Friday, February 19, 2010

Joint Injections

How do people feel about these? I was reading a magazine recently (Horse & Rider?) and ran across an article where Cleve Wells briefly mentioned that he will inject a horse whenever it needs it (this was pertaining to young horses). Based on my recent dives into conformation books, I have found the actual facts to back up what we already all know – the necessity for joint injections are the result of joints being over-stressed and over-worn, particularly on a horse who is too young to be doing what is being asked of him. What actually happens is the horse’s joints fail to produce adequate lubrication to the horse’s joint, resulting and stiffness and soreness.

I have to admit my knowledge of joint injections is rather limited. I have seen them done on the racehorses at the track and understand that there are a great many on the market that perform their jobs differently and affect the horse differently. I guess I am currently operating under the belief that joint injections can be greatly beneficial to a horse (depending on the type of injection) and that they can allow a horse to be much more comfortable than he would be otherwise…and I am always all about the horse. On the other hand, I struggle with the concept of a horse being given joint injections without other options being considered (such as supplements) and for the purpose of continuing to compete on that horse (perhaps allowing a rider to continue to push a horse past its capabilities). I think that supplements (etc) should definitely be pursued prior to turning to joint injections, but I think too that the purpose and use of a horse receiving joint injections must be evaluated and decided on a case-by-case basis. I think it can be easy to forget about the best interests of the horse (for example, why not compete a horse who is receiving injections if he/she is sound and comfortable doing so? On the other hand, could such use have detrimental effects on the horse in the long-run?) but that we must always be careful to pursue the best for our horses. It certainly is not black-and-white!

I think thought the huge thing to always keep in mind with joint injections is why they are necessary for a particular horse. I think it is likely rare (if possible?) for a horse to be unable to produce sufficient joint fluid on a natural basis (ie. the horse in a natural setting, without human interference), so then we have to take a step back and recognize that if a horse requires joint injections, it is likely due to said horse being pushed beyond its physical maturity and capabilities. If that be the case, then the next obvious realization is that perhaps it is necessary to re-evaluate our methods and work differently, in the best interests of our horse(s).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Punishment - why not to use it

Now I am all for discipline (not to be confused with frustration, aggression, or punishment – for a very accurate depiction of “proper” discipline, check out Cesar Milan’s first book Cesar's Way; I feel he describes it more accurately than I could ever attempt here), however I have to say that after years of working with horses the “traditional” (for lack of a better word) way, I have found punishment to be much less effective than boundaries (discipline) and earning a horse’s respect.

Another two inter-related factors that play a decisive role in my refusal to punish a horse are the following:
Dignity – horses are “beings” too, much like us, with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Who are we to impose ourselves – our wants, needs, feelings, desires, and thoughts upon another being, what gives us the right? I honestly believe that it is very integral to a horse’s training/development/well-being to preserve their dignity. Rather than “making” a horse do what we want, we can “ask” them to do what we’d like to. We can take what they give us and mould it until we have what we want. In this fashion, we proceed at the horse’s pace (which, if you treat the horse with respect and earn the horse's partnership, occurs at a rather rapid pace) and according to their needs and desires as well. By “earning” a horse’s respect and trust and by preserving their dignity, we also create a partner who then wants to do as we ask, rather than forcing it upon them. For example, rather than stripping a horse of its dignity as we strap it down with all sorts of gimmicks and training devices to teach it collection (which, if done in this fashion, will likely be “false” collection anyways), we can instead encourage the horse to work from behind and eventually collect, through exercises and gentle guidance. In this fashion, the horse will also try harder. As prey animals, a horse will naturally want to do the opposite of what a predator (us) demands; if we earn a horse's partnership however and learn to work with the horse, the horse will offer up much less opposition.
Respect – I think to have utmost respect for a horse is to allow them to be a partner rather than a prisoner. It is to understand what motivates a horse, what they want, what they need, and to cater to them as they also cater to us. In a partnership, either partner should be permitted to offer up a suggestion or ask a question, and have the other partner listen and respond appropriately. An example: perhaps if I do a little liberty work with my horse (this does not mean every session, but at least every once in awhile) and allow him to move about freely and make the decision himself of whether to be with me or not rather than forcing him to be with me through ropes, perhaps he will instead choose to be with me. Maybe if we do a little of what my horse wants to do one day, he will do a little of what I want later, or the next day. In a partnership, I can give my horse the respect of having a say in what or how we do things – in doing so, he is therefore more likely to want to do things I ask. In a partnership, I give so that he can give.

