Sunday, November 30, 2008
Oh, I know all the stats about global warming and climate change, and I've (nearly) resigned myself to the idea that future autumns, like the current version, will probably be rife with chill winds, rain and early ice. Cognizance does not make the heart grow fonder. While I'm doing my best to grab the rare half-hour ride when the footing and my mental state are both appropriate to the occasion, the gloomy skies and endlessly down-shifting temperatures are making me feel more like a hot toddy than a cold saddle.
Still, there are horse things to be done, and there's at least a modicum of pleasure in seeing each project completed. For instance, the stock tank de-icers have already been merrily de-icing the stock tanks for over a week now. The heated buckets have replaced the regular flat-backs in the barn, though it hasn't been cold enough to actually plug them in. I've got the York rake on the tractor, and I've begun the ritual manure removal from the area in the pasture around the bale feeder. A quick swipe daily until the temps drop to poop-freeze-minus-ten keeps the ground tidy and the horses free of frozen lumps under their feet. For now.
Perhaps the most depressing moment was the Laying On of the Blankets. I'm used to having to apply waterproof sheets in the fall to keep cold rain from soaking those nice, fluffy coats. I'm not at all used to having to put mid-weight blankets on until some time in late December or early January--Ice Storm Season here in the wilds of Jersey--so the annual dust festival that comes with unearthing all the winter finery I so carefully washed and packed in plastic in the spring brought an unusual number of four-letter-word moments this year. Leo was already shivering by the time I broke down and covered them up. That's just not right.
Now comes the true test of horsemanship: The working up to working out. My guys are used to having time off during the winter, but five months isn't reasonable. That means someday soon I'm going to have to figure out how to keep them in shape without any of us winding up frostbitten and disgusted. Zip, for one, is bored and beginning to look daggers at me when I wander out to check the troughs. He's not doing much reading, so the planetary climate issues are not pressing on his mind. What he's more concerned about is the dearth of cookies. Cookies come with work. No work; no cookies.
Yesterday I grabbed a brief sunny moment and a handful of cookies and went out to the pasture to discuss the problem with my Advisory Committee. For once, there was perfect attendance. I was surrounded instantly by big, buggy eyes. I said the magic word--COOKIE--and they couldn't move fast enough. The smilers were grinning, blinding me with the glare off their teeth; the ones who know how to bow looked like a chorus line, and Zip was line-dancing, throwing all his tricks into an extravaganza that would put the Rockettes to shame. Can we say bored horses?
At least that few minutes reminded me of why I do this. Whenever I come to the "I could be doing so many things if I didn't have the horses and the farm to worry about" point, they do something that just tickles the heck out of me. Then I remember.
And I go back to waiting for spring.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
It's not news that finances figure heavily into horse ownership. It's no surprise that the current economic situation is weighing on horse people more than most. Horses are not cheap. They're often free, but we in the horse world laugh at "free". Even free horses are expensive to keep. Riding is an expensive sport, period. What has been unusual has been the incredible growth spurt in the industry in the past fifteen or so years.
When the economy is good, people spend more on hobbies and activities. Horses can soak up money like bedding soaks up the stuff the horses leave behind. I don't know whether there has been research to define it, but I'm going to guess that the health of the economy can be measured by the horse world. From owning horses to betting on them, and from taking lessons to showing, disposable income aimed at the business end of horses causes that end to flourish and more and more people to join in the rush for our cash.
This may be a great time to buy a horse if you have lots of cash, a solid job that isn't in danger of dematerializing, and a death wish. There are literally tons of horses on the market for a fraction of their former prices. If you have the wherewithal to help out a desperate owner by giving his equine buddy a good home, jump on in with both boots and feel good about yourself while you play.
If, however, you own a horse and are struggling to make ends meet, don't bet the farm that someone will offer you top dollar for your pal, and don't take food out of the mouths of your babes to keep that horse life of yours afloat. Be resourceful! It's what horse people do best.
- Get another job. That's an obvious first step. There aren't many great jobs available, but barn help is almost always a necessity. Post signs at the supermarket and tack and feed stores and take on barn-sitting jobs on the weekends. Work off lessons if you can. Work off some or all of your board. Work at a commercial farm for hay to feed your animals. Offer a feed pick-up-and-delivery service for a modest price that will cover gas and maybe earn you feed from the store.
- Barn-sit for folks who actually have the money to own horses and still go on vacation or indulge in serious illnesses.
- Half-lease your horse to another rider.
- Buy more horses and offer them as leases for enough to cover your expenses and theirs (be sure to check your farm insurance before you try this).
- Fire your barn help and look for someone who will work in exchange for riding time or board for their horse.
- Learn to braid, groom, or hand-walk horses and post a sign for those services. Even in this economy, there are still show barns where you might come in handy.
- Offer your horse to a lesson barn in exchange for his board and some riding time for you, just be aware that you will lose some control over his use.
Think! If you're smart enough to outsmart an animal that could kill you in a swipe, you can come up with creative ways to earn the right to keep him around and give him another shot at you.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Fall is here. Hay is short; folks are tense as they wonder how fragile their employment situation might be. The horses are still horses.
I took my concerns about horse buyers and bad decisions and mortgages and high gas prices to my support group in the lower pasture field. Sometimes it's best to get the answers straight from the horses' mouths.
JMF: I suppose you guys have heard about the jobs market being down and the stock market being down and the local market being, well, about the same. Give me your thoughts about the impending shortages.
ZIP: Shortage? Carrots? Not carrots! Tell me it's not carrots.
JMF: No, I'm pretty sure we can still get carrots. I'm more concerned about the shortages in other areas, like credit shortages and the problems folks are having getting mortgages.
ZIP: We got carrots? We got dinner?
JMF: Uh, well . . . yeah. We have those things, but what about--
ZIP: [walking away] You guys talk to her. She's not making sense to me.
