Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Value Added

I left the post office today having nearly filled the recycling bin with catalogues offering pages of nutritional products promising to make my horses sounder, healthier, more athletic, happier, and in some ways more talented. As I walked out into the late afternoon sun, I pondered how horses from days bygone seemed to live to a ripe old age just fine without all that stuff. No joint formulas or intestinal toners. No herbal mood remedies or hoof builders. At what point did we decide that they needed scoopfuls of powders, potions, and pills, lest they not be suited to see the light of another day?

When I was growing up my parents maintained a 12-stall barn of performance horses. These were serious athletes, horses that competed only in rigorous sports like combined driving and long distance trail riding. And I don’t remember a single one of them ever being unsound or having some malaise that left us standing around scratching our heads saying “gosh, if only there were a supplement we could add to his feed….” Our horses got three things every day: a pile of hay, a clean bucket of water, and a coffee can full of sweet feed laced with corn kernels and molasses. Period.

But some time around the mid-1990’s, equine nutritional companies decided that modern horses weren’t as functional as they seemed. Which is another way of saying they saw an opportunity to create a profitable market. In no time at all, they convinced horse owners that their steeds were compromised; they needed supplements. Thus began the burgeoning business of manufacturing products that promised to do everything from make a horse’s coat shinier to settling him emotions. In fact, some supplements promise to do everything but clean a horse’s stall for you.

Recently, a client of mine handed me a brochure for a supplement she had begun feeding her horse. The impressively glossy brochure promised the following for horses that ate it: improve digestion, create mental focus, tone muscles and ligaments, boost energy and stamina, reduce anxiety, etc. That’s an abbreviated synopsis of what the product promised. In fact, if I recall correctly, the yellowish powder was supposed to take care of every need your horse might have except for daily training. Maybe if you fed two scoops a day, it handled the training, too.

“What’s in this?” I asked, noting that nowhere did the manufacturer list any ingredients.

“Who cares? Did you see what it does for your horse?” asked my client in a tone that indicated she might be thinking I was illiterate.

“Well, no, I’m not sure it DOES do those things for my horses, since I don’t know what’s in here,” I pointed out. And, you see, this is why I’m often labeled a cynic. Before I plunk down $50 on a bucket full of granules promising my horse a better life, I want to know what’s in there. What’s more, I want some sales guy or gal to prove there’s some real science behind the product. You know, like it’s actually been tested and PROVEN to create the results it promises to. And by proven, I mean tested on more than one horse, one pony, and one donkey.

By this point, I was raining on my client’s parade as she had been quite excited to discover this new product and I was obviously failing to take on the level of enthusiasm she had hoped for.

“Have you noticed any difference in your horse since you started feeding him this stuff?” I asked, trying to be upbeat.

“Well, no, not really. But it’s just a matter of time,” she smiled, conveying utter faith in the prophetic label on the supplement bucket.

“Uh-huh,” I mumbled. “Well, was there any particular reason you started feeding it to him? Was something deficient or was he lacking health?”

No, she said. But things could always be better, right? Her horse had always been healthy and fit, but now with this new supplement, he would apparently be even better than healthy and fit.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “If I developed a fancy label and packaged Twinkies with this label promising that the contents would make you more focused, fitter, energetic and so on, would you automatically start supplementing yourself with Twinkies every day?”

After a moment, she understood my analogy. But that doesn’t change the fact that horse people hate logic. My client—like all of us—did not want the holes pointed out in her decision to purchase and start feeding this unproven magical supplement. At the end of the day, it made her feel good, regardless of whether it had any scientifically substantiated effect on her horse. It made her feel good to go out and buy something for him that was supposed to improve his life. And that’s what counted. When she feels good, her horse feels good.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Monkey See Monkey Do

I’ve often heard that people choose pets that look like them. And while I’ve never actually decided whether my friends’ dogs look like them, I can attest that their pets do eventually act like them. With enough time, a pet will take on the characteristics of its owner, for better or for worse. Horses have proven this repeatedly to me over the years.

I’ve seen perfectly well-mannered horses under everyday circumstances turn into basket cases the moment they hear their owner’s car in the driveway. Suddenly, they’re pawing at the wall, pacing circles, chewing the wood from their stall doors. It’s as if the presence of their owner unleashes a spoiled personality that is otherwise dormant.

Likewise, I’ve witnessed stolid and steadfast mounts turn into spooky freaks once their owners mount up for a ride. It never fails to amaze me, though I should have become quite used to it by now. Like it or not, our animals mirror us. They take on our neuroses, our strengths, our weaknesses, and everything in between.

And sometimes it’s uncanny how little we want to admit that. I recall a few years ago riding a client’s young mare and having a productive schooling session when the client raced in the driveway, kicking up clouds of dust behind her sports car. She spilled out of the car, eyes bulging from a day of stress at the office, clutching a cell phone in one hand and a large extra-caffeinated mocha from Starbucks in the other.

She was using the speaker function of her phone to have a conversation with her ex-husband that used volumes of profanity I hadn’t heard since high school.