On the other hand, it is also our responsibility to develop a horse to the extent that it can be a better horse and a better partner – respectful, trustworthy, “obedient”, calm, brave, smart, polite, and “centered” (“balanced” emotionally and mentally). In doing so, we have to set boundaries but also give the horse a fair chance to react. One has to possess assertiveness but also act in a trustworthy manner. When we allow emotions to get the better of us, we lose all respect and represent unstable leadership to our horses. This is the problem with punishment – it is usually accompanied by emotion (anger). While the actual kick or slap to the horse might not hurt the horse (this IS a 1,200 lb animal, after all) the actual action is what can ruin the trust and respect of a partnership.

Punishment, by contrast, can bring about one of two things in a horse: retaliation and resentment, or fearfulness. It can bring about the aforementioned in an extreme fashion, or, with a very tolerant and balanced horse, it might not be overly visible. However take all the ropes off that horse and you will see what you truly have – if you can still do all the things on the ground and under-saddle at liberty that you could do with ropes on the horse (and not because the horse is a push-button, shut-down robot, but because the horse is truly interacting with you), you’ve got a partnership. This is not to say that punishment does not always work, just that it is often not the best way of going about things and that it usually does not work or last, because the root of the behavior that invoked the punishment is not addressed (ie. why the horse did what it did) and it does not serve to earn respect or trust (in fact, it can remove either). You might have a good partnership and bond with your horse that includes punishment even, but it could be better without it (in my experiences). In the horse who tends to be RB, the horse will simply view you as the predator you are, and an unpredictable, untrustworthy one at that! The LB horse will tend to start some behaviors as a means of establishing dominance – your punishment is a retaliation that can possibly continue a game the horse has just started or it can lead to further retaliation and escalation. Our LBI is the one who taught me the ineffectiveness of punishment – I had finally met the horse who, when punished, would simply escalate the situation. Punish him and he would have either one of two reactions: he would physically attack you (kick, strike out, bite, buck, etc) or he would shut down and ignore you completely, refusing to move a single step unless it was in the direction of his pasture. Instead, I had to work my ass off at earning his respect, preserving his dignity along the way. When I did so, he finally started coming around, to the point where now, years later, he will do anything I ask of him without question, and happily.

This is not to say that horses do not need assertive, strong leadership, and boundaries – they certainly do. However everything needs to be done fairly and mimic the behaviors of a herd. For example, a herd member will never be standing dozing peacefully then suddenly explode and lash out at the nearest horse near him. Instead, if a horse is disrespectful towards him, he will lay his ears back, swish his tail, bare his teeth as he moves in to bite, then finally he will position his body and bite or kick – there are phases (even if they are done rapidly). So for example if I ask a horse to move, he knows that I am going to first point my finger or arm in the direction in which I would like him to move, then I will pick up my stick, I will wiggle my stick (making the movements bigger and bigger), then I will touch the ground where he is standing. If he is still there, he is going to hit the string that is coming down towards him, but if he moves off, the string is simply going to touch the ground – I am focusing on the spot rather than the horse. Pretty soon, he is simply going to move out when I point. At first, my phases will be slow and take a long time to go through, so that the horse has a lot of time to think and figure out what he should do, but as he understands what I am asking, I am going to request more and more respect, to the point where my phases come quickly. However I am not going to ask the horse to move out by pointing, then slap him with the whip (in punishment) if he doesn’t. While I will not punish a horse for biting me, I will definitely flap my arms or otherwise command respect and establish my space – the horse cannot bite me if it is not in my space. Then I can move on to earning the horse’s respect or trust – the root cause for the bite. For the most part, if you ignore the undesirable behaviors and reward the desired responses (through rest or another motivation), in combination with earning a horse’s respect and trust, you can gently mould your horse’s behaviors to create a balanced partner – without the use of force and punishment.

I find a great deal of owners use punishment because “it works” for them. It achieves what they desire. While I do not feel that it (punishment) allows for an optimal partnership, perhaps they feel what they have is good enough – and with the average horse, punishment “works” (to an extent, on the surface). However the problem then arises when you meet the horse one day on whom punishment does not work and only creates problems. Some extreme cases:

Our LBI, which I have already previously discussed: punishing him meant a massive war on your hands and no matter how forceful you got, he could (and would) get more forceful, eventually to the point where it was a 1,200lb horse pitted against a mere 130lb human. Punishment, with him, only increased his resentment and thus retaliation.