LEO: You did say we had carrots, right? And dinner?
JMF: Yeah, but--
LEO: You think too much. Can I have that soda?
JMF: [hiding soda can] What about the horses who don't live here? What about your friends at other barns where they don't have enough hay? What about all the little horses who are going hungry? Don't you care about them?
DAKOTA: [ears perked] Little horses? Not more little horses! I don't like little horses. Can I have that soda?
JMF: [sighing] No, no soda. C'mon guys! I want to hear what horses think of the crisis humans are suffering. You're so close to Nature, you must have something meaningful to say that I can pass on to our readers.
LEO: Crisis? You want to know about crisis? I'll tell you about crisis! Crisis is when I can't get that damned little horse out of my way so I can get to my bucket. Now that's a crisis!
ZIP: [faint voice from the back of the pasture where he's got Pinky cornered] We've got carrots. We've got dinner. We've got water. Why should we care? Seriously. You are really boring. Go get a halter and I'll show you a crisis. Want to see what I can do with a shoulder-in cue? HA!
JMF: What if I told you we couldn't go to any shows this year? What if I said you'd be stuck standing around eating all winter because I can't afford to haul anyone anywhere? Huh? What about that?
HERD: [muttering] Did you hear something?
Nah, just the wind.
Shows? Do any of you guys want to go to shows?
Shhhhh! If you just keep eating and don't make eye contact, she'll go away.
Anyone see where she put the soda?
JMF: Alrighty then. We'll just see how funny you think it is when you don't get to wear your fancy new saddle until spring.
LEO: Speaking of which, where in the hell did you find a saddle that weighs more than I do? Are you serious with that thing? It's a joke. Guys, she thinks I'm going to cry because I don't get to carry her cheese butt and the saddle from hell. Someone get the camera. This belongs on YouTube!
So it goes. I suppose I shouldn't have expected a mature response from a bunch of men. Next time I'll get Pokey alone for a little girl talk and find out what she-- Hey! Who took my soda? Pokey, bring that back here!
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
H&R editor Juli Thorson has a blog entry that bears reading by all horse owners and shoppers. That's okay. I'll wait.
[Muzak plays softly as we gaze on the photo of a willing dealer showing me Dakota in a better light than I showed him yesterday.]
The "across the aisle" concept has been bandied about in the political arena lately to indicate bi-partisan efforts in Congress to settle our socio-economic ills across party lines. It's time, I think, for a bi-partisan effort between sellers and buyers in the horse business to settle our socio-economic problems as well.
We need, in my opinion, to consider that the folks least likely to be able to afford to keep horses are the same ones who are feeling the impact of the country's economic woes the most deeply. When one is busy worrying about how to make a jar of peanut butter stretch to four more lunches, and the wolf at the door is more vocal than the one in the pasture, one is far less likely to be able to focus much care and concern (not to mention toss the endless stream of cash) toward an equine pet. In the end, everyone loses. The horses that go hungry or without basic veterinary care certainly aren't in the best possible place. The owners who must watch their animals suffer aren't there either. The ones who simply turn their backs and pretend they aren't responsible for their equine's problems are the bottom of the barrel of sad endings.
The temptation among sellers seems to be to continually drop the prices on their animals. The logic is sound--lower prices mean more buyers have access to the horse in question--but it's the same logic that created the mortgage crisis. Allowing buyers to pay in monthly installments or desperately offering horses "Free to good home" can turn a transaction into a death sentence very quickly. If the buyer can't afford to buy the horse, how in the world can she afford to feed it, house it, care for it, and give it all it needs year after year?
Certainly, if you're among the ones who are struggling to buy the next bale of hay, your options are limited, and giving away an equine buddy is preferable (mostly) to letting it (or your kids) starve. But dealers have an edge here as do people who are selling not because they have to, but because they want to move up, over, or down the equestrian ladder. You need to avoid short-sighted deals. The horse world--even at its most competitive--is fluid. Nothing is carved in stone. You can hang on for one more year to a horse you've outgrown if you want to. The rest of the horse world is grinding more slowly as well, so it may wind up being more of a stasis than a decline in your goals.
The wise seller might just be the one who holds out for his price, assuming the price is fair, and who doesn't bend over backward to see that Little Lulu in her worn Wal Mart sneakers gets to own a pony this year. Played right, the game will result in more horses finding appropriate homes and fewer owners going bankrupt trying to feed too many mouths. Though it's not quite PC to request a financial statement from a buyer, it's easy enough to price animals properly and avoid the pitfalls of "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today" bargaining.
Buyers, I can't stress strongly enough that a horse is a very, very expensive pet. The ones lounging around my pasture cost me roughly $125 per month each including all the perks, and that's not counting what it cost me to buy the farm and keep it. So just having the horse in your backyard doesn't erase the bottom line; it just thins it out a bit and hides some of the expenses in different categories. If you don't have the income to handle it, then please don't buy a horse. Not now.
This isn't the Great Depression. Things may never return to pre-recession levels, but they will get better than they are now. How quickly depends not just on the politicians but on the decisions each of us makes. Decide wisely. The days of instant gratification are coming to an ugly end and the wisest heads will prevail.
Sunday, October 05, 2008
I am not now and never have been a western rider. I have ridden westrish in order to run barrels, and I have sat in a western saddle on trail rides. I own two such saddles, in fact. I've been riding for 47 years. Can you tell that from this picture?
This is what happens when a shopper steps too far outside her comfort zone and isn't willing to rethink things. This ugly moment was in no way Dakota's doing. I never asked whether or not he neck-reined, and I don't know how to do it myself. Yet here I am asking for something approximating a left turn and getting something more akin to a horse begging for an act of nature to remove him from this situation. It's not surprising that it took the poor guy two years to settle in here. He had no idea what I wanted from him. Now he's in retraining to go English, which is easier for him to learn than western has been for me. Score one for the horse.
