Monday, January 28, 2013

The Mom Supremacy

"I just knew he'd love riding!"

This month's new issues of my horse mags arrived yesterday, and in one of them was a contributed essay from a reader.  The subject:  Targeted Advertising

More to the point, the reader suggested that it suits no purpose to continually target would-be horse kids in articles, clubs, promotions and the like, because they don't have the wherewithal on their own to move forward into this income drain that is the Horse Biz.  She suggested, quite accurately, that it would make more sense to get former horsewomen-turned-moms to target their own kids.  In other words, there would be more little horse peeps if the horsey parent would step up her game.

As I read, my mind drifted back to my daughter's early exposure to horses.  "Exposure" is pretty accurate.  I was a horse kid in my teens and had to give up the sport for the most part after high school graduation when there were no handy parental units willing to foot the bill.  In fact, they specified that there would be no horsing around in my immediate future, so I'd best get on track and crack the books.  The best way to reenter the horse world would be behind my own bootstraps.  

So for several years I was in a riding drought.  I broke said drought by taking an unpaid position "tuning up" some guy's flighty Arab which was in line to go to the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show.  Mostly I got tuned, in the best Mafia interpretation of that term.  Battered and bruised, I begged Dad for the pony he'd never given me, and at 36 I was horsed once more.  

Along the line, I gave birth to a girl child.  I highly recommend that all horse women try to have daughters.  Sons may or may not find horsing meaningful, but it's a rare girly who doesn't.  Just sayin'.  If we have the power to reject rape babies, then we must have the ability to ensure future horse girls, right?  

But, I digress.

When I was back in the saddle during the Arab Fling episode, she was forced (she was three, hence still forcible) to sit by the side of the riding ring while I got tossed around, and she apparently got a kick out of watching her mother cry because riding became number one on her bucket list.

When Dad ponied up the $850 for my first horse, it didn't take long for the mare of questionable conformation and attitude to become a shared object of my daughter's and my affection (and terror...don't forget the terror part), and a horse kid was born.  Naturally that seed horse grew several additional hay burners along the way until we had six boarded out and my school was sending my paychecks straight to the boarding farm.  And so Gallant Hope Farm was also born.

In other words, Jess (whose firstborn is the budding cowboy in the photo above) had no choice.  For most of the time, I was a single mom and she was a convenient add-on at whatever barn was housing our critters.  She was very athletic, so she did a fine rendition of Sacrificial Daughter when new horses came in and someone had to try them  out.  Ten-year-olds bounce.  Over-30's, not so much.  In turn, I found myself back in the show ring because it was only fair that I put myself out there when she decided to go all competitive on me.  On my own, I wouldn't have ever gone there again.
Repeat after me:  "I cannot afford this level of cuteness!"
DUKE:  "Mom!  Look what followed me home!  Can I keep it?"

So all-in-all, the reader who sent in the essay was on the right track.  But she left out an important point.  Not only is it more effective to ask former horsemen to mentor their own children into the sport, but it's also more polite to triangulate in the folks with the checkbooks.  After all, whining and crying and threatening are fine, but they don't pay the bills.  They also don't drive the car or truck, give up their weekends for all of eternity, or deal with issues that only horse fetishes can create.

Now, not to be a buzz-kill, but there's also the abuse and neglect aspect, and I don't mean how badly horse kids abuse and neglect their beleaguered parents.  A non-horse adult taking on a child's horse life without some serious training and guidance along the way is to be pitied.  The outcome is rarely good, and it frequently involves horses that are abandoned, neglected, or simply not really managed well, not through evil intent, but through ignorance.

