Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Daydream Believers and Horse World Reality

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

Hands Across the Aisle

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

Who Are You Trying To Kid?

I am releasing for public ridicule this terribly embarrassing moment in my horse life. This picture was taken two days or so after Dakota was delivered to my place to become the all-purpose western trail and lesson horse. If I didn't make my point in the last post, perhaps this will do the trick.

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.

Horse-Shopping 101 Continued: From the Saddle

This is a photo of a happy horse owner. This is a photo of a happy rescue horse. I'm throwing it in, not just because it pertains to the From the Saddle recommendations for your shopping expedition, but because it represents the best that can happen when a horse and rider are so well-matched they just glow with pleasure in each other's company. Cindy, the lovely rider here, has done a fabulous job of choosing and retraining Delight. Keep this photo in your mind as you shop. It'll get you past the desire for medication.

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.

Caveat Horseman!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Gooey Horses and The Suspenders of Linnea Seaman

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. Said stirrup contact is weight-bearing. Knees are for flapping, not for gripping, and inner thighs are not to be velcroed to the saddle.
  4. The horse can't move if I'm in her way.
  5. I need invisible suspenders in order to accomplish all this, and only Linnea can give them to me.
That last is likely to get me a room without a view and the latest in fitted jackets, but the proof of the pudding is in the 20-meter circle. Linnea tapped me here and there, gave me an image to clutch in my feeble mind, then sent me off around the ring. The taps on my boot soles were reminiscent of the Centered Riding program, but the fairy taps on my shoulders with a longe whip were quite original and not a little spooky, as the minute the whip touched my shoulder, I quite honestly felt the suspender attach itself there. There was no sherry at this clinic, so this was truly astounding.

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

Attention, Shoppers! There's a Blue Light Special in the Intelligence Aisle!

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.
I can say from experience that that last rule is possibly the most important. If the buyer has a price of, say, $12,000 on a proven show horse, she probably expects to get close to that amount. The least-favorite buyer at my farm was the one who saw that price on a jumper/dressage horse, called and asked for all the details, then sweetly offered to take the horse "free to a good home" if we didn't get any better offers. If you only have $2000 to spend, you don't need to say that up front, but you should not be bothering the sellers who are trying to unload their high-dollar show animals for many times that amount. Look instead in the $0 to $3000 range. You'll be more likely to be successful there.

Next: That crucial test-drive