Monday, March 30, 2009

Training? Stupid horses?

Ran across a couple of videos while surfing youtube (yes, in my "spare time" haha) that caught my attention... These are not meant to criticize the riders but rather to perhaps shine a light on the horse's perspective, to offer another point of view. I am not going to particularly and directly critique the rider or handler, but I will point out possibly contributing facts.

First thought that came into my head: really? Why?? Let's take a step back and look at this. The rider (whose poor riding position - likely due to the occurring conflict - is likely exacerbating the horse's frustration) is hauling on those reins as if there were no tomorrow in an attempt to balance the horse and have him moving in a better frame. The horse's reaction - tail switching, raised head, tense body - is all just a manifestation of the partnership - or lack thereof, between horse and rider. The horse is a reflection of the rider and/or its partnership with said rider. Always. I cannot comment much else on the situation because I am not there. It's not my place to judge, really. I just felt that the title of the video was a poor choice; a horse in a situation such as the one in the video above does not need "training" per se, his rider needs to learn to communicate more efficiently with him (read: quieter!) and to create a partnership of trust and respect so that both partners are working together as a team, rather than fighting one another as shown above. It's not about the horse, it is about the rider.

Racehorse blowing over backward:

I thought this video was pretty interesting. The horse was initially not at all right-brained (reactive) when the rider actually mounted up. He was calm, his body loose, looking around inquisitively at everything around him when you see his head go straight as if he's thinking for an instant. Next, the handler tries to get the horse to move forward, and the horse throws his head up and launches himself backwards. Looks pretty calculated and left-brained (thinking) to me, which is pretty interesting! Normally for a horse to do that he is pretty right-brained and reactive, he's doing it out of instinct to get the rider off his back. This horse though you can see - he makes his final decision as the handler applies pressure, and he means business! As the handler applies pressure, he reacts in response. He thinks about what he is going to do and follows through with it in a serious fashion, no fooling around, he was making sure that rider was coming off, even at the expense of likely injuring himself. That's pretty rare to find a horse move through such a high-intensity reaction like that so left-brained; something serious - in the horse's mind - has to be occurring first (under-saddle) before a horse will consider going to such lengths to remove a rider. I noticed before the horse threw himself that the handler was pretty tense, which also leads to the suspicion that this has perhaps occurred before. Obviously something is going on that the horse does not like that is causing him to react as such! I am suspecting he is a Left-brain Introvert, meaning he naturally thinks rather than reacts, and he keeps his emotions inside rather than outside (ie, moving his feet), in an obvious fashion. He thinks (left-brain), does not display really any signs he is going to react (introvert), then suddenly reacts in reflection to an outside trigger to the emotions that are broiling up inside his head. The downfall for him is that if this becomes something regular for him (or has already), that people will blame him - the horse, rather than taking it as a reaction towards something else. No one will want to work with him and, without looking at things from his perspective and solving the root of the problem, he'll be tossed out to the dogs. Isn't it great to be a horse?

Stupid horse:

Really? Because the horse does not move forward, that automatically makes him stupid? This is the sort of ignorance that gets so many horses in trouble and I really hope this was simply a rider on a trail ride, as opposed to the owner of this horse. The horse is not responding for one of two reasons. Either a) he does not understand what you want (therefore it is our job to teach him), or b) the horse lacks respect for the rider (in which case it is the rider's job to earn the horse's respect). The solution to either situation is up to the rider and is not the result of a stupid horse. Just looking at the horse's response - his ear position (flickering, as opposed to flat against his head in opposition), his head carriage (up and down in lieu of up and tense with ears flat back, a manifestation of a little anxiety as he attempts to solve this puzzle), I am willing to bet on the first reason for the horse not moving forward. Horses are not born knowing human language (which we have made up, keep in mind, the horse did not come up with "forward" cues), just as people are not born knowing sign language.