So . . .
27. Don't get cocky. Stick to what you know.
28. Trying out a new horse is not the time to play games. Don't freeze up in the saddle, but be polite to the animal. No bouncing or banging permitted. The theory that he "has to" be able to tolerate such behavior only applies to the second or third test ride.
29. No grabbing of faces. He's not grabbing yours; you should leave his alone. If he's so aggressive that you feel the need to ride his mouth, get off him and go away.
30. I know I'm going to catch some flak for this, but it has to be said: Don't overwhelm the horse with your size. If you can't fit within the general 20% rule-of-thumb, and the horse in question isn't of unusually solid bone structure or built like a brick barn, it's not fair to him and he's not likely to maintain his soundness for very long under your ownership.
31. Ride the way you always ride. This is not the time try out something you just read in a magazine. If the horse can't tolerate you, he'll let you know. Try to relax and be yoursef. If you fake it the horse will feel your tension and react as if he's about to get a captive bolt to the head. That can't be a good place for this meet-and-greet to occur.
Deep breath, now, and be the horse . . . ohmmmmmmmm.
Key to her success, Cindy says, is her willingness not only to take a flyer on an unknown but to hire professionals to help her in the retraining process. Buyers, take note: There is no shame in accepting that you will have to let someone else do the grunt work until your new buddy is ready to take his place in your horse world. Cindy and Delight have been together for several years now, and they couldn't be better suited for each other.
Back in the saddle at the seller's barn, we are not all going to find instant love with the horse who might wind up being our Best Friend Forever. Often there's just a certain spark that draws us together. It's fine to go ahead and jump right on that and buy a horse in a poke, but it's not the best approach. You really should ride the animal. Even if he's beyond your current ability, if he can't amp down a smidge, then you're not going to be happy with him no matter how cute his head is or how floaty his trot.
20. (I don't remember where I was in the numbering--I like 20) Be prepared. I already mentioned bringing your helmet and dressing appropriately, but you need to be mentally prepared as well. Make a check-list of the things that are most important to you in your prospective horse.
21. Try them all. Be sane about it--you don't want to give the poor animal a heart attack by asking him to jump 4' if he's never done cross-rails--but you should know what the basics are. Walk, trot, canter/lope for sure, and any additional skills you might think of. Lateral movement is a biggie because it indicates a willingness on the horse's part and a certain athletic ability. It may also confirm his training level.
22. If this is to be a special-interest investment, be sure to check with the seller as to the horse's experience. If he's been shown, there should be records of some sort--ribbons are nice, but trophies with the horse's photo on them are better, as are professional photos taken at shows. If he's a barrel racer, cutter, cow horse, jumper, fox hunter, steeplechaser, or has run for local government office, someone somewhere has made note of that. Ask for those notes before you try the horse at those activities.
23. If he's a trail horse, take a trail ride. While you're at it, ask for things like a step around a rock, a smooth passage through a puddle, a small hop over a fallen log. Those are things you'll be asking him to do. Don't just trust the seller, who will probably tell you "He's GREAT at that stuff!"
24. If you're buying the horse for a child, have the child with you. If the seller flinches when you say you want to throw the kid up on the horse, run away.
25. Be present. Pay attention both during tack-up and during every step of your trial ride. The devil is in the details. That spinning tail is a hint that the horse isn't happy. Could be minor, could be major. You won't know until you've checked it out. Don't be distracted by the friend or trainer you've brought along, and don't get babbling about Horses You Have Known. Just focus.
26. Be tolerant. You're a new rider for this horse. Unless he's been used as a lesson pony, he may object strenuously to having you on his back. That can pass in time with patient handling, so you shouldn't take it too seriously unless you are a) buying him for a rank beginner, or b) someone with no patience.
On this last item, Linnea Seaman (see yesterday's post) told us the story of a wonderful horse she's been riding and showing and who she decided to sell. The horse was, for all purposes, perfect. He was solid and sound and not known for hysteria . . . until she tried to sell him.
Horses are extremely sensitive. He caught on very quickly to his impending change of circumstance and made his objections known in the most objectionable ways. He's back home with Linnea, happy to compromise as a lesson horse. I've heard dozens of stories of horses who simply went postal when they realized they were in danger of losing their BFF. They are creatures of habit whose biggest habit is an incessant concern over change.
Change, for most horses, is bad. Little change they can handle--a trip to a show, a ride on a new trail, a new career entirely--but BIG change, like a new owner, is sometimes more than they are willing to bear in the short-term. Be prepared for that. It took my Dakota nearly two years to really settle in here. Now he's Number One beginner horse and everyone's buddy, but the first year he wasn't cutting us any slack at all. Not an iota. Like a lot of buyers, he'd had enough of the horse business and revolted.
So be kind and be aware that a one-owner horse may sound like a good deal because his owner has every moment of his history recorded and available. But dragging that horse into the trailer might be a challenge you weren't counting on. The horse that's been around a little--has had several owners or moved from farm to farm--might be a better bet.
Which brings me to another point. I recently learned that there are still horse dealers who will offer trade-ins. My friend and former boarder has a horse boarded at such a dealer's barn, and she has discovered to her delight that he will take her horse in trade on something more appropriate. So she's keeping her eyes on the incoming sale horses, waiting for one to wave at her and capture her heart. You won't get that kind of situation at a private seller's barn. Sales there are final, and options are limited. Occasionally you will come across an ad offering "sale or trade", but if there's only one horse on the seller's end, you may not come out ahead on the deal.
Saturday, October 04, 2008
Elastic. I've never understood the concept of "elastic" horses. "Gooey", however, is something I can sink my teeth into! And I would never have thought that suspenders would be so important to my dressage seat. All this time I've been cruising for the most comfy breeches and boots that won't pinch my toes, small-batch, home-baked treats, and new saddles, and it turns out I needed only suspenders to change my entire relationship with my horse!
