Monday, June 29, 2015

Propaganda and the Thinking Horseman

Propaganda Types

Let's call a spade a spade, shall we?  We horse folks are barraged with propaganda at a furious rate.  The national elections have nothing on the horse world when it comes to information overload, misinformation, disinformation, and flat-out nonsense.  The list linked above will certainly tweak a nerve or two, so I suggest you read through it and think about it for a bit before you go on with your day.

The Big One in the horse world is also number 1 on the list:  Name-calling/stereotyping

If there's a horse rider/owner out there who has never heard anyone anywhere point to another rider and deride him or her for weight, clothing choices, horse choice, trainer choice, or discipline choice, shout out now.

A Paint, a Thoroughbred, and an Appaloosa...
What do you think you know about them based
only on their breeds and propaganda?

You're lying if you shouted.  From day one of my riding career I was inundated with critiques.  Everyone in the area of a horse and rider pair seems to have an opinion on the level of talent, overall appearance, or status of the rider's mother's combat boots.  It's nasty.  It's absurd.  It's totally unnecessary.  And it is fostered by some of the Big Name Trainers (heretofore referred to as BNT) in some of the biggest venues and shiniest magazines worldwide.

Whenever I finish a spate of ring work on my English horses and head off for a quick barrel run or pole pattern as relaxation and reward, I hear echoing in my brain one specific trainer's voice sighing, "Yahoo, I hear."  I can see his head shake.  I want to smack him with my riding crop over the distance of 25 years.  At the time, that disapproval took the edge off of really enjoying my down time with my horse.  Now it just irritates the snot out of me to recall my reaction.

How about a little Glittering Generality?

Did you rescue your horse from the jaws of a slaughter buyer?  No?  Then you're the problem rather than the solution.  What breed are you riding?  Is it one of those horses?  You know the ones.  They have either a glowing aura of mystic athletic ability surrounding them or they sprout horns right out of the womb.  No individual differences allowed.

This one takes me back to the same barn, same trainer, who had a couple of boarders intent on owning a horse of a specific color.  They were convinced horses of that color were special.  Why?  Because they'd read all the Black Stallion books.  BNT found them a horse, and it promptly broke several of the female's bones.  Why?  Because BNT was an FA (flaming asswaffle).  Not because of the color or breed of the horse, but because of the silliness of the humans he got stuck with.

Check any horse mag or website, and you'll find  Testimonials on every horse-related subject and product known to the modern world.  Pick the BNT you like best or think is cutest and go with whatever s/he espouses.  You're just as likely to wind up in the dirt looking up at your horse's girth as you would be if you hadn't read any of it.

And of course there's the good old Band Wagon effect.  Put a horse on it, and horse people will flock to buy one.  Set up a page on Facebook, and saps will send their last dollar to a fraudulent rescue effort because Fur Babies. No logic required.  In fact, logic and coherent thought are banned from the premises.

Take, for example, the requirement, propagated by the likes of BNT "G.M." (you know who that is) that all horses in the show pen have to shine like new pennies, their hair must be braided to exacting specifications, and their little chinny-chins and ears must be denuded in order for them to look properly cared for.  The word "proper turnout" comes to mind and makes me cringe every time I hear it.  Think about all those shaved horses' chins, and then read this article:

Research Finds Horses' Whiskers May Be Linked to Specific Brain Neurons

Don't you just feel like a full muck bucket to think that you've been disconnecting your horse's nose from his brain to perpetuate a style someone sold you when you were just a tiny horseperson-in-waiting?  Geez!  What stupidity we humans embrace!

Go through the rest of the list of types of propaganda, and you'll easily find an example of each in your own horse life.

So where does a horse person go for real information?  Well, start with university research sites, if you have real questions about care, maintenance, or behavior.  If you want to learn horse handling, find a trainer or instructor you like and with whom you get along and whose horses look happy and unshaven, and go take a few lessons.  And ride. And hang out with some horses.  And read books by real horsemen like Buck Brannaman and Tom Dorrance, not because they're the in names, but because they've spent decades actually learning about horses from horses.

