Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hot-Potato Horses

Remember, holiday shopping!


I'm not going to try to summarize the vast array of stats available for interested parties to search through.  I do hope some of my Thinking Horsemen will read them, at least the ones that relate directly to you.  What I've linked above is one simple fact:  The US has more horses than any other country at approximately 9.5 million, and full-time workers in the horse business number 1.4 million.

That means 1 full-time human for every 8 horses.  Think about it.

I think it's safe to say that the Unwanted Horse problem is about a huge and squirrelly an issue as exists in our society.  Picture the pyramid we use to describe those crazy schemes where the guy at the top derives his massive income from the hard work of the layers of minions below him who he has talked into buying into the program.  The more they sell, the more recruiting they do, the more he makes.

Bear with me while I belabor this imagery.

By all rights, the equine pyramid is reversed.  At the bottom should be a horse.  Poor guy just sits there hoping someone will throw him some hay and put water in his bucket.  See him there?  Now on his back put the family that owns him and all of their expectations.  On their backs you can stack the necessary practitioners without whom they wouldn't be able to keep the horse because they aren't capable of trimming hooves, fixing broken parts, making his teeth shiny and smooth.

Above that is where the fun really starts.  That's where you can pile, in no particular order, the rest of us who are trying to get our due from poor Fuzzbutt down there sagging under the pile.  That includes me, of course, writing my little blog posts and books.  It includes barn managers, kids making a few dollars mucking stalls, hay producers (that's me too), grain companies, farmers, blanket makers, bridle makers, saddle makers, cute horsey t-shirts for the owners to wear makers, people boots, brooms, muck rakes makers, shiny earrings for Western Pleasure riders makers and on and on.

So you have to ask how there can be unwanted horses when each horse is responsible for supporting a few of those 1.4 million people.  If anything, one might posit that horses should be very valuable property to own (not just expensive, but actually having value).  It's a little mind-boggling, right?

What's missing from the pyramid is that the horse population is fluid.  There may be roughly the same 1.4 million humans doing his bidding, but he's only got a limited useful lifespan.  Behind him are younger, fresher, new horses being produced daily.  So it's not really one horse at the bottom of the pyramid, but a stream from which one crawls ashore and pushes the current resident into the mud.

It's that muddy spot that concerns the horse world.  The question arose "where are all these horses coming from?" and the answer is "everywhere".  They're the child's pony that was outgrown and the hunter that can't make the jumps anymore. They're the "culls" from a breeding program aimed at producing Paints with lots of "chrome", and they're the fun trail horse that developed navicular.  They're Every Horse and any horse that can't be cared for any longer.  Mostly, they're hot potatoes.

What do you do with your horses when they reach that point where one more year of use will probably be all they can manage?  Do you sell to someone who may or may not know what it means to keep a senior horse or one in need of constant care?  Do you give it away?  Do you keep it until it dies?  Do you ship it down the road to auction, or do you close your eyes and snivel your way through a rescue placement?  What do you do?

I'm going to refuse to pull the holier-than-thou card.  Yes, I keep my horses till they die...now.  I couldn't always afford that, and some were sold to other owners.  That keeps the horse worlds lifeblood pumping.  And anyone else who chooses the high horse of superiority because they can keep theirs instead of climbing to the high road of compassion for the folks who can't, please don't comment here.  There has to be an open dialog and a recognition that in fact my pyramid isn't the reality.

The reality is that that horse is standing on the back of his owner, and the rest of the horse world is balanced on top, grasping, judging, and uncooperative.  A major overhaul will be required before this pyramid crashes.  It's crumbling now.  Are you the one whose decision will bring it down or the one who will find the solution?

Be the solution.  I won't tell you how because I don't know, but figure out a way to contribute instead of merely passing the buck and the hot potato to some unsuspecting glassy-eyed horse lover.  Just do it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Decision-Making 101

How to Overcome Decision Fatigue

Does the phrase "I'll sleep on it and get back to you" sound familiar?  If you're not using it on a regular basis, you are probably among the millions suffering from "Decision Fatigue"--the loss of the ability to make a good choice because too many choices have been made without a timeout.