Stupid horse (numero deux):

All I see is a horse that is trying to solve a puzzle or being resistant (thereby using the back-up as a way of evading his rider). He is trying all sorts of answers; his anxiety is expressed in the tense body, the raised head, the bit-chomping, and the switching tail. He's not stupid, his rider is either not being clear or he has learned the back-up as an evasion technique. Also, notice that the first time his rider attempts to ask him something, he backs up, and she stops asking - she releases/rewards. He licks his lips as he thinks and releases tension. He thinks he may have found the correct answer (even if it's a way of evasion), because she released when he backed up. Then she keeps asking him, so he responds with what he believes to be the correct answer to her request. She keeps re-asking because the answer he gave obviously was not what she was looking for, and he continues to provide her the answer she reinforced only moments before as being correct, all the while becoming more anxious as he does not get the release he is hoping for that tells him he's found the correct answer to her request. His anxiety too is likely not helping him to think, rather it is hindering him a bit. Videos like this make my stomach sink because it shows just how ignorant us humans can be at times. We really have no idea, and the horse is always the one to get the blame. The video is clearly labeled - stupid horse. It's really too bad because this is rider error any way we look at it whether it be as a result of resistance toward the rider (which could also indicate a pain issue) or whether it be the result of the rider being unclear.

Breeding based on bloodlines

I recently ran across the following ad, which prompted a spill of my thoughts on breeding based on bloodlines.

The title of this ad advertises that this 5yo APHA stud is a homozygous son of Strait from Texas. I have to admit that I know very very little of paint bloodlines (okay, nothing), but a quick google search revealed this stud to be top of the APHA world with a lot of winnings and some absolutely gorgeous get. Which also leads me to the thought (completely off-topic), because I also found some very poor quality horses sired by this horse - as a stallion owner, are you particular about which mares your stud breeds? Do you only breed best to the best with the intentions of turning out the best possible foal that exceeds its parents in quality?

Anyway, back to the ad. The ad went on to point out that Strait from Texas stallions, top-of-the-line in the APHA world, are difficult to find in Canada and that therefore this is a very valuable breeding. Going to their website, this stallion has not been started under-saddle yet and has no accomplishments of his own. He is also homozygous to black, but not to the pattern.

Okay, so here is the dilemna. This horse has no accomplishments of his own (yet) and to my eye, is not what I would deem "the best". There are so many horses out there and at this time, with the economy the way it is combined with the closure of slaughter plants in the US, there is a huge surplus of horses. Regardless of the current situation even, we should always be only breeding the best to the best with the goal of a foal exceeding its parents. That is why Europe is known for turning out the best horses in the world. Their breed standards allow only the best of the best to be bred, the cream of the crop, and the result is high quality horses. On the other hand, this horse does possess fabulous bloodlines. So, do you breed for bloodlines regardless of conformation? Or do you breed based on conformation first, achievements next, and bloodlines last? Personally, I would never breed to this stallion and had he been mine, I would have gelded him long ago. He certainly has some quality characteristics about him (balanced frame, nice hind, straight legs), but he would definitely make a better gelding than stallion. First off, this angle of photo makes it difficult to determine accurately his exact conformation, but he looks to be bum-high (something he is unlikely to grow out of after 5) and his eye, head, shoulder, neck and withers all make me cringe. I strongly believe that, despite bloodlines, a stallion should be judged on its own merit. That means it has flawless conformation, excels at whichever discipline he was bred to do, and also has great bloodlines (stress on bloodlines being dependent upon the stallion's own accomplishments). Then, of course, you look for him to be proven by way of his offspring. To me, successful bloodlines provide a stud a greater chance at being successful himself and also at creating successful offspring, but they should not supersede all else. This Strait from Texas has some amazing offspring - some of the best looking ones being geldings (!)...there are a number of stallions much better suited to carrying and passing on his genes.

This 7yo paint stallion is one I would possibly consider breeding to. He is balanced proportionately, his legs are straight, his back is nice and short, he has a great shoulder and excellent hind, his head is proportionate to his body...he just looks like an all-round athletic stallion with great conformation.

