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 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!