Caveat emptor, my friends.

Monday, June 22, 2015

How bred is well-bred?

The thoroughly bred horse

Here's something a little different.  The linked article comes from the magazine Science, which is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  It would be fabuloso if some of my readers might also glom onto the book 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann.  It's really long, and it's the third part of a trilogy, but if you have any interest in history or how we (and our horses) got to where we are (or the FTT, or anything else regarding the world), it's well worth the effort.

Moving on...

There's much talk in the horse world about the state of the business and of horses overall.  We have seen a glut of horses, many of which have wound up going to slaughter.  We have a heavy load of breedism in our system that is doing no one but the breeders and the breed associations any good.  We have seen throwaway horses, bred to run fast, then tossed when they don't make the grade. And we've seen people frantically trying to solve the problems we, ourselves, have created.


It's a fascinating dilemma.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a huge upsurge in horse ownership.  Thanks to my generation of Boom Babies, there was a big financial brouhaha that is still brou-ing in many quarters.  We built businesses that were anything but Anti-fragile, all based on the backs of horses who had no option but to let us have our way with them.  Left to their own devices, they would have died out long ago because many habitats into which they were transplanted were truly inhospitable to the species.

We did that.  Humans.  We did it all, because it's what we do.  Benign Intervention is our middle name (which makes monograms really idiotic).

We did the same with dogs.  I'm sure many of you are well aware that there is not a dog species on the planet that was not designer-built by humans.  Our domestic varieties of chickens don't exist in the wild.  We just can't stop meddling.

Until recently, however, there's been little written about the actual genesis of the equines currently pooping in our yards.  The research done and reported in the article linked above was actually science.  DNA science.  Not the usual survey of how many Quarter Horses are currently registered and where Morgans are most popular.  From the article:  Genomes from ancient horses show the genetic changes wrought by domestication--and their costs.

It's that last bit that bears discussion.

There's a huge furor about genetically modified organisms raging around the world.  I'm not really sure why.  It's not news.  It's not even slightly news.  No matter how much people yell, the fact that companies like Monsanto are making food plants that resist their own chemical weaponry arsenal so they can sell more chemicals is hardly different from a breeder spending a fortune on two oddly-incompatible breeds of cat and using AI to put them together into a New Breed, which s/he cutely names after a favored hobby or whatever. And for a short time that creator of a pet GMO variety makes oodles of money selling offspring and breedings, and setting up clubs and associations for the fans that result.  Ka-CHING!  Somebody made money, and somewhere there are cats that can't breathe or can't stand properly or can't breed on their own.

I've been moderately aware of this business because I've owned a couple of horses whose breeders were focused on something like color or size or shape and neglected to consider things like whether the feet on the animal were going to hold up long enough for it to be sound and pain-free.  That's the Unintended Consequences piece of Benign Interventionism.  I read all about this in Temple Grandin's Genetics and Behavior in Domestic Animals.  Add that to your reading list.

Behind the unnatural color,
a body riddled with carcinoma.

But I wasn't aware of the historical perspective until the Mann book and the Gibbons article happened to show up together in my collection.  What ho!  Mann explained that without Columbus and the Columbian expansion, we wouldn't have horses (or tomatoes, or corn, or kachina dolls) at all in this country...or many other places in the world.  It was the global trade that his landing in the West permitted that brought it all together and allowed us to make a global mess of it all with such flair.

We fussed and tinkered and recreated until we turned a hardy, well-adapted animal into a fragile, barely-functional one.  And here we sit, wondering what to do about it.

I'm not a scientist, but it seems to me that we need to cut back the ego dial and start breeding horses not for their speed for our delight or for their ability to perform odd tricks for our amusement, but for hardiness in the area of the world in which we've left them dangling.