So yeah, let's hope adults who were horse kids themselves might consider revisiting the fun of riding for their own sakes, and that they'll let their children witness the experience.  If a little mentoring happens, then that's just great.  Let's not assume that it was fun for all of them, that they have any desire to revisit the sport, or that they can afford to do so.  And let's not make them feel bad if they don't.  They've got enough guilt what with all the holding-my-breath-till-I-turn-blue and whatnot.  We needn't add more public embarrassment and ridicule than their own kids will inflict without our help.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mid-winter Yuck


Duke and I are on the same page.  I know not everyone who reads this has winter like we have winter in New Jersey, but for those who do, hasn't this been a let-down?  I mean, there's snow, but not enough for snowmobiles and barely enough for cross-country skiing in the pasture.  Zip misses being able to stand on the back of my ski and send me flying.  There's ice enough for Leo to tiptoe in for breakfast, but not enough to skate on.  I'm fully recovered from the knee injury incurred while skating over clumps in the hay field.  It's still a little pretty, but the meltage is revealing manure that's still frozen and impossible to move but hasn't lost a bit of its odor.


I have used the down time as a learning opportunity.  I've learned that I'm in no way focused enough to complete more than Lesson One in my home course in Mandarin.  I've learned that all the horses are more than happy to learn tricks in the barn aisle as a means to avoiding going outside.  I've learned that these are the absolutely best winter barn gloves:


They're from Under Armor, designed for winter jogging, but they are the warmest, thinnest, and most flexible winter gloves I've ever found for barn work.  They're polar fleece on the back with rubberized UA logos all over the palm side.  Not waterproof, but they're thin enough to dry quickly.  The down side is that the fleece attracts hay like a magnet, so I bought a second pair for venturing into polite society (like the feed store).  The up side is that I don't have to take them off to fish the little scoop out of the supplement jar, so my fingers don't get cold. And I can ride with them on, should I lose my mind and decide to do so.  And that flash in the photo is the reflective strip that will be very helpful when I fall out of the loft into the snow drift behind the barn.  If I can get one hand up, at least I won't get run over by Cliff on the tractor because the headlight reflection will give me away.

I've also learned that I need to stop buying books.  There was a moment when I gleefully thought that this would be fine weather for catching up on my reading.  I had no idea I'd amassed such a stack of literature...and that's only the hard-copy stuff!  My Kindles overfloweth.  Three of them.  And magazines!  Why do they keep making them cheaper so I can't resist their glossy covers and tantalizing articles?

I've learned that the recycling center takes white paper.  Who knew?  I've been shredding it and using it for packing material for years.  Now I have a whole new obsession, sorting out papers with identifying information (like my Social Security number or bank accounts), shredding those and recycling the rest.  OCD's Christmas dream-come-true!

I discovered that the chickens were apparently waiting for the grand dame with the butt tumor to meet her demise so they could resume laying, and that they are more prolific during the winter than during the summer, which is totally counterintuitive.  I find that there's less on TV of value than I thought when I was too busy riding to care.  And I can injure myself quite successfully without putting foot to stirrup.  Not riding and not gardening and jumping on the dreadmill in frustration is not good for muscle tone, and my back brace will attest to that.  

I now know that I'm not safe with a cup of tea and a squishy couch.  I'm hoping the second-degree burns on my thigh and elbow will heal before water aerobics starts again in March as the thought of chlorine on those tender red patches brings a chill to my heart.

But the biggest lesson winter teaches every year and I forget just as regularly is that it's not nearly long enough!  The list of things I'll do "this winter, when the weather's too crappy to ride" is far longer than any single winter could ever accommodate.  Come spring, I'll still have closets that haven't been cleaned, stories that haven't been written, a belly that hasn't been flattened, and friends I haven't visited..again.  Winter used to be longer, I swear.  When I was a kid, it lasted for half the year, didn't it?  Back then, I got a good start on all those resolutions before the sun lured me back outside and wiped my memory clean.  Now I can only blame climate change (and maybe age and a tendency to procrastinate) for the dearth of goals reached.  That's my story, and if I can remember it, I'm sticking to it.

To those of you Faithful Readers who live in climates where winter brings a different set of issues,  I wish you well.  My fellow sufferers, remember it could always be worse...and it will be as soon as the January thaw is done turning everything to mush.  Think happy!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Step Away From the Pony!

