Monday, January 31, 2011

When It Pays to Pay to Play (UPDATE)

Day Two and All is Well

My biggest concern with this latest attempt to rid my mare of her squamous cell nastiness was that there would be unexpected side-effects of the implanted cisplatin.  Having done my time with cisplatin IV and IP, I could readily imagine that Pokey would be somehow miserable and craving Mickey D's Fillay Oh Fish with Fryes and Choco Milk-type Shake (though I've been assure that that was the Dexamethasone talking and not the cisplat, which has better taste).  So far, however, aside from an unexpectedly kindly turn with the one-eyed Appy whose mere existence offends her, there have been no changes.  None.  Nada.  Could be the Bute, but I'm thinking it's more likely that any break from the crummy weather is welcome and likely to result in an attitude improvement toward those in her vicinity.

Here is Pokey's Nethers on Day Two:

The photo had to be enhanced because it was a very dark, dreary morning and the flash on my cell phone was insufficient to overcome the gloom.  She's not really purple.  Most  notable here is that the swelling from the blocks and incisions has reduced entirely.  Always a good thing.   There's no sign of infection, and Pokey didn't try to behead me for touching her tail.  Yay for that.  

This photo is even more enhanced as the closer I got, the darker that place under her tail became.  Sorry.

Next update will hopefully show some reduction in the visible lesion and the tumors below it. 
The main lesion is just below her anal orifice and visible here as a very dark, reddish-brown blotch.   The subcutaneous tumors are almost impossible to see in a photo.  Though they may reach inside, they appear on the surface only as a slightly raised area notable for it's lack of notability.                                            

Of course the greatest score of all would be a total disappearance of all the cancer.  That would add this case to the growing list of successful resolutions of a problem that used to be a death sentence for light-colored horses who tend to be prone to this sort of nastiness.  Fingers crossed.

Paying to Play

Missleading (aka: "Pokey") 
A short while ago, the Horse and Man blog (thanks, Dawn Diovera, for your excellent research!) ran an article about a mare with a squamous cell carcinoma on her vulva that was successfully treated with cisplatin beads implanted around the tumors.  My eyes couldn’t have gotten any bigger with toothpicks, I’m sure, as the photo of the tumor could just as easily have been of my darling mare, Pokey’s, nether region.  I saw the identical tumor, presenting identically externally, in the identical location.  Wah-hoo!  For those of you not following me (or my blog, you slackers), Pokey (aka:  Missleading), my OTTB x Paint mare and the mother of none other than the ignominious Zips Money Pit (aka: Zips Memory), developed a tumor back around 2005.  It was surgically removed, and the successful removal remained successful until 2009, when the nasty bugger returned in all its gory glory.  Pokey is currently 24 and holding.

On the second round, we (meaning me, my amazing vets, and the lucky lint ball in my pocket that I often consult on these things) decided to go full-bore and try laser surgery.   There is only one veterinary facility in NJ that owns a surgical laser, so Pokey and the SS and I were off to Freehold to the New Jersey Equine Clinic run by Dr. Scott Palmer and his excellent staff.  The 5-hour round-trip (don’t you just love that drivers absolutely must cut off a horse trailer on the highway?  Apparently, it's the law.) was interrupted by about an hour of actual prep, surgery, and recovery.

Dillon checking Pokey's breathing skills
One credit-card-melting trip to Rite Aid for a tube of 5-FU chemotherapy ointment and a box of gloves later, Poke and I settled into our twice-daily routine of debriding and ointment-ing until her whimpering got the better of me and I quit.  Part of the tumor was determined to be inoperable due to location, and there was no way of knowing whether or not the cancer had spread internally, though it appeared not.  I opted to let the chemo work, let the mare heal, and watch the situation unfurl over time.

Six months later, the tumor was back, so another two weeks of 5-FU, whimpering (hers), whining (mine), and twice-daily chases around the pasture ensued.  Again the tumor shrank, and this time I happened on a supplement by Figuerola Laboratories called 2-Mor Saver.  Figuring “WTF” applied nicely here, I bought beginner-level jar and gave it a two-week trial.  It didn’t kill her, and the tumor wasn’t any larger, so I sent for the mega jar.  Happily, the stuff worked enough to keep the superficial tumor (can’t see anything under the skin of course, but I’m hopeful about that area) from progressing while I waited for either Pokey to tell me she was done and needed to go to the big pasture in the sky, or for veterinary science to come up with something else.