I realize this seems to be a mid-stream boulder in my Horse Shopping rant, but bear with me. I'll find a way to tie it together after I've reported on the utter joy of another day spent in the presence of Linnea Seaman. The diminutive dynamo made a rare appearance at Harvest View Stables, a private boarding farm near Harrisburg, PA, yesterday. I was lucky enough (because my daughter boards at the barn and arranged the clinic partly to end my whining) to be invited to participate. Luckier yet, it's just a smidge too far for me to drag Zip along to that venue, so Jess let me use her lovely mare, Dolly, for the lesson. I was able to focus on the details of seat correction rather than being forced to discuss the alternatives that Zip would have insisted on testing.
Far be it from me to reteach Linnea's lesson here, but there are a few points that I want to share. I learned these things:
- My hands are not connected to the bit rings. Ha! Who knew? There's invisible elastic that runs from the middle of Dolly's (and presumably Zip's) mouth through the rein, up my arm, around my shoulder blades, and back down the other side. When I got a grip on my back being in the middle of Dolly's mouth (seriously--close your eyes and think about it), my entire relationship with the horse changed.
- I do not need to constantly bump, squeeze, thrash, ooze, rake or otherwise assail the horse with my legs to keep her moving and "impulsed". Double ha! It's perfectly allowable (forgive me, Hunt Seat Goddess, but I have seen the light!) for my legs to just be legs. They are permitted to hang, knees gently flapping like chubby butterflies, with just the suggestion of contact between my boot and the stirrup. There are no points off for flapping. I could die of happiness!
- Said stirrup contact is weight-bearing. Knees are for flapping, not for gripping, and inner thighs are not to be velcroed to the saddle.
- The horse can't move if I'm in her way.
- I need invisible suspenders in order to accomplish all this, and only Linnea can give them to me.
I have miles in the saddle to go before the suspenders will be fully functional, and I'm not kidding myself into believing that I will achieve Equine Gooiness without a great deal of sweat, but the difference in Dolly's movement (from stiff, to rather mooshy, but not quite gooey) was nearly instantaneous the moment I let my right suspender reach up to the sky and my left foot take on the job of non-interference. Now that's what I'm talking about! Pretty lateral work without tears. Does it get any better than that?
I promised I'd tie all this to the Horse Shopping delirium, so here's the connection. If you are a crappy rider, a good horse is going to become a crappy horse the minute you lay butt on it. If you think you're "advanced" but you're not a professional or showing at the highest levels, you're not advanced. You're probably "intermediate". More likely, you're an "advanced beginner". If you can't find a way to honestly assess you're skills, take a few lessons with someone like Linnea (western riders, seek out clinics with Stacy Westfall). You'll be shown (gently) that the pea isn't under the mattress, it's in your head.
No horse will ever be perfect for you unless you are willing to understand who you are as a rider and what you need. A finely-tuned dressage horse (like Dolly) can untune before you can say "on the bit" if you're riding like a sack of potatoes with hands like rocks. There's no "gooiness" in a horse if there's no elasticity in your seat and back. Just getting the rod out of my spine and removing the "hunt seat arch" made Dolly so happy I swore she was singing "Kumbaya".
Not everyone has access to the best training, and I've heard fellow horse folks wail about the cost of clinics and lessons, but if you're going to spend big bucks on the latest bling browband just so you can stand around admiring the horse you can't quite make walk forward on a loose rein, that's money poorly spent.
Interrupt your shopping for a bit and go take a lesson or two. You might find a whole different perspective revealing itself.
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
I've done, I think, a fair job of picking apart the horse you're looking at, so I think it's time to turn the spotlight on you. Let me start with the biggest of all Big Questions: Why are you buying a horse?
There's no right answer, but at least four wrong ones. To wit:
1. I always wanted to join the horsey set so I can wear breeches and boots to social functions. [If you picked this one, you need to find a hobby that doesn't involve sharp instruments.]
2. I like the sound of "I have horses". [If this sounds like you, try buying a show cat. "I have a Maine Coon" is nearly as impressive and not as dangerous.]
3. I have property, and a horse would just complete the picture of Landed Gentry. [So would a koi pond.]
4. I keep buying horses, but none of them seems to be quite right for me, so I'm giving it another shot. [Time to take some lessons or a training clinic or two before you buy yet another wrong horse.]
If any of those sounds good to you, you need to stop horse shopping now and go find a new interest. Buy a plane. That will impress your friends even more than a horse would, and you can still walk around in boots and breeches since folks will expect that kind of lunacy from you.
Better reasons would be:
1. I've been riding for years on school horses, I have plenty of money and time, I'm leasing now, but my trainer says I can't progress without my own horse, so I'm biting the bullet and buying one.
2. I've already got a horse (or several), but I need one that can take me to the next level.
3. My horse died, got sick, became permanently lame, or is simply too old to continue to cart my chubby butt around.
4. I'm changing disciplines and need a horse that is bred for my new purpose.
5. I had a horse when I was young and want to get back to riding now that I can afford to do it again.
Those are just a few I've heard. There are as many reasons as their are horse folks. I bring up the issue primarily because why you're shopping will determine what types of horses you should be looking at.
Many disciplines require horses that are bred to move in particular way. Training can make minor adjustments in a horse's movement, but it won't change his basic athletic ability, so be sure you know what type of horse works best for what you want to do. And for the sake of everyone involved, don't be a tire-kicker. Don't force some beleaguered owner to drive many miles to show you a horse you know up front isn't the right type for your needs. Sure, we all love looking at horses, but we can curb the impulse if we try.