Do we sense a bit of stubbornness in those ears?
[photo courtesy of Joe Fisher, who blessedly still thinks I know something about horses]

I've been at this horse stuff for just about 52 years.  That would suggest that I have experience.  My experience would suggest that I can avoid the common pitfalls of Horse Mastery.  That suggestion would be total nonsense.  Trust me on that.

Every now and then someone says to me, "Gee!  You know so much about horses!"  It's usually someone who knows nothing at all about them.  Someone who wandered in off the street, for instance, thinking Duke, who often lives in the paddock closest to the road and is a wonderful lure, is an especially large dog.  Someone wearing a tin foil hat.  Not one to discourage an interest in horses (and always one to discourage newbies from actually buying one), I happily show off my considerable (ahem!) skills, rattle off long, incomprehensible, jargon-rich answers to simple questions, and do it all while glancing knowingly from under the brim of my fave cowboy hat.  I am so cool, I can chill wine by just looking at it.

So one must wonder what went wrong this morning that had me sighing in relief that the batteries in the intercom from the barn to the house are dead because the heat of my verbal barrage would have peeled the new paint off the office walls.

What went wrong was that I forgot Rule Number 1:  Never give in to anger and frustration no matter how likely it is that your twitching eye will pop out of your head if that damned animal doesn't knock off his silliness this minute!  I would love to give some touchingly emotive reason for my behavior, but there isn't one.  There's me, my short fuse, and a mini who keeps a lighter stashed under his forelock for special occasions.

Duke and the  Gate of Hell
Long story short, Duke harbors a deep-seated grudge against his stall dating back to the time I changed out the stall guard for a gate on the same day the Township graced our skies with fireworks right outside his window.  It was for his own good, as was the new water bucket (horrors!), but he was having none of it, and it took two weeks of clicker work to get him back inside.  That was years ago, but minis never forget.

So when my lovely barn brat, Breanna, texted me last night that Duke had mysteriously developed a cut above his eye while eating dinner, I knew immediately that the cut was the tip of the iceberg.  For once, I was right.  This morning I found Duke standing like the gentleman he is at the back of his stall, having managed to eat his evening handful of grain, but having left his hay and water completely untouched all night.  Not just untouched, but pristine.  Not even a hoofprint nearby.

[Insert big sigh]

Naturally, good horse owner that I try to be, this required a complete check of his vitals with an eye toward a possible speed-dial-the-vet chaser.  I'm pretty good at catching him in his stall [choke!], so I got the halter on, took his temp (he loves having his temp taken and his sheath cleaned...little perv that he is), listened to all his various sounds, assessed the size and quality of the manure piles, and, reassured that all seemed well, made the first critical error.  I led him outside to longe in the ring for a few minutes to check for lameness, pain, pissy-assed attitude, and other technical veterinary-type stuff.

Then I took him back to his stall.

For the next twenty minutes he and I engaged in a tug-o-war, his four hooves and 300 pounds firmly planted in the aisle against my two muck-booted feet and 130 pounds planted firmly in his stall.  That's when the language issue arose and both brains disengaged.  I even resorted to grabbing the driving whip to urge him from behind while I pulled from in front, but anyone with sense knows what happens when a frightened horse (and he truly was terrified by my loss of brain function and the volume I achieved therewith) and a whip meet.  If you look, I'll bet you'll find dents in the rubber matting where his little hooves simply sank in and found permanent purchase.

At that point I realized I still had the chickens to feed and water and the trash needed to go out to the street...and I hadn't had breakfast yet!  So, against my will to win this battle, I put him in his outdoor pen where he immediately chowed down on the hay there, drank the water, and heaved a visible sigh of relief (between squeals aimed at getting the herd to join his team) as I stomped away.

I texted Breanna to let her know night feeding was likely to require a full-frontal team effort, and I ate my oatmeal.