Fortunately, something else came first.  My fingers couldn’t wait to send a message to my vet Christopher Fazio, VMD, to gauge his response to the idea of yet another attempt to salvage what’s left of my mare’s lady parts.  He took the idea under advisement, did his research, and came back with a big “sure, why not?” 

Now, I’m not a horse owner on the edge.  I can well afford to experiment and to keep horses that have little left other than their pleasant appearance as lawn ornaments.  And I can afford to play with lasers and $100 jars of herbs and cisplatin pearls.  To my way of thinking, maintenance is cheaper than repair, and anything I can do to further veterinary science by way of making my horses guinea pigs (which are, I hear, considerably cheaper to feed and easier to clean up after, so the change might be welcome) is okay in my book.  

On Thursday, January 06, 2011, Dr. Fazio peeked under Pokey’s tail, did a head count, and determined that four packages of 3 beads each would suffice to cover all the ground currently being made lumpy with tumors.  Today, January 31, the deed was done.  The most obvious lesion in the photos is the same now as it was almost two years ago, but the lumpiness under the skin is the area of greater concern.  This first photo was taken just after Dr. Fazio blocked the area, so some of the lumpiness and all of the drippy redness are related to that part of the procedure.  

Pokey's nether region pre-impant
A full view with Betadine, not blood
The implanting was fairly straightforward.  Due to the size of the tumors, Dr. Fazio opted to implant three beads into each of four locations surrounding them.  That’s a total of 12 beads.  The process involved small incisions, beads poked under the skin then manipulated into position, and a stitch to close the incision.  Five small punctures, a few days on Bute and SMZ’s, then wait to see what happens. 

To her credit, and at Dr. Fazio's request, Pokey did manage not to pee on the vet during the procedure.  Kudos on a job well done! 

The ultimate outcome is up for grabs.  There’s a 60% chance of the tumors reoccurring but this process can be repeated annually for an indefinite number of treatments, so even if the tumor return, Pokey’s quality of life can be maintained at “super-duper” until one of her other ailments or something unexpected simply drops her in her tracks.  Meanwhile, it’s all good for this lovely mare who is living out her post-partum days (“partum” was 14 years ago, so it’s been a loooooong recovery) on the sunny chunk of grass outside my window.   I’ll post a follow-up when there is something more to report.  I am pleased to say that the reports of other horses’ outcomes under the care of various vets including Dr. Mike Fugaro at Centenary College who used this treatment on a squamous cell carcinoma near a horse’s eye with great success, suggest that this may be the treatment to look at for your crusty old horse’s sarcoids and SCC’s until the Next Big Thing comes along.  

Wait for it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ride to Exercise, or Exercise to Ride?

Before I say anything at all, I'm including this video of Jean-Francois Pignon and his mustangs doing impossible things on a beach.  If you're wondering what my answer to the question is, this is a hint:

I won't touch on the amazing training that this man is capable of since I can't begin to fathom how he did this.  Just try to imagine hauling your saggy butt over your horse's head and onto its back.  Any questions?

I'm just resting up from a random act of exercise
Regardless of your chosen riding discipline or training method, one thing remains constant:  Horseback riding is an athletic event.  According to NutriStrategy’s “benefits of exercise” chart, simply sitting on a horse that’s walking around aimlessly burns 148 calories per hour off a 130 pound human.  That’s roughly equivalent to pushing a baby in a stroller.  Trot the horse, and you’re up to 384 calories.  Gallop, and  you’re burning 472 calories, the same as playing lacrosse or rock climbing.  Add more weight to the rider, and the exercise value increases accordingly.  According to Dr. Pamela Peeke (Body for Life for Women), the calorie count is even higher—5 calories per pound of body weight at the walk and more at higher speeds. All of that makes riding an exercise worth the effort and works as an effective strategy when you’re explaining to your family why the mortgage payment is busy chewing hay at a high-priced boarding establishment down the road.

