Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Call me unrealistic or snobby, but in my opinion any place that shares a sentence with 'big bucks' should be of a certain decorum. I'm not instating high standards here; I'm just looking for basic infrastructure. Read as: fence posts that stand vertically to the ground rather than bending over in insect-riddled, rotting splinters; stall walls made from legitimate building materials instead of baling twine, hoses, cardboard; gates and cross-ties that actually latch; arenas without weeds growing in them. Stuff like this. For some reason, these requirements are becoming more difficult to find.
This situation gives my mother justification to say "I told you so." You see, I spent most of my childhood enslaved in what I believed to be a cruel regime of child labor (which meant I had a few chores around our New England horse farm) and whined constantly about the endless lists of things to be repaired, fixed, maintained. My mother used to chant her mantra "upkeep, upkeep, upkeep" around our farm, reminding us that, without constant maintenance, a farm would fall into disrepair faster than anyone suspected. I originally thought she herself was being a little high maintenance, but now I have to admit that she was right.
My brother and I formed a labor party of two at Maranatha Training Stables, my parents' farm. We did everything from prune our fruit orchard to stacking firewood to painting fence boards. We spent so much time painting pasture fences, in fact, that I occasionally still see white paddock fencing stretching for miles when I close my eyes. Of all the treasures on our farm, my mother was proudest of those wooden fences. Every board, every post, and every nail was painted a perfect white. Should a board get chewed on or kicked by a horse, her labor party (the aforementioned offspring) hustled out there with replacement lumber along with a pail of paint.
I will admit that 36 acres of this fencing IS a lovely sight. But the adult in me is the one who can admit this, the adult who suffers severe nostalgia for so much pristine perfection on a horse facility. The kid in me secretly hated that fencing. It meant nothing to me but achy wrists and paint gunked under my nails and hours of boring labor. What was the point in any of it? Wouldn't twine and duct tape and cardboard suffice for fencing AND be a lot easier?
Initially, my brother and I were paid-- if you can call microscopic figures that--by the hour. We earned something like $1 per hour for painting those never-ending fences and the task consumed our entire summer breaks from school. We tried convincing ourselves it was better than working at the video store or bagging groceries at the supermarket. But it wasn't until the end of summer that we made it better by sheer childhood cleverness. One day with his hand permanently frozen in a claw-like position from grasping the brush handle, my brother realized we would be paid the same amount per hour regardless how many sections of fencing we accomplished. So, why were we working so hard?, he mused? Why not just slack off? And that, gentle reader, is how an 8-year old and a 9-year old introduced themselves to often inefficient ways of capitalism.
Being the older wiser one, he convinced me that mom would never know our productivity had dropped off and we would still collect our $1 per hour. So, when we got out to the perimeter fencing of our property, most of it out of sight from the main barn or house, we would lay down our paint brushes and go skip stones in the creek. Or build bike jumps or collect grasshoppers. Shucking off the guilt that sometimes reared its head, we told ourselves that abandoning our job was just fine because, at the end of the day, all those perfectly white fences didn't really matter. Wouldn't twine and duct tape and cardboard suffice for fencing, anyway?
One sunny afternoon in August, we hid our paint cans and crawled into the expansive raspberry patch to take naps. We were asleep for probably two hours when a shadow slanted across our blissful sunshine and stirred us awake. And in our repose, we looked up to see my mother staring down at us. Needless to write, much lecturing ensued. The lengthy and sometimes poetic scolding covered the grounds of employee ethics, general good behavior, workmanship, etc. But my mother's primary disappointment came not from her children's sneaky ethics. More hurtful to her was the fact that we abandoned her prized white fences. She reminded us in the raspberry patch of their beauty, their value, their sheer aesthetic superiority to something like twine or cardboard.
For us, that afternoon fell into the category of moments where children think their parent is greatly over-reacting. I held that belief for a number of years, bolstered by the bitterness of having to give back most of my summer wages. In fact, I think I held onto the secret animosity towards those summers of white fence painting until just last week when I stood aghast at the dilapidation around me that qualified as a bona fide boarding facility. In that moment, I finally got my answer. NO, twine and duct tape and cardboard do not suffice as fencing. A familiar ache crept into my wrists briefly as I reflected on all those acres of white wooden fences at Maranatha Training Stables. I couldn't promise I'd be a more productive employee now than I was as a mischievously napping 8-year old, but something in me felt compelled to nail up some boards and brush paint across them. My chest tensed with urgency and excitement. White fences! Wooden boards!
