradition that puts people, especially children, at risk is far from 'cool.'

For those who say, "my horse is so good, he will take care of me," I say you are a fool if you think that a certain horse can make the experience 100% safe for you.  If you really are horse-knowledgeable, then you'd know that anything, literally ANYTHING, can happen while you are riding.  Some things may be the result of a horse misbehaving, but a vast number of accidents are due to miscues and mistakes by the rider or from simple, physical problems, like a horse tripping, slipping, equipment breaking, or something unexpected occurring in the environment.  I have been riding and training horses my entire life, and have done well at it....you have no idea how many times I have had horses fall while I was riding them.  [I'm sure there are some that will somehow blame this on my ineptitude, without having seen me ride or know any of the circumstances.  The truth is, many of them were young, inexperienced horses, and in other instances, I was asking the horse for a certain level of performance or speed, which is necessary when you are training horses.]

For those of you who say, "my kid is a great rider and therefore won't get hurt;"  I say, really??  The little girl I mentioned above was 6.  How long could she possibly have been doing any meaningful riding? A year?  If you knew an adult who came to you and said 'I have been riding a year,' would you consider them an expert?  I wouldn't.  There is no way that any child, no matter how good of a seat they have, can have enough expertise to avoid an accident.  Even adults who have ridden their whole lives can't!  Consider the case of Courtney King-Dye, an accomplished Dressage rider who suffered a TBI when her horse tripped and fell and she wasn't wearing a helmet - yeah, I know, all you 'real cowgirls' probably say she isn't a 'real' rider because she rides English.  She went to the Olympics for goodness sakes.  Let's see you do some one-tempi changes or a perfect cantering pirouette.

People, riding horses is an extreme sport, similar to skiing/snowboarding, riding dirt bikes, or skateboarding.  Helmets (and other protective gear) is commonplace in all these sports, except horseback riding, for the sole reason that it doesn't 'look cool.'  Parents pass down the tradition of being afraid of not looking cool to their kids, and stuff their ears with their fingers when confronted with the truth of the real risks they are taking with their children's fragile brains, and scream "YOU GO BABY! COWGIRL UP!!" as they launch them full blast on a 1,000 lb animal.  This doesn't look cool - it looks reckless.  It is one thing if you are an adult and choose to not wear a helmet, assuming that you understand the risks and don't care.  But a child must rely on the good judgement of his/her parents to protect them, as they have no way of understanding all the consequences of an action, nor are able to see way down the road and anticipate their future with diminished mental capacity due to a TBI.

As an instructor, I want that little girl to ride with all of her heart, learning lessons of perseverance, patience, fortitude and strength along the way, but NOT while risking a brain injury.  She needs her brain, for school, for work, for her relationships, for happiness.  If we can prevent an injury, why wouldn't we?  It is an easy thing to put a helmet on.  They are comfortable, come in pretty colors, and it would be extremely easy to make wearing one into a trend - IF we make taking care of oneself more cool than wearing a straw hat.

I do believe the tides are turning.....I know of a particular little girl, age 11, who shows reiners, and is an excellent hand.  She has been riding all her life, having come from a family with a long history in horses.  Both her father and her grandfather are well-known and esteemed in the industry, and have furnished her with a wonderful facility along with top-caliber horses, and many opportunities to compete.  There is no doubt that one day, this little girl will be either a top non-pro or a top professional, if she choose to go that route.  It would be easy for her to go along with the crowd and not wear a helmet - but she does!  Even when she shows!  I am very proud of her, and have relayed my support to her parents and grandpa, who love her to death and want the best for her - - which is the full use of her brain.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Times They Are Achangin'....

Yesterday brought some very big news to Quarter Horse enthusiasts all over the world; the All-time leading breeder, Carol Rose, is set to hold a complete dispersal sale in mid August of this year.  This comes as a shock to many in the business, and is somewhat disconcerting, given the fact that so many large, well-known breeders have also had dispersal sales in the past 12 months.  People are wondering why, and also what this means for the rest of us.  Fear, worry, and sadness are common emotions when we see our leaders step down, but I pose to you that while the landscape of the horse industry is changing, it is also an exciting time to be a part of shaping it into its future form.