We acquired an abused RBI this year – a 6yo Paint gelding. While punishment was obviously taken to the extreme in his case, he remains a prime example of what punishment does, just at a higher and more visible level. He is extremely distrustful of humans; I was given him when his owner could no longer deal with his fear of everything and his turning his hind end towards her so that he could not be caught. The confidence and thus curiosity has been literally beaten out of him and it has been a process to bring that back. Obviously he was punished for whatever the original owner deemed “undesirable”, amounting to an extremely fearful and suspicious horse.

My Thoroughbred is a very high energy LBE who was never developed into a well rounded horse. The result was that at the track, he was anxious and easily stressed out. Of course being conditioned into a prime athlete and then cooped up all day, especially without teaching him how to “deal with his emotions” and be calm, created a horse who was wound up like a spring, ready to blow at any moment (especially in a LBE, who wants to move his feet)…which of course he did…often. His behaviors ranged from bucking at the canter because he was being held back, to jumping around on the ground because he had no idea what to do with himself. Of course he was then punished. First it was a chain over his nose, which soon progressed to a chain over his gums – in the interest of “control”. Being an LBE, he is also a dominant horse so in him, the punishment not only created a great deal of distrust I am still working hard to undo, but it also created rebelliousness and retaliation. On the track, he then learned to kick out at other riders passing by – not the horses, but aiming directly for the riders. On the ground, he kicked at people if they walked past him on the walker, and he would double-barrel kick constantly as he was walked around the shedrow. He was a real sweetheart in his stall but was ultimately very distrustful of, and disrespectful towards, humans. The result, when I got him, was bucking at the canter under-saddle, kicking at me if he felt trapped, and explosions under-saddle. If he exploded, there was no stopping him – he would blow up but then continue blowing up in an attempt to get the predator on his back off. I have worked uber hard at earning his respect and trust, and it is paying off – the only “vice” that remains is his explosions under-saddle, but even those are occurring less and less frequently, and only under extenuating circumstances; even now, if he does explode under-saddle, it is usually very small and contained – he “comes back to me” very easily and goes straight back to work…eventually they will disappear completely as well. On the other hand, I also “listen” to him though as well – if he is not yet sufficiently ready to do something, we work harder at better preparing him for it before re-attempting it. If I can read that he is over-excited about something, I don’t push it, and eventually we get it. He has learned that I won’t push him and that he can not only trust me (that I will not punish him), but that he can trust my leadership.

Although these are extreme examples, there are many more just like them out there. If these are extreme examples of “extreme” horses operating under “normal” rules of punishment, think of how it could possibly be affecting the “normal” horse. Good, better, best - never let it rest. Maybe it "works" for you, but maybe it could be better?

Friday, February 12, 2010


Horsenality chart
How it works: you place a dot under each category/behaviour your horse falls under. The less extreme the behaviour, the closer the dot is placed to the centre of the circle. The goal in developing a horse is to create a horse who is less 'extreme', whose behaviours rate closest to the center of the circle as opposed to the outter rims of the circle.

I continuously hear it repeated that “one method cannot possibly work for all horses”. Well, that could not be more incorrect. While the approach must be tailored to the individual horse with focus on certain aspects above others, the actual method need not differ. It is what becoming a true horseman is all about – developing a method that truly does allow one to work with any horse they encounter. This does not mean that one has the exact same reaction toward each and every horse and its behaviour, but that one has the exact same state of mind/thinking and principles that they follow, that allow them to work with each horse as appropriate to that specific animal (that allow them to adapt their methods). For example, trust and respect is the foundation of every partnership and how you obtain it from each horse can be very similar, however there might be small differences of going about the same exercises that make a difference to each horse. In addition, one horse might require you to earn a higher level of respect, while another horse might require you to focus on earning trust. You can still teach both horses the exact same exercises and cues, however you might use softer or more assertive body language as appropriate to the specific horse, and focus more intently on the exercises that specifically help that horse.