Don't misunderstand me, I wouldn't wish to create a ritzy place that could justify charging boarders a fortune to be there. Nah, I might even charge less than the facilities falling into disrepair. I would just want visitors to pride me every day on the aesthetic superiority of my white fences.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Let my own stupidity serve a message to readers that there really IS no such thing as free when horses are involved. Don't get me wrong-- there are plenty of horses with no purchase prices that are simply free to a good home. Purchase prices, though, pale in comparison to what folks will end up spending over a few months of basic care for a horse. Take my own scenario as an example. Rule #1 in this situation I like to call "Foolishly Believing in Free" says when something seems too good to be true, it is.
Last April, my friend and I received a call from a distressed trainer who allegedly owned a talented, beautiful, sweet-tempered Warmblood gelding that she needed to find a (free) home for because her life was in turmoil and she could no longer care for him. Reeking of suspicion, the offer to acquire her Olympic caliber mount at no cost seemed a wee too good to be true. So, we declined the offer to take him. But a few days later, we received another call from the trainer, this time from her cell phone. Apparently, she was en route to our barn already, declining to take our "no" as an answer for her super talented free Warmblood. She had him in the trailer and would be at our place in an hour.
Hmm. A free horse and free delivery? Now, things definitely smelled fishy. But my friend and I, two softies at heart, wondered what the worst possible outcome could be for this story. Plus, I've always been the hard-headed type that likes to disprove adages to which everyone else submits. Maybe I'd show the world that there is such a thing as a free horse!
Meanwhile, we brainstormed why this particular talented and beautiful horse might be free, trying to ready ourselves for his arrival in our driveway. Maybe he had a few lameness issues, which may explain his unsolicited gifting upon us. But we figured at the very least, he could be a moderately sound-- and gorgeous-- trail mount. Or perhaps he could be used as a lesson horse and actually earn us a few bucks. Or maybe, just maybe, he would indeed be everything he was promised and my friend and I now owned the horse we always dreamed about but could never afford!
The horse-- let's call him Wolfgang-- blasted out of the trailer on his hind legs and proceeded to wreak havoc on the courtyard despite his handler's yanking and pulling on the chain that encircled his head and nose. At this point, I should have demanded the horse be loaded back into the trailer and driven out of my sight and life for good. But here is where the frail shards of blind optimism surrounding receipt of something potentially awesome for free rears their hideous heads. Undeniably terrified of the rearing beast in our driveway that now strangely belonged to us, my friend and I looked at each other. And embarrassingly, I will admit that we both wore an expression that said the same thing: wow, this might be everything we've ever dreamed about... and for free!
Where we should have seen nothing but danger and rotten luck, we saw good fortune.
This is the type of delusional thinking that constitutes rule #2 in "Foolishly Believing in Free."
After tearing apart a section of fencing with his flailing front legs, nearly killing a neighbor's dog, and destroying our newly seeded lawn with nervously prancing hooves, Wolfgang was wrestled into a stall for the night. It was the last free night of our lives. From the next morning forward, we adopted a new pastime of writing checks to cover Wolfgang's expenses. In fact, we almost couldn't write checks fast enough to keep pace with his need. First, his metabolism proved impossible to satiate and we spent more money on his hay, grain, and rice bran than on our own mortgage. His ribs still stuck out at the end of our first month, prompting us to try costly detox supplements in the event he carried a parasite or other health anomaly that prevented him from putting on weight.
When the detox supplements failed, we tried a treatment of acupuncture that made the previous supplements seem reasonably priced. When acupuncture failed, we gave up and accepted that he might always be underweight. Plus, by then we had to direct our waning funds to more pressing matters, such as his training problems. Wolfgang was a gigantic animal, standing well over 17 hands with an immense neck that rose straight up to the sky. In his 10 years of life, nobody had taken the time to teach him basic manners. We found it impossible to lead him from Point A to Point B without incurring bodily harm. Not only was he gigantic and unruly, he was also spooky at just about everything. Every 30 seconds or so, he lurched in fright at something or other, snorted from his nose, and pranced himself into a sweaty mess. Rustling bushes, mundane noises, drizzly weather, crunchy leaves all became our nemesis.