At the same time, look closely at the comparison between riding at a gallop and playing lacrosse or rock climbing.  Odds are you would never consider doing either of those other sports without considerable advance conditioning.  You would probably begin hitting the treadmill on a regular basis if you knew you’d be running flat-out for an hour with a big stick in your hand or hauling your body weight up a climbing wall.  Even the most glib weekend warrior will admit that to skip the conditioning would be to sign on for pain and suffering and possibly long-term recovery from injury.  Unless your sport of choice is Traction, think carefully before you leap.

Every day random folks in no kind of condition hop aboard a horse without a second thought.  Is it any surprise that most falls off horses occur at the walk?  That’s the speed at which beginners ride, and it’s such an easy, comfortable feeling that often sudden movements by the horse are startling enough to send a rider tumbling. 

If that isn’t argument enough for getting in shape before you ride, consider the fact that more and more companies are producing exercise equipment and regimens created specifically for riders.  America’s riders are aging, and manufacturers certainly know a cash cow when they see one, even if the cow's wearing breeches and riding horseback. 

The simplest way to start getting into shape for riding is to walk (on your own, not on your horse).  Riding makes demands on your legs and your “core”—abdominal and lower back muscles—and walking will begin to strengthen those areas.  In addition, walking will build the aerobic stamina necessary for the posting trot, which can be a very difficult thing to master and requires that you be able to do knee-bends at a rapid pace for a prolonged period. 

If you are not interested in walking or don’t have a satisfactory location or have time constraints that prevent it, there are machines available that can help.  The treadmill is the most obvious.  Choose one with pre-programmed routines to keep you interested.  Or you may opt for either of the latest machines geared for core work:  the iJoy “iBoard”—an electronic mechanized snowboard—or the iGallop, which purports to move like a horse, has a saddle-inspired seat, and sports about double the price tag of the board (around $1000).  This is the iGallop.  I chose this video as the others had a certain....prurient quality to them.   But you'll get the idea.  

A much-cheaper balance board (check will do the same job, just be sure you're capable of balancing on your own because it's far less forgiving than the more-expensive alternatives. 

Once you are in some semblance of shape and have begun riding in earnest, you will discover other muscle groups screaming for attention.  This is when a gym membership to a place with Nautilus™ machines will be a gift worth begging for.  In order to build strength and endurance without bulking up, keep increasing the number of repetitions rather than the weight.  Focus on the ad/abductor muscles (inner and outer thighs), lower back, abs and shoulders. 

Of all the exercise programs available for riders right now, perhaps the most rewarding is the yoga type.  Yoga will lengthen and strengthen all your muscle groups with the added benefit of a huge improvement in your balance and your body awareness.  Being aware of all of your body parts is essential to giving appropriate signals (and avoiding giving unwanted ones) on horseback.  Yoga for Riders is an excellent place to start. 

In addition to these suggestions and resources, I would like to mention that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) offers the following advice to beginner riders:

  • Stay alert
  • Wear an approved helmet
  • Do not ride if you are tired, under the influence of alcohol, or medicated

They report that in 2004 alone, over 200,000 riding injuries were reported.  That includes only those that required medical treatment, not the hundreds of thousands more that are less traumatic such as pulled muscles, soreness, sprains, and general bumps and bruises, and the ones we won't admit to out of embarrassment.  Most insurance companies consider riding to be an extreme sport, and they’ve been lobbying for years to be absolved of the responsibility of paying for riding injuries.  That’s a good indication of the level of danger you are facing and how vital it is that you approach the sport as you would lacrosse, rock climbing, or any other athletic endeavor.

Ride to exercise, but exercise before you start so that you will have many happy miles in the saddle pain- and injury-free. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's a Rescue to Do?

A Mylestone Equine Rescue horse enjoying the day in Phillipsburg, NJ
The horse world is nuts.  We all know that.  If you’re part of it, you know you must be crazy to want to spend the better part of your earnings on a pet.  If you’re not, you look at those of us who are and wonder why they can’t find grown-up hobbies that don’t require risking life and limb and spending the better part of their earnings on a pet. 