I have been looking up to Carol for a very long time.  When I purchased my first Quarter horse in 1992, I also got a subscription to The Quarter Horse Journal, and remember marveling at the impressive profile she cut in a male-dominated industry.  I felt that because she could do it, then there was room for me to do it too.  Carol has class, a no-BS sensibility, and a hard working focus that still inspires me to stick to my guns and keep going in the face of adversity.  It is no accident that she rose to the top, and I think all women (and many men, of course) in the performance horse industry are thankful to her for all she has done to produce, promote, and represent the American Quarter Horse the world over.  She is simply an icon.

Yet, she is a person too.  Who can blame her for wanting to cut back?  Breeding horses, even on a small scale, takes so much work, so much planning, so much time.  And she has done it year after year, maintaining the position of #1 in the industry, producing hundreds of horses who are consistently the best and most sought after in the world.  Her reach has been broad, as horses from her breeding program have excelled in nearly every performance category offered by AQHA, which takes an incredible amount of versatility and market savvy.  She has worked hard and done well.  Perhaps she feels that it is finally time to enjoy the fruits of her labor, to rest, relax, and maybe let others take over in driving the industry forward.

The question is, who will be the next leaders?  Will we see some large-scale breeders take the place of those who have left, or are we seeing a shift toward smaller, more specialized breeding operations?  My thought is that yes, we are witnessing the rise of smaller, leaner producers, though there will always be large players out there.  The economy is certainly playing a part in creating this situation; the overhead on keeping the large farms going can be crushing and every single thing needed to breed and keep horses has gone up in price.  In addition, the market has shrunk, as there are fewer people who are able have horses period, much less buy more horses, show and breed them.  It is a much harder thing today to keep a large facility going, with multiple trainers, multiple stallions, hundreds of mares and foals, vet costs, equipment to maintain, thousands of pounds of feed & bedding to buy, a constant show schedule, marketing and sponsorships, etc. than it was 10 or 20 years ago.  Smaller outfits are more nimble, can respond to market changes more quickly and can maintain a budget with greater ease.  Smaller breeders are also blessed with an intimacy and knowledge of their animals that will ultimately pay off when it is time to sell. These changes will likely result in more diversity among horses produced as well.

Change can be scary, but it doesn't have to be.  Rather than looking at our current situation and wringing our hands, we should see this as an opportunity to step up and take our place in carrying the industry forward.  Maybe we won't be able to ride the big farm's coat tails, but if each of us is doing our best with each and every horse we own, moving forward with enthusiasm, honesty, hard work, frugality, and class, won't we be carrying the torch for the next generation of horses and riders?  Won't we be doing Carol proud by not letting everything fall apart when she steps down?  It is time to go to her dispersal sale, buy her wonderful horses, and keep going.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to have met Carol a few times at reining events, and she was so very gracious to me. Last year, when it came to light that she follows this little blog of mine, I was simply over the moon with joy and pride.  I would like her to know that her leadership and example has impacted me deeply, and that I wish her the very best as she moves on to new and exciting adventures in the next chapter of her life.  May she find peace, happiness and get to sleep in late.  :)

Monday, March 25, 2013

When Bigger Isn't Better

Hey everyone!  Spring Break is over and so I am back to writing, and thought I'd jump right back in with a subject that is bound to make some people uncomfortable: rider weight.  In the US, and the world over, people are getting larger, and while there is a lot of pressure in the media to be thin, the truth is that the average person is not only taller, but bigger in overall size and carries more fat than an average person 50 years ago.  Dealing with our weight in an honest way can be difficult; no one likes to talk about their faults, and we also don't want to seem rude in talking about someone else's either.  But when we are talking about the weight of a rider on horseback, my feeling is that we MUST talk about it, because the horse cannot.

A friend recently posted an interesting article out of the UK that proposed that only 1 in 20 riders is the optimal weight for their horse, and that a horse should only carry 10% of their body weight.  This differs from other articles I have read on the subject in that many say that horses can comfortably carry 20% of their body weight, but it did get me thinking....how often do people actually weigh their horses, and then weight themselves with all of their tack?  I would suppose that this rarely happens, especially in barns where riders ride western exclusively.  Only in extreme cases, when someone is either obese or extremely tall, is the rider's size mentioned, or sometimes, in the case of a horse being very small or old is a rider not allowed to ride it if it is a lesson horse.  Many owners and trainers don't want to say, "You are too big for that horse," and risk hurting someone's feelings.