To my credit, it didn't take but a few minutes of down time to realize I was the problem in this scenario.  Full of warm oats and calm again, I went back out, fussed over the little guy, cooing earnestly over what a good little fellow he truly is, took him back to the barn, and in ten minutes, using his uneaten breakfast as a lure, had him happily in his stall, groomed and ready for the day back in the same pen but minus the drama.

The moral?  We all scew up now and then.  The cure is to take a beat, back away, gain a little perspective, then try again with an open mind and a kind heart.  And don't bother beating yourself up over your lapse, because you're going to have another....

and another...

until you finally age out of the horse stuff and into full-time oatmeal consumption.

Happy Horse Day!

Monday, January 14, 2013

That Biophilia Thing

One big happy family, we and our fellow travelers on this moving rock!

Nope, I'm not talking about singer Bj√∂rk’s music, nor am I referring to the display at the Children's Museum of Manhattan currently running with that Icelandic star's partnership.  I'm going all the way back to the beginning:  1984 (spooky, huh?) and Edward O. Wilson's publication of The Biophilia Hypothesis.  The hypothesis stated that humans are drawn to other life forms.  In his own words, we have "an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes."  That explains a lot, don't you think?

More recently--2009--a study by Grite and Grindal (Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?) attempted to and at least partially succeeded in determining whether contact with Nature was a boon to human  health.  They did manage to determine that a lack of visual contact with nature, as in inner-city living with all its mechanical and brick-and-mortar specialties, led to declining health.  To wit:

The hypothesis that humans have an inherent inclination to affiliate with Nature has been referred to as biophilia [1,2]. Biophilia implies affection for plants and other living things. Cities and indoor environments are dominated by manmade objects; the question is whether the concomitant depletion of natural elements has a negative impact on the human mind.

The research is a study of documentation, not research in the sense that we in college were subjected to such fun activities as sensory deprivation chambers in order to muster enough participation time to earn our Psych degrees.  No humans were harmed in the making of this paper.

So, the hypothesis, proven by abstraction from multiple academic sources, is that we're better off when we are at least visually in touch with Nature.  And I can't help but wonder why that was ever in doubt.  We wouldn't spend so much time posting photos of kittens and flowers if we didn't feel the tug.  The bigger question, in my mind, is whether or not Nature is better off when we're in contact.
Which came first, the chicken, the egg, or the geneticist?

The horse world is full of examples of Good Plans Gone Bad.  Our desire to be One with Nature has led to our desire to manipulate Nature, not just to cajole her into giving us her best.  We want to meddle, tinker, and do all of it with the stipulation that the Save Harmless clause is carved in stone.  We don't like to take responsibility for all that human-centric fun.

It's not just the horse world that's culpable in this messing around with Mother Nature faux pas.  But this is, after all, a horse blog, so that's where I'm going with this.  One thing about horse people, we will never make the grade as the "non-participant observers" anthropologist Margaret Mead so often warned us to be. She learned from her fateful intervention with the Trobriand Islanders that the minute you stir the alien pot with even one little finger and the best of intentions, the unintended consequences jump up to bite you in the ass.

Here we are, some 85 years post-Mead, 28 years past Harvard entymologist Wilson's Hypothesis, and we're doing a fine job of doing a terrible job of our fascination with how other living things work.  We've entered a new phase, which is good.

The fascination with growing our own food is part and parcel of the affinity for living organisms.  It doesn't have to walk to be alive, you know.  That the likes of Monsanto have taken tinkering with food genetics to a rotten new level is obvious and annoying, but it's the natural outcome of our desire to make things "better".  And we have on occasion waved a daisy at the idea of "natural" means of communication with various animal species, horses in particular.  But overlying it all is our inherent Human Superiority that seems to give us privileges that other species have yet to earn.  Like, never in history has a horse taken a herd of humans and moved them into the open plains and tried to teach them to live the horse life, but we do the reverse to them all the time then dedicate ourselves to changing their behavior to make it fit.  It's all about opposable thumbs and the invention of the internet.