Here are a few shopping rules:
- Call ahead, at least the first time. If you're suspicious, you may want to sneak back for a second look without warning the seller, but start on a positive note.
- If you don't intend to ride the horse on the first visit but want to see him ridden, tell the seller that up front so he/she can plan around you.
- If you do intend to ride, make that clear as well and arrive dressed for the occasion and carrying your very own helmet.
- Bring a digital camera or cell phone so you can take whatever pictures will help you mull over the decision when you get home.
- Ask in advance if you'll need to bring your own tack--this is especially important if you are an odd size.
- If you're at all leery of the horse, don't ride him. But do give him a second chance if there's a chance you might both be having an off day.
- Bring your checkbook so you can leave a deposit if you're interested in the horse.
- Be polite! The barn owner and/or seller didn't invite you in to critique his operation. You're there to look at a horse. And even if the animal does look like a cartoon character, the seller may truly love the beast and will not take your laughter kindly.
- Don't look at horses far out of your price range in the hope that the buyer will negotiate. Ask up front if negotiation is even an option and stay within about 20% of your buying limit.
Next: That crucial test-drive
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
These findings should sound an alarm when exhibited by any horse, but particularly one you're thinking of buying:
- persistent drooping of one side of the lip or noticeable slackness in one ear
- uneven sweating patterns
- unusual behavior, such as head-pressing or circling
- a consistently unusual stance or odd posture.
Assuming the horse has passed all the ground tests thus far, you're probably going to want to see how he goes under saddle. If the owner won't mount up and show him off, that's a red light worthy of note. If the horse is lame, that's a fine excuse but a problem in a horse you want to purchase. Regardless, unless you are a professional trainer, you should not be the one to mount up. Granted, you'll learn first-hand if the horse is a wingnut by doing so, but you may not be available to try out those other horses you've had your eye on if you do a face-plant off this one. If you can't get someone else to ride him first, opt out. Either go back another day (which, of course, allows time for drugging, beating, and other unsavory horse dealer tricks) or just walk away. There are other fish in the sea, and if you'd rather not get wet, there are plenty of horses in the pasture.
If you have watched the horse ridden and have decided you still like him, then it may be time for you (or whatever professional you've conned into accompanying you) to climb on for a test drive. I don't have to tell you that you need to try all the gaits. I will say, however, that a horse that won't stand to be mounted, while he may have training issues, is curable, so don't assume the worst.
13. You know what you want to do with the horse, so try him doing exactly that. Even if it means importing a cow for him to work, you need to be sure he'll function as advertised. If you're buying a horse for children to ride, be sure to bounce up and down a bit, swing your legs, do handstands, eat a burger . . . all the things kids do on horses that make adults turn prematurely gray.
14. If this is a "move up" horse, then be sure to bring someone more advanced than you are at the skills you intend to practice with him. It doesn't help your upward mobility to buy a horse you can already get the most out of. You need one just a shade better than you are.
15. Bring a friend to stand on the ground and report such things as odd footfalls or "he's doing something strange with his left hind". Have the ride videoed if at all possible for your own later review.
16. Make a note of all refusals and issues both minor and major. While they may not turn you off, they should be addressed in the pre-purchase exam.
17. Be around for tack-up. Note any problems with girthing, bridling, leading, acceptance of the bit, and so on. If he's fussy with his familiar owner working on him, he'll likely be double-fussy when you get him to your place.
18. Note his reaction to being near/away from/across the street from other horses and various environmental objects and activities. Again, these reactions will be magnified when you move him from his familiar space to your own.
So much for the horse. Next time I will attack the rider.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Once again the Excellent Poster, Gypsyfly, has come across with the goods. He's a standards-oriented guy, and knew all about the set of horsemanship standards set by the CHA. You can find them yourself if you go here. You'll have to order the book to actually see them, but that's okay. We can all use a few standards, right? Cliff is looking for some in this photo.
Of course there are always the perennial standby Pony Club rules, about which there are many books available. The downside to PC is that it's strictly English with no accommodation for western riders or anyone who wants to do something really odd with their horses.
So, what Gypsyfly is offering is the idea, which I've been looking at for years, of certifying riding levels before a horseman is able to purchase a horse. Or at least sufficiently to give the seller an idea of how the rider will stack up against the horse in question.
This, of course, requires that sellers behave like Real Horsemen and actually 1) familiarize themselves with some basic recognizable ability tests, and 2) care whether the horse they're selling might eventually injure, kill, or simply disappoint the buyer sufficiently to wind up at auction. That's asking a lot of some sellers.
I'm going to direct this, then, to those who are not in the horse biz for a living. Dealers, traders, and auctioneers aren't fazed by a buyer's dissatisfaction. Generally they have no stake in the outcome at all unless there's some sort of warranty involved. Even then, they may be a tad lax about honoring whatever verbal agreement might have been made. So I'm addressing this to the private owners who have a horse to sell.
Sure, you really want that horse gone, especially if his departure is the condition for the arrival of the New Horse you're so longing to buy. But that doesn't mean that you have to give up all sense of pride and honor. Most of you care--some even deeply--about the future of your horses. A bad match in the sale can be a death warrant for your equine. Keep that in mind.
So much for buyer standards. My goal was to finish the trainability test descriptions, so I'm going to do that now.
7. Hold the lead close under the horse's chin, stand at his side, and walk towards him. If he moves off with his butt end still, he's had some serious training or is amazingly alert and intelligent to have figured out that that's what you wanted him to do. Try it on both sides. One side will likely be better, but you've got a better side too, so we won't deduct points for that.
8. Try checking the horse's teeth. If he lets you, give him a point. If he bites you, remind yourself to let the vet do that next time. Minus one.
9. Pick up each of the horse's feet. He should let you do this without fanfare. If he fights you, that either indicates a serious lack of handling or a questionable attitude. Or it could mean a hidden lameness or pain issue. A horse doesn't like to put pressure on a sore leg or foot, so if he won't pick up the right front, suspect lameness in the left front.