Anyway, before I knew it, she was in the arena with me (having put the ex-husband on mute) and wanted to ride her horse. Mentally, I came up with a dozen immediate reasons that amounted to a bad idea. Against my better judgment, I told her that would be fine if she could take five minutes and settle herself down. To her, that meant finishing her mocha and setting down her keys.

Before I knew it, I was giving this stressed-out, hyped-up woman a leg up on her young unsuspecting horse. Needless to say, within moments, the horse mirrored the woman, even without the ingestion of a 16-ounce mocha. It began darting around the arena, jumping out of its skin, and—I’m not kidding—its eyes bulged, just like its owner’s.

The woman wanted to know what was wrong. I gently pointed out that the horse had picked up on her frenzied state and was absorbing that energy, causing it to be unsettled. Of course this made no sense to Ms. Starbucks. Horses are horses, she said. As if they are completely dead to sensory input. No, I reminded her, horses are like their owners.

Fortunately, this can work favorably. My trainer friend Mark Schuerman is one of the calmest, unflappable people I’ve ever met. After two months in his barn, any horse takes on his quiet nature. It’s like a magical transformation, an osmosis of sorts. I was deeply grateful for this fact six years ago when I had just moved to California.

I shared a barn with Mark, who trained exclusively Arabians at the time. For some reason he had a fondness for these otherwise high-strung animals that became docile puppies under his hand. Being reputable in the Arabian world, he was invited to give a short riding performance at the Western States Horse Expo, the largest horse exposition on the West Coast that regularly attracts 65,000 or more spectators over one weekend in June. Mark was honored. He would ride one of his most prancing, gorgeous, bay Arabs under spotlights in the late-night ticketed show. He agreed to it with enthusiasm.

Then he got a hot date for that same night. But he didn’t want to let down his fans from the Arabian community, so he held his commitment to do the Expo gig by recruiting yours truly to ride his horse. I agreed without further thought because, first of all, I had no idea what I had gotten into and secondly, I knew Mark really wanted to go out with this attractive blonde woman. So, there you have it.

A few weeks later, I found myself mounted atop an increasingly nervous Arabian gelding squeezed into a crowd of roughly 100 other demonstration riders on equally nervous horses in the pitch black scrambling around on pavement while we each awaited our turn to blast into the main arena for five minutes of glory.

There’s much I don’t remember about that evening. What I do remember is that the act preceding my ride was a mounted shooting demonstration, which meant that while I waited with my snorting Arabian outside the arena’s main gate, a dozen or more out-of-control riders galloped around inside shooting pistols at balloons until they all popped. I’m not sure if it was the gunfire, my sudden nausea, or all the yelling and screaming, but my horse was quickly coming unglued.

I tried dialing Mark on my cell phone to tell him not only was I not going into that arena, but this night marked the end of our friendship, too. Before the call went through, though, a rearing giant Friesian stallion streaked across the pavement towards me, slid on his shoes, and rammed into my horse’s backside. That itself would have been startling enough. But the horse and his rider, a wanna-be—eighteenth century knight, were entirely decked out in chain mail armor. The more the horse reared, the more his armor clanked and rattled, which added further mayhem to the gunfire in the arena.

It was at this point that I realized I’d not ever drawn up a will. It became clear that I would not survive the evening alive and I was chanting to myself “huh, so this is how it ends…” when I remembered that the only thing in my favor was the fact that I was on top of a horse Mark had trained.

This meant that even with the Friesian stallion attacking us from behind and gunfire in front of us that things might turn out fine if I just acted like Mark. So, in spite of my chattering teeth and trembling bones, I did just that. And my horse reflected it. Albeit a little nervous, the horse kept himself composed. Someone swung open the arena gait, and we cantered in under huge spotlights in front of a crowd of a couple thousand people. We floated as if on air, as if my life hadn’t just passed before me moments earlier.

Part of me thanked Mark for being such an exceptional horseman. The other part wanted to hunt him down on his date and tell him I would never again ride at an event with both gunfire and horses.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Do You Want a Baseball Bat With That?

My father claims that he was pouring out his heart the other day when my cell phone cut out and he realized he was talking to himself. I find this hard to believe for two reasons.

The first is that my father’s version of ‘pouring out his heart’ includes either reminding me why female drivers should not be allowed on the highways or describing why our government is full of phonies. The second is that, being a horse trainer himself, my father knows that we equine professionals are nearly always in areas with spotty cell phone coverage. Therefore, one should never pour out one’s heart to a trainer on a cell phone.

The cell phone issue has amused me for several years now, mainly because these little technological devices present an anomaly for we horse folks. You see, the average horse trainer is eccentric, introverted, and socially isolated. That’s part of the reason we train horses; we don’t really fit into any other type of employment. Days full of non-verbal connection with four-legged animals suit us perfectly.

Then along came cell phones. Suddenly, our days of talking only to ourselves, our dogs, or our horses now included a ringing telephone with real live people on the other end! Our social isolation went out the door. Our introverted ways were being challenged. We now conducted conversations with prospective clients while sitting on a hay bale or bathing horses. We called in feed deliveries while mucking stalls.