The horse world is in trouble.  We all know that, too.  Look at it through the fringes of your pillow if you must, but the days of buying and selling horses as if they were a treasured commodity with an intrinsic and an extrinsic value are gone.  We live now in the Unwanted Horses part of the classifieds.  Horses are still beautiful, elegant, lovely creatures, and as Temple Grandin so astutely puts it, Animals Make Us Human (one of her best works, by the way, so go buy it and read it while your toes defrost).  It’s the better part of our nature that allows us to appreciate how closely animals are connected to each other and the world, and it’s that part that keeps us from sliding into the mayhem we so easily cause when we’re not paying attention.

Today’s news from The Horse is about as intriguing as any I’ve seen in the past year.  Granted, we’re talking about Nebraska, here, not the World at Large, but as goes the Midwest, so goes the Nation…eventually…so it bears noting that Nebraska wants their slaughterhouses back.  They have historically been home to a number of livestock slaughter facilities, and they're hoping to help those survive and help entrepreneurs to open ones that do horses only.

But they’re not stopping there.  You can read the full article here: Nebrasca Slaughter and Rescue Proposal.  To summarize, rural Nebraska, a hot spot for not-so-hot productivity and in need of an industry to rebuild, has on its State Senate docket a bill that would provide the basis for opening slaughterhouses for the processing of horse meat within the state.  But more intriguingly, Nebraska’s Senate is calling the rescues out.  

I’m sure a few people have stopped reading this post and are busy typing nastygrams to everyone they consider pro-slaughter or anti-rescue.  I’m hoping the rest of you will take a clear-eyed look at what Nebraska is seeing pretty clearly.  It’s one thing to be anti-slaughter and pro-rescue and quite another to agree to take in all of the unwanted horses when their owners stop wanting them.  If that isn't a jaw-dropping fiscal and physical nightmare for the charitable rescue organizations, then I can't imagine what might be.

That’s what the bill would require.  Any rescue contacted by an owner wishing to dispose of a horse would be forced by law, with a penalty for shirking of misdemeanor charges, to take every animal when it’s offered, period.  How’s that for a money-where-your-mouth-is clause?  I’ve been wondering how long it would take before someone tipped to the fact that saying and doing are two different things, and when it comes to living creatures the size of horses, that’s a big difference.  

Smarty Joe, a personal ReRun fave of mine
Which brings me to the second point.  

Last weekend I was fortunate to be invited to take part in a horse assessment at Blue Crest Farm in Long Valley, New Jersey, home of some of Rerun Thoroughbred Adoption’s New Jersey-based rescued horses.  It’s a lovely place, the horses were wonderful, and Dr. Christine Orman, Rerun’s Resource Development Director, and Wendy Voss, Volunteer Extraordinaire, were a joy to play with on a cold, sunny day.  [I stole the accompanying photos from their site since I didn't have the presence of mind to take any myself.] 

But it became clear very quickly that in order for ReRun to succeed in the overall and in any given project, they are going to need more than just financial help.  They need bodies.  They need experienced horse handlers willing to give some time—the current project could probably use three handlers each giving an hour three times a week—to make things run smoothly.  The benefit to the horses would be immense, and the benefit to ReRun doubly so as they strive to give the horses a job to do in an Equine Assisted Learning program.

Regent, another lovely boy happily living life 

The Facebook posts of support are wonderful, but if rescue is to survive the coming crisis, more people are going to have to step up and give time and energy.  Anyone can write a check.  Many of us less-technologically-challenged types can even Paypal a donation.  But it takes a special commitment to actually show up on a snowy day and teach a horse a job he can do for the rest of his life to his own benefit and that of a few needy humans.  

I’ve posted before about the many faces of rescue.  Buying and shipping horses around the country is only one face.  Maintaining them is another.  Voluteerism of many sorts is a third.  Can you put your face in this picture?  If so, please contact ReRun and offer your services.  Cowgirl up before the bell sounds and give this effort a fighting chance at success.

At risk of repeating myself (as if that never happens), if you can't volunteer at ReRun or some other local rescue of your choice, can you help out a neighbor in need?  Can you feed someone's horses for a few days so they can do what they need to do to keep body and soul together?  Can you spring for some hay for someone whose horses are obviously starving?  Can you do anything to help the situation?  Launching a Facebook or forum rant on Awful Owners and Thoughtless Horsemen doesn't count.