What do we risk for this political correctness?  Our horses well-being, both physical and mental!  Horses carrying riders that are too heavy are often plagued by lameness issues, such as suspensory injuries, dropped pasterns and joint soreness, as well as sore backs.  They may try to evade the discomfort by displaying behavior problems, such as bucking, head tossing, rearing, stopping with refusal to go forward, and by pinning their ears when asked to perform.  The horses who have the unfortunate combination of a too-heavy rider and a saddle that doesn't fit well will end up with nerve damage (sometimes characterized by white spots on the back and withers), will have trouble with their leads, and may even develop the habit of 'pulling back' when they are being saddled.  All of these problems are fairly common, but are usually blamed on something else - conformation, equipment, bad attitude - but have you ever heard someone say, "this horse bowed his tendon because the rider was too large?"

It should be said that the ability to carry a heavy rider is greatly affected by the fitness level of a horse, as well as breed.  Horses who are out of shape should not be asked to carry a heavy rider; if they do, they will often display discomfort much more quickly than a horses that is well legged-up.  Breed and conformation play a part in that animals that are long in the back will have a harder time with a heavy rider, as well as horses that are fine boned, or have less-than-ideal angles in their legs. Experience of the rider can be a factor too; a new rider may be unbalanced in the saddle, leaning in such a way to put excess stress on the horse.  An experienced rider can easily "sit light" on a horse by staying balanced over the horse's center of gravity.

Here's something else to think about.....young horses are the most vulnerable to injury due to the fact that their bones, tendons and ligaments are still developing, their front and back halves grow at different rates, and also because they are still learning to carry a rider and may be awkward and clumsy.  Yet, quite often young horses are sent to colt-starters that are quite large men!  This is very apparent to me in the reining industry.  Many of the top trainers (and plenty down the ranks) are very big guys, and reiners are not supposed to be big horses - they have to be in the 14.2 - 15.1 hand range in order to be quick enough to turn and short enough lengthwise to stop well.  If they mature bigger than that, being a reiner becomes a lot harder on their bodies, even if it does mean that they can carry their 5'11", 250 lb trainer a lot easier.

What I have noticed is that many reining trainers compensate by bulking their horses up to the point of being fat so that they can look as if they are bigger. Many people think that a big tank of a Quarter Horse is well-suited to carrying a large person, but I'd say this is a misnomer. Consider that in that situation, not only is the horse carrying the rider's excess weight, the large, heavy western saddle required for the performance, but also their own excess weight.  This is extremely stressful on a horse's joints, and here we are, asking them to spin as fast as they can, and run fast only to drop into a sliding stop.  Is it any wonder that many reining horses get used up and go lame so early in their lives?  Some Quarter Horses may have thicker leg bones than say, the average Hackney pony, but many do not (especially those that have Thoroughbred blood, halter horse bloodlines or are from certain reining lines), and even if they do, I think that it gives people a false sense of security.  They are still a large animal on fairly spindly legs, compared to its total body weight.  When you look at other animal's ratio of leg to body weight, most animals who have long, thin legs are lighter in body weight, such as a deer, or have thicker legs to support their weight, such as an elephant. Many Quarter Horses have been bred to be large, muscular animals on top of legs barely bigger that a table leg, and then are asked to maneuver at speed.

A couple of years ago, I took a very knowledgeable horsey friend who had never been to a reining event with me to the NRHA Futurity, and after spending several hours watching patterns, she commented several times about the size of some of the trainers, and that she could hardly believe that the horses we were watching were 3 yr olds - not only because of what they were able to do as a 3 yr old, but also because all of the horses looked really bulked up.  She said, "none of them look like babies."  My gut reaction was that when the horse is carrying a large man or woman, the "reiner way" is to make the horse look like it is capable of carrying that weight, even if doing so means that the horse won't be sound beyond the age of five.  Very few reining horses continue to compete and stay sound beyond the age of 7 or 8.  This isn't only because of rider weight, but I would like to pose that it should be part of the discussion.  One article I came across gives a mathematical equation on figuring out if a rider is an appropriate size based on the thickness of the horse's cannon bone. While it was applying that equation to gaited horses, I do think that way of thinking would be applicable to other breeds and uses, including reining.