I hear the death throes of several breed associations in the distance.  It's not pretty, but it may be our only hope to truly save the horses.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horses/Humans Pair Up

Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions |

Horses More Relaxed Around Nervous Humans |

No, "Pair Up" isn't some new-fangled "Natural" Horsemanship meme.  We've certainly got plenty of those.  So many, in fact, that I lost track long ago, so when someone tells me the horse they want appraised knows Partnership/Join Up/TTeam/Resistance-Free or whatever, I no longer know what the horse knows.  I know for sure that the next human he comes into contact with is going to have a confusing time sorting out all the cues and behaviors the horse has learned in the process.

Personally, my favorite style is Unwind and Drink Up.  But....I digress...
Really?  You think you know what I need?
Then where's the filly with the pink ribbon in her tail?

We horse riders (sorry, but we're not all worthy of the name Horseman, which is reserved for the likes of Tom Dorrance, Mark Rashid, Buck Brannaman, and a few other notables who are pretty much men who are half horse) have been sold bills of goods for so long, we can't tell when we're being sucked in anymore.  I used to joke that if you put a horse on something, horse lovers will pay twice the price for it and worship it as if it had magical powers.  My Big Aha came with a $99 price tag.  It was a hand-held vacuum for cleaning dirt off your horse.  It had a red bag with black horses printed on it.  It was made by Dirt Devil.  Guess what I discovered when I went to buy new disposable liner bags?  Yep.  It was the identical unit to the one that sold for roughly $30 at any discount store.  The horses on the bag were apparently worth about $60.  In today's dollars that would be about $649.77.  No, I didn't do the math.

So we read and we listen and we watch and we make note of all the latest trends, and we wind up with some very useful information.  For instance:

  1. Horses have four legs and feet on the end of each, and those feet need attention roughly every six weeks.
  2. What goes in the front end comes out the back end in a much less-pleasant-smelling form and needs to be dealt with.
  3. Horses drink water.  They drink a lot of water.  They need water all the time.  And rule #2 applies.
  4. Horses live outside, so they have hair all over them.  If you shave it off, you have to replace it with something in the winter or they'll freeze.  They'll also bite you if they're not fond of being shaved.
  5. Horses know how to get what they need.  Try living naked in a field for a few weeks without so much as a folding chair or a collapsible cup for water or your cell phone.  They're smarter than you are.
  6. Your horse has friends.  You may or may not be one of them.  He also has standards.
  7. Your horse has a doctor and a dentist and a shoemaker.  He may not like them all, but they're all necessary to his well-being.
  8. Your horse doesn't think you're all that and a bag of chips...unless you actually have a bag of chips, in which case he may change his opinion temporarily.
  9. Horses, for no apparent reason, are intrigued by humans on about the same level as other barnyard species they encounter, but they learn quickly that we're the ones with the magic that controls their lives.
  10. Every horse has a job.  It might be watching for squirrels.  It might be finding a good place to stand in the shade.  He might be self-employed or part of a corporate entity known as The Herd.
Unfortunately, we're not very good at sorting out hype and hyperbole from helpfulness.  We swing through the forest of marketing tools grabbing this and that as we go and mushing it all together into a stew we call "training".  Everyone is a trainer.  Seriously.  If you go anywhere near any creature with a functioning brain, every interaction you have teaches the creature something, even if that something is that you are an idiot who is unlikely (in the creature's opinion) to survive the day.