The time is upon us, the wall has been hit, and your help is vitally needed. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Miniature Horses: Not Just Another Pony

Look, Mom!  A baby neigh!
Can you hear the oohs and aahs?  That’s the sound of anyone, anywhere on first meeting with a miniature horse.  With truckloads of them appearing cheap or free on Craigslist and beyond, they are becoming quite the popular family addition.  It is virtually impossible not to be both attracted to and fascinated by what looks like a tiny version of a big horse.  Rest assured, the mini is anything but a small version of anything you’ve ever met. 

The first misconception we’ll set aside is that a mini is a pony.  There are many breeds of ponies, which are essentially small horses, ranging upward from the furry Shetland that most people picture when the word pony comes up.  Ponies range in size from pretty small to just under 14 hands high (that’s 56 inches at the shoulder).  Most ponies are quite large enough for a child to ride, and the larger pony breeds make excellent show horses as they are capable of jumping and doing pretty much anything else a child up to the age of, say, 40, might want a pony to do.  As long as one keeps the 20% rule in mind (an equine can safely carry roughly 20% of its own body weight in rider and equipment add-ons), ponies may be a good choice for many riders of any age.

The mini is a breed unto itself.  An offshoot of the Shetland pony (and registered under the auspices of the AMHA and AMHR arms of the Shetland Pony Association), miniature horses were arguably bred to haul ore carts out of mines.  Their small size, brave nature, and toughness were undoubtedly perfect for the task.  There is some discussion as to the validity of this explanation for their development, but as Shetland ponies were known to be used in that capacity, it would not be surprising to find that an even smaller breed was developed to make the hard life of a miner just a tad easier. 
Ready?  Of course I'm ready!  I'm always ready.

But the differences between miniature horses and the rest of the equine world don’t stop with their origin.  Miniature horses are very different in their attitudes and emotional makeup from the larger breeds.  Call it "Little Big Man" syndrome, if you like, but a pit bull has nothing on a mini.  As a result, owning and training a mini is something not to be undertaken lightly or without some preparation.

Size alone can be a huge issue when you bring a mini home.  Many boarding farms can’t accommodate a horse small enough to walk under most electric fences.  I found it necessary to re-tool a stall at considerable expense just so my new BFF could see out the door and eat without standing on his toes.  The mid-range for minis is 34 inches at the withers (that’s 8.2 hands, for you jargon-picky people).  They come much smaller and a little larger, and they are grouped into “A” (under 34 inches) and “B” (over 34 inches) classes.  Conformation is key.  A mini, unlike some small pony breeds, should have the same proportions as a full-sized horse without the shortened legs, huge belly, or out-sized head that is often the result of pony breeders’ attempts to reduce the size of their product.  A mini’s legs should be well-conformed and proportional in terms of length of bone, and his knees should not be huge and knobby, knocked, or in any other way out-of-true. 

A well-bred mini is easy to come by if you are willing to pay a good price and travel to a reputable breeding farm.  Sadly, because of their small size and willing nature, minis are a great target for bad backyard breeding.  If the full-grown horse, at roughly the size of a yearling black bear cub, is cute, then the babies are almost painfully so.  A mini foal is about the size of a spaniel, small enough to pick up and hug or bring into the house (not recommended, but not unheard-of).
The tall and short of it

Miniature horses, though, do not have the same personality as their larger cousins.  They are incredibly, almost preternaturally, bright overall.  Granted, there is a full range of IQ’s available in any animal species, including humans.  Witness the fact that you’re considering owning horses or already do while your neighbors are off on a cruise or shopping for a new car.  But in all my years of horse life—more than 50 at last count—I have never met a critter easier to train or more difficult to get a handle on than the mini. 

Clicker training a mini is a breeze, if he’s in the mood.  My personal mini had had little in the way of training other than basic breaking to drive and ground manners when I got him.  Within an hour I had him working with the clicker, and two days later he was responding to the canine commands I (not, sadly, my dog) learned in obedience school.  So intelligent was he that I ran out of things to teach him within a week.  So much fun is he to work with that I can hardly keep myself from running out to the barn just to hang out with him for a bit and discuss possible options for our next training experience. 