After six months of buying new equipment to replace what Wolfgang broke-- halters, leadlines, feeding tubs, my toe-- we decided he needed to get some rudimentary training pronto. One morning we set about the task of loading him into our trailer and taking him for training to a cowboy a few towns over. That afternoon, we were still trying to get him in the rig. By nightfall, we gave up. Wolfgang would not step foot near the trailer. He reared, he ran backwards, he stomped his feet and threw his head. No problem, we thought, the trailer may seem confining to him. So the next day we plunked down a hefty fee to rent a spacious and airy trailer. We payed the small fortune in gas for a round trip to pick it up an hour away and then began again our challenge of getting Wolfgang to load up. We repeated this for three days before admitting we needed reinforcements. At this point, my hard-headiness around ignoring adages felt like plain old hubris.
After a bit of research, we found a Mustang wrangler who was able to tame wild horses and get them to walk comfortably into her trailer out in the Nevada desert. Aha, we thought, this was our gal! She charged-- of course-- a mighty sum of money but promised to get our deranged Warmblood into the trailer without cruelty or drugs. And sure enough she did. It took her about four hours and her whole bag of tricks for working with wild horses. Now after four and a half days of our endeavor to get Wolfgang on the trailer, my friend and I realized we had spent every last dime between us. The horse was in the trailer, but now what?
This is when a person encounters rule #3 in "Foolishly Believing in Free"--you concede to your own original ignorance. In my case, I had to admit that adages exist for a reason. And yes, dear reader, I learned first-hand that there really IS no such thing as a free horse. In fact, I would venture to say I didn't just learn this; I had it repeatedly pounded into my thick skull day after day after day. Which seems to be the only way folks learn things in the horse world.
Time-tested truths from expert sources just don't seem to be enough for us horsey folks. We like to learn things the hard way, wittling down our savings accounts until we are financially bludgeoned into admitting we should have listened to that sage advice in the first place. But nothing speaks to us and illustrates our follies like our own empty wallets. So, even though you will likely not heed my advice, I'm giving it to you anyway: When someone offers you a free horse, run the opposite direction very fast!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Our agitation stirred up as we admitted aloud to each other that we expected this. We were, after all, at one of the large shows held at a facility in the deserted valley between Sacramento, CA and the Sierra foothills. It's a no-man's land, populated by a handful of retirees who can handle the heat and apparently enjoy living on a flat plain void of trees or stores selling goods that facilitate human survival. Things like food and band-aids, ice and towels and string.
In our disgruntled-- and very thirsty-- state, we returned to the showgrounds to sit on overturned buckets in the blazing sun and wait for the day to end. Twirls of sand occasionally blew up in our faces, adhering to our sweaty skin and causing me to wonder how I'd ever squeeze into my competition gear for the last class of the afternoon. The equation of sweat+dirt+skin tight clothing made me want to run off and find a different job. It's moments like these that make me wonder why I chose horse training as a profession over, say, banking or designing or something civilized.
But the larger question for me was why on earth do people organize horse shows in California in the least desirable places? If you're going to invite participants to come be hostage at your event for five consecutive days, at least make sure your venue is some place people actually want to go. My grumpiness on this matter derives, as most things do, from my New England upbringing. Back East, where land is more affordable and large horse facilities proliferate the countryside, horse shows were always held just outside charming little villages. So, if you found yourself gritting it out to finish a class during a torrential downpour one minute, you could then be sitting in a cozy breakfast nook having a warm scone 5 minutes later. A friendly waitress calling you "honey" might inquire why you look so sodden and bring you a complimentary warm beverage. And should you need some duct tape or band-aids or string, you will find them within 25 steps of your scone at the main street hardware store.
Every summer through my youth, my dad and I traveled all over the Northeast for Combined Driving competitions. I served as his groom, traveling companion, and cheerleader. We went to New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania-- the same circuit of shows every season. After the first couple seasons, we had our favorite stomping grounds in every horse show town. In Massachusetts, we liked to go to the Blue Bonnet Diner for mid-afternoon hot chocolates and a break from the bustle of the showgrounds. In Pennsylvania, we hit the Iron Skillet every morning for gigantic breakfasts that kept us fueled all day. In Connecticut, we knew exactly where to stop for ice, supplies, and carrots for the horses. Whenever dad broke something on his carriage or harness, we knew who to call and where to go. And any time we wanted to just sit down and take a break, we knew the best places in all those charming villages. We knew where to get the best croissant or berry pie slice, the best quiet bookstore, the best outdoor park where we could nap in the grass. Sometimes, these things were vital to a good performance at the show. I grew up naively assuming it was all part of competing horses.
Then I moved to California.