In essence, we were no different than corporate executives who never seemed to take the time to do nothing but swat flies and contemplate what sized saddle to put on the new Arabian in the barn. Next thing we knew, we’d be resembling corporate Americans in other ways, like running to Starbucks at 4pm every day and talking too fast and putting more thought into how we dressed.

For most of us, the transition has been a little awkward. It has presented the opportunity for us to become bona fide businesspeople, a venture we trainers have been reticent to embrace for centuries. Moreover, technological concepts like “cell coverage,” “bandwidth,” or “phone web browsing” all seem terribly advanced and tedious in the face of issues like whether Timothy of alfalfa hay is better. Personally, I’d rather determine if the brand of fly spray I’m currently using on my steeds is actually working than try to figure out what key on my cell phone will create a question mark symbol in a text message.

Until recently, I’ve regarded the cell phone a bit skeptically. Was it a business tool? A means of being more connected to family and friends? An emergency device? Last week, my good buddy Mark provided me the answer we trainers have been seeking for years. We were at a horse show when he excitedly pulled out his new cell phone to show me. It looked like a hockey puck.

“Watch this!,” he said and promptly hurled it against the side of a metal barn. It bounced off and flew into a pile of sawdust. Mark then ran over and jumped up and down on top of it. The new phone, he explained, was guaranteed to be more or less indestructible. It was allegedly waterproof, weather-proof, and vehicle-proof, meaning that Mark could drive over it with his big diesel truck, which he had of course already tried repeatedly. He had also verified its claims by submerging it in water troughs and leaving it in his horse trailer to endure extreme heat. So far, it had been indestructible. The following day, he intended to test its survival under a set of tractor tires, he told me like a giddy child with a new toy.

And in that moment, I came to terms with these little technological devices called cell phones that never seem to work in the areas I desperately need them to. I now understood why they had become such an integral part of we trainers’ lives. We all needed a little amusement, a little something to see if we could crush under our tractors

Sunday, September 7, 2008

If I Only Had a Bran Mash

I just got home from a horse show and all I want to do it eat. You see, if you’ve been to many shows, you quickly realize that it’s a darn good thing we don’t feed our horses what people stuff down themselves at shows.

After all these years, I still cannot understand this irony. I mean, a show involves at least three or more days of grueling labor, sun exposure, often extreme weather, long hours, and performance. You would assume that equestrians would feed themselves in the nutritional ways of an athlete. Nah, quite the opposite.

I pondered this fact yesterday morning as I wandered the show grounds in a desperate search for something to eat that resembled real food. My options included: sugary over-processed muffin from Costco being re-sold at the show’s only food vendor, the sugary complimentary glazed donuts and coffee tasting like jet fuel given out by show management, or a sugary baked good from the nearby Starbucks. So, basically, the only ‘choice’ I had was in what form I wanted my sugar. I decided it was better to starve another day until I could get my hands on a piece of fruit or something without mass quantities of corn syrup.

What really amused me was that when I arrived at the show four days ago, people were carefully administering bran mashes and electrolytes to their horses, ensuring their fine steeds would drink ample water and handle the miserably hot weather in good health. Meanwhile, they themselves stuffed down glazed donuts, ice cream sandwiches and whatever else was more or less guaranteed to make them dizzy, red-faced, and worn-out in 100-degree heat. By the third day, competitors were seriously wilting… and I was dreaming about things like bananas and whole grain toast. The horses, on the other hand, fared just fine. Luckily they don’t have to suffer the offerings of show food vendors.

I think somewhere around the mid-1990s, with a plethora of processed and imitation food products at their disposal, food vendors caught on to the very sage capitalistic knowledge that horse show competitors are a captive market. Usually, the nearest supermarket is a 20-minute drive from any showgrounds and competitors are tight on time. So, their one option for food is the show vendor. Much like in the case of movie theater prices, this has resulted in things like $3 bottles of water and $8 hamburgers. It has also resulted in offering items that marginally resemble real food but cost as much as a restaurant entrée. After all, why prepare a fresh-made sandwich when a horse show competitor will shell out $7 for a corn dog nuked in the microwave for 30 seconds? Never mind that the competitor will suffer digestive duress for the remainder of the afternoon.

What is sadly missing from most shows today is a staple from my childhood spent at horse competitions all over the East Coast. The mighty fried egg sandwich. Back in the day, almost every competitor downed an egg sandwich in the morning, because then they were bolstered for the day with strength and stamina. In fact, fried egg sandwiches become synonymous for me with horse shows. And I do not mean a pre-made plastic-sealed sandwich with imitation eggs and bright orange cheese. I mean the real deal. They were always fried up fresh by a slightly grumpy gentleman in a white aluminum trailer. They were served piping hot on toasted English Muffins with a slice of cheese. With one of those in your belly, you could tackle the stress of competition and inclement weather all day long and wake up bright eyed the next day.

It may not count as an actual revolution, but I’d like to start a movement that brings the fried egg sandwich back into style at horse shows. I say out with the glazed donuts and in with the English Muffin goodness. Until my revolution takes hold, though, I’ll be here in my kitchen stuffing my face until my next show….