Their small stature belies a huge ego and even larger view of the world.  This makes them wonderful companions, and minis are currently being trained (and used successfully) by The Seeing Eye and other groups whose goal is to help handicapped humans toward independent living.  As attitudinal as my mini is (and that is considerable, as he was a stud when I bought him), bring a toddler near him and he will stand stock still while he’s groped, mauled, poked at and crawled on.    He is open to discussion on whatever you want him to do, though if it’s not fun or he finds the end result either boring or frightening, he’s not likely to offer much in the way of cooperation.  It’s amazing how heavy 200 pounds of dead weight at the end of a lead can be when all four hooves are firmly planted.  But offer a little give-and-take, a cookie or two, and demonstrate for him that the outcome will be to his benefit, and you won’t find a more dedicated learner. 
Duke's workmanlike attitude at work

Most minis are too small to be ridden, but the larger ones can (depending on temperament) make fine first ponies for very small children.  Duke is right-sized for my grandson, but his short-legged walk turned out to be too choppy for an unbalanced toddler, so that's a consideration as well.  Just be sure the one you’ve chosen was truly broke and trained for that purpose. Don’t just spring it on him.  Minis are even more averse to surprises than are larger horses.  Driving is truly their forte, and wonderful custom-built carts and tiny harnesses are both available and inexpensive enough to warrant experimenting.  More and more local shows in this area are including minis in their pony driving classes, which is testimony to how popular the breed is becoming. 

So, if you’re thinking of adding to your herd, or if you want an only pony to decorate your backyard, think small but think clearly. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kids and Horses: Saving Them From Each Other

Just a tad early to catch Horse Mania
There’s an old saying among horse people that green horses and green riders are a formula for disaster.  There is a great deal of truth to it, which is undoubtedly why those words have been handed down over generations.  It’s also true that kids and horses seem made for each other.  So how does a sane parent of a horsey kid ensure that the relationship will be a safe and fruitful one?

The first consideration must be the age, ability, and training level of the child in question.  Any child under the age of 7 will have a hard time handling any horse alone and unsupervised.  It’s a simple matter of physics.  If the horse’s chest is at the child’s eye level, the child can’t be expected to react to changes in the horse’s demeanor.  He simply won’t see those ears suddenly flick backwards at a threatening sound or the eyes roll in the horse’s head when the Garden Monster silently roars.  I’ve seen small children knocked flying by a horse’s knee when the horse was doing nothing more than stomping at a fly.  To boot, a child too small to reach the horse’s withers will easily be mowed down by the sheer top-heavy nature of a horse’s build when the horse feels the irrepressible urge to see what’s around the next corner. 

This doesn’t mean a 7 (or 8, or 10) year-old shouldn’t have a horse.  It means that a larger, preferably experienced, human should be in the immediate vicinity while the two are bonding over orange soda and mints.  It also means that the horse and child must be reasonably well-matched in temperament.  Many parents opt for ponies because of the obvious size benefit, but small stature does not guarantee a kind heart, so it's still important to have a knowledgeable horseman gauge the match.  And the down side to a pony is that an adult trainer may be too large to hop aboard for a quick reminder when manners begin to fail. 

A word here about matching a child with an HUO (horse of unknown origin), whether it be a rescued animal taken sight-unseen from an online personage or a horse at a dealer's barn that arrived (or so the dealer says) sans paperwork, simply dropped into the barn out of the blue.  Don't do it.  That's the word: "Don't."  Find one that you can research thoroughly, watch being ridden, and let your child handle prior to purchase to make sure the pairing will be fun, not fatal.  

While it’s often the case that a hyper-kinetic or emotionally-damaged horse can be managed nicely by a very laid-back adult, a shy child won’t be able to wrestle Old Fireball to a halt.  He won’t be able to, and probably won’t even want to, enter into the fray.  That's not the fabric of which great horse and rider pairs are made.  Add to the mix that children tend to be a little shrill at times, move quickly and in odd ways (or not at all), and make intriguing decisions like short-cutting under the horse’s belly when a brush is accidentally flung during grooming, and it’s easy to see that there are rules to be made and rigidly observed.