Now, what should we do with this information?  First, if you are planning on sending a young horse (or any horse) into training, consider the rider's size in relation to the horse's.  Don't be afraid to ask how much someone weighs - your horse's health and success are dependent on it.  If you are confronted with a situation where a large person wants to get on your small horse, find a tactful way to dissuade them, or substitute a larger, more appropriate, horse.  And let's also take a look at ourselves.  We are, as a society, getting bigger, year after year.  This isn't healthy for us - studies have shown that the children of today will be the first generation whose life spans will be shorter than their parents, mostly due to the obesity epidemic and the weight-related diseases that accompany obesity.  Getting fit, not for the sake of being thin, but just for the sake of our hearts, our joints and our longevity, makes sense.  And as riders, it could make a huge difference for the health and longevity of our mounts. They are worth it, right?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


What side of the brain do you use most often?  Psychological tests have shown that our left brain controls logical, rational, sequential, analytical & objective thinking, and tends to examine pieces of things or break things down into parts.  Our right brain controls creative and intuitive thinking, is subjective, holistic, and allows us to evaluate something as a whole entity.  Most people tend to use one side more than the other, and will make decisions and everyday life choices based on their modus operandi of whichever side of their brain is dominant.

While studying in college for my communications degree, I had several classes that required me to take a left brain/right brain test to see which side I fall on the most.  Every time I took the test, I got an 11, which is a score directly in the middle of the scale.  In other words, I use both sides of my brain equally.  While this ability to use both sides of my brain allows me to look at situations from both sides, over the years I have realized that it can also cause me to be at odds with myself at times.  I long for spontaneity, but thrive in routine.  When making financial plans, I am bound by the clear logic of a budget, but have made a career out of horse training/breeding/instructing, which is creative and intuitive, and not at all financially secure, rather than a rational and analytical (and more financially secure) career - like being a banker or a lawyer as my dad might have wanted for me!  In my daily life, I am constantly torn between the two sides of myself - the side that doesn't care about the mess, and the side that absolutely does!!  And with two kids, ten horses, pets, work, a husband, family, friends, my health to look after and a blog to write for goodness sakes, it seems finding balance can be incredibly hard.  This problem isn't unique to my life - our lives are increasingly fast paced, and we are trying to pack SO MUCH in to every day that it is easy to become overwhelmed.

It used to be, when I was younger and before I had a business and two kids to manage, I could go riding and 'lose myself' for a few hours.  I could do this with friends, but I especially loved to ride by myself.  As the miles flew by, I would get deeper and deeper into my subconscious till I wasn't really thinking anymore, just really alive in the moment and at peace.  At the end of the ride, I felt refreshed and invigorated, and usually very much ready to face 'real life.'  It was a transformative experience

I always knew that I wanted to train, breed and instruct, but it took me until after college to really commit to it and hang out my shingle.  The moment I did this, riding changed for me.  It became more calculated, more client oriented, and more stressful.  I had so many horses to ride during a given day, plus lessons scheduled in, had to remember to take care of paperwork, registrations, entries, advertising, customer relationships, etc.  All of those things meant that very often when I was in the saddle, I may be paying attention to what is happening underneath me, but I was also attending to my To-Do List.  The moments where I got lost in subconscious thought became fewer and farther between.  I don't begrudge my career choice a single moment, and do not regret the decision I made.  After all, sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with others has reaped immeasurable rewards, and I feel that I have made a contribution to my little corner of the horse world that is indelibly my own.  It has been a wonderful life so far, but as with everything worth achieving there have been sacrifices.

I can see now that those moments of being mentally transported while riding was actually meditation.  For many years, I was curious about meditation, but my left brain thought it was silly, and that I just needed to focus more, work harder, and forget about all the new-wave-mumbo-jumbo.  But my right brain persisted.....'let's try something different,' it said, 'something that will feel creative and good.'  And so, over the last four months I have been learning to meditate.  The sessions are short, just 15 minutes daily, and the mantras used are general, focused on inner calm and well-being.  It is a small gesture of self-care that I really feel is making a difference in how I approach the general chaos of life.  My two brain halves feel more integrated, less at odds, and I feel calmer in facing the myriad of tasks that I must accomplish on any given day.  But the most amazing thing is that I feel that I am more in touch with the young girl who could 'disappear' on her horse for a few hours and come back feeling new again.  When I am in the saddle, I am more able to unplug from real life again, and just ride from the gut like I did before.

