Friday, May 29, 2009

Money-Saving Tip

One might wonder how I'm saving money in this photo. It would appear that I am riding a really nice horse in a really nice arena at a really nice barn. All of that would be true. In fact, the day also involved a clinic with a really good clinician (judge and trainer Linnea Seaman). Not exactly sobbing into my peanut butter sandwich on the front stoop, right?

The money-saving tip for today is: Ride someone else's horse.

Yes, I'm serious.

This is not my horse. This is my daughter's horse. She's the one paying to keep and train the lovely mare, Dolly, while I just nip in occasionally for a quick lesson. Her cost for this outing: Over $350/month plus the clinic fee (which I happily paid on this occasion). Mine: Probably $10 in gas and less than $200 for the rest--clinic fees, lunch, coffee and donuts, and horse cookies. I can do this a lot of times before I even come close to the thousands of dollars she's putting out, right?

Now, not everyone is lucky enough to have a relative with a horse they can ride for free (or in this case for the price of a clinic spot), but you might be surprised at how many horse friends and acquaintances you can scare up who would like someone to ride their horses either as a companion or while they're away or laid up. My daughter was an invaluable resource when I was busy for nine months with eye surgery. Her once- or twice-weekly sessions on Zip kept him from moldering, which I sincerely appreciated.

Of course you have to be a decent rider and your friends need to have faith in your ability, but it can't hurt to offer. Of the eight responses I got in the first hour of my "barn slave wanted" Craigslist ad, all but two would have been more than able to keep any horses I had ridden and in shape, and I'd have paid them for the service. I know I'm not alone. Over the years I've needed help of the riding kind, and was grateful for the responsible people who offered it.

I also know at least one teen who has never actually owned a horse but has managed to ride several successfully for five show seasons. She worked off the free leases or rented school horses just for the day, so her end cost was minimal: Show clothes (which can be had cheap on eBay, by the way), horse rental, some tack (also available on eBay), hot dogs at the concession stand, and maybe Valium for Mom.

So if you're not exactly in a position to own a horse but are physically able and talented enough to ride horses belonging to others, make some calls, send out some emails, post a free ad on Craigslist, and see who climbs the flagpole to kiss your jeans-clad butt for offering. You might be pleasantly surprised. A few thousand dollars saved is... a few thousand dollars saved!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Comeback Kid

I love this picture of my Paint mare, Pokey, because it captures her personality better than any other in my collection. What it says about her is that she is ever hopeful and ever alert to opportunity.

She fell into my herd when she was 9, retired from the Paint race circuit, foundered, and pregnant with the ever-popular Zip. She was a bit of a waif, thin and sporting a set of worry creases above her eyes that suggested she wasn't entirely on board with anything we humans were presenting in the way of options.

But Pokey is the embodiment of enthusiasm for life. With only a few minor exceptions, she remained sound and cooperative through her fattening and retraining. She dropped a gorgeous foal on request--that is after The X-Files but before bedtime on the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend when I would have three days off to play with the newcomer. That was 1996.

Pokey wound up, as so many transplanted horses do, with "pasture heaves"--allergic asthma brought on by exposure to tree and grass pollen not native to her Oklahoma birthplace. So, at only 11 years old, she was retired. I could deal with her foundered feet since she was always completely sound, but riding a horse who wheezed like an antique steam engine was more than I could bear.

For 10 years the mare has lived The Life, and she's been happy enough. At least I was pretty sure she was happy until a recent experience caused me to rethink her future. She's had her share of grooming and handling over the years and always loved her bubble baths, but the long grazes on the lawn were reserved for the working stiffs.

If our shoer hadn't been unusually late in arriving, if the weather hadn't been perfect, if the other horses hadn't been out in the pasture, and if Pokey weren't such a fusspot about being cooped up alone, I wouldn't have spent nearly two hours hand-grazing her and grooming her while we waited for the shoer to find the abscess I was sure was percolating in her toe. If we hadn't spent those hours on the lawn, I would have forgotten completely what a personable and kind horse she was...and bombproof! How could I have forgotten her utter disregard for the things that get other horses in a tizzy? Watching her stick her head into the back of the shoer's truck to see what cool toys were buried there, I realized that maybe retirement wasn't quite the answer for this horse.

Yesterday was another pretty day, and we did some experimental work on the longe. We grazed first, of course, and we heaved mightily despite the Tri-Hist with breakfast. But we hit the ground running as fast as ever, undeterred by a notable lack of oxygen. It took a bit of effort to get the mare settled down--"whoa" was never her best thing on the longe--but she did settle into a nice little jog and, finally, a smooth walk.