At the root of all this is the horse’s “horsenality”. Amongst the snark against Natural Horsemanship, people seem to continuously state the utter uselessness of “horsenalities”. Yet it is such assessment of a horse that exactly allows the horseman to accurately evaluate a horse to adapt his/her methods to said horse – thus enabling horseman to work with any horse they come in contact with and bring said horse to its utmost potential. Most claim this should be “common sense”. Well, wake up. Common sense is not so common. Furthermore, handling horses and what to do might not be innate to some people and really, everyone has to learn to a certain degree, even if what they learn and then practice comes naturally to them. Understanding a horse’s way of being on a conscious level can aid a person in adapting their methods and learning how to approach that specific horse, on a conscious level. It can also help an individual to more fully understand why a horse is behaving the way it is and thus having the potential of eliminating frustration.

Parelli has developed an assessment of a horse’s “horsenality” based upon two observations: whether the horse is introverted or extroverted, and whether the horse is (at its foundation) right-brained or left-brained. This is not to say that a horse cannot have one horsenality but display tendencies of another. For example, a low level of confidence can result in a horse becoming introverted as it reverts to its natural survival instincts – a non-confident horse is going to lack curiosity, which might be in its best interests for its survival. A horse who has given up the fight (due to a forceful rider/etc) might become introverted rather than acting extroverted. Also, being right-brained and instinctive can also benefit a horse greater than being left-brained and thinking a situation through at first (at times) – flight might be a better option than standing and thinking through what to do when a lion is staring you in the face.

Generally, the extroverted horse is a horse who wants to move his feet, whereas the introverted horse would rather move its mind and emotions. Right-brained horses require you to earn their trust in yourself and in your leadership, whereas Left-brained horses are more apt to challenge your authority and leadership – they are dominant (pushing/biting things, etc). RB reactions and horses are instinctive and not thinking, whereas LB reactions and horses are presented with a lot of forethought. You can determine whether a horse is Introverted or Extroverted and LB or RB by evaluating three aspects:

1. Speed of feet – the horse who is constantly in motion and moving its feet is Extroverted, whereas the Introvert prefers to move his mind and keep his feet relatively still.

2. Respect versus trust – the horse who requires its handler to earn a greater amount of respect is the LB, whereas the RB is going to require its person to focus more on earning its trust to balance the partnership.

3. Afraid versus Pushy/Dominant – the Extrovert is typically pushy, dominant, and bold, whereas the Introvert is more apt to be afraid.

The following are the four Parelli horsenalities and how one would address one versus the other, and why it makes a difference:

RBI (Right-brain Introvert)
The RBI is often recognizable by its stance – it will stand with all four feet underneath him (ready to propel him forward) and his ears flicked back as he keeps an “eye” on what might be occurring behind him. It is often easy to move their front end around, but more difficult to move the hind end around; this is because a horse’s power is derived from its hind end, so he is not going to want said hind end to be disengaged or otherwise compromised, should he find it necessary to flee. He will be defensive through his hind; you may even find it difficult to pick up his feet, particularly his hinds. Because they are RB, these horses have a tendency to react first and think later. The Introvert aspect of them results in their cooping up their emotions – they keep everything inside. This is why they will often pause at a request – not because they are being rebellious, but because they have to get past their emotions for a moment so as to think the situation through and decide how to react. If they are pushed and are not allowed the time to think, boom, their emotions explode. The horse will either give up all fight or will explode “out of nowhere” after freezing and “running away inside”. Thus, one has to match their energy level to the horse in question – a RBI requires a person to go slow and to have the same very “soft” energy that they have. They are looking for leadership and so require a strong leadership and trust in their rider. Rather than walking up to these horses, have them instead come up to YOU. Back away from them as you face them, to draw them towards you; at liberty, they are more likely to approach you from behind than to parade up in front of you. Do not walk up to their heads – walk up to their shoulders; doing so allows them to then turn their heads and touch YOU rather than vice versa. Directing them to touch various “scary objects” and leading them through obstacles (and then directing them to do it themselves) really develops their confidence and thus their curiosity.