The best way to start meditating is with a 'guided meditation,' where someone gives you a mantra and imagery to help relax you and unlock your subconscious mind.  I particularly like Deepak Chopra, but there are many on the market. Meditation is a practiced art, so if you are willing to try it, be forgiving with yourself, and understand that it may not be easy at first.  For some, sitting still and quiet is the hardest thing you could ask them to do - - but that is probably why they need it the most.  If you can learn to control your mind, you can learn to control your actions, which gives you power over your life! If you are right brained, you will learn to use structure more effectively in your life, and if you are left brained, you might be able to tap into more creativity.  Or if you are like me, you can just find a quiet place to just BE.  Give it a shot and try something new; you never know what you might discover about yourself!

Well, this looks like a nice place to meditate.....  ;)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Passing the Buck?

Have you ever had a job interview where the hiring agent asks you a question meant to get into your mind, and see what kind of person you are? Something like, "What do you consider to be your Achilles's heel?" or "What do you need to work on most about yourself?" or "What is the most frustrating thing about your current job?"  Well, I have a confession to make....there IS something that I don't like and find very frustrating about my current job.  I hate selling horses.  Loathe it.  Despise it.  And I am not good at it, though selling horses is considered to be a huge part of being a horse breeder, trainer and instructor, which I have done as a career for many years.  The truth is, I don't even want to get better at it, even though instinct tells me that I should and that it is necessary.  I grapple with this conflict frequently.

Why don't I like selling horses?  I guess I have seen too much in this industry, and have been let down too many times, often with heartbreak that I carry forever.  While there are many good, caring, and knowledgeable people out there buying horses, those homes are few and far between, and so, so many buyers are anything but.  I know, with the keenest sense of truth, that once you sell a horse, you never, ever have care and control over that animal again, unless by some miracle you are able to acquire them again later.  People lie, cheat, steal, and abuse.  Absolutely anything can and does happen once that horse leaves your barn.

Nowadays, some sellers will try to protect the horses they are selling with contracts stipulating rights of first refusal, or some type of binding no-sale clause, to prevent the horse from being sold beyond the buyer.  But these types of stipulations are limited in scope, and are often dependent on the original seller's ability to retrieve the horse from a bad situation.  Contracts don't matter once a horse is dead and gone. I have personally used these types of clauses, and have still had horses end up in jeopardy, or deceased. We are living in an economy where people can lose their personal wealth, which allows them to have a horse, very quickly, and unfortunately, we are living in a culture that doesn't place emphasis on keeping animals throughout their natural lives.

We'd all like to think that this only happens to young, untrained stock, or old, unusable animals, but even horses that have won accolades in the show ring, won races, and have spent years faithfully and quietly toting kids around can fall through the cracks.  All it takes is for a breadwinner to lose their job for the horse to be pulled out of training, the feed to come less frequently, and for their feet and health care to be ignored. Or maybe the owner has a life change that causes them to neglect the exercise/training needs of their horse, and the animal that had been a potentially successful working horse is deemed nearly useless, or worse, 'dangerous.'  It only takes a few months for a horse to be down-graded.  I have seen the same people that came to me, pledging to love the horse dearly, promising to keep them forever, blame the horse for the predicament, and just throw up their hands before consigning them to a local auction or horse dealer, effectively sealing their fate and placing them in the slaughter pipeline.

I, of course, acknowledge that in order for the horse industry to continue to exist, there has to be breeders and they have to sell horses.  The vast majority of horses that I have produced or have bought and resold have ended up in excellent homes (and I do doggedly pursue them as they move from place to place) and I am lucky in that regard.  But for the few times that one of my horses has met a sad fate, it has hurt me so deeply that it can wake me up in the middle of the night in tears.  I feel personally responsible for each animal I own, and I carry that responsibility even when they are no longer mine. I do whatever I can to keep tabs on them, and let new owners know they can always come back to us.