Land is a precious commodity here in California, the largest available amounts of it existing in far-flung deserted areas. And these deserted areas during mid-summer show season tend to be so hot that many folks get heat stroke just from standing around. Less of them might fall victim if there were cozy stores nearby where one could duck out of the elements for a moment or grab a buttery scone after morning classes. But there are none of those. No shops, no stores, no villages. Just a horse show venue sticking up in the midst of these flat bone-dry plains. Some days, I've wandered around so long looking for a single tree under which I could sit and shade myself that I've nearly missed my class. I've finally realized that trees just don't grow in hot barren plains and therefore gotten used to that sizzling skin-scorched feeling on my forehead and cheeks.
On this particular day of failing to find a store, as if one might miraculously appear on our hundredth search, my groom and I pondered aloud about the oddity of the scene. The mercury pushed past 100-degrees, dust swirled, horses wilted. And the show went on. Participants tried their best to present themselves glamorously with polished black boots and shiny saddles, but the glamour fleeted quickly. Within five minutes of all the polishing, everything was drenched in sweat, filmed in dust. Ladies' makeup melted and dribbled down their starched collars, making pink and blue stripes from eyelids to ribcage. Wet rings blossomed under their arms, triangles of moisture pressed through the backs of their show jackets. The horses huffed and puffed, their sleek coats turning to foamy lather.
I dreaded my own class within an hour and the temperature by then well over 100. To assuage my bitter mood, my groom reminded me that things weren't that bad. They could be worse, after all. Remember Woodinville? With that, I almost fell off my bucket.
A year ago, we'd gone to an early spring show in Woodinville, a town that maps describe as "historical." After spending 72 hours there, I discovered that 'historical' is a euphemism for "place you never want to visit." I entered town via main street, where all the buildings seem to have emptied out at the turn of the 20th century, and promptly locked my car doors. I couldn't tell if I'd somehow driven onto the set of a creepy Hollywood movie or if the place was for real, but nonetheless, the town-- if I can call it that-- sent out bad vibes in every direction.
Block after block was filled with abandoned stone buildings rotting into the earth. I passed one or two other cars carrying folks trying to figure out the quickest route out of there. For miles, I passed shuttered saloons, deserted storefronts, and crumbling facades, all of which were surrounded by acres of scorched plains baking in the heat. In fact, the temperatures that weekend held steady at 112 degrees and all I fantasized about was a cold bottle of Gatorade. My horses fell sick from the heat and my car broke down, but all I could think about was a cold Gatorade. For 72 hours, I dreamt of getting the hell out of Woodinville and its ghostly downtown and sitting down in a patch of shade with a Gatorade.
On this particular day, my groom was right. Things could have been worse. My makeup might melt down my shirtfront and I would undoubtedly contract some minor heatstroke by day's end, but at least we weren't in Woodinville. We would get by without the towels and ice and string we searched for earlier. Then, like delirious souls clamoring towards a desert mirage, we will tell stories about our favorite aisle in Target. Oh, Target. What we wouldn't give right then for a place like that with bonafide signs of civilization! Then, my groom will listen politely as I reminisce for the billionth time about those charming little horse show villages in my youth.
And the show goes on.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Anyone who's spent five minutes either doing or watching the stiff-lipped sport of dressage knows that "fun" might not be the most accurate description. After all, we are talking about a pursuit based on trying to achieve perfection, not one where folks spend most of their saddle time laughing. I am by nature a studious creature, relishing in pursuits that require fierce concentration (which is a colorful way of saying I take myself too seriously), so dressage has always suited me. However, I DO recognize that we dressage riders quite often need a reminder to lighten up a little. Or a big "Don't Forget to Have Fun" sign hanging in the tack room.
When I stumbled upon this video, I thought maybe I'd found the Holy Grail we all needed. Perhaps this was something I could recommend to my students when they turn purple-faced from holding their breath and micro-analyzing the latest set of aids they picked up at a recent clinic with Mr. Famous European Trainer.
Click. I hit the play button, put my feet up, and readied myself for a good chuckle. Bring on The FUN of Dressage. Curiously, a stiff-lipped British fellow opened the first scene in customarily tight beige riding apparel. He donned a riding helmet and leather gloves-- everything clean and tidy. He stood in the middle of a perfectly groomed arena with manicured flowers landscaped around its edges. The camera zoomed in for a close-up as he reminded viewers that learning dressage can be fun. Just to give us all a sample of this process, he mounted up on a gleaming Warmblood whose trot looked so uncomfortable that it would probably bounce the kidneys out of any mere mortal who tried sitting it, except for this British chap.