World Wide Wiredness makes the planet a tough place to live.  Not only are we all faced with multiple decisions daily, but we're expected to make them in an eye-blink.  If we're lucky, we have time to actually process the options, but more likely than not, we rely on our sixth sense--that niggling little voice that squeaks in the corner of our brain--to make the choice for us.  If you just picked something over something else a minute ago (I picked a handful of Hershey's kisses over an apple...so sue me!), can you answer the question "Why?"  Probably not.  I didn't even hesitate long enough to look at the lovely, juicy, fresh apples in the bowl before the voice had me ripping open the bag of chocolates.  Not really a decision; just an action based on nothing in particular.

With holidays of all sorts upon us, Decision Season is in full swing.  We'll decide where to celebrate and with whom, what to eat, who to gift with goodies and who to ignore.  Which goodies to choose is even harder.  For those of us who over-function to a sad degree (me!), this is actually a year-round event.  In my case it always results in a closet overflowing with items I bought because they were perfect for myself or someone on my list only to find something more perfect to replace them at the last minute.  There's a bag of stuff from a book sale at school that dates back some ten years.  I don't recall for whom the stuff was purchased or under what guise of logic, but it's not suitable for anything but a reminder to stop impulse shopping.

You're getting sleepy.....

If you have horses, you are undoubtedly challenged to make some really intriguing decisions.  First, which horse will you buy, rent, steal, or adopt?  Where will you keep it?  Will you still keep it there tomorrow?  What will you feed it?  Who will be your guide when you're lost in the equestrian wilderness of brands and styles and disciplines and belief systems?  What will you use to get the horse crap out of your clothes?

If  you're not frustrated enough, check out the various models for decision making.  Ouch!

It's endless.  And the more choices there are, the more difficult the decision becomes.  This is another face of Decision Fatigue.  There's ample research to support the phenomenon of Decision Paralysis that results from too many choices available.  Some of the studies are kind of funny, so you might want to google that.

In sum, the article linked at the top that launched this thought parade says that decisions are best made after rest.  First thing in the morning, if you're a morning person, is the best time to go look at that new horse or pick from the assortment of saddles you're considering.  Don't shop for groceries when you're hungry, and don't pick a horse when you've got a show next weekend.  Don't make any decisions more momentous than which socks to wear if you've been up all night watching Zombie Apocalypse movies. If you've spent all day doing heavy lifting with your brain at work, that's a bad time to choose where you're going to go on your next vacation.  Sure, Bali sounds great right now.  Put a pin in it and check back with your logical self in the morning.  Never hesitate to "sleep on it."  That could be the best decision you'll make all day.

And of course we make no decisions of any import when we're drugged (pain meds being ubiquitous among horsemen, that's almost a given) or otherwise impaired.  Promise?  There are enough blogs full of funny stories about bad decisions horsemen make.  I don't need any more competition.  Thanks!

This just popped up and deserved a place in this article.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How big a horse do you need?

FIRST, the shameless self-promotion segment.  My Editor's Choice Award-winning book, Horse Bound, is available RIGHT NOW from iUniverse, Amazon, and all those other book places you like to frequent.  So don't waste time thinking about it, just click one of these links or go wherever you like and buy it.  My other books are available too and they're part of a special purchase deal on Amazon. Woo-HOO!  And those other books at the bottom of the list that don't seem to be mine? Those are anthologies with my stories in them.  Fewer giggles  and more Kleenex.  Just sayin'.

END of self-promotion.

And now, our feature presentation:

Method for estimating maximum permissible load we... [Anim Sci J. 2013] - PubMed - NCBI

Rider weight is a touchy subject.  I have no desire to destroy anyone's body image or self-esteem.  What I do want to do is help all riders understand that there truly is a difference for the horses when they're asked to carry heavier riders.  It's important, especially in this climate of too many horses and too few owners, to keep the horses in the equation from breaking down earlier than necessary and from displaying behaviors that make them unpleasant co-workers for humans.  So, here's a different approach.

Let's begin with the numbers.  The breed chosen for the study--the Japanese native horse--isn't actually a stand-alone breed identification.  There are many breeds native to Japan.  All have some characteristics in common.  They are small (12 -14+ hh ), stocky ponies with necks that tend to grow parallel to the ground.  Those are important points, because horses built like that can tolerate more weight because of their conformation that puts the weight in a better place for balancing.  And they were mostly developed as pack horses, so they tend to be very calm and easy-to-manage.