I recently saw a graphic that claimed that less than 1% of all horses live in a forever home.  How tragic!  For those of us that truly love horses, and make a living off of them, we should be ashamed of this state of affairs.  I can't even tell you how many times I have seen people get rid of an old horse that they rode for years, but began having health problems or lameness issues, and was no longer 'useful.'   They claimed they loved the horse, and 'found a home for it' but the truth is, once that horse is off your property, you have passed the buck.  The person that loved this horse the most, who knew it the best, appreciated the best parts of that horses life - YOU - has passed off the most important part of that horse's life to someone who doesn't have the deep connections with it.  The most important part being the end of life care, allowing a horse a dignified retirement, and being the the person who knows when it is time to put a horse down humanely.

Anyone who knows me knows that my horses live in a forever home.  I have several old and no-longer-productive horses that will live out their years here, with the people that love them most, my husband and I, ready to give them a quiet, dignified end if necessary.  The decision to do this for my old horses has made it so I am not able to breed a ton of horses every year, or buy new, younger horses to show.  I have limited space, and a limited budget, so we can only have so many.  This isn't always an easy decision; in fact, right now, we are trying to figure out what to do with a gelding whom we can't keep sound.  And it may be that putting him down humanely is the right thing to do, rather than sending him to live with someone who may not care about him as much as we do. I would rather live with the sadness of putting him down than live with the guilt of causing him more suffering because I didn't want to deal with it, or wanted to make money off of him..

I can by no means offer solutions that fit every person's situation.  I can only share what is in my heart, and how we choose to care for our horses.  I am not aiming to preach, only to implore that readers ask themselves that if they really love their animals as much as they say they do, why not love them through the tough times too?  It does take sacrifice, it does take commitment, it does require making difficult decisions, but what relationship doesn't?  Making a personal decision to be committed no matter what is the first move toward putting this 'throw away society' label behind us.

There are a couple of new ways to ensure your horses have a forever home.  One is the American Quarter Horse Association's "Full Circle" program, where owners can enroll their horse, and be available should the horse ever become unwanted.  Another is to add your name to the Humane Society's "Responsible Breeders List" which is basically a pledge that you will always take a horse back throughout its life, and that you are committed to producing horses in a responsible manner.  If anyone has any similar solutions or ideas, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.  Thanks!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Paying Tribute to Greatness

To be lucky enough to ride and own a truly great horse is a blessing that may only come to a person once in a lifetime.  And if you are even luckier still, you might be able to have that horse its whole life, seeing their kind soul through every stage, from rambunctious youngster to eager partner to seasoned pro to kind and benevolent golden years.  I was that lucky and that blessed.  I owned and rode a beautiful black Half-Arabian/National Show Horse gelding named Jazz Festival +/ from the age of 2 until he died last August, 2012,  at the age of 29.  I'd like to pay tribute to his amazing life and share a bit of him with you.

Many of you know me from my efforts in breeding Quarter Horse reining horses, but I grew up showing Arabians and Half-Arabians, in western, English, sidesaddle, costume, driving and in hand.  At the time that I first met Jazz at Clinton Arabians where he had been bred, he was a gangly, long-legged two yr old, and I was an equally gangly and awkward 14 yr old.  Jazz was sired by the great NSH sire Islamorada, a Bask*son, and out of a lovely Saddlebred mare named Festival Music.  He really wasn't much to look at, at that stage, all legs, a long skinny neck and a very narrow body.  But as soon as I rode him, I KNEW.  By that time, I had ridden my share of English horses, and loved the really forward ones, and was mesmerized by flat-saddle type horses that could really move.  Sitting on him the first time, I was in awe of how his neck came straight up out of his shoulder, how he could sit waaaay back on his haunches and collect up.  And even without shoes on, he had a natural lift that hinted at what he was capable of.  He was so much fun!  And wild too!  He was like riding a rubber 2 x 4!  Better have a velcro seat to stick with him!

 Jazz as a foal, with his dam, Festival Music.

My family and I had been looking for a horse to 'move up' on.  My previous English horse was solid as a rock, but more of a babysitter, and we were ready for more shows and competition.  After riding several prospects at different trainer's barns, I knew Jazz was the one.  We just clicked, and we looked right together.  It wasn't an easy sell on my parents though; first of all, we had never purchased a 'Big' horse before, and second, they weren't at all sure that this string bean of a gelding was everything he was purported to be.  After some convincing, my parents relented, and I can confidently say, there were never any regrets.