Just look at my horses in their (relatively) small pasture, which is beggared by the size of the plains they were built to roam.  Look at their plaid and hot pink and carefully tailored blankets.  How chic!  Watch them march into their stalls for breakfast and dinner and dutifully perform their tricks for the cookies in my pocket.  Wow.  And not one of them has escaped the genetic manipulation that comes of keeping breeds "true" or crossing for specific qualities without considering what other qualities that we don't want are coming along for the ride.  Everything in my barn is "registered", so everything has met human tests of special-ness.

And this probably accounts for Zip's orthopedic issues, Pokey's squamous cell carcinoma, Dakota's inability to bend his short spine in any meaningful way, and Duke's attitude that far outsizes his actual 34.5-inch stature.  With the good comes the bad.  We've done wonders to overcome disease in many lifeforms, including our own, and in that area our tinkering is something to be proud of.  But we already know there's going to be a downside because there always is.  It's coming.  Wait for it.

"Do no harm" would be a suitable mantra at this juncture, but are we capable of that?  I'm not so sure.


Monday, January 07, 2013

Benevolent Despots

If you were to walk out to my pasture where the herd is happily munching on forage (and trees, and blankets, and tennis balls, and what-have-you), you would be hard-pressed to pick out the herd leader.  As you approached the fence, Zip would approach you, hoping for admiration at the least and cookies at best.  The other horses would automatically open a pathway for him, no one brave enough to make eye contact or ask questions.  In a few seconds, his mom, Pokey, would follow, stealing with girlish coyness into a spot close enough to allow you to rub her head while she gave you the big-brown-eyes stare that wills cookies into her mouth almost without fail.  You might think one of them was the dominant horse in the herd or the herd leader.  You'd be right by half.

Zip is the dominant male in my herd.  He's the biggest and the silliest and the most reckless, and that seems to have earned him the position.  That, and the fact that the next older horse is old enough to totally get that food is always coming regardless of folderoll, so all the fuss of driving the herd around the pasture is a pointless waste of energy.

Pokey can be domineering, but she's not dominant.  She hides behind Zip's protective shield and pretty much minds her own business.  She's got a permanent grudge against the one-eyed horse for no reason except that they had a brief fling some 14 years ago, and she never quite recovered from the break-up despite it having been her choice.

The herd leader is almost invisible from the ground.  And she has a disarming smile that lures one into thinking that she's just the most innocent of bystanders.
"Let me check with my manager...I know I can get you a better deal..."

Who could distrust that face?  I've bought cars from folks with creepier smiles.

Yes, Dolly, the widow of the former herd leader, is the incumbent now.  Friends of Gallant Hope Farm remember her from the early days when she and her partner, Grady, ruled the roost for some seven years.  Then she moved on to greener pastures, and returned only this spring for permanent retirement as my play-time favorite mount.  

The dynamic involved in her take-over was fascinating.  There was the sucking up to important herd members, the raising of campaign capital in the form of access to the water troughs, the power-brokering, and, finally, the election-with-a-hint-of-coup.  None of this was apparent from ground level.  The horses, like small children, have a talent for freezing in mid-craziness to turn and give the observer a "What?" stare.  But stand in my living room and watch unseen through the window, and it's a whole different experience.  Dolly has a personal space that is very precise and well-maintained, and should anyone come a foot too close, she can back up, flash a glance over her shoulder, and, in less than a heartbeat, clear that extra foot.  No one balks.  No one questions.  She accomplishes with the tilt of a perky ear what I can't manage with hysteria and dire threats.  Leo asked for a tape measure for Christmas since he seems to be most likely to inadvertently cross the Dolly-no Line.

Miss Innocence having some down time

But she truly is benevolent.  I can watch her use those flashing hindquarters to back the one-eyed horse away from the bale feeder, and an instant later she will maneuver him into a different position where he can graze unmolested by his arch nemesis, Pokey (who is anything but benevolent).  And every  hour or so, the Queen takes a break, walks a few dozen feet farther up-field, and rolls or relaxes while her loyal subjects have a free-for-all around the hay, Zip flexing his dominance in chest-bumps and high-fives with the Boyz and totally incapable of real leadership.  Without her to guide them, they can't seem to figure out where to be.  I don't know how they didn't starve during the eight years of her absence.

