Sunday, April 18, 2010

Calming the Willies and Derby Day Cometh!

Funny noises!  Do we get something if we don't run away?
With spring comes the overwhelming desire to get outdoors and do stuff.  We horse people tend to focus our "stuff" around the horses, so this is a good time to address what happens when horses have stood around all winter (or longer) idling away in their familiar setting.

In a nutshell, they get comfortable.  The horse that last fall was as bold as brass after a season of hauling hither and thither may be a little less so.  Not all horses lose their nerve over time, but enough do to make this a chronic spring issue

So where to begin?  Here the herd is considering their fight-or-flight-or-sniff options in the face of Cliff's beeping metal detector.  Note how close Zip is to the offender.  Note how not-so-close his mom, Pokey, is standing.  Note how far away big, brave mounted-orienteering horse Dakota is standing.  Someone needs a refresher course, and ironically, it's me.

Desensitizing is a tough job.  Key, of course, is patience.  Equally important is an unbiased analysis to figure out what category of bugaboo each animal is most sensitive to.  Zip, who appears here to be the bravest horse in the bunch, is terrified of anything moving in the woods.  Rolling exercise balls at his legs and putting a mattress under his feet would be a waste of time and energy because unlabeled sounds are his bogey.  Pokey isn't afraid of much, but anything new takes a few tries for acclimation.  Her Big Bad Thing is losing herd mates from sight, even briefly.  There is much to be said for a mobile herd, but that's not my situation, so we cope, and we just understand when Pokey is very vocal when the boys leave on a trail ride.  A little worry won't hurt her, and after 23 years, she should pretty much know they're coming back eventually.  Habit is something much harder to overcome than true fear.

Come near me with that thing again...I dare you

Dakota, who should be immune to most things after his years of orienteering, can't handle anything new.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Move something on the trail, and he'll take days to work up to looking at it, let alone sniffing it.  Meanwhile his rider will receive ample core-strength training, so it's a strange kind of win-win by the time Dakota settles.

So the work begins with identifying the problem and coming up with creative ways of letting the animals experience what scares them without scaring them.  But above all else, the re-trainer (me) has to keep in mind always (ALWAYS!), that horses, like all of the non-primates, are incapable of lying.  If Dakota's body language appears to scream, "Stop that!", he's reflecting his deep-seated belief that he's in immediate danger of at very least a shot from the vet.  His exposure to beeping things is pretty limited. 

Ducks in a row lining up in order of fearlessness
There are lots of books available on bomb-proofing horses, including the one called Bomb-Proofing Your Horse.  They all have one concept in common:  Exposure.  The more craziness you can put in your horses world, the less likely he is to be overwhelmed by the next new thing.  You can't possibly cover all the bases.  You can't imagine on your worst day what is going to pop out of the woodwork to take your horse by surprise.  But you can make him less sensitive overall by not keeping him bubble-wrapped.  Got cows nearby?  Lead him by them until his hysteria disappears.  Got loud motors and strange flapping tarps?  Don't get yourself in an uproar tying things down and muffling the scary noises.  Let him stand where he can see, smell, hear, and, yes, taste the offending bogies to his heart's content.  You might want to stay off him during this experiential overload period, but you'll both be stronger for it afterward. 

Derby Day, May 1st! 

Whether or not you're a race fan, there's something special about the Kentucky Derby.  As I recently explained to a non-horse person, it's the Superbowl with flowered hats.  This year's field will probably be narrowed from the 20 horses that were on the roster the last time I checked, but the magnetism of the equine athletes no matter how many are running is undeniable.  

Yes, there are problems in the race world, and we're all aware of them.  But we also have to accept that without racing, the horse business would be dead where it stands.  Changes for the better are being made.  Know that and be happy.  Meanwhile, get that the infusion of cash into the business that is derived from racing is vital.  Strong breeding practices are vital.  Efforts to re-home retired race horses are vital.  
Most vital of all that follows in racing's hoofprints are the veterinary medical advances that are directly dependent on the fact that race horses are valuable and their owners and trainers are forever in search of better options, more research, better medications, new training concepts, and all the other goodies that eventually filter down to our hairy backyard buddies.  Like the technology we so blithely accept as our trickle-down due from the military, these improvements are of utmost importance.  You and your solitary trail horse are not going to fund the next great advance in horse care practices, so be careful who you bad-mouth and be supportive of the money-maker in our midst.

Coverage of the race will begin in the early morning hours on ESPN, so you have all day to get your fill of pretty horses and videos of their workouts and the people who work with them.  Direct race coverage begins at 4 on NBC.  Put on your flowered hat and sundress (okay, can wear you cowboy hat if you  promise not to yell "Yee-HAH!"), and join the fun of the 136th Run for the Roses!   

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