LBI (Left-brain Introvert)
These are the horses most apt to buck in resistance and are the most likely to be pushy and labeled as lazy because they refuse to move forward (especially under force). They are likely to use their nose as a sort of weapon – whether it be to push their handler over or to nip at their pockets as they demand treats. LB horses are always getting into things and LBI’s specifically are very happy to stand a distance from you with an insolent look on their face. You will usually find it more difficult to push their front end around than their hind, since horses dominate through their front end. These horses cannot be pushed or forced – at their worst, they will either retaliate or will simply shut down, which is why it is vital to EARN their respect so that they WANT to do what you ask. In addition, they are very rest and food motivated. They require a great deal of assertiveness and will challenge your authority at anything (even picking up their feet), but often also demand that their rider be fair. With a LBI in particular, one definitely wants to match their energy level – act as if they are going too fast and you want them to slow down (even if they are simply plodding - the power of reverse psychology)!! Reward the slightest try with rest and they will give you more. Same as with the RBI, it pays to have these horses come to you and to approach their shoulder versus their head. These horses are also more difficult to have approach you though, as they are very independent and confident alone (I've spotted my LBI out grazing at pasture in the middle of some of the worst blizzards, content by himself, whilst everyone else huddles together in the shelter).

These guys LOVE to move their feet, play with various objects, and move their minds. With an extreme LBE, you might have a lot of trouble slowing them down; allow them to move forward a little, then stop and rest, gradually increasing the time and speed of forward motion but stopping them before they get worked up and take off. They bore easily and so require mental stimulation – you always have to be one step ahead of them in developing exercises that keep their minds busy. They are also very dominant and since they love to move their feet, can be apt to getting into trouble under-saddle – they are very “in your face” and extroverted! On the ground, it might be difficult to move their front ends around and under-saddle, it can be difficult to motivate them (rest! mental stimulation!). They require a rider to earn a great deal of respect as well. LBE’s can be quite insolent in the things they do as well and will challenge your authority or retaliate if they perceive you to be unfair. Since they are very confident, like the LBI they are difficult to create “draw” in – that is to say, it can be difficult to have them approach you and stick with you at liberty since they are sufficiently confident to be off on their own. If they feel you are providing insufficient leadership, they will take the leadership “into their own hooves”.

The RBE is a horse who requires strong leadership, as he possesses much of the same qualities as the RBI, except he is obviously an Extrovert, versus being an Introvert. This horse can also be dominant and pushy, particularly through his front end, like the LBE. He is naturally not as confident as an LBE though and is more afraid than bold. Much like the RBI, barn sourness can be an issue if you are presenting insufficient leadership – if they do not feel you can ensure their survival, they will ensure it themselves by returning to the protection of the herd at home! Their first instinct is to react rather than think, so they need to be taught to be “calmer, braver, smarter” and to rely upon your leadership for direction (which must be earned). If punished, this horse is more apt to develop distrust and to become fearful. Since he feels an innate need to move his feet, he will exert a great deal of energy to flight.

As a side note, as one develops a horse, while they still maintain their “base horsenality”, the horse will become balanced and better rounded – they will become a less extreme version of their horsenality. For example, a Right-brain Introvert at its extreme might never be curious, tucking its emotions away inside, and always prone to explosion if pushed the slightest. As the horse is developed and its emotions “balanced” however, the same horse can develop confidence and thus curiosity (become more extroverted and thus more “centered”), and be less prone to explosion and more prone to trusting your leadership and thinking a situation through. If you can, imagine a scale, where Extrovert and Introvert exist at opposite ends of the scale. The same can be done with RB and LB. Your job as a horseman is to “center” a horse so that it, when fully developed, sits as close to the center of the scale as possible – not overly Extrovert nor Introvert, and not overly instinctive but also not overly “thinking”.