A perfect walk and a perfect jog for the perfect beginner walk/trot horse for the perfect grandson? Could be. We'll give it a shot. If she's game, who am I to stand in her way?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Greener Pastures (and Stables)

What an idyllic scene! Horses grazing on new grass while their buddy naps in the shade of his favorite round bale... does it get any better?

That is not my topic for today, but it seemed like a sweet lead-in and a reminder of why we do this.

Today I've had a revelation unrelated to drowsy equines and sunny fields. I was cleaning up in the kitchen (What? I do that now and then!) and had in my hand the empty container from my favorite instant coffee. I thought, "Hey! This fits my hand so nicely, there must be something I can use it for." Upon closer inspection I found the shrink label easy to remove and before I knew it I had a great little holder for horse treats! It'll fit neatly in my cabinet or my tack trunk (okay, maybe not the trunk, which is already spilling its contents), or my travel bag. The flip-up lid seals well enough for cookies, probably not well enough for a powdered supplement, though that remains to be tested (after all, the reason it's empty is that it leaped out of the cabinet and dumped its contents into my pasta a few days ago). And these cool, free containers come in two sizes! The smaller one will be great for travel, the larger for storage.

Taking it a step further, I can see that tubes of eye ointment or triple antibiotic that are so easily squished into leakyhood would be nicely protected and easy to find stuffed into these containers. And with the label removed, the translucent plastic is fine for labeling with a marker or stick-on tag.

One further level of extrapolation has me dying to empty the plastic, handled bucket that Domino Sugar recently put on the shelves. I can only imagine what goodies that will hold, and they're stackable!

Free stuff is always good, right? I'm on a free stuff kick since the Blue Seal Feed seminar last week at my favorite feed store. I not only got to watch a fitter fit saddles to a live horse, but I watched the feed rep explain equine digestion with an uproarious display made from garden hoses and plastic soda bottles. But best of all, I "won" four free bags of feed and got a free bag of cat food and some leather-care samples (and dandy cheese and fruit) for my patient attention for the duration.

Some time ago I did a series of articles on cross-over items good for both house and barn. Since the series is still available at the site of the recently-defunct Ecountrylifestyle "Horse Tales" E-zine, I'm not going to repeat the advice here. But I am going to post such finds as the (Taster's Choice) coffee jars and whatever else comes my way. With the economy in such poor shape (if it were a horse, we'd have euthanized it), a penny saved is a penny saved, and an item recycled directly into a new use is better than one sent through the local MUA's recycling plant at the taxpayers' expense.

Next time: What Tube Socks Mean To Me.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Empathy Bone

This picture is black-and-white, but the horse thing most definitely isn't. I had a revelation this morning that hopefully will stay with me when I'm not feeling so gray-scale.

I'm a little "off" this week due to an infection and its cure. Not sick, flat-out disgusting; just indisposed. Who cares, right? See, that's just the point.

When I turned the horses out this morning, I noted that Pokey is sporting her annual hoof abscess. We do this every spring when the rains come and the feet get soft and the newly-opened pastures invite lots of running willy-nilly over rocks. She comes limping in, I wave my magic Bute jar, and we do our best to get past the problem as quickly as possible. Normally I don't think much about it since she's retired, hence not being ridden. She can be as lame as she likes and just recover at peace. A stoic, it's routine for her to refuse my ministrations, gallop three-legged out into the pasture, and from a safe distance assure me that she'll be fine, no soaking bucket thanks. Her pain was obvious, so it was easy to go easy on her and empathize. But what about when it's not so flat-out obvious? How blind is blind?

Who cares when Zip issues a little threat when I deepen my seat? And who cares when Dakota bumps his head on something (again!)? And who cares when Duke is feeling testy because he got a wad of grass stuck in his throat (again!)? And who cares when Leo simply doesn't feel like taking me around the property or ancient, one-eyed Pinky doesn't feel like going out after dinner?

Me. I care. That is, I must care. I don't. Not often enough.

I'm healthy as a horse (despite events that might contradict this, I actually am), and rarely if ever have an off day. So I'm not as empathetic as I could be. When I do feel raunchy, I just back it down a notch and cut my ride short or avoid saddling up entirely. More often I saddle up and avoid the laundry and grocery shopping, but that's between you and me. But how often do I (we) really give horses the chance to just feel out of sorts?

More and more often, as the economy continues to lug on the bit, I hear fellow horseman using the "S" word. "Should" is not a word that needs to be in a horse person's vocabulary. There's no horse that "should" be working six days a week come hell or high spirits even if his board is putting his owner in a hole so deep it smells like fried rice. There's no excuse for not noticing when a horse isn't really on top of things, and there's nothing in a horse's makeup that gives anyone cause to believe that they lie, malinger, or play hooky. Generally speaking, if a horse says, "Not now, I have a headache", he means it.