Some of the not-so-useful things we've learned can actually be harmful.  Those things need to be replace by facts.
  1. Horses are not "furbabies".  They're adult animals with a strong instinct for survival and talents you can only dream of owning.  Treating them like recalcitrant human children is embarrassing.
  2. Horses do not need our guidance.  The only purpose for their attempts to learn what we want is so that we won't beat on them or somehow deprive them of what they need.  That they haven't banded together to kill us all is amazing to me.
  3. Horses do not need a job other than the one they were born into.  Some horses like to do the things we humans have devised for them, though no one really knows why.  Perhaps they're bored.  Perhaps they think they'll get something better in the end.  Who knows?  They just want to get along and not stress over anything less than mountain lions and hunger.
  4. Horses are not "just fine" living cooped up in a padded cell all the time.  Go live in your bathroom for a week.  Have someone dump oatmeal in a bucket for you twice a day.  No cell phones or tablets or phablets or whatever. No Netflix.  Just a small window to scream out of when you finally lose your mind.
  5. Horses' minds are not blank slates even at birth.  They are not like us.  They don't take two years to get up on their feet and poop on their own.  They do that at birth.  Whatever we do with them is overlaid on what is already deeply instinctual and permanently engraved.  
  6. Horses are not our "mirrors".  Check the study above on the fact that horses are calmer around nervous humans.  Personally, I think they enjoy our antics.  
  7. Horses are not our therapists.  If we feel better around a horse, that's great.  But it's not their job to fix our crazy.  It's our job to do that, preferably before we do something stupid to them.
  8. There really is such a thing as someone who should never own a horse.
  9. Rescued abused horses need more help than the average backyard horseman can supply.
  10. Retired racehorses are not for everyone.  They're for professionals to retrain and very good horsemen to own.  
I could go on (and on...and on), but the linked articles cover most of the best points.  Read them.  Then thank your lucky stars that your horse doesn't have access to the internet and has better things to do with his day than plot against you.  

Perhaps the worst of all is the list of fallacies perpetuated by the Rulers of Competitive Riding who tell us we need to remove hair from various parts of our horses to make them look better.  Better than what?  Braiding, polishing, bathing and all might be annoying to him, but they're not damaging.  Removing chin and ear hairs, that's damage!  Stop that!  Complain to the judges!  I read the worst thing yesterday when The Most FmousTrainer of All was quoted as saying that the judge is more likely to expect a great ride from a well-groomed horse-rider pair and will judge accordingly.  Really?  That's the basis?  What happened to good riding?  What happened to happy horses?  Sheesh!  What a crock!

One last fallacy is worth debunking.  Your horse is a horse.  He doesn't purposely aggravate you.  He just horses.  If you're feeling angry and frustrated, it's probably because you have been lead to believe that you and he are someone conjoined spirits and he knows that moving his butt to the left every time you line him up in front of the judge irritates you.  He actually might, but it's not that he cares.  It's that he likes the furor it causes.  Horses have a sense of humor and a keen sense of fairness.  Learn that above all.  You're the one imposing nonsensical rules on a very sensible animal.  Stop that.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Laterality isn't all one-sided

Idiosyncratic motor laterality in the horse - Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Equine Eyesight--Equus

There are a lot of common misconceptions about horses and how they function in the world.  We humans try to ferret out the details of other creatures' lives, but we're prone to guesswork and "common knowledge" responses.  The two articles linked above are worthy of consideration as you stand staring at your horse and wondering...WTH?

The first, scholarly study focuses on whether horses experience "handedness"--laterality--in movement.  Is your horse right-side-dominant or left-side-dominant?  Do you care?

It's not possible to tell from a still picture which side of
your horse is dominant.  Dolly may be right-sided by default
due to arthritis in her left shoulder.

You should care.  Training is a lot less frustrating when an owner gets where the horse is coming from (and I don't mean the neighbor's carrot patch).  Your horse actually does have a left/right preference, and it's not about weakness on one side or the other. It's about his brain.  Interestingly, the study found that males tend to be more left-footed than females.  Huh.  I've certainly seen that in action with my own horses, as Zip is totally a Lefty while Dolly is a Righty all the way.  I'm a Righty, too.  We've bonded.

If you've ever tried to write with your less dominant hand, you know that it's not all about practice. Practice will make it better. Some people are born (or can very effectively become) bilateral.  I'm not sure the same applies to horses only because they have no particular motivation to change.

Training is about change.  If the horse changes his behavior for his own purposes, it's usually effective, efficient and pretty hard to unchange.  He may change his route around the pasture because he's found where the best grass grows.  He may change his position in the lineup at the gate because he's less likely to get the snot kicked out of him if he moves back a space.  He may not have any particular desire to change from left- to right-side-dominant.  That's where horses and trainers butt heads.  We humans are a smidge self-centered, and we sometimes ignore that the four-legged partner we're working with doesn't give a rat's ass what we think he should look like as he cruises around the pen.  We're very convincing, but not very understanding.