So as one can see, though much of this is innate to many individuals who have been around horses for years, there is also much room for conscious adaptation of one’s methods. Also, it is important to understand why a horse is behaving in a certain fashion, so as to properly and efficiently address the behavior in question. For example, I am going to deal with our RBI kicking differently than I would our LBI. Our RBI kicked towards me once upon a time when I became to focused on picking up his feet – he was giving me all the signs that I was pushing him (he had done well already, but I wanted “better”) and when I ignored the signs (his becoming more and more introverted), he finally kicked at me. Due to his abusive past, he was afraid and had insufficient trust in me – when I, a predator, pushed the issue, he finally resorted to kicking to get me away from his hind end (as a RB, he was simply being defensive through his hind end – he felt it crucial to his survival to keep his hind feet firmly planted on the ground). Rather than reacting and punishing him (which would only have served to create more distrust), I let the issue go. I apologized profusely to him and left it for another day, instead rubbing him all over until he relaxed. Instead, I work on it bit by bit, moving slowly, until he is giving me all four feet. The slower you go, the faster your progress and taking such a route can actually allow for very quick progression. Our LBI, however, used to kick (among other things) as a youngster. Punishing him would only have created resistance and retaliation (actually, I can say this through experience, since I handled it “traditionally” at the time and did attempt to punish him). Instead, I later learned to ignore the kick and instead earn a greater level of respect from him overall. As soon as his respect in general for me increased, the kicking out (and other such “qualities”) evaporated – they had been a manifestation of his overall lack of respect and dominant behavior towards me. With the RBI however I would focus on earning his trust at the time (then perhaps he would allow me to successfully pick up his hinds), whereas with the LBI if he were to do the same today, I would make him move his feet and work hard for a minute or two before asking again. This is the importance of horsenalities, or just understanding how and why your horse behaves the way he does. Without understanding your horse, one cannot effectively communicate and address him. Of course actual horsenalities (as they pertain to Parelli’s system) are not necessary for this; many people learn how to understand and read horses without Parelli’s direct “horsenalities”. Pat has simply developed a wonderful easy to understand (and refer to) system to help the average horse person. I often refer back to the horsenalities themselves because I find knowing a horse’s horsenality allows me to understand a horse very well and thus communicate to it better than I would otherwise; it is simply another tool that helps!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Head and neck conformation

I strongly believe in knowledge of conformation and have always sought such information throughout the years, as it strongly plays a role in the development/riding/training of a horse, the horse’s use, and the strengths/weaknesses expected in a horse. Thus I have been reading The Horse Conformation Handbook and wanted to share some of the notes I have been making! The following are some general tips in addition to some tips that pertain specifically to the conformation of the head and neck:

Look for block-shaped knee/hock joints and big, flat bones for optimal durability
Optimal hind end hock angles should run at 100-140 degrees for optimal strength

Head and Neck
- Look for a proportionate head and neck (the head should be smaller than the neck) for optimal balance, maneuverability, and athleticism – it makes a difference to a horse and can make a horse more prone to being on the forehand or hind end.
- A long neck provides strength (via a longer Longissimus, which is what allows the horse to scrunch their body up and then stretch out as they propel themselves forward), balance, and a longer stride.
- Eye shape and placement matter!!
- You should be able to place a fist between the lower jaw bones (in the nook of the horse’s throat, where it attaches to the neck) if there is sufficient space for the horse’s trachea.
- Teeth should meet – teeth issues can mean high maintenance down the road.
- Nostrils should be thin-walled and large for optimal air intake and ability
- The throatlatch should be thin to allow for open airways, particularly when the horse’s head is tucked, and to allow for suppleness.
- You should be able to fit two fingers between the Atlas (cervical vertebrae) and the jawbone for an appropriate head/neck angle, and the angle should be curved and not be abrupt.
- The neck should tie in ABOVE the point of shoulder for optimal flexibility. With a high-tied-in neck, the horse is better able to lift its forelegs for a jump or for speed. The longer and higher the forelegs can reach, the more they can work to efficiently pull the horse forward and propel it onwards, in conjunction with the hind end.
- Neck shape:
The cervical vertebrae are arranged in two “S”-shaped curves – one at the top (where head and neck meet), and one at the bottom (where neck and shoulder meet). The lower “S” curve should be shallow but gradual in its ascent. The upper curve should be long and gradual. Anything else allows for variations of ewe-necks, etc. While a horse’s musculature can allow for some weakness in topline, the skeletal structure is what will make a horse truly ewe-necked or otherwise.

Friday, February 5, 2010

OTTB's: Solutions?

When I worked on the track, I was privy to observing a lot of what I would consider to be horrors – things practiced that were in the interest of human greed rather than the horse’s best interests. One of the things that hit me was how many of these very talented (and often sound and sane) horses met the meat man after their career. I can recall one horse in particular who really struck me as a talented individual. He was a good 17 hands as a 3yo and had been started late – rather than starting him on the track as a 2yo, as most individuals do, his owners and breeders had instead opted to start him as a 3yo (as they did all their horses). He was very striking – tall, handsome, huge bone, great conformation, flashy colour. Unfortunately he did not run as well as his owners had hoped, so they eventually sold him (completely sound throughout his career) to his trainer. Who later traded him to the meat man. This was a horse worth a good $5,000 or more (with further training) at the time, a horse for whom a lot of jumpers had expressed interest. He was eventually sold to the meat man.

