Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Little to the Left, Please

Before I get to the "in the saddle" stuff, I'm going to borrow a little something from the Equisearch newsletter. Timely and appropriate, the 9/22/08 edition included a test of your horse's nervous system that you can do at home. If ever there was a time to be aware of possible neurological issues, the horse-shopping expedition is it, so here are the basics. This list should not replace a vet check by an experienced practitioner who you trust, but before you spend the big bucks to get him there, you can do a cursory exam on your own.

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.
All of them indicate a possible serious neurological problem that should be specifically addressed in the pre-purchase exam (if you get that far). In addition, you want to check the horse's vision and sensation and other items you'll find clearly described in the article here. I can't do a better job, so I'll give credit where credit is due and recommend that you read the original.

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

Standards and More Standards!

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

Pick me! Pick me!

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

eHarmony and Richard Shrake: Perfect Together?

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

Eye of the Beholder

How do you tell a good horse from a bad one? Is there a magic mirror you can hold up that will show you how you and the horse you're considering owning will get along a week from now? A month? A year?

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.