Now, I'm a Righty, as noted.  I'm right hand, left leg, left eye dominant.  Go figure.  Zip is a Lefty.  This has always presented a minor issue as his preference for working beautifully to the left doesn't mesh well with my weaker right leg.  I can keep him reasonably straight going to the right.  To the left, I'm a little short on pressure with the outside leg, so he tends to drift out through the corners.  I correct this as much as possible by working hard to keep my right leg strong, but brains are brains, and I'm just slower on that side.  Period.

The other issue is the Split Brain Theory of horse life.  Our brains are split. There's a fascinating book (I recommend the audio version), Tales From Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience, by Michael S. Gazzaniga that should be required reading for anyone interested in interacting with any other thinking being.  It's that book that got me thinking about whether or not the horse really has such a definitive split between the hemispheres as we've been led by popular press to believe.  If it's as unclear to science as it appears to be, then why is it so ridiculously "obvious" to horsemen?

That's because we believe what we're told and few of us are researchers into such esoteric subjects as a career choice.

The second article speaks to the visual differences between us and our horses.  I, for one, believed the stories that said horses are completely monocular--they only see with one eye at a time, hence the spooky thing when something appears to move from one visual field to the other.  Not so.  It's not that "he's never seen it from that side of his brain."  They actually can use binocular vision, and they do so regularly.  When a horse picks his head up from his hay pile and stares across the pasture at you with both eyes, he's seeing you with both eyes, and you are totally 3D.  He knows how far away you are, how fast you're approaching, and how fast he needs to turn and run to get out of working.  Apparently what causes the spook is that for the instant between binocular vision (when he sees the object ahead with both eyes) and when it moves into monocular vision, there's a bit of a disconnect.  He loses focus and has to take a moment to determine just how far away, how big, and how fast-moving (or not) the object might be.  Being a self-protective sort, he quickly moves away from it until he can sort this out.

Dakota was likely born left-side-dominant, but if you look
closely at his left chest, you'll see the dimples of an impact
injury he probably suffered years ago that prevents him from
fully extending his left foreleg.  He's permanently confused.

Some horses have wide foreheads, which places the eyes farther to the sides and creates a larger blind spot. If the average horse needs you to be four feet in front of him for him to see you with both eyes, the wide-forehead guy might need you to be six or eight feet away.  The guy with the narrow head with eyes more frontally-aimed might not need as much distance.  The wide-forehead horse is likely to be spookier and rely more heavily on his trust in his rider/handler.  The narrow-forehead guy, as long as he doesn't have a lump between his eyes, might handle foreign objects more easily.

Your assignment this week is to look at your horse.  Figure out which side is dominant, and figure out just where his blind spot begins.  You might find the solution to some of the behavioral issues you're dealing with staring you Right (or Left) in the face.

Monday, June 01, 2015


The More We Limit Ourselves, the More Resourceful We Become | James Clear

Back this week to one of my favorite writers on the subject of personal improvement and goal-directed behavior, James Clear.  If you haven't already subscribed to his blog, you might want to do this when you've finished reading this.  Really.  Do it.


Most of the advice I read regarding raising the ceiling on our achievement levels leans heavily on The Sky's the Limit.  All we have to do is pretend we have no limits, and we can achieve gosh darn anything we want.

I've tried that.  That's why I own so many back braces, knee braces, and prescription meds.

So along comes James Clear telling us that our limitations may be our key to success.  Whoa!  Slap me down and call me a pancake if that isn't just the best news since the Duggars went off the air!
You're only as small as you think you are.

In essence, Clear's post steps off from something even more pithy:  a statement in Kierkegaard's Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.  Soren Kierkegaard, for those who didn't suffer through Philo 101 as a freshman college requirement, grew up in the 1800's in Denmark in dysfunctional family that sounds pretty much like the run-of-the-mill "Mom died and Dad's a religious fanatic" thing going on in a lot of the world today, so despite the age difference, he's easy for modern readers to relate to.  