The ad reads that he is double homozygous (for the black gene and for the tobiano colour) and he boasts some top QH bloodlines. His website shows off some fabulous looking foals. No accomplishments to date listed though... but he is proving he can produce the right conformation in his get. Unlike the ranch standing the above stallion at stud, this ranch displays some gorgeous mares and great foals, demonstrating a lot of careful thought and knowledge behind the breeding.

Different bloodlines though and different discipline than the stallion above. This stud is bred more as a cow horse and to produce cowy paint offspring.

Here is another stud, this one a 5yo bred by the same individuals who bred Strait from Texas, and by that same stud (same as the top stallion). He is double homozygous and is very correct from a conformational standpoint. I'd like to see him more evened out (ie. bum a little lower) but otherwise I cannot complain - nice shoulder and hip angles, very balanced proportions, strong back, straight legs, neck ties in nicely into the chest, nice topline overall. He has sired some good-looking offspring and you can only expect him to succeed in the show ring. This stallion definitely has it all and is definitely one I would consider breeding to. Something else I found neat about this ranch is that they do not allow any mares with hereditary or genetic disorders, which seems to be rare to find a ranch ensuring.

These thoughts have crossed my mind countless times before. I can recall two Thoroughbred mares specifically who had not been successful on the track and who were brought back home to be used as broodmares because of their great bloodlines. The one mare was actually very good looking (otherwise) but had very crooked legs. Perhaps if you bred her to something with very correct legs you could get a nice foal, but I wouldn't be trying more than once if the first foal turned out with crooked legs. To breed her once even involves quite a bit of contemplation. The second mare had extremely light bone (so light that she obtained fractures from light training as a 2yo) and was fraught with conformation flaws - she was not built to last whatsoever. But, she had great bloodlines so her owners were taking her back home to breed her. This occurs throughout the equine industry, individuals breeding a horse based almost solely upon bloodlines (or "well we just want to have a little baby foal around!"...but that's another maddening subject altogether). Is this line of thinking successful? Or does it simply add to an industry already teeming with too many horses, many of which possess conformation worthy of banging our heads against a wall? What about all those grade stallions? I'm not referring to those bred with purpose, some of the successful sporthorse or warmblood crosses, for example. What about all those grade mares being bred to another breed not within their breeding already? This is not to say either that grade horses are not valuable - to the contrary, I find them extremely valuable. Most of our sporthorses (or other breeds) even are not the result of one breed being bred down through centuries (such as the Arabian or Thoroughbred), they're the result of careful mixing of a number of similar breeds to create the ultimate sporthorse. Belgian/Quarter Horses, Percheron/Thoroughbreds, Friesian/Thoroughbreds, all are fabulous crosses with great potential. But cross-breeding should still be done just as carefully as breeding within a breed, perhaps moreso because of the risk (breeding two breeds of two different backgrounds, thus there is some unpredictability) and so grade stallions and grade mares being bred...does not seem to ring well (as a whole) to my ears. They are also less valuable within the industry, and thus usually start out near the bottom. Add to that poor conformation and poor performance and the horse is most likely destined to exist at the bottom of the pile, one day ending up in a truck headed to Mexico. Keep in mind I am neither referring to the individual who breeds one or even a couple horses for their own purposes and breeds with responsibility and caution, I am speaking in general.

Another off-topic point, is why it is cheaper with some stallions to breed a grade mare to that stud? Why wouldn't you instead be encouraging the breeding of purebred mares to a particular stallion over grade mares? Just a thought and perhaps there is a good point for this, I just have yet to find it and was unsure as to the reason. Certainly breeding grade mares to a quality stallion can produce some amazing get, however the risk is higher at obtaining a quality foal and thus very careful planning is required. I find that those wishing to breed grade mares are often of the type that are not looking to improve a breed or produce a quality foal, but are rather simply looking for a pet foal, a foal for their kids to grow up with, a foal to entertain them for awhile. Of course this is not always the case and sometimes it is it even turns out well, but it seems to often be the case, the result is often negative, and so it makes me wonder why stallion owners would encourage this. Like I said, just another random thought to consider.