By now, I'd become positively excited to see how this guy could transform the process of learning dressage from complicated/frustrating/fleeting to pure fun. I slurped my coffee and leaned forward closer to my computer screen. Bring on the FUN of Dressage, indeed!
The camera panned out now as this well-dressed British gentleman carried on in a bone-jarring sitting trot, trying at the same time to speak. Immediately, his face flushed and beaded with sweat. His eyes narrowed as he described the correct riding position and the camera focused on his nicely straight spine sucking up the shock of sitting the trot on this 17-hand catapulting horse. His breathing became irregular while demonstrating how to hold one's legs close to the horse's sides while riding. Viewers quickly recognized that, were this fellow not in exceptional physical fitness, his limbs would be whipped around like a rag doll's. He reminded viewers to hold their hands still when riding, and by now his face was truly contorted from fatigue and concentration. He asked his horse to walk so he could catch his breath.
So far, he hasn't said anything remotely humorous and he himself appeared to be in physical agony. What happened to the fun? I was still waiting for it. While regaining his breath, he gave the viewer a few allegedly light-hearted reminders. Make sure your horse uses his body properly at all times. Practice sitting trot without stirrups every week. Don't even think about going for a ride without doing a precise and consistent warm-up and cool-down.
And then the credits rolled. It was over. Surely, I missed something, even though I hadn't taken a bathroom break or even so much as averted my eyes once. Where was all the promised fun?? For its alluring title, the video ended up being just like all the others in the universal Dressage collection. It left the viewer with that combination inspired/deflated feeling that she is pursuing a sport that is, well, very difficult. It really is. There's no way around it. Damn! So much for the Holy Grail, or at the very least, a good side-splitting laugh.
Ah well. I suppose I'll just keep my brow furrowed as usual and keep concentrating intensely. But don't worry, I'll let you know when I find myself having a really FUN time when sitting the trot without stirrups.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Being creatures of habit, horses are almost foolishly simple. For 20-plus years, they will get excited every day for their same bucket of grain or patch of green grass. They never stomp their feet and demand different flavors of grass or a more modern bucket. Nope, they just feel the same excitement for the same thing at the same time every day.
Then there's us humans, about whom the same thing cannot be said. Evidence to this fact: me slurping a fermented yeasty-- and mostly gross-- beverage last week. This cup of bubbling Kombucha had made its way into my hands via some compelling marketing at Whole Foods. I had been drawn in by the fancy signage, the promises of better health, intelligence, strength, productivity, etc. Actually, the sign nearly promised that, upon consumption, each customer would instantly become a rock star or a wealthy supermodel or something along these lines. So, I plunked down $4 and sipped and waited.
In one word, I'd describe Kombucha as heinous. It made my taste buds want to jump up and run out of my mouth. Within minutes, my stomach rumbled unpleasantly, prompting me to scout out the nearest restroom. Meanwhile, the Kombucha's acidic aftertaste made my eyes water. You might wonder if, after this disagreeable Kombucha encounter, I have tried it since. Well, this is the point I want to make about human nature versus horse nature. Not only have I tried the yeasty beverage again, I've committed to having it every day. Why? Because, simply, it's the latest trend in the health world, and if it does turn consumers into rock stars, I don't want to miss out! You might recall that last summer's big craze was goji berries. For $18 per pound, foodies could get a bag of red pellets from the Amazon rain forest that supposedly cured cancer, balanced moods, caused weight loss, etc. This year, the goji berry trend has been replaced by Kombucha. And I, being a fickle human, have joined its ranks.
That's what we humans do-- we hop from trend to trend. We like the adventure, the newness. And our poor horses, those noble steeds that love the same old same old, often get dragged into this trend-hopping with us. While horses will live happily their entire lives eating the same grass and grain ration, we humans like to invent all kinds of new concoctions for them. A few years ago, garlic had become the latest trend for horse diets. Promoters said a few teaspoons of garlic daily would benefit horses in dozens of ways, like increasing circulation, warding off bugs, improving digestion. We humans responded by buying up tubs of garlic powder and feeding it religiously.
Then, research started to show that garlic actually wasn't very good for horses. It can cause inflammation and irritate their stomachs. Oops. We all threw away our tubs of garlic. We were ready for a new trend anyway, and scooped up all the latest aloe juices and pro biotics to treat our horses' now ailing stomachs. This hot new item-- stomach soothers-- shot to the top of every one's equine shopping lists. Articles ran in every major magazine about stomach soothers and their unparalleled affects on health. Most recently, though, there's been some debate on how to determine if these products actually work or not.