The best horse for a small child is one that has:

  1. Plenty of training
  2. Lots of face time with small children
  3. A calm and quiet attitude
  4. No health issues that a scrambling rider might invoke 
  5. All his faculties (sight, smell, hearing) intact
This last is important.  I have before me a very lovely, very old, arthritic, one-eyed Appaloosa gelding that many of my friends have seen on Facebook in a recent video.  He is as solid as a rock under many circumstances.  He shouldn’t be able to move quickly if he had to.  But sneak up on his blind side and make a sound like a carnivore (which category, apparently, includes most sudden vocalizations), and he’ll whirl around and probably deck you with his head as he tries to aim his remaining eye at the source of the commotion.  He’s also partially deaf, which means not only can he effectively ignore most commands and efforts to retrieve him from the pasture, but that he is quite startled when a soft-spoken human suddenly appears in his limited field of vision.  He wouldn’t purposely hurt a fly, but accidentally he’s a thousand pounds of confused juggernaut who’ll take down even an unprepared adult. 

It is generally assumed that young children and old horses are a good match, which eliminates the “green horse” part of the pairing.  But old horses, like old humans, are sometimes crotchety and single-minded.  So though there is some logic to looking at an older animal for a child, too old can be just as bad as too young.

Children who are difficult to handle simply shouldn’t be given horses.  If you can’t get Willy to stop poking the dog with a stick, you’re probably not going to fare any better when you lay down a set of rules for horse handling.  A horse is a much more dangerous critter than most house pets, so respect is of utmost importance. 

Children should be taught:

  1. not to stand directly in front of or behind the horse
  2. not to poke, throw things at, or otherwise irritate the horse
  3. not to climb under the horse for any reason
  4. to be calm, quiet, and patient with the horse
  5. to take responsibility for their own actions and not blame the horse when things get out of hand.

There is something about children that can bring out the best in horses and vice-versa, which is delightful and almost magical to watch.  If your child has learned the basics of riding and horse-handling at the knee of a decent trainer, and if that trainer agrees that the child is both capable and deserving of a horse of his own, and if a suitable horse can be found, your child—and you—will be in for a life-long experience in the wonder of inter-species bonding and communication.  But children of all ages—including that irascible seventeen-year-old sulking in your kitchen because you refused to let her pierce her navel—count on the adults in their worlds for guidance.  They fight it, but they rely on it.  Make good choices, and be prepared to enforce good rules, and you will open the door for your child on a world that many can only imagine.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Herd Introductions and Avoidance of Bloodshed

[I put in the title, then thought it pithy and ironic enough that I really should say a few words about online horse forums and networking sites, but I'll just let that slide on by and stick to the real horse stuff.   After all, with live horses there's often no option other than to intercede in our uniquely human way and keep them from badmouthing and injuring one another as they would if they accidentally crossed herds in the wild.  On the other hand, we humans have the ability to simply not go there when it comes to the online blood-lettings.   So, I will simply move on.]

Peace and Harmony...calm before the storm
It happens to all of us eventually.  Either you’ve got one or two horses already and decide that “just one more” will round out your ability to be injured on all sorts of levels, or you've taken pity on a homeless critter, or you’ve taken the leap and allowed yourself to bring in a boarder to help offset costs and increase your contact with humans.  Whatever the reason, a new horse is on its way to your barn, and you’re excited and looking forward to the arrival.

Be aware that your existing horses may not share you enthusiasm.  Even a solo equine whose best buddy recently passed on or left for greener pastures won’t necessarily be in the market for a replacement.  Horses are by nature suspicious and creatures of habit.  They are herd animals who guard their turf with all the tenacity of a bulldog.  They have opinions and sensibilities and will share them with you at the expense of your sanity and the health and well-being of other horses...and other livestock as well.  I recall hearing about a horse that killed the pygmy goat sent to be his new BFF without consultation.  Wonderful, big, handsome, hairy, dangerous critters always have the last word. 

The introduction process, then, must be approached cautiously.  You will probably have a friend who will announce that all your careful preparation is pure rubbish and a waste of time, that they’ve just thrown the new horse to the herd and let them sort things out without interference, and nothing bad has ever happened.  You need different friends. Sure, it’s possible that an aged gelding with arthritis and a laconic outlook might barely notice that another pensioner has appeared to share his paddock and your attention.  That, however, is the exception to the rule that a new horse will immediately be forced to locate and secure his place in the pecking order.  Sometimes the process goes remarkably smoothly, but other times there will be bloodshed even to the point of fatal injury.