10. Walk away from the horse with the end of the lead in your hand. He may follow you, which is okay. If he stays put, see if he's watching you. Walk all the way around him. He should turn to watch you. If he does, score one for the horse. If he doesn't, it's not necessarily a negative point. He could be nervous or frightened, especially if he's off his home turf.
11. Lead him away. If he bumps or head-butts you, it may be cute as bunnies, but it's a dominance issue. Negative one. If he walks nicely and respects your space, give him a few points depending on how many times you've been stomped on by your last horse.
12. Stand in front of the horse and walk towards him, as you ask him to back up. If he does back up, that's great. If he doesn't, give him a gentle nudge with your finger on his chest. Gentle. Don't whack him. If he still doesn't move back, consider that a respect issue and think about finding a horse that isn't so confrontational.
So much for the groundwork. Next, In the Saddle.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Which of these horses would you buy?
1. Middle-aged QH gelding, papered, no notable scars or injuries. Digs holes in stall floor. Owner selling because he is unmanageable--rears, bucks, refuses to leave the barn area, claustrophobic in the trailer (loads and trailers but works up a sweat just standing there). During test ride, horse rams into the gate, rears on canter cue, trips and falls on corner. Owner of former boarding establishment reports he is "a wingnut". Sale only, no lease, as owner does not want liability for injuries to riders.
2. Middle aged gelding, papered, noticeable impact scar on chest. Reportedly purchased for child who decided to change disciplines. Unridden for most of past 18 months. Spooks in the ring during test ride. Otherwise unremarkable. Attractive horse whose history is sketchy.
3. 9-yo OT mare, papered, foundered, pregnant with first foal. Former owner will not respond to contact. Fine during test ride, but rears on back-up cue.
4. Unpapered gelding advertised as TB. Age possibly 10 years. Tattoo has been altered. Over at the knee. High-withered. Reportedly shown by youth jumper but outgrown. Former boarding farm owner reports horse has had no veterinary issues during his tenure at that farm. Jumps well. Very strong during test ride. Bolts after second jump. Distal ringbone on right fetlock. Early history unavailable.
5. Papered breeding stock Paint gelding, 6-yo. No scars or injuries. Moves nicely. Reported to have worked as a cow horse in the stockyards in TX and FL. Prior owners liked his attitude and hard work ethic. Quiet, sane, no vices.
6. 12-yo greenbroke QH broodmare, papered, being taken out of breeding rotation for throwing twins. No training to speak of. Nervous. Unaccustomed to noise and confusion. Hasn't been away from home since she was 2. Toes in in front, toes out behind. Cow-hocked. No notable scars.
If you chose #5, you made a good, obvious choice . . . except for the fact that within a couple of months you'd have been in the ER. Nice horse, had a violent reaction to spring grass.
The other five all turned out to be fine horses. The number 1 horse became a beginner lesson horse, and eventually also did low-level dressage. The number 2 horse was a quiet lesson horse and a fine trail horse. The number 3 horse produced a top-notch foal and was a trustworthy trail horse until she was retired due to illness. The number 4 horse became a well-known winner at local shows, over fences, on the flat, and running barrels. He retired to become an advanced-beginner lesson horse until he died.
How good was your guesswork? Looking over the specs, objectively all six horses had potential, both positive and negative. It's the individuality of the animals and their ability to change their spots in the hands of different owners that makes the whole horse-buying experience so traumatic. Add to the essential silliness of most horse owners (and some horses) the fact that there are unscrupulous sellers who will drug animals or lie about their histories, and we appear to be right back full circle to the "What in the hell are we doing?" question.
All of these horses (and a bunch of others), by the way, are or have been mine or my daughter's. Number 1 is my BFF, Leo, in the picture above. I didn't talk about number 6. She was my all-time favorite horse, who within a year learned to do miles on the trail alone, ponied babies at a breeding farm, and went to every show I could find to put her in right up until she died of cancer 9 years later. Ribbons for English classes and barrel racing are still on my wall.
And again, we're back to Square One. The horse that appeared to be the best prospect of the bunch was the worst in the end. The ones that were questionable at best turned out just fine with a little work and lots of compassion.
What's a buyer to do?
More on testing for trainability coming up.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Leave it to the horse forums! I knew eventually someone would come up with something worthwhile on the issue of standards for describing horses to buyers (and buyers to horses), and "Gypsyfly" on the Equisearch board suggested something along the lines of the "several established points of compatibility" that the dating site advertises.
That, of course, reminded me of the Richard Shrake clinic I attended years ago and his trainability tests that I summarized in It's a Horse's Life! in the chapter called "Hippology for the Rest of Us". I trust that Mr. Shrake won't mind if I repeat some of his suggestions. They certainly bear as much repetition as they can get! All of the items are scored on a plus-and-minus basis with zero as the midpoint. If the horse responds negatively, that's a minus. If the horse responds positively, that's a plus. If he bites you on the shoulder and takes off at a gallop, that's a horse best left to another buyer. If he's already yours, you might want to consider taking up a different sport.
1. Push the horse's head away from you. If he lets you do that (and even leaves his head in the "away" position) that's a plus. If he pushes back or whacks you with his head or threatens to bite you, that's a minus.
2. Ask the horse to move his hindquarters away from you by moving only his head. If he responds nicely, that's a plus. If he holds his ground, that's a minus. If he threatens to kick, leave him alone.
3. Back him up. Same scoring.
4. Move his forehand away. If he crosses his feet, that's a big plus. If he fights you, that's a big minus.
5. Have someone walk and trot him out on the lead. Notice whether his hind hoofprints meet or pass his front prints. A horse that reaches under well will collect well. Points scored.