So, capitalizing on this budding doubt, equine food producers have tried to launch a new trend-- fish oil. Many of us feel like feeding fish byproducts to horses is just inherently wrong somehow. But nevertheless, producers are gaining ground and these products are becoming a bonafide trend. After all, they promise enticing health benefits: strength, healthier digestion, circulation, etc. etc. Bags of grain infused with fish oil are showing up in barns. Folks are eagerly buying special Omega 3 supplements for their horses, wondering how these steeds ever stayed healthy before. How did they stay healthy before?
That's a simple one. They stayed healthy by consuming the only things they need and still get excited about every day-- grass and grain. It's us humans, not them, that need these trend changes every couple years. Nothing excites us like believing we've discovered the 'secret' to ever-lasting health. Our horse friends are happy without further discoveries. They're content with a diet that's worked for them for centuries. I can't say the same for myself. I'm hurrying out to Whole Foods to gag down my daily Kombucha and I need to rush before this trend gets replaced by a newer one!
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Never mind that the most qualified trainer for the job might not fit that description at all. In fact, most of the trainers in this industry that I respect the most for their unparalleled skill occupy the margins of societal norms in terms of appearances. Think odd fashions, social awkwardness, potentially distasteful tattoos. And then there's a population of trainers I've known that had very little to no skill but presented a perfectly coiffed look. You know-- shiny black boots, clean leather gloves, steam pressed breeches. I once met a trainer here in California with the shiniest boots I've ever seen, like reflective pools of water. But I don't think this person had ever ridden a horse, let alone trained one. Yet that seemed to matter little, because the look was just right. And that can get you pretty far.
I had this discussion last week with my colleague, a Western trainer, who wanted to come watch one of my dressage competitions. She didn't think she could come, she said, because the hot summer weather prevented her from wearing enough clothes to cover up her tattoos. And she didn't want to offend anyone, or to embarrass me. Let me clarify that she has more than a couple tattoos; in fact, she's thoroughly inked from neckline to toenails. When first meeting her, it is admittedly difficult not to stare at her limbs. When I met her, I did in fact question some things, such as why someone like her might want a five-inch swirling blade permanently colored onto her upper arm. But I never questioned her abilities as a horse trainer. From the first moment I saw her teaching a student, I knew this gal meant serious business. She is unusually focused and committed, and she elevates her students to a level of excellence they probably would never achieve otherwise.
I tried convincing her that it would be just fine to come watch the dressage show. Sure, she might stick out a little bit, but I didn't think anyone would be overtly appalled by her. That was the glitch, though. I didn't think anyone would be appalled. I couldn't guarantee it. Most trainers I knew-- in any discipline-- stuck with the same general appearance and mannerisms, and she was well outside the norm. But that's the funny thing. Everyone knows that horse trainers are an odd lot of folks. They're folks with unorthodox social graces, obtuse opinions, highly independent. A little rough around the edges. So, why then, do they all try to look the same? Who are they kidding with that tidy appearance?
Growing up, I knew a trainer around New England who specialized in breaking young, wild, or dangerous horses. Rick didn't work with good equine citizens; he only wanted the scary ones. Nobody could rival his skill with them. In 60 days, he consistently transformed unruly beasts into steadfast, reliable mounts. Yet, strangely, he lacked the number of clients his skills should have garnered for him. And that's because Rick was a bit-- how to say this?-- strange.
Every year in January, he traveled for two months to Florida for what he called "alligator wrestling season." We never confirmed if alligator wrestling is an official sport down South, much less if there's an organized season. But Rick went down there every year to tangle with the life-threatening reptiles and returned each spring with a few bruises and scrapes on his shoulders. He then spent the next eight months telling and re-telling tales of his heroics from those two months. Peoples' responses to him varied. Some bored of hearing the stories. Many thought he was making things up. Most, though, thought he was just plain odd. Very odd. This tended to repel would-be clients, regardless of his skill with equines.
I pondered this last week-- on the topic of competence, that is. Why would a person's appearance have any correlation to his or her competence? And how did we in the horse world make this tie? A former client of mine turned down my referral of a colleague due to the fact, she said, that she'd seen him wearing a "Gay Pride San Francisco 1999" t-shirt once. Huh? Would that somehow affect his ability to train her horse? I asked. She paused a long time trying to dissect the question. Then she replied that, yes, well she supposed the t-shirt made him seem very 'non-horseman like.' In other words, he lacked the proper trappings-- leather gloves, collared shirt, pressed breeches.