 Showing Jazz in a Pro/Am class with Vicki Humphrey.

Jazz Festival and I made our debut at the spring shows in 1986, one of which being the prestigious Buckeye Show in Ohio, where we won our first Championship.  For the next four years I showed him all over the US and Canada, earning countless show championships, regional championships, two National Championships and a Reserve National Championship, in English Pleasure, both in Open with my trainer Vicki Humphrey and in Junior with me, and Pleasure Driving.  In the show ring, he was stunning to look at, gloriously black and shiny, long tail streaming behind, ears up, happy in his element.  This was a horse that LOVED his job, loved to go to shows, loved to be fussed over, loved to hear applause.  He loved applause so much that sometimes we would try to recreate the effect at home, assembling a crowd to cheer him on.  He would positively puff up when he heard whoops and hollers!  He stood about 15.3 or 16 hands, but cheer for him and he became a 17 hand giant!

After I went to college, Jazz started a new career as a Five Gaited horse,which he took to very easily and naturally.  Again, he was dazzling to watch - his rack was brilliant.  He ended up earning another National Championship and another Reserve National Championship with Vicki and with my sister Ashley.  At the end of his show career, Jazz had five National titles, a Legion of Supreme Honor (which is denoted by the +/ after his name), was a top all-time money earner, and was inducted into the National Show Horse Hall of Fame.

I got to show him Five Gaited a couple of times too.  FUN!

When I finished college, I missed my sweet horse and brought him to Arizona, where I lived.  While he was retired from the show ring, you can't just stop riding a horse that loves to be ridden that much.  So he became a lesson horse of the highest order, helping me to teach kids and adults to ride.  He was absolutely the favorite in the barn among the students; he was steady, he was patient, he wasn't scared of anything, and he was so affectionate, like a silly puppy.  He would do things like pull your hat off your head or even try to untie your shoes!  And if you really needed a horsey hug, he would let you wrap your arms fully around his head and hold him as long as you needed to.  Every person who walked into the barn got a nicker from Jazz.

 With one of his beloved students.  Photo by M. Burge.

Over the 27 years that I shared with Jazz, we weathered so many changes, so many victories and disappointments, and so many miles!  One of the biggest changes to our family happened in 2005 and 2007, when my two sons were born.  Jazz loved the boys; he would nuzzle them and gently accept treats from their tiny hands, and became their riding horse when they were big enough to sit up on him.  His gentleness and steadiness made the best kind of impression on them - it helped light the fire of horse-love that I hope will burn in their hearts their whole lives, like it has in mine.  His happy expression when he saw them let me know that he was as happy as they were with the arrangement.

Sadly, horses don't live as long as we do.  Or, they don't live as long as we wish they could.  Last August, Jazz colicked, most likely from a fatty tumor strangulating his intestine, and despite our vet's best efforts, there was nothing that could be done.  We chose to end his suffering at home, where he was happy and calm and near his best friends.  It was one of the worst moments of my life.  I could never describe adequately how sad I was, and still am, at his sudden absence, after spending so many years with him.  But as my wise niece reminds me, "Don't be sad it's over, be grateful it happened."  And I am so grateful.  That beautiful horse taught me so much, and elevated my mind as to what was possible for me.  He taught me to never give up, to believe in myself and face life with your ears up and a twinkle in your eye.  He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, and will never be forgotten.

The last photo of our sweet Jazz, taken just 2 days before he passed.  That is one happy boy up there on his back!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rumor Has It....

So, let's say you are someone in the reining industry who breeds some mares every year, and who pays attention to the stallions available for breeding, both the stallions with well-established reputations and those that are up and coming.  You are approached by someone with a juicy piece of gossip - that a very well-known stallion & show horse who is getting a lot of buzz and attracting mares is, in fact, deaf.  The person telling you this is someone who owns a different well-known stallion, and they tell you this information under the guise of secrecy, as if they are letting you in on something that an 'insider' should know, flattering you by sharing the secret with you.  They prop up the information with supposed medical and genetic 'facts,' and tell you that it is very complicated for most people to understand, thus dazzling you with their apparent command of jargon and convoluted reasoning.  They tell you that they are just trying to save you from ending up with a foal that is afflicted, making you trust them because they care so much for you and your program.