6. Meansure the horse. If the line from his between his ears to his withers is double the length of the line from his throatlatch to his chest, Bingo! He'll be able to flex at the poll and lower his head nicely. If the lines are even, he won't be able to do anything requiring much head lowering. A longer line on the bottom than the top is "ewe-necked" and not suitable for disciplines requiring flexion.
That's a good starting list. I'll add more tomorrow. But let me also add here that a horse with a lump between his eyes has always been considered potentially dangerous. There's actually a reason for this. His forward vision, already not as great as his reward vision, will be somewhat reduced by his inabilty to see past his own forehead. Like some owners, he will be unlikely to be able to see the forest for the trees.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Sorry, but no.
Recently I've had the opportunity to shop vicariously with a friend who has been seeking a new horse. What horse lover doesn't appreciate that kind of fun? I get to look at horse ads and even the occasional actual live equine, and it isn't going to cost me a penny. BOO-ya!
As it turns out, though, I've gotten something for nothing (and I don't mean the proverbial "free" horse). I've gotten an inside view of the current market and of someone else's viewpoint on horses. Though I've worked at a sale barn and had experience buying and selling here at home, and I've watched the process through my daughter's eyes, she and I are very much alike, so it wasn't very enlightening. This time, I learned something that's given me pause.
I ride English for the most part. I've barrel raced, but that was "Westrish"--riding English in a western saddle--so it doesn't count. I have a western horse now, but I'm retraining him, so he doesn't count either. Shopping for a western trail horse has turned out to be a whole different kind of journey. As I wandered the internet and passed on "horse to good home" ads to my friend, I discovered that my idea of a good horse and hers are quite different.
Seeing that (and being almost finished with the process of becoming an Equine Appraiser), and seeing how wide the disparity is, I got to thinking that we need a better system. The horse world is suffering greatly right now due to lack of funds in all quarters. Buying and selling the wrong horses can't be helping. I believe we need:
1. A set of standards that are more objective than "cute horse, loves people".
2. To employ actual appraisers to set prices if we're not sure what the market for our horse is at the moment, or
3. A little training handbook on appraisal that doesn't cost the arm-and-a-leg of the full-bore certification program so every horseman can honestly appraise the horses he owns and those he's looking to buy.
4. More honesty in advertising.
5. More willingness on the part of buyers to put additional training on a horse if he's not quite what they're looking for.
6. Less magical thinking--no loopy equine is going to transform overnight into Your Friend Flicka just because you whispered at it.
So for the next few posts (since I obviously got bored with the spring--now fall--cleaning series), I'm going to focus on those six concepts. With the help of posters from the various forums, I'll try to get a groundswell of grassroots change moving. Who knows? Maybe a few horses will find good homes and a few buyers will realize they're just not ready for a horse. In the end, everyone might come out ahead.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Nope. Not us. We are a free-wheeling, free-thinking bunch of tough-minded citizens who can't seem to get along for five minutes on any topic whatsoever. We should be stood in the corner until we get the picture.
I'm in the mood to enter this rant because 1) I've been on some online horse forums lately, and 2) I live in the land of local horse shows that are sucking the common sense out of decent humans. I'll address the latter first.
Folks, there's nothing worse than a sore loser than a sore winner. There's nothing worse than either of those than a wannabe lurking on the sidelines critiquing what isn't understood. Male, female, old, young . . . you'll see them hanging by the rail at a show or sitting around a boarding farm while one of their significant others (or someone they met at a party, or whoever) indulges in the Horse Thing. They have a lot to say and can easily make an otherwise lovely activity as mean and unhappy as high school phys ed class.
When those folks turn up on the online forums (the other part of my gripe) and other public areas where discussion occurs, there's double danger and more than a little damage done by the unwary who, for no apparent reason, give credence to anything they read online.
Guys! I can go on a forum, come up with a fancy nickname, and announce that I've been a top-level reining horse trainer for fifty years. I'm not. I haven't been. I could post all sorts of suggestions and comments that I'd be pulling out of thin air. I wouldn't do that. I could just as easily write dozens of letters to dozens of legislators about what should be done without one whit of understanding of the realities of the issues. I wouldn't do that either.
Would you? Answer honestly.
What I have done is watched nastiness emerge in my horse world in the form of snarky remarks among total strangers, some of whom may be as horsey as my Aunt Trieste, rest her soul. She wouldn't have known a horse from a hog if she hadn't had the standard Horse With Clock in Stomach on top of her TV, but she'd have been the type to launch an all-out attack against someone who was trying--really trying--to do the right thing and maybe learn something new. She also wouldn't have hesitated to bring whatever pressure she could to bear to affect a change in policies on a subject about which she knew nothing.
So . . . here's the plan.
If you haven't actually done whatever it is you're critiquing, go find a hobby that keeps you off the computer and away from the rails at shows and farms. Learn to knit. Go plant some vegetables. Do anything that requires you to focus elsewhere. If no one asked you, don't volunteer your opinion. If you need to hurt someone, get help; that's a real problem you've got there, and you need to deal with it. If you really believe you have a great idea for solving one of the Big Problems Facing the Horse Business, talk to someone near you who actually is involved in said business and listen to the reaction your idea gets. Then you can go home and knit or garden and forget the thought ever crossed your mind.
If we horse people don't start showing some solidarity and refusing to play the game, our industry--our lifestyle--is going to be gone before we know it. We'll lose our riding lands to development (as if that's not bad enough already!). Funding will be withdrawn for programs in colleges. The farmers who support our habit will be lured into turning hayfields into something we pour into our vehicles. We need to play nice together, and we need to start now. The image of a bitchy show mom (or dad, or aunt, uncle, or cousin) has to die a sudden death. We need to learn everything we can about how our business works, not just where the nearest show barn is located. We need to figure out why we have horses and stick up for our decision in ways that mean something.
