Monday, October 27, 2014

Is your horse a go-er or a pusher?

Talent vs. Work Ethic | Horse Collaborative

The article above isn't about the horse.  It's about the rider.  And it asks and answers an excellent question:  Is it better to be a low-talent, hard-working type-A rider or a high-talent slacker?  Which is more likely to achieve success in the upper levels of competition (or even the lower levels of backyard fake competition)?  Only you know where you fit on the continuum, so I'm not going to guess.

As I read the article, of course my thoughts went to my own riding and to my horses.  I'm by no stretch any kind of competitor anymore, and I never went beyond local competition.  I did, however, amass 64 ribbons and a bunch of plaques and trophies, so my medium-talent was goosed by my work ethic and the luck of having at least a few horses with the same level of desire.  And here's the thing that messes up my world.  I have two horses that are "go-ers".  Like my Trans Am GTA with the Corvette engine, there's no need to step on the gas on those two.  Just taking my foot off the brake is sufficient for launch.

A Go-er if ever there was one,
Dolly needs no incentive.  She could
probably use new brakes.
But I also have two horses that are "pushers".  They're the ones for which I spend hours working out my leg muscles, because without a consistent hug around the girth line, they'll pretty much stop.  Dead.  No movement other than breathing and blinking.  Oh, they've gotten used to me, and they know that they're better off just giving me what I want so they don't have to listen to me whine or feel that hug turn into a death grip (because dirty stops are not my fave thing).  But left to their own devices, they'd bring home the blue in the Aimless Amble Under Saddle class every time, both English and Western.

So what happens when a Type-A, medium-talent (ahem) like myself is faced with workaholic horses and slackers in the same game?  Frustration comes to mind.  And I find that depending on my mood, I'm far more likely to pick one of the go-ers for a ride on any given day.  The pushers I reserve for days when I've got a Whole New Plan for their workouts and can't wait to give it a try.

Does it affect my own talent vs. work ethic balance?  Heck yeah!  Nothing makes me feel less talented than sitting on a horse that's standing stock-still, looking back at me over his shoulder instead of enthusiastically attacking the project I've invented to keep him engaged.  And if I let my work ethic get the better of me, the number of curse words I can growl out is stunning.

My question, then, is what is a high-work-ethic type to do about a situation where the horse simply isn't on the same page?

The answer:  Change your expectations.

Note, I didn't say "lower"; I said "change".

On the other end of the scale, it took
months to convince Dakota that there
are gaits other than the lumber-about.
Fortunately, that's Cliff's favorite gait.
In my case, this has meant that I need to read the moody boys' attitudes first thing in the morning and decide whether it's a day for pushing under saddle or a day for doing something different. Different can be ground work, or it can be obstacles under saddle, or it can be something weird I read about in this month's horse mag.  It doesn't have to end badly.  It only has to be guilt-free.  Hopping aboard a confirmed slacker when you're in high gear is not necessarily the best thing to do, so it's in everyone's best interests for you, as rider, to not take it personally if the under-saddle piece of the workout ends quickly.  Have an alternate plan, and be prepared to switch gears without feeling as if the decision amounts to a loss.

Of course the obvious option is to find a horse that meets your needs.  But that's too simple.  Every horse has its own personality, and none of them is as perfect as you'd like them to be.  Neither are you.  Get over it.

There are no winners or losers in a partnership.  The relationship between horse and rider is a specialized one that needs to be reassessed regularly.  If your horse isn't happy in his job, then give him a new job.  You're the one with thumbs and the keys to the kingdom.  Do what needs to be done to create harmony instead of putting your goals in the forefront.  Leave your ego at the barn door, or go find a sport that doesn't involve interacting with another living being.  Bowling comes to mind.  Whatever.  Just be realistic and judge your work-in-progress with an open mind and a caring attitude.  You'll be happier in the end.
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Monday, October 20, 2014

Getting Older or Getting Better?

Senior Horses: Aged to Perfection

One day a barn hand came by to help with chores and instead of cash, he wanted a ride on a horse.  It was a second childhood thing, not a bucket list thing, so I happily gave him the reins on my 29-year-old Quarter Horse, Leo.  Dodging the flaming arrows of Leo's angry gaze--no one has ridden him but me in about eight years because he's My Guy--I sent the pair off for a jolly half-hour play date.  At the end, Ricardo, flushed with joy and excitement and not a little love, asked how much I thought Leo would be worth.  What would someone pay for a 29-year-old horse with all the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger animal, family- (and Ricardo-) safe, and smooth as silk at all gaits?
Ricardo and Leo,
Perfect Together

My answer:  Nothing.