In the end, my Western trainer friend with all the tattoos did not come to the dressage show. And, truthfully, I had to admit it was for the best. Setting aside my idealism, I conceded that she was right. Her lip tattoo really would stick out in this sea of women in designer wear and straw hats. And the five-inch swirling knife blade on her upper arm? It wouldn't only be distasteful to this crowd; it would be plain startling.
Nevertheless, my idealism still rears its head sometimes, like when I'm reading Dressage Today magazine. I'm convinced that one day, rather than the photos giving an impression that we all shop at the same store, we'll see pictures of horsemen of all colors and backgrounds. Just think about it. How cool would it be to compete for a dressage judge with a mohawk? Or how about one who alleges to wrestle alligators in the off season?
Monday, June 1, 2009
I’ve kept this secret because nobody else on the planet seems to like Country anymore, even horse people. And that baffles me, because where I grew up, horse folks were the only ones who actually did like country music. Nowadays, every horse person I know turns the dial when Randy Travis or Waylon Jennings comes on a radio. If cowboys of all people don’t listen to Country, then who does? Besides me, of course.
I’m worried that Country is going to disappear and this bums me out.
Maybe the problem is that we’ve become too urban, so tunes about ridiculously simple things just don’t pull any weight now. Who relates anymore to twangy songs about dogs or yodels praising pick-up trucks? A whiney guitar and a ditty about old men sitting around talking about the weather just don’t move people.
Fortunately for now, though, Country radio stations continue to exist. I can still hear Dolly Parton sing about her coat of many colors or Johnny Cash croon the Folsom Prison blues. For me, these melodies are somewhat synonymous with life with horses. Much of this has to do with the hole-in-the-wall Country station in my off-the-beaten-path childhood town in Vermont. Back before things like automated programming or satellite radio, this tiny station—WCVR—ran from a four-room clapboard shack, manned round the clock by deejays that were employable for no other capacity than what WCVR required of them: drink lots of stale coffee and burble into the microphone.
In the early days of getting our farm operating, my mother sold ads part-time for WCVR. Her ‘colleagues’ included one drunk and one parolee. She sometimes brought us along with her and let us peruse the stacks of tunes while she hawked air time to livestock feed companies, lumber yards, and tractor dealerships. All these establishments, the backbone of any rural economy, piped WCVR into their shops.
This meant that anyone with livestock had a steady daily diet of Country music. No matter what errands you ran, you would hear Hank Williams, guaranteed. Then, if you happened to be a single guy, you’d inevitably develop a crush on the afternoon deejay, “Rena,” and keep all your radios (truck, home, barn) tuned to WCVR so you didn’t miss an instant of her sultry voice. Rena’s smooth on-air persona defied her real-life stats. In person, she was neither smooth nor sultry. Rena was an exceptionally large woman, prone to sleeping in her clothes and forgetting to wash her hair. She told jokes without punch lines and then cackled and snorted at her own humor, sometimes stopping mid-joke to pop zits on her cheek. But if you only knew her on-air voice, you’d assume Rena was a real sex kitten. Thus the dozens of stalkers sending flowers to WCVR.
Then there was “Wild Willy,” the deejay that took over from 6pm to midnight, and gave painstaking monologues about his latest heartaches. Wild Willy refused to play “new school” Country and held instead to a playlist of strictly “old school” music, though no one else could tell the difference. Crooning, swaggering vocals all sounded the same to us.
We baled hay to Country, fed and trained horses to it. Like all farm families, our lives unfolded to a soundtrack of Country music. But now, apparently, the horse world has shucked off some of the attributes that always made it less cool than normal society (things like canvas clothes, chapped hands, maintenance-free haircuts—to name just a few).
Tunes about dogs and blue jeans and the weather have disappeared. It’s not that they’ve been replaced by anything. It’s more a matter of the horse world becoming more… well, maybe sophisticated is the right word. Nowadays, folks are busy with ipods and cell phones, email and digital cameras. There’s no room for a twangy soundtrack in the background of one’s life. Instead, we’re more modern now and arguably more hip. Minus me, of course, because I’ve replaced WCVR with a station here in California at 95.5 on the FM dial that plays old school and new school, whatever that means.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Let's start with the meaningless phrase "healthy as a horse."