We need to do all this before the Painted Ponies are the only horses our grandkids will ever pet.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Okay. I'll admit right up front that spring cleaning took a back seat to spring riding. Not much of any quality has transpired since my last post. For that, I am grateful. I do manage an occasional swipe at the big pile of yuck in the pasture where the round bale feeder sat all winter. I want credit for that.
Spring always brings a sense of rebirth, and that's my issue for today. Apparently the Wanton Breeders are at work again. As I drive the back roads and read the online forums, the advent of Baby Fever is only too obvious. Yes, I'm aware that it was only a year or so ago that I got all warm and fuzzy over the birth of my stallion's first offspring. I apologize. That gooey feeling lasted until 1) the owner of the mare had a difficult time selling the filly, and 2) said owner also mentioned her intention of breeding another mare in her string. That mare is one that should not be bred. Ever.
So I feel the need to opine on Bad Backyard Breedings. In this world of homeless horses and a bottomless market, one would think that reason might prevail. It doesn't. The urge to see babies at play is strong in us. If we can't make more of our own kind, we will cause some other species to produce on our behalf.
I believe nature has a hand in this. I believe the instinctive drive to procreate is constantly thwarted and isn't happy about that. But I also believe that we are strong and intellligent enough to overcome the Spring Crazies if we really try. If we so desperately need to hear the pitter-patter of tiny hooves, let's all head to the nearest rescue and give a home to a youngster (or an oldster) who really needs one. Then let's pledge to avoid making more of something there are already too many of.
The word for today is Abstinence!
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Know what this is? This is my farm's sign. Know why it's special? Because there is no ice on it! Not one cicle. Not a flake of snow or a hint of sleet.
This is, dear friend, a harbinger of Spring!
Every horse person knows that every change of season brings with it nuances of the passage of time and special moments which we share with our equines. In the Great Northeast, spring is particularly important as it gives us time to defrost before summer, with its bugs and burns (and bikinis, if you've stocked up on fake tan lotion for those horse-person-white legs), hits full force. Full-frontal summer is not for the faint-hearted. There is much to be done to prepare. So let us get on with our Spring To-Do List:
1. Under all that brown and grey stuff in the corner or hanging in front of the stalls are winter blankets. You know they're there, but like the midges that will soon arrive, you can't see 'em. My personal approach involves a long-handled siding brush with which I can beat the brown stuff off before I cover myself with plastic and attempt to move the mess outside. Eventually the pressure washer will take care of the dirt. Probaby just in time for next winter, which should arrive around August if our current weather pattern continues.
2. The horses aren't the only ones in need of a bit of exercise. Time to shape up before tight-pants season! I bought four new exercise videos and TiVo'd eight segments of high-stress yoga. So far I've managed 22 minutes of Pilates warm-up exercises. I'm resting comfortably.
3. There's tack in that-there tackroom! I've peeled off the layers of saddle pads and satisfied my curiosity. I really do own more saddles than I thought possible. Your turn. Bet you'll find at least one item of tack you didn't know you (still) had.
4. Time to rid the barn of freeloaders! No, I'm don't mean the horses. I mean the rodents. Mice. Rats, even. Squirrels if you've got 'em. And let's not forget the raccoon who's been nesting in your loft all winter. For what it's worth, there's a nifty battery-operated killing machine for the smaller critters. I got mine at Lowe's. Just smear a little bait on the back end and turn it on. In the morning, lift the lid and gently dump the corpus into the trash and reset. No muss, no thrashing death-throes, no traps dragging along behind something trying valiantly to take the cheese home for supper. Just a neatly deceased critter.
5. The last for today (overload is bad for the spirit) is windows. If the barn has any, clean them and open them up! Cleaning first is a good plan so the full effect of all that unaccustomed sunshine can be felt by everyone involved. While you're at it, you can go ahead and hang the fans. You have my blessing.
Well, that was exhausting! I, for one, am going to take advantage of the almost-warm temperature and go for a ride. The rest of the dirt will stick around till I get rid of it.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Down to cases. I'm here to report that it's simply not possible to put a positive spin on 60 unless it's a Training Level II score on a Training Level Not-Likely horse. I've been assured by friends who are even closer to dirt-old than I am that this is the prime of my life. If that's true, then someone pass the Prozac, please.
What I know about 60 is that things aren't getting better from here on. Oh, I'll certainly ride better when I'm 61, but that's because I was laid up for most of 59. Anything is an improvement over that.
I know that a "what the hell" attitude comes with the territory and accounts for my willingness to try out my dear, wonderful friend Ellen's magnificent dressage horse, Tico. That would have been beyond the ken of 58 and certainly out of range of 59.
I know that some people who shall remain nameless think parties are a requirement of certain birthdays. Shun those people unless you are in the market for a lifetime supply of gag "Over the Hill" gifts. Those people never give you good stuff like new bling stirrups or a $400 helmet. They tend more toward monogrammed denture cups.
I know that there will always be moments when Mount 60 looks like nothing but a pimple on the butt of an otherwise excellent lifetime. It's neither as impressive as 75 nor as exciting as 50. It's just the top of the hill you're headed over.
Zip told me that he's excited about my new 'tude. At least I think that's what he said. It was hard to hear him through the rush of blood to my head as I hung upside-down from his left side. I really thought a looser girth was the way to go.
So let's add that 60 brings with it some intriguingly odd decisions and a what-the-hell attitude to back them up.
Regardless, and despite the incredibly bad weather (was I the only one awed by today's 34-degrees, fog-over-ice accented by a subtle hint of thunderstorm?), this will be a horse year. Any year with horses in it is good. If it's a little more difficult to keep my heel down and my calf pressure even, I will let 60 take the blame. Might as well get some use out of it.
To all you over-30 riders, Happy Horseday!