Ricardo was surprised, and he he asked me why I thought the horse wasn't worth anything.  I told him that wasn't the case.  Leo is worth more than money to me, and he has already made a great beginner lesson horse for actual students and for my baby grandson who piloted him around solo at the tender age of 22 months.  He's worth keeping until he dies.  That's how much he's worth.

But in cash money, I explained, I'd probably find it hard to find a home for him.  Why?  Because he's 29.

That's about Grandpa plus Grandma in human years.  That's ten years of joint supplements for his arthritis.  That's the recently added cost of having him tq'd for the dentist so that his remaining four molars can be floated to perfection as eating is key.  That's three times the feed of any other horse in the barn--twice the complete feed and a healthy scoop of hay stretcher to make up for those flat-lining teeth.  That's extra care about temperature, blanketing more than most when the thermometer shows single digits and those nasty negative numbers.  That's shoes on his front feet all summer because he's got tender soles.  That's the little twinge of worry every morning that he might not be okay.  That's giving him access to the barn all day with fans in the summer and heat in the winter and a buddy who challenges him just enough but not too much.  That's at least twice a week under saddle come hell or cold weather to keep his muscles and joints working.
Leo at 23, Dillon at 2 months
A fine first horse experience

And that's not knowing how many years he has left.

Most buyers want a horse they can count on to recoup their investment, not just in purchase costs, but in the rest of the expenses of horse keeping.  If the horse is boarded out, there has to be a very understanding and experienced manager keeping watch over a senior of that age.  And there's the very real chance that six months down the line he could easily become a pasture puff, to be supported into his dotage and beyond.

For some of us--me, for instance--it's worth it.  All of my horses are seniors now, ranging in age from 29 down to 16.  I've owned this boy for 14 years, and he's seen me through some very trying times. That smoothness and open-hearted attitude was what I needed after each surgery and major disaster.  Of all the horses in the herd, he's the one I trusted not to be stupid under saddle when I had one eye bandaged or staples down my midline or whatever.  So for me, he's irreplaceable, and if I could find another exactly like him, even at his age, I'd happily take him (or her--some of my best horses have been mares) home with me.

Leo, 29, hangin' after a round of barrels
poles, dressage, and hacking out.
Old doesn't have to mean finished.
The trick is, I can afford it.  I own the farm.  I know how to deal with old horses.  And I am okay with the endpoint, preferring not to keep horses alive for my sake instead of theirs.

So my advice is that you should seriously consider the older horses available to you.  They're usually nice.  Very nice.  Bad horses don't often survive to be pensioners. The survivors have nothing left to prove.  They've seen it and done it all, or if they haven't, they're willing to give it a shot.  They get along with pretty much everyone with the usual exceptions.  They seem to understand that you get what they're about, and they like that.

But while you're considering the highly-trained, well-mannered, kindly old guy, make sure you can afford to keep him beyond the limited time when he might be in shape for whatever you intend to do with him.  The unfairness of taking an old horse and neglecting him when his usefulness wanes is unconscionable.  Take him with the intention of paying back what he's earned, even if he didn't earn it all with you.  Get that you'll learn a lot about vet care, first aid, and diagnosing on the fly.  You'll make a huge investment in things to keep him comfy and in the best possible health, and much of that will be in the wind.  But in return you'll get a peaceful soul to share your low moments and a happy heart to share the highs.  He may not be the jumping, running, snorting, electric pony of your childhood dreams.  Instead he'll be the soulmate.  The old friend happy to see you whenever you show up, ready to cadge a cookie or two and give kisses and hugs in return, and willing to give your latest plan a shot...or to walk away with a smirk if your plan is excessively stupid.  Old horses do that.  It keeps us humble.

If you can find a young old horse--say 15 to 20 years old--and the price is right and he (sort of) passes a vet check, snap him up!  You can easily have another 15 years of fun ahead and you're buying a buddy who will keep you moving in your dotage.  I can't recommend highly enough an old horse for an old rider.  Or a very young rider.  Leave the babies to the teenagers, and find the peace you really want in your horse life aboard a smooth older gentleman or gentlewoman.  You'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Horsey or Hoarder?

How Many Horses Makes a Hoarder? |

What a great question!  I've engaged in a lot of conversation lately with horse owners at various levels, and have been surprised, given the descriptions of some of the boarding situations and "I have a friend who..." comments that not once has the term "hoarder" come up.  So I read the linked article with great interest.  It would appear that the definition of a hoarder has been so vague that it's been difficult to pin down the actual description of that beast.