Kierkegaard was all about the endless weariness inherent in the human search for meaning and purpose.  He does a fine and intriguing (if a bit abstruse) job of it, so if you'd like to enlighten yourself, check him out.  It's really a treatise on morality, so be prepared.

Moving along...

So here's the deal.  Kierkegaard said that others of his moral bent believed that in order to be happy we need more.  It doesn't seem to matter of what.  We just are always in search of more.  Without more, we feel empty.

Doesn't that feel familiar?  Today we call that "Maximizing".  Maximizers, those folks who always see greener grass in the distance (usually belonging to someone they have to savage to get it), are the  Mad Men our social order loves so dearly.  In Kierkegaard's day, they were simply the ultimate in human drive and commitment.

But he went on to explain that there's a reason why the majority is constantly seeking--never finding--that sense of accomplishment and moral superiority.  There's a reason why you can't quite be happy with your riding skills.  There's a reason why you are always finding a better horse in someone else's stable.  There's a reason for your ennui and your feeling that you're just not feeling it.

The reason is that you aren't using your limitations to best advantage.  Clear and Kierkegaard and I all agree that the coolest thing about figuring out what you can't do is that it leaves you with two simple alternatives from which to choose:

1.  You can quit.

2.  You can keep your eyes on the prize (figuratively--you don't have to be Olympics-bound) and find work-arounds.


As a special ed teacher from '71 - '06, this was my wheelhouse.  At the beginning of each school year we did a class inventory of learning modalities.  The kids loved it.  You have a hard time listening, but you can read up a storm?  Visual learners need a lot of printed pages and pictures, so go find them.  You can't read but you're awesome at listening?  Get someone to record the pages for you and listen to them at home to your heart's (and brain's) content.  You need to trace the letter with your fingers or act out the scene in the book?  Go ahead!  No one is stopping you.

Post-legged, sickle-hocked,
green-broke at 12....and
that's just me!  Fancy had far
bigger issues.

Your horse can't find the distance to a jump?  You learn how to calculate it and do it for him.  You can't remember the damn pattern for whatever class it is that the judge is tormenting you in?  Drawing on the inside of your wrist just under the hem of your glove works great.  And practice over and over until the thing that was your worst fear becomes your friend.

The most important thing you can do for yourself, your horse, and everyone who's tired of listening to you whine is sit down and make a list of the things you're having a problem achieving.  Some of the are simply impossible.  l'm 5'4", 140lbs, and 67 years old.  Nothing I do will make me 5'8" and 32 years old, so those factors get x'd out.  I can change my weight, so that can stay on the list if it's a problem.  I have arthritis.  That stays on the list because I can take meds to control the pain and stiffness.  So my list of things that are hard for me to do include items like:

  • keeping a firm, quiet leg on my wide-body gelding
  • Staying centered in the saddle at all times
  • Not panicking when I see something in the distance that the horse hasn't seen yet but will in a minute and about which he will have a coronary
  • Riding for longer periods 
You can easily see the connection between my basic state of being and the things I find difficult.  I'll bet everyone reading this is also mentally making a list of ways I can get around them.  There ya' go! Do that for yourself, and your resourcefulness will make a winner of you despite your issues!

I can tell you from seemingly endless experience that there is no high like the one that comes with the A-HA! of finding the key to doing something you couldn't do before.

One last caveat:  If you have an instructor who is not special ed certified, s/he might be too rigid for your personal situation.  A trainer who has only one way of approaching a problem isn't much of a trainer anyway, so find a new one.  My all-time favorite will always be Linnea Seaman, now retired, who invented invisible suspenders and gooey horses as a way to explain balance and elasticity in dressage.  One lesson on that some ten years ago, and I haven't forgotten a word.  Now that's special ed!  Find someone who, unlike another trainer who shall remain nameless, does not put his head in his hands and groan when you make a mistake, but instead stops, thinks, and creatively crafts a work-around for you.  Do it.  Do it now.