In his recent essay collection, Big Horses, Good Dogs, & Straight Fences, Mark Rashid relates a moment when one of his four-in-hand Belgian Draft team got testy and out of hand. Naturally it happened in public at a rodeo, so there were ample excuses to be made for the animal's misbehavior and the near-disaster it caused. It wasn't until the dust (or, in this case, the mud) had settled and Rashid had a moment to reflect that he took the time to check the horse's harness. The inch-long spike of hay that was embedded under the horse's tail, driven home by the harness's crupper, would have been invisible without careful inspection and the attitude that there has to be an explanation when a good horse goes wrong. There has to be. Look for it.

Today is as good a day as any to start listening with an open heart and a quiet mind when our horses complain. I'm not talking about spoiling or letting our horses run amok. Just listening. The trainers and owners who pulled horses from the Derby listened better than most, possibly because they have so much cash riding on their horses' continued good health and cooperative spirit. But the rest of us can take pause and look at our equine partners as if they, too, were Derby hopefuls whose futures might depend entirely on our decision on their behalf today.

When you feed tonight, take a close look and ask each horse "How you doin?" You might be surprised at the answer.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Horses in the Mist

Idealized or Iconic?

As it does every year, the running of the Kentucky Derby this weekend has brought horses into the limelight. Witness the flood of documentaries and horse-related movies aired in the week preceding the event, and you'd have to believe that America--and possibly the world--has an ongoing love affair with equines that is unlikely to end. That a 50-to-1 shot horse brought home the roses may be the most important thing that's happened to the US since Funny Cide brought his novice owners fame and not a little fortune.

The horse business is in a serious slump. A high-end hobby does not fare well during a recession, and horses are nothing if not high-end, at least the way we do horses on the East Coast. The past couple of years' disasters in the eventing arena and the terrible ordeal of Barbaro's final months heaped nastiness upon our heads, joining the economy in bringing the industry to its knees.

But sometimes it's necessary to fall off the cliff to find out whether you have wings that will hold you or you'll just face-plant in the dust. Out of the rubble has arisen a new kind of horse world. Breed associations have made public statements decrying over-breeding (and crummy breeding). The Committees that Be have resolved to make the most challenging areas of the horse world safer for everyone. The race industry has taken the reins and made huge strides in protecting their own with retirement facilities for horses that would otherwise be left homeless or worse and help for the jockeys who give their all for this classic American pastime. Farm owners have done their part to help horse owners afford care; vets have donated services; rescues have sprung up everywhere. As professionals, we have finally begun to do ourselves proud.

There's a long row to hoe yet, however, before the country and the industry will see fruit from all this labor. But if ever there was a marker for a turnaround attitude in the country, this year's Derby is it. Over generations, Americans have connected their own fates and their prospects for the future to the stories of their racehorses, and this Derby offered more than its share of iconic moments.

  • The 2009 Derby was the maiden race for six of the trainers fielding horses. Talk about "Can Do!"
  • The winner, Mine That Bird, came from behind just inches from the rail and took the race like he'd bought it at a fire sale.
  • Several contenders who seemed destined for the Derby were sidelined by injuries, including the favorite, I Want Revenge.
How does all of that impact on us as a country? Well, for starters, it takes guts to put oneself into competition that is steep and deep, and most would say it's not a place for beginners. Yet six trainers jumped out there and gave it a shot. Mine That Bird, at 50-1, didn't seem to have a chance in hell of even finishing with the pack, but his jockey, Calvin Borel, who also won the 2007 Derby, did what had to be done and just rammed home the notion that no one can be counted out if they've got the guts to try.

Finally, racing saw to its own. The breakdown of Barbaro brought up many questions about the stress of racing on the horses that make the sport. To see an odds-on favorite--the hands-down presumed winner of this glory run--pulled due to a relatively minor injury that turned relatively major after he'd been scratched was refreshing. Damaged but not broken, he'll go on to run again ... or not. He may join the ranks of stallions fathering future winners. Regardless, he'll go on to a long and happy life. His owners and trainer were commended by the track vet for their decision on behalf of the horse.

So the race goes on. Many in the US who know nothing about horses or racing are still captured and elevated by the striking series of events. The image of an upstart winning the rose blanket will be at the backs of their minds as they struggle to find a way to make a new path through this economic downturn. Just as there are signs in the banking industry and the retail sector that Americans are changing their ways, the 2009 Kentucky Derby will be a sign of hope for the country and for a struggling industry.

Mine That Bird, rock on!