I decided to start with a google search for the definition.  I laughed out loud that the first link that popped up was this:

  1. a person who hoards things.
    "I'm a bit of a hoarder"

So I wandered the results for a bit until I settled on this one from the Mayo Clinic:

Hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distress at the thought of getting rid of the items. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs.
Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. Some people also collect animals, keeping dozens or hundreds of pets in unsanitary conditions because they can't care for them properly.
Hoarding ranges from mild to severe. In some cases, hoarding may not have much impact on your life, while in other cases it seriously affects your functioning on a daily basis.
People with hoarding disorder often don't see it as a problem, making treatment challenging. But intensive treatment can help people with hoarding disorder understand their compulsions and live safer, more enjoyable lives
That, in a nutshell, describes what I've seen far too much of.  The key point is that hoarders don't see it as a problem and think they're saving whatever it is either because they think they'll need it themselves some time or from a fate worse than...well...being hoarded.
How many horses does it take to screw up a hoarder?
One more than s/he can afford to keep without suffering on either side of the balance sheet.
I've been within spitting range of a hoarder who did her best to suck me into the program and pretty much succeeded.  The complex care system she instituted to permit her to keep as many as 25 horses in a space perfectly suited to 3 was astounding (though it didn't compare to what was done to keep the other species she also packed in like sardines).  I arrived with three horses.  I left with six.  The last ones she was charging me so little to keep it was pretty much my pocket to the feed store cash drawer.  She'd have done anything to bring more ponies into the space, and she did.
These are chickens.  A 4' x 4' coop with nesting
boxes and a fenced run can house about a dozen.
Look down.  Do you have 40 of them in a 10' x 10' space?
That's not "saving" anything.
Was she worse than the folks who had 50 acres and 52 horses, all but 18 of them fed outdoors in an all-day ballet of bucket brigade insanity?  Nope.  Ironically, all of the horses at both places were in good condition.  Only the facility and the owner/manager suffered, and they suffered greatly.  Insanity isn't pretty from any angle.  You can't Photoshop a filter on the sort of nutsiness that has people taking horse meds for their own ailments because seeing a doctor is just too expensive, or eating animal food.  Yeah.  That.  
Were either of those people worse than the guy who had only one horse penned up in a melange of gates and fence panels on an empty lot with a tool shed for shelter?  No hay, no water, knee-deep muck, and a ribby, lice-ridden equine that hadn't seen a vet or dentist or farrier in years would shout "No!"
"But what will happen to them if I'm not taking care of them?"
Why do people do this?  Hoarding is often related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  When the sufferer moves from lining up pencils on the desk in perfect symmetry because to leave one out of order is too stressful to lining the house with dog crates or the backyard with horses, there's been a massive step upward into an area requiring professional help.  It looks funny on TV.  It doesn't look funny in the real world.  The important factor is the negative effect on the hoarder and his/her hoardees.
Don't bother shrieking at your favorite hoarder.  It won't help.  Withdrawing something they love can sometimes tip the balance to force them to seek help.  The local animal warden is very good at that, assuming there's a place to put the excess critters.  The threat of losing even one piece of the puzzle that is the hoard can sometimes be sufficient.
Stuff doesn't have to eat and breathe to be the subject of
hoarding.  This is not my whole bit collection.  My
theory is that I might need one of them one
day.  Uh...sure.
If you know a horse hoarder, you can start by talking (gently) about possibly finding homes for some of the animals.  Feel the temperature of the water and decide if there's any receptivity.  Sometimes the hoarder is really desperate for help getting out from under, so offer it.  Not criticism.  Just help.  Not an influx of cash to support the hoarding activity, help lessening it.  And if you can't, or the person isn't receptive, then call someone who can.  The Hooved Animal Humane Society, SPCA, and whatever local groups in your area are able to step in with some authority are a good place to start.  Sometimes just making people aware of the situation is a big step forward.  Hoarders are very good at hiding their activities from any but their closest cohort, so bringing it all into the light can be life-altering...and scary.  
Often hoarding is the result of a smidge of emotional disturbance exacerbated by circumstances like the death of a spouse, loss of employment, or the inability to accept that the horse business venture is a bust and needs to be abandoned.  So tread lightly.  There's enough blood in the water already.
If you are hoarding, and you're a novice at the craft, it's time to sit down with pen and paper, do up a (realistic) budget of finances and time, and see if you can't sort yourself out before you dig a hole to deep for you to climb out of without help.  You're not saving the horses if you can't save yourself.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Fit or Flounder?

Horse Fitness Is The Secret Weapon / Horse Collaborative Article

There's been plenty written about riding as an athletic endeavor.  It's not a way to get fit (though it does help maintain fitness); it's a sport requiring the  participant to maintain some level of fitness prior to engaging in the craziness of sitting on an animal and doing strange things at four feet above the ground (and sometimes in direct contact with the ground as well).