As I'm writing this, Dolly is on emergency duty.  There's a roofer doing repairs a half-mile away on a storm-damaged house.  I can barely see him on the peak of the roof, but Dolly is all eyes and ears, and she's been standing stock-still staring at him for the past two hours.  Every couple of hours she takes a break and the herd parts so she can get at the hay, then she is back on post.  That's our Leader!  No Roof Guy is going to threaten the sanctity of her herd.  If she had nukes, she'd use 'em.

Watching all of this, I can't help but think that horses really are not so different from us.  My hindquarters space-clearing maneuver may not be as stylish as Dolly's, but it never fails to get me that extra wiggle room in the check-out line at the supermarket.  And left to our own devices (media and outright fraud notwithstanding), small human groups will always choose the member with the most positive-column "idiosyncrasy credits" to lead them.  There will always be two leaders:  the instrumental leader (who does the actual work of leading) and the expressive leader (the PR guy in the public eye).  There would always be a benevolent leader who has traditionally made the largest percentage of good decisions for the benefit of the herd because campaign financing would be limited to hamburgers, soft drinks, french fries, and spaces at the bale feeder.  

That's Democracy in action.  I can't help but wish it were ours.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2012 Investigation of the Year

ABC News Investigations of the Year: Fighting Cruelty to Horses - ABC News

If sanity is ever to impact the horse world, this has to be the starting point.  Kudos to ABC News for their investigation into the cruelty involved in horse training.  And if ever there was a statement that sums up what's wrong with the horse world, it's this one:

       "All too often, you have to cheat to win in this sport,' said Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the United States.

That comment, from the article linked above, says it all.  The things we do to horses in the name of competition are simply atrocious.  Yes, there's a case to be made for the role of competitiveness in the industry as it stands today.  After all, were it not for the gold flashing in their eyes, elite horsemen would be hard-pressed to justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their sport.  Horse breeders would lose the incentive to breed the animals that can perform at those levels.  Horse kids would have limited role models after whom to pattern their horse lives.  

In my opinion, all of that is like saying that we need to keep building overly-large, energy-inefficient homes because people want them, and people want them because we build them.  If we stop building, buyers can't buy and builders will starve.  It's a case of who will have the nerve to let go the tiger's tail and risk being eaten.  If we don't grab the tail in the first place, then there's no danger.

I'm not completely anti-competition.  I spent my share of time in the show ring, and my daughter still enjoys the thrill of seeing what her horse can do in comparison to other, equally talented animals.  I'm anti the number of people who want to make a high-dollar living at it and what that has created in the areas of evil-doing and chicanery.  I feel the same way about all pro sports, so don't bother lambasting me with "how could you?" comments.  I'm immune.  

     All too often  you have to cheat to win in this sport.  

I learned years ago that even at the lowest levels, cheating is endemic to horse sports.  Drugs, of course, are the biggest players in that game, but stacking the deck with judges who always pin certain types of horses, with training methods that are good for a quick rise to the top without concern for the long term, and with rule changes that make it impossible for honesty to reign are all equally insidious.  We contribute to the demise of honest horsemanship even as we cry about its death.  It starts with the trainer (mine at a very young age) who explains how to get a quick smack with the crop in without the judge seeing it.  It ends with a pipeline of used-up horses looking for a place to end their days.

More investigative reporting into our sport will surely follow this "best of 2012", and rightly so.  It may take many such videos and more guts when it comes to penalizing the perpetrators of unconscionable fraud, but it's coming.  One can only hope that bringing this to light will work in the intended way, to cause those on the fringe who are currently testing the waters of that slippery slope to destruction to think twice.  Paranoia isn't always a bad thing.  If we can clean this business up at the lowest levels, the highest will eventually follow.  It's today's child horsemen who will be tomorrow's Olympians, and they will set the standard for the New Normal in their lifetimes.