Taking a break from this whole breeding could be so much more in-depth even lol.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Driving class mishap

This is actually a youtube video also featured on Fugly Horse of the Day, which is how it was brought to my attention. Just a point: I do not agree with FHOTD on many points but I do still maintain an open mind and therefore do still read blogs such as hers. Much can be learned in any situation.

Country Pleasure Driving Class Gone Wrong:

The video info session asks the question: What would you do?

Here's my $0.02 on the matter:

First off, the horse that originally took off in that class was not in a very balanced state of mind; he becomes increasingly right-brained/reactive to the point where he is in full flight mode - no thinking just pure instinctual reaction. That does not just happen at the flip of a switch (usually!) - there is a path that leads to that point. A lot of signs that the handler perhaps could have noticed and in that case, should have pulled their horse from the class. On the other hand, sometimes signs are not that obvious and other times minds can become clouded by the "need" to show in a class; we figure everything will be okay, that we can handle it. Sometimes minds are clouded by winning, by money, by outside factors that don't take properly into account the horse itself. I would see this all the time at the track - horses that I did not feel should be running (for various reasons - weather, physical issues, etc) were run regardless due to an owner's needs without taking into account the horse's needs. Even against the trainer's advice sometimes horses were run; one owner in particular would go behind his trainer's back and enter his horses in races against the wishes of the horse's trainer. The trainer would find out afterwards that hey, one of his horses was running that weekend. Joy. Sometimes it is due to ignorance of the situation, sometimes it is due to outright greed. Everything can be clearer in hindsight and at times we do not make the best decisions. Another factor that likely played a role was the partnership, or lack thereof, that the driver had with this individual horse - at least at that time, in that type of setting. A fully developed horse that has a strong working partnership with its human is going to be following that person's leadership; many individuals do not recognize this though and so can inadvertently neglect this area with a horse.

First off, as mentioned above, that horse could have shown signs of being right-brained before it even stepped foot in the competition in the warm-up ring, or even at home. I hope that I would have had the foresight to have seen a horse in that state of mind, or to know that a horse I was working with was at a level where they could be inclined to be in that right-brained state of mind at a show, and to withdraw from the class (or not enter in it in the first place). I put my horses' well beings above all else. They must come first because they do not even have the choice to be where they are; therefore it is my duty to do my best by them. If they are choosing to enter in a partnership with me, it is my job to act as a reliable and trustworthy partner and protect them from situations like that above. This means scratching a racehorse should the track be too muddy, this means withdrawing from a jumping class should my horse just feel "off" that day, whether it be physically or mentally, this means withdrawing from a driving class (should I drive, I do not) should one of the horses entered in the same class seem perhaps in a potentially dangerous frame of mind. Sure, we kick ourselves a bit afterward if nothing happens, but it's not worth the risk and I think a bigger part of ourselves realizes that and is happy just to ensure the well-being of our partners. That said, sometimes we don't know what we're getting into until we're already in, sometimes the only way to find out what a horse or a team is or is not capable of, is to do it (with what we hope is sufficient preparation, of course!).

Quick note: I was not in that ring that day, I am not even a driver, so I cannot place blame anywhere. I am just pointing out some possible factors that could have played a role that day.