Not at all like the average horses in the US.  Not even close to what I've got in my pasture.

The average QH weighs between 800 and 1200 pounds.
Zip (right), at a scant 16 hh, weighs in at about 1200 pounds most of the time
except during the winter when he swears the extra 50 is hair.

According to the weight tape (because he's such a diva he won't stand
on the bathroom scale), Dakota, 15.1 hh, weighs in at about 1100 pounds.
So breaking it down, the researchers picked horses that could probably carry weight better and be the least likely to take to bucking, rearing, and other fussiness than the average saddle horse in the US.

What they found was that these wonderbeasts could comfortably carry approximately 29% of their body weight.  Figuring the average 13 hh pony probably weighs in at about 850 pounds (yes, I'm guessing based on adding Duke's chunkiness at 8.5 hh and Leo's sturdy gracefulness at 15 hh and noting that there are two of them...and then math happens and I get 800 pounds and add 50 for jollies), that means the average rider of one of those ponies, plus tack and sandwiches, should weigh in at about 246 pounds.  Deduct 40 for the saddle and pad, and that's 206 pounds for rider and sandwiches and water bottle and cell phone and couture riding togs.

Not too shabby.  I feel better already.

Of course we're not all riding stocky ponies.  Many of us are riding animals that defy description.  The lower on the equestrian totem pole one lurks, the less likely one is to own a horse that fits into an easily-recognizable category.  I, for one, eschew pedigree in favor of big butts and "soft" eyes.  And it's not just because I'm cheap.  That's just my taste in horses.  Give me your tired, your learning disabled, your huddled OT Paints yearning to be left alone....

Digression over.  The average horse in the US has been shown to be comfortable carrying about 20% of its body weight.  So if the average horse weighs in at about 1000 pounds, that's easy enough to figure out.  If you and your saddle and all your necessities weigh more than 200 pounds, odds are you're either going to wind up with a horse with back issues or with a rodeo experience on the occasions when Flufferbutter decides he's had enough and opts to attempt non-surgical removal of his back irritation.

Yes, everyone should be happy within their own skin.  But if that skin is going to be safe on a horse and the horse is going to be safe and happy under it, then it really shouldn't weigh more than 20 - 25% of the horse's body weight.  There's nothing wrong with buying horses that fit one's style and body mass.  There are ample big horses out there in need of homes, and no one will point a finger if the rider's butt makes the horse's butt look big.  Think about it.  Getting in shape is certainly key to riding, but if you're Big and Proud, look around and find a horse that will happily tote you and your stuff into the sunset.  They're out there, I promise.

Monday, November 04, 2013

What do you know about horse welfare?

FIRST, the self-promotion!  My newest book, Horse Bound, is available for order from Amazon, BN, and iUniverse now.  No Kindle version yet, but there will be an e-book version at iUniverse soon.  Shop, my Faithful Readers!  The holidays are nearly upon us!

Examining Modern Perceptions of Horse Welfare and Use | TheHorse.com

There are a lot of people entering into discussions about animal welfare online.  That's not news.  Nor is the fact that the discussions often become heated.  It would appear that while the majority of Americans are in favor of better treatment of animals (livestock in particular), few actually have hands-on experience or know much about the animals they're trying to protect.  Watching the discussions rage on, I had the feeling that the people most adamant were the ones least involved with the animals.

This article confirms that notion.

It's not hard to understand why the work of Temple Grandin has been so popular.  Of all animal advocates, this amazing double-PhD animal behaviorist has the ability thanks to her severe autism to actually have some insight into how animals think and feel.  It's to her credit that she has gone public with her situation and shared her fascinating insights with the world.  She is the primary source of information for builders and managers of slaugherhouses across the US, and she has made a difficult (and contentious) situation better for the animals while the rest of us duke it out over the grand morality involved in slaughter.