Case in point:  A thoroughbred mare arrives at a farm and is immediately put in a paddock with two other mares of similar temperament.  All is well for a day or two, the mares grazing peacefully side-by-side, humming “Kumbaya”.  On the third morning, however, the barn owner is shocked to discover the newcomer covered in blood.  One side is scratched from contact with the fence, and her hind leg has been flayed open, exposing the tendon, the joint, and other internal bits that should never be external.  Months of rehab and thousands of dollars in vet bills ensue.

Case in point:  A young miniature horse stallion (see photo) is carefully introduced into a small, stable herd.  All is well for months.  Then spring rolls around, the sole mare in the herd goes into heat, and chaos reigns.  In a single day, the mini has made multiple attempts to emasculate all of the geldings, and is doing a decent job of it before he’s removed and the intro process started over again with gelding as an added first step.

Case in point:  A pony, recently sequestered post-gelding, is put back  into a herd that has changed while he was laid up.  He seems not to notice the new horses for a week or so.  Then one morning an owner notices that her gelding is in the mares’ pen.  He was apparently thrown there by the pony.  Despite this warning, the barn owner persists in putting the horses out together.  Serious injury results as the gelding is repeatedly driven through fences and gates by the pony.  The gelding’s jumper career is ended by a fractured shoulder.

These are not theoretical cases.  They’re mine. 

So, what’s a barn owner to do?  **

  1. Quarantine new horses in the barn for a couple of days.  Allow the existing horses to walk past them, sniff them, commune over the stall door, all under supervision.  You’ll know immediately if there are personality conflicts.  Witchy-mare teeth-baring may be just for show.  Or it may not. 

  1. Once the social quarantine period is over (this is by no means a satisfactory health quarantine, by the way--we are assuming all animals are healthy and up-to-date on vaccines and worming), turn the new horse out in an adjoining paddock so he can nose over the fence with but not attack or be attacked by the existing herd.  This, too, should be supervised carefully.  Electric fence is good in this situation as the horses are not as likely to play hard and break boards.

  1. Choose the existing horse who is least aggressive, and introduce him personally to the new horse.  Two handlers, haltered horses, sturdy lead lines, and lots of room are required.  Don’t let go of the horses until you’re sure neither has entered “The Zone”.  The new guy could turn out to be the aggressor.

  1. Continue this process, moving up the aggression scale.  If you get all the way to Hellraiser without bloodshed, you may have it made.  If not, move back down to the highest-level horse who showed signs of friendly feelings toward the new guy.

  1. Turn the new horse out with one other horse, then add more horses as you assure yourself that everyone is doing fine. 

Eventually, with luck, the herd will be a functioning unit again, with the new horse an integral part.  But avoid making the mistake of assuming that just because all is well today, all will still be well in six months.  Herd dynamics are fluid.  A subservient newcomer will have a hard time getting close to the hay pile, drinking unmolested from the trough, and getting through the gate at feeding time.  This is not all bad, but a wise barn owner will keep a close watch on all the horses to make sure no one is being starved out or approaching dehydration. 

Don’t assume that the new horse will be at the bottom of the pecking order.  Introducing a dominant mare or gelding into an existing herd is even more difficult than bringing in a wimp.  I’ve seen two mares break each other’s legs over rights to a favored gelding, and they liked each other! 

Finally, be prepared for a horse who simply can never be turned out with the herd.  If that’s not in your game plan, then you need to rethink your decision to bring in  more horses.  Ponies in the paddock are lovely.  Bleeding ponies in the trailer are not.  

**One take-away caveat  for those owners, novices in particular, who are caught up in rescue mania:  If you are boarded out, don't just tell the barn owner that you're bringing in a new horse and expect that s/he will have adequate facilities to deal with the resulting chaos of a horse coming from an auction or a kill pen.  If your boarding barn is not currently home to a number of rescued horses, the owner may be totally clueless about the added problems of emotional instability (yours or the horse's) and may be unable to handle them.  Prepare to change barns on a moment's notice, or start at the right place from the get-go.  You have the right to request accommodations for your horse's unique situation (and the right to pay dearly for them).  You do not have the right to demand them.  You always have the right to leave.