But there's another participant in this drama, and s/he needs to be kept in shape as well.  No Hoof; No Horse is an old saw.  No Muscle; No Ride is my new one.  Are you fit, or will you flounder?

Back in the days when I was schlepping to random boarding farms to visit my horses, I owned fewer of them and rode them more often and for longer periods per ride.  It's a "bang for the buck" thing as well as an "I drove all this way, so I'm going to ride till I drop" thing.  As a result, fitness wasn't an issue for them.  If we weren't getting ready for a show, we were hacking out on the trails or the roads for hours on end, and their bodies and stamina and prowess (and mine) reflected that.
Full Double Flounder

Now that my animals are right outside my window, I have as much time to ride as someone working two jobs and moonlighting doing computer tech support.  I ride when:

1.  It's daytime and the weather is good (no indoor).

2.  I don't have an appointment somewhere (because old people have appointments everywhere all the time).

3.  There's no fence repair needed, no hay needing to be cut, tedded, raked, baled, or stacked, no pasture needing mowing, no vet, farrier, or dentist appointment, and no need to run to the feed store for anything, and I finished that un-put-downable book I was reading.

4.  I'm in the mood.

As a result, with four horses needing riding and one needing ground work (Duke, the mini, objects to my riding him) , no one is in shape.  Okay, that's not quite accurate.  Since Dolly is the most fun to ride, she's in shape.  She gets a good workout at least twice a week (given 1 - 4 above are in alignment with the phase of the moon).  Leo is such a pleasure to ride that he, too, gets at least semi-weekly workouts.  The other two...well.....

Workouts are between 30 and 60 minutes, never more because I rarely have more than an hour before I have to feed, muck, make dinner, or be somewhere.

Sound familiar?

If so, then your horse probably is as out-of-shape as he can get and still haul you around, and every ride you're starting over again.


I hear voices in my head yelling at me to make a schedule and stick to it.  I have one, and I do.  I get up in the morning, and I go to bed at night.  That's my schedule.  Anything in between is up for grabs.  Every Sunday (today), I sit myself down and tell myself that I can block out three 20-minute chunks daily and at least longe three horses, or longe one and ride one and shift one to another day.  Or ride one and shift two.  Or go out to lunch and have a glass of wine and call it a day.  And Duke, given enough incentive, will run laps around his pen for a cookie.  Such a deal!  I still always wind up with one horse left over.

What do you get if you have five horses and you take away one?

One horse, of course, and four pissed-off equines wondering why they didn't get a cookie too.


Back to the issue at hand, if you want your horse to do well, feel well, and perform maneuvers worthy of a YouTube video that isn't tagged "funny horse crashes", you have to put in the effort to keep him in shape.  Research (here and here) has shown beyond question that horses kept on pasture are fitter than those kept stalled. The bigger the pasture, the fitter the horses.  That's because they spend their time walking around and even running, while those in stalls basically eat and stand.  So you can get a leg up (snicker) by giving your buddy ample time outdoors to be horsey.  Do that, and you can get by with half-hour hard workouts or a few long walks (as per the linked article by Denny Emerson that started all this) up and down hills, which is fun for both of you as long as you're not against doing nothing that's likely to let you brag to your friends.  You might look like Poppin' Fresh, but your horse will be reasonably fit.

Do those things, and on the weekends, when you suddenly decide you need to run some barrels and poles or do a couple of jumping rounds or dressage tests, and both you and your mount will sparkle instead of slopping around in an endless discussion about just how fast you need to do that next line...or at all.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Don't Shoot the Manager

Boarding Probs | Horse Collaborative

Oh my, have I been there!  The Boarding Farm...the one with no contract, no guaranteed level of care, substandard facilities that looked good at first glance, no ability to meet my standards, bitchy, judgmental fellow boarders who seemed to delight in every mistake I made...where I boarded anyway.  The "why" is very important here, and that's where this is going to start.

There are lots of reasons for putting your horse in a place that might not be the best for either of you. Finances comes to mind immediately.  Most of the places which I later found unsuitable were the best I could afford at the time.  I was never able to opt for self-care (or what used to be called "rough board") because I worked.  And I had a child.  And I had bills to pay apart from my board.  So I went where the ad shouted a price within my limited budget.

The second factor that often plays here is proximity--to home, to work, to family--that makes regular visits to the barn for you or your proxies (those kind-hearted friends and relatives who will "run to the barn real quick and stick some goo on Fuzzbutt's cut, pleeeeeease") a possibility.  Close is great, but it's not always optimal on the care side.