Our own OTTB’s were headed to similar fates when we purchased them. My own OTTB was headed towards a possible career as an allowance or stakes horse when, in his 4yo year, he started to run poorly. He would return to the barn after a race (having kept up with the pack) without hardly a drop of sweat and hardly breathing hard – it was like he was not even trying out there. This is a highly competitive horse with a lot of energy who had previously been very successful. So the owner started running him once a week, thinking the horse was perhaps too hyped up by the time he raced every two weeks that he was not running well. Didn’t work. The trainer suggested the horse see the chiropractor who made regular rounds through the barns. The owner refused for financial reasons (this is the same - very well off - owner who ignored a hairline fracture in a mare’s knee in the interest of continuing to run her – he refused to even x-ray her for the longest time, because it was “too expensive” to do so). So, the horse continued to run and run, until he hit bottoms at the A track. So the owner took him home, with the intentions of running him later at the B track (by that time, the horse had a bad case of ringworm). I noticed his absence immediately and called his owner with an offer. I knew if the horse went to the B track, he was likely to break down and at the rate he was performing, he was headed for the meat man soon. Finally we negotiated a deal and we brought Link home (waaay way over-priced, by the way…). First thing we did was have a chiropractor out, who determined his pelvis to be terribly misaligned and likely the cause for his poor runs. She put him back into place and immediately (literally, that day - I had a lot of trouble holding him back after that, where before I had had to encourage him forward into a canter even) his desire to run and effort in doing so had returned – because he no longer hurt! Link has turned out to be a fabulous horse, though working with him has not been without its challenges, as he came from the track with a lot of emotional “baggage”. My mom’s horse we purchased as a 3yo who just did not have the desire to run, so he returned home to his (multi-billionaire) breeders and owners. I received a call a month or so later from his trainer, who told me that Sonny was being shipped off soon. Sonny reminded me a lot of a horse we used to have and had a look similar to my mom’s previous Thoroughbred, so I took her along with me with the intentions of showing her the horse for her own purposes. The minute she set eyes on him, she fell in love. The owners told us that if we wanted him, we had to come by and pick him up prior to the next auction else he would be in said auction. They were well aware he would be going for meat and so only requested meat price for him. This is a horse who is now 5 and who is teaching a fearful older re-rider, like a perfect gentleman (with very very little re-training). In fact, he is also currently being ridden by two intermediate riders, one being a 10yo girl whom he really responds to. He is a gorgeous horse with nearly flawless conformation and with the potential to attain high levels in the hunter or dressage arenas (particularly the latter, he has got fabulous movement).

Link at the track (top) and recently (bottom)

Sonny (above), off the track for a year at the time of these photos

The above stories are far from unique. I can list off so many more, just off the top of my head. So many of these horses are never given a second chance, despite having the potential and talent to continue on in a second career. I have personally seen at least half a dozen horses since auctioned off for meat by the same multi-billionaire breeders who owned and bred Sonny; all horses with similar bloodlines and thus similar minds and potential to him. Nevermind the thousands out there I am not even aware of! The money is often there but for whatever reason, the incentive is not. It is really too bad because a great deal of these horses (most, if not all), have the talent and ability to go on to some sort of second career. So here is my short list of possible solutions to the problem of talented off-track Thoroughbreds being sent to auction and meeting the Mexican-bound truck. Any more thoughts on the issue?

- Make permanent notes on these horses’ registration papers – grooms, trainers, breeders can make a permanent note (with name and number/other) on the horse’s registration paper that expresses their interest in purchasing the horse after its career on the track. Of course this could leave said people open to extortion (the owner could ask for a higher price knowing the horse is wanted rather than sending it out for meat price) though, but hopefully the best interests of the horse could be placed above all. This could allow owners an outlet and good home for their horse after its career though, with little effort on the owner’s part.
- Registration fees, a portion of bets, a portion of a horse’s winnings, could be placed in a fund directed towards rescues, that particular horse, an association that governs the placement of these horses after their career, whatever may be, but ultimately a way of providing a financial means of re-homing these horses after their career at the track. The money could be used toward re-training, care until a new home is found, etc.
- What if these horses were started on the track as 3yo’s rather than 2yo’s? Perhaps less would retire unsound, thus allowing these horses a better chance at finding a suitable career after the track.
- Incentives for rescues/rehab – I am not sure what type of incentives, but perhaps rescues/rehabs themselves could obtain some sort of (association/governmental) incentive(s) for taking on retired racehorses and re-homing them. The owners/breeders of said horse could also receive some type of award/incentive if they choose to re-home a horse successfully rather than sending it straight to the auction.
- Track bans (and enforced!!) to those who choose to auction off a racehorse or sell it privately to the meat man (I can recall of numerous horses who met the meat man without a middle-man, without leaving the track – they were dealt directly to the meat man for whatever reason, without even the auction or such chance in between).
- Regulatory bodies established (or branches of the current bodies) that check in on a re-homed racehorse after specific time periods, to ensure the horse is truly re-homed (this occurs already in places in Great Britain, so it is obviously possible).
- Promotion of good breeding and training (through incentives, education, and enforcement).
- Exposure – a body or such that exposes available retired racehorses to the general via some sort of medium, such as a website.
- EDUCATION!! A great many horsemen do not even realize so many of these talented horses are going to slaughter, what their care/re-training all entails, or their suitability to various careers.