All this seems so enlightening because you think that you are seeing behind the curtain of the industry, and it feels like you had a near miss with certain tragedy.  It all seems so well and good, except for one thing.....it isn't true.  The stallion in question isn't deaf at all.  Turns out, the person spreading the rumor feels threatened by the success of the supposed deaf horse, feels that they are taking mares away from their own horse, and must find a way to cast doubt in the minds of mare owners.  It is transparent jealousy, albeit with the face of someone who purports to be wealthy and powerful and knows more than you do in a very small clique-ish industry.  This person knows that, for some, even a shadow of doubt is enough to take their business elsewhere, so with an arm around your shoulder, and a whisper in your ear, they plant the seed of doubt, followed by a great slathering of BS about how much they care about the industry to make that seed grow.

Last year, I received a threat from someone who was angry that I wasn't interested in mandatory genetic testing that they would tell everyone they knew that a horse of mine has a genetic disease (the horse has no genetic problems) and that I was spreading this genetic problem without disclosing it to buyers.  This rumor about me came from the same exact neighborhood as the rumor about the deaf stallion that recently has been circulating.  At the time I was threatened by this person, I was very hurt, worried and angry - it was a very stressful time.  I imagine that the owners/managers of the alleged deaf stallion are going through the same emotions, and having to take the time to correct people's assumptions is time they could be spending doing much more important things.  It is my feeling that the person spreading the rumors doesn't care at all about being accurate; what is important is being disruptive, and then finding a way to present themselves as benevolent, righteous, and well-intentioned in order to seem like the hero.

But they are standing on very unsteady ground.  A pattern of lies will become evident to any observant person, and those who actually are operating in the industry aren't interested in participating in it.  No amount of bashing other people's horses is going to bring mares to that person's stallion.  And why should it?  Surely breeders, even smaller ones, are capable of thinking critically, and if necessary, picking up the phone and asking questions directly to the manager of the horse in question, right?  A breeder who listens to rumor and makes breeding decisions based on it isn't much of a breeder, or should I say, person.  Unless you are witness to it FIRSTHAND, it is merely gossip, and you should know better than to give it any credence. 

"Whoever gossips to you will gossip about you."  ~Spanish Proverb

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Getting Back In Rhythm

Hello dear readers! It has been awhile since I have written anything for this blog - too long - and returning to it has been on my mind lately, prodding me and nagging at me to continue writing. It isn't that I don't have things to share, it's just that lately life has been really busy. I believe in the power of habit, and am seeing it at work in my life. I might have so much going on any given week that my daily writing time is eliminated, and before I know it, I am out of the habit of sitting down with a theme/problem/a-ha moment/observation and seeing it through to the end. But it works both ways, and I am reassured that all it takes to get back to it is to build it in to my schedule, pressing myself to keep it up for a few days, and with some perseverance, my writing muscles are back in shape.

Right now, I am writing to you from the middle of a blizzard. This is the second time in a week that we have been in the middle of a bad winter storm, but we are doing fine, and even enjoying it a little! Horse chores are a challenge during weather like this, but we have plenty of hay and shavings for the stalls, and all of our horses are doing fine, including our 35 yr old gelding and our pregnant mare. Being stuck inside for most of the day gives me some opportunity to write (though having the kids home from school makes for a noisy house), and the perfect time for building writing time back into my day.

This is the time of year when I am doing a lot of planning for the breeding season, choosing stallions, working on embryo sales, and preparing for foals. When my plans are finalized, I hope to share my stallion choices with you here. I have been very conservative the past five years and have not had any foals born here at our farm in that time, so the anticipation of the one we are expecting is very exciting! I look forwards to sharing baby pictures with you! We have a new mare too, whose job will be in the broodmare and child-toting career fields. She is a sweet beauty, and we are just over-the-moon in love with her. And there is always something to talk about in the horse industry, isn't there? It's a source of endless enjoyment, inspiration, frustration and agitation!

Well, I am off to spend some time with my sweet kiddos, making hot chocolate and watching a movie. But soon you will be hearing more from me, as I begin my writing workouts and flex my literary muscles. I am looking forward to sharing what comes out of it with you! Until then, take care and enjoy life!