The third is social connection.  The linked article does a very good job on the subject of irritating rail birds and how (not) to deal with them (or become one), so I won't rehash it.  I can't count the number of times I've heard a friend fuss and fume about substandard practices then end with "But I can't leave because the manager is my BFF!" (or cousin or husband or what have you), or "All my friends are there", or "They have a great program for the kids".  There are the barns with marketing-savvy managers and an active and addictive social life fostered by the management and including holiday parties in the lounge, egg hunts in the fields, on-site lessons and shows, and networking galore.  It gets obvious very quickly if the other owners in the barn are folks you want to run away from.  And it's equally easy to let socialization cloud your thinking when you look at your ribby horse with the depressed affect and just gloss over his misery.

If you're willing to put up with inconveniences, you're more likely to find the care you require for your equine partner.  If not, well....

Now that you've been at the New Barn for a month and have noticed that the stalls are only mucked twice a week and the water buckets and troughs are home to unidentified life forms, and now that you've learned that that cheap board was a come-on that masked a nickel-and-dime approach (my personal fave was the $10 "blanket adjustment" fee that applied if you chose to blanket your horse and continued to apply even if the manager never had to touch horse or blanket), what's a horse owner to do?

Dogs and miniature humans are not
always  welcome at all barns.  If you
need to have either in tow, check first.
There are rules that apply to this and any other space-rental situation.

1. Pay when the rent is due.
2. Ask politely if changes in specific management practices are possible.
3. Follow the barn rules.
4.  Don't take it upon yourself to feed or hay your horse without permission (boy, does that screw with the rest of the horses in the barn!)
5.  If you don't like it, leave.  Period.

There are obvious ways to avoid getting stuck for years on end in a bad situation.  Carping and bitching and posting nastiness on social media are not among them.  They're all on you, the prospective boarder.


Start by making a list or chart (I'm a teacher, so I'm a big chart/rubric person) of all of the boarding facilities within a reasonable drive time of your home and workplace.

Check each personally and at random times.  Sometimes the manager won't let you in because of security. That's okay.  You can still eyeball the place over his shoulder and look at the horses on turnout to see if they look happy and healthy.  Hang around long enough, and you'll catch a boarder on the way in or out who is willing to chat for a minute.

In your chart, include all of your Must Haves.  If you have to have an indoor, eliminate the barns that don't.  Don't believe you can go somewhere and talk them into putting in an indoor (or anything else) after you're in place.  If you want a wash stall with running hot water, then that should be on the chart.  If you want to keep your vet, farrier, or dentist, that also should have a slot.  This is why charts work better than lists.  Big check marks and blank spaces are easy to see.  If cost is an issue, make sure you find out the whole cost up front.  The barn with the $10 blanket-checking fee also charged $5 to put a dose of meds in the horse's feed bucket and $15 to stand with the horse during vet, farrier, or dentist visits.  Those fees add up very quickly until that $400/month "find" becomes a $600/month burden.

And while you're mathing, find out whether your vet, farrier, or dentist charges extra to go to the barn you've chosen. Distance matters to some.  Craziness matters to others.  Add all that in as well.

Check the barn's insurance.  The manager should know whether the horses are covered under a blanket liability plan (like I have).  If not, add in the cost of owner liability insurance.  It's not expensive, but it's another cost to consider.  And if the barn looks rattier than you'd like, add in health and mortality insurance if your horse is young enough to qualify (usually under 18, though the age limits vary by carrier).

Don't assume you can somehow fudge your way around the math.  Cutting out vaccines or farrier visits or (as one of my boarders did) telling the manager that the vet is not to be called unless your horse is "bleeding out the eyes" (she only lasted a few months here) are not going to help your horse or your bottom line.  Cheaping out is a great way to wind up with extreme expenses later on.  That's why this stuff is called "preventive".  It prevents bankruptcy.


Double check that everything is as it should be including such things as actual room for your tack.  Some barns advertise a "heated tack room" but don't mention that you can't leave your stuff there.  If all is not well, you should have second- and third-choice barns noted on your chart.  Find out what the lead time is for making a switch, then don't hesitate.  The only thing more miserable than owning a horse you really can't afford is keeping that horse at a place you hate to visit.  The $10 Blanketing Fee place was also home to considerable rude treatment of my then-ten-year-old daughter until she simply didn't want to go there anymore.  That's not a happy ending.

If you're looking for a barn, go out there and chart them.  You'll find something suitable if you don't let yourself be blinded by Famous Trainer creds or to-die-for stalls and indoors.  Realism and barn hands are the only working parts in the horse world.