It is pretty sad we have to provide incentives for people to take proper care and responsibility for their horses, but I suppose that is how the world operates unfortunately. I think ultimately we need to look at what works in other countries and industries; there are some extremely successful situations in other countries whereby they have entirely eliminated retired racehorses being sent to slaughter. It is not that I do not see the importance or necessity of horse slaughter, however most of these talented horses certainly deserve a second chance after serving our own uses and benefits!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bit placement & whisker trimming

A rather short blog, but I thought I would address a couple smaller 'issues'.

First, is that we are getting close to the outdoor show season once again up here in the Great White North (*ahem* Canada), and with show season comes: grooming. Specifically, whisker trimming (and other related practices). Most horse people I hope would already understand the purpose and importance of a horse's whiskers, but I was never taught such as a child who competed and thus I can only assume that there are others out there who are in the same boat. While most of the grooming practises I partook were moderate, there were a few practises I was taught and that I performed that I would think twice about now.

For experimental purposes, try trimming a whisker or two, using scissors; most horses will flinch and try to pull their head away (at least the first few shots at it). They do this because those whiskers are actually quite sensitive to touch; they represent an invaluable resource to your horse. By removing the whiskers around a horse's eyes, nose, and mouth, we are essentially limiting their sense of touch. Horses use their whiskers constantly - those whiskers help the horse construct a visual of an object they may have trouble seeing, whether due to lighting or the way which their vision functions (ie, considering blind spots, etc). Trimming a horse's whiskers can be akin to tying your hands behind your back then forcing you to navigate a dark room. You are going to be more likely to crash into objects, just as a horse may be more likely to injure themself (particularly their eyes or muzzle).

Furthermore, many people will go so far as to trim inside a horse's ears, which impairs a horse's protection from both the elements as well as from insects and debris. Our Quarab is a horse so sensitive that, in the summer, I absolutely cannot ride him without fly spray and an ear-net...I cannot imagine trimming his ears and making his ears all the more vulnerable to insects! Personally, I think it looks pretty goofy when a horse has his ears completely cleaned out...

Check out Natural Horse Grooming for additional points to consider and methods to help you 'clean up' your horse without compromising his well being. Think twice next time you go to alter your horse's appearance (etc)...nature probably created him the way he is for a reason.

Second order of the day: bit placement. I recently had a woman come out to try out our Thoroughbred (I was looking for a rider to exercise him whilst I am away this winter); she was a a dressage rider with a lot of experience so I figured she should be knowledgeable. First ride on my boy, she commented that she felt his bit was placed too low, that there should be 2 wrinkles visible. She was extremely insistent on the 2-wrinkle theory...something I think is ingrained in most riders from a young age. My response was that I set the bit in the mouth low enough that the horse may choose to pick it up (in lieu of it being held there via the headstall), without being loose enough to bang against their teeth and make them uncomfortable. Taking a look at the following, you can see where a bit needs to be or can be:

The headstall needs to be tight enough that the bit does not rattle against the canines, causing the horse pain and/or discomfort. Otherwise though, the bit may be adjusted so that there is one or even (barely) no wrinkles (depending on your horse's oral conformation). There is room for opinion, preference, and training technique. Where you adjust your bit is up to you, so experiment away and see what your horse prefers and what works best for the two of you, keeping in mind the horse's mouth structure. Just keep in mind that it does not have to be one or two wrinkles - listen to what your horse says and what works best with him and your methods of communicating with him.