Second point: what would I do if I found myself in that ring with loose, very reactive, very right-brained horses?? The announcer did a great job of trying to coordinate the individuals in the ring. She was calm and assertive and she called out some great decisions from her vantage point. Unfortunately though those in the ring were not quite so co-operative (they were a little frazzled and "right-brained" themselves!) and even accidentally channeled that horse into some dangerous situations a few times! The man who was run over - NEVER EVER stand in a horse's way when they are in that state of mind. You need to know when to stand your ground, make yourself as big as possible, and wave your arms, and you need to know when to just duck out. That was a time to duck out. It was also a time for everyone to withdraw into the center, horses on the inside, people on the outside. Allow the loose horse to run himself out and to enter a more "thinking" mind frame - left-brained. In flight mode he is not going to be thinking, and human predators chasing after him in attempts to catch him are just going to send him further and further into that negative state of mind. When I am working with horses one of the things I am trying to do is earn their trust in my leadership abilities, I am trying to earn the position of herd leader with a horse. The horse is a herd animal that relies on a leader and herd dynamics, they will take over leadership if they do not feel they can trust you to lead them safely and ensure their survival (which is first and foremost in their minds), but they naturally want to follow, some more readily than others. My Quarab Silver, for example, wants to follow much more readily than my Warmblood cross Koolaid - Koolaid requires extremely strong (earned) leadership before he'll follow you. This leadership role then transfers over to ensuring the safety of your horse such as in situations in the above video. Same as I do with my dogs, I protect my horses as herd leader. I don't allow another horse to be rude to my horses (or vice versa as well), I keep the peace in the herd. Confidence also plays a role; the confident horse will have a lesser tendency to react, and will return to a thinking state of mind quicker after a reaction, than a less confident horse. Thus, developing a horse's confidence is especially crucial. With horses on the inside, the individuals in that ring could have surrounded the horses and protected them. The loose horse could have been allowed the entire ring to run and calm down, with a ring of people standing "big" and waving their arms periodically to ensure that horse stayed on the outside of that ring. Prey animals have tunnel vision when in flight mode. When that loose horse entered the center, there was a strong likelihood he was going to crash into other horses just because he's stopped thinking in favour of reacting. He's not going to be in the right state of mind to navigate safely through a crowd of horses. If he is "forced" into that crowd of horses when in such a highly reactive state, his level of excitement is going to increase tenfold: first he feels trapped in the crowd, and second, his brain is trying to think through the situation but cannot and so becomes even more excited and reactive. So by keeping him on the outside he would have been in a situation where he could have calmed down easier. What, specifically, would I have done? I'd have gotten out of my driving cart or off my horse if necessary (in an under-saddle class), removed my horse from the crowd (while still keeping her in the center of the ring with the others, just off to the side a bit to allow for maneuverability and for an escape route for the loose horse should he come through the center), and stood between my horse and the loose horse. Should the horse have approached us, the first thing I would have done is move out of the loose horse's way (get my horse moved) and then make myself as big as possible, waving my arms, all the while allowing that loose horse a clear path to escape. That horse ran about the arena for quite some time...another thing that could possibly have been considered was removing the driving carts from the contained horses and placing the driving carts up against say that piece of fencing in the middle of the arena. That way the contained horses could have been easier to keep safe, could have been grouped in a closer group the loose horse could not penetrate, and should one have gotten loose, she would have been much better off than if she had been pulling a driving cart, such as the fallen horse at the end of the movie. Just a thought, I do not drive so I do not know how long it takes to disengage a horse from a cart.

Remember, this is not meant as criticism of the incident in question; everything is clearer in hindsight! This is just my two cents, looking back on the incident. Reflection on such incidents enables us to perhaps be able to even better handle future such incidents, or even prevent them, due to anticipation and even better preparation.

On the topic of loose horses, whether to dismount or not if there is a loose horse in the ring: the rule in Pony Club when I was younger that, should a horse become loose in the arena, you were to dismount immediately and stand next to your horse. I recently experienced a loose horse in the arena a few weeks ago when I was on a green horse - I dismounted. It completely depends on the horse I am on and the partnership I have earned with said horse. If I am on a higher level horse such as Silver or Koolaid, I would likely stay on. Both horses are very balanced mentally and emotionally and I have very high levels of partnership with either horse. Should the loose horse approach, I know I could position the horse beneath me in an advantageous position and drive the loose horse off from my perch on my own horse. On a green horse however, I cannot trust the horse beneath me to remain calm and fully follow my leadership - we are likely not at a high enough level of partnership at that point for that horse to trust me and therefore for me to trust it. You automatically have a higher level of partnership on the ground than in the saddle (plus you're safer on the ground), so I'd rather be on the ground #1 safe and #2 where my green horse can physically see me and therefore perhaps follow my calm leadership. Regardless of the situation though, should a horse become loose in the arena I strongly believe that everyone in the arena should halt immediately, then decide to dismount (where you could be safer) or not.