Just this weekend I came across a comment regarding horses and their training that kind of set me back on my  heels a bit.  The statement that horses don't think but only react based on instinct is not a new concept, but I had thought it was currently popular only in certain countries.  The reason for that belief persisting among some religious folk and some cultures is that there is an underlying belief that animals are unclean, don't have souls, and so are lesser creatures than humans.  Years ago I heard this from a Muslim friend who insisted I couldn't have trained my horses because they simply don't have the ability to process information.  I was surprised to hear this same sort of belief come from a similarly-conformed person*.  It's still alive and well.

It doesn't take much intelligence to figure out what Zip is thinking about here.
Horses think quite clearly about what they do and do not like, and
they're not shy about sharing their opinions.

Regardless of its source, the fact is that this among other beliefs about horses and other livestock underlies much of the rescue and protection effort that is in constant flux.  Yet the reality is that the people closest to the animals have quite a different viewpoint from those who like to look at kitten photos and think horses are simply elegant in paintings.

What I know about horses was hard-earned, and I'll bet most of my hands-on horse peeps can say the same. When I was young, I was all about how pretty horses are and how much I wanted one in the backyard so I could, like Alec Ramsey in The Black Stallion, have an intense relationship with one of these fine creatures.  The reality of horses didn't impinge on my fantasy in any way.  It took years of lesson horses, years of horse ownership with my horses boarded out, and even more years with them on my farm before I began to really understand them.  And I can honestly say at this point that most people should not own horses and have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to welfare issues.  That includes some erstwhile "professionals".

Dr. Karin Bump, who gave the speech on which the article above is based, finds the following regarding horses and human culture:

Sociologists use the term legitimacy to explain how people acquire and accept certain ideas and to show how concepts and beliefs—such as using horses for work or leisure—become “legitimate” within a culture, Bump said. There are three levels of legitimacy, she added, that apply to horse ownership and care:
  1. The pragmatic level: “We need horses in our culture.”
  2. The cognitive level: “Of course we have horses, just like we have air to breathe.”
  3. The moral level: “It’s socially and ethically okay to own and use horses.”
Once we get beyond the "socially and ethically okay to own and use horses" piece, we're lost. As a unit, we humans can't quite get a grip on what horses need and what is okay and not okay to do with them.  The ranting takes on a life of its own barely related to reality in many cases.  And no, I'm not advocating harsh training methods or management techniques that endanger the animals, nor am I building a slaughterhouse in my yard.  I'm saying the real pros need to be the source of our information and our planning, not the social media livestock "experts" who abound.

Before cars and the industrial revolution, society had pragmatic and cognitive levels of legitimacy with regard to horse ownership, Bump said. There was no moral level because people didn’t even ask themselves whether it was right or wrong. They needed horses in order to survive, and in order to survive they had to take care of their horses and keep them healthy.

We are swirling around the drain in the horse biz, and a lot of the circular motion is a result of the focus having shifted from the cognitive to the moral level of concern over animals.  The concern isn't a bad thing, but we need to begin to sort out the equi-reality from the anthropormorphism.  And that's going to be tough.  There are more horse-keeping and training theorists out there than there are horses, and they're more than happy to share (not always nicely) their moral stance with all comers.  

So what do you know about horse welfare?  If the question made you pause, you might want to consider reading some of Grandin's work on the subject.  Her books and videos are invaluable sources of real information that often flies in the face of conventional wisdom.  And it would also be of benefit to double-check any statement that begins with "You should" or "All horses."  Unless you found them in Grandin's books, they usually lead to spurious information.  Spreading such stuff is easy.  Bringing the crowd back to a dull roar in the face of facts isn't. 

In closing, I have to note that any research done with live critters, human or otherwise, is going to be flawed.  The best efforts can be found at the best vet schools and universities around the world who are determined to study these things.  But a control group is never accurately representative of the test subjects because each subject is completely individual in every way.  Add that until someone makes time travel viable, there's no way to retest the same subject, and the problem multiplies.  You can't un-touch, un-teach, or un-kill a test subject and call for a do-over, so we will continue to wrestle with these issues (and each other) indefinitely.  Grab a coffee, have a snack, and go riding.  You'll find us here in the same spot when you get back.

*I'm not pro- or anti-Muslim or any other group, but that's where I heard this belief first and got the explanation, so don't bother lambasting me for profiling.  Culture is what it is.