In my everyday wanderings, I hear folks say that someone is "healthy as a horse" if he is, for instance, running marathons at 85 years old and has never suffered an ailment, prolonged sickness, or injury. In fact, the specimen in question is so genetically superior that in seven and a half decades of life, he's never experienced even the most minor upset like indigestion, fatigue, toothache, or hair loss. And so, therefore, he is "healthy as a horse," right?
Nothing could be further from the truth. To be precise, if this gentleman were in fact "healthy as a horse," he would have been lucky to live to his tenth birthday without a major medical procedure, never mind his 85th. By now, he would have racked up a retirement's worth of medical bills and expensive nutritional supplements. He would become perilously ill from a fly bite or minor scrape on his leg, or he'd mysteriously develop gastric distress after eating his routine meal of 20 years.
Anyone with horses knows what I'm getting at. Horses are the most fragile animals I've encountered, susceptible to bizarre fevers and split-second injuries. They can be in fine health one moment and then in a welted rash the next. Or have an unexplainable swelling. Or a foot abscess. Or any number of debilitating anomalies which will empty a horse owner's bank account from vet bills quicker than a stock market crash.
Just last week I went to the barn on Monday to ride my horse who was bright-eyed and energetic as usual. We had a very pleasant ride, after which I washed him off and let him graze for a while in the sun, all the while pondering contentedly how wonderful life with horses was. On Tuesday, I went back out to the barn to ride again. And there stood my horse with a fever, three legs ballooned to the size of elephant limbs, and really gross edema pockets all over his body. What? I backed away, stupefied. What on earth could have happened to transform him overnight into... this?
The usual scenario played out. A vet was called. My horse was treated with every injection medicine available. A diagnosis formed loosely: "Hmm...not really sure what it is. Could have been caused by a tick bite... or an allergy... or who knows. Sometimes this stuff just happens. Call when you need more antibiotics." And that, dear reader, is how my bank account wound its way closer to $0.
I spent the last 10 days driving 40 minutes twice a day to the stable to administer drugs and check on my guy. He is fine now. Totally fine, in fact, and back to his normal healthy self. Who knows what caused his episode last week. Must have been a fly bite... or an allergy... or something. One thing's for sure, though. After writing out all those checks to my vet, I wanted to punch the lights out of whoever invented that idiom "healthy as a horse." I would have blurted out, in lunatic fashion, "oh yeah? healthy as a horse? You call this the epitome of health?-- a creature that can just fall to pieces overnight, possibly from some innocent wildflower blooming?" I think "healthy as an octegenarian" might be far more accurate. I intend to start using that phrase in fact.
My animosity over the idiom has settled since last week. I'm no longer screaming it-- 'healthy as a horse?!-- out my car window, anyway. Instead, my mood has turned more reflective, which accounts for my study of these horse-related phrases.
"Horsepower" is another one that mystifies me at the moment. At first, it seems to make sense. I mean, sure, a lawn mower could be called 'six horsepower' if it pushed itself along with the strength of six horses in full motion. But this makes the assumption that there is a basic unchanging standard for an ordinary horse's power output. As a horse trainer, let me assure you that this is not the case.
How do lawn mower manufacturers, for instance, account for times when horses just aint putting out any power? Like when a mare comes into heat and flat-out refuses to do anything for three days? Would she be counted as a 'fussy horsepower' during that period? Or then there's the stall bound horse recovering from a strained tendon that needs to be confined for three months. Is he counted temporarily as 'no horsepower?' Although maybe his tally gets cancelled out by the feisty Arabian who tears around the arena, tail arched over his back, and bucks off his rider every day. Perhaps he gets counted as 'one horsepower with spunk to spare?'
You can see how this Horsepower term gets vague. A dozen ornery Shetland ponies will not produce the same output as a dozen steadfast draft horses. And a dozen mares will simply never give a consistent output of agreeable, hormone-free, activity from week to week.
So who came up with this term in the first place? Definitely a non-horse person, that's who. Most likely, an enterprising salesman in a machine shop many moons ago looked out his window and came up with a genius marketing plan. No doubt he looked out at a team of harness horses clip-clopping its way down the street, lean and muscled and perfectly behaved. Such industrious animals, he probably thought to himself and then pondered how many more engines or motors or machine-like things he could sell if he aligned them with man's good friend, the noble Equine. And, thus, he began equating the capability of his motors and engines with the clip-clopping harness horses he'd seen. A common motorized something-or-other now became a "three horsepower" item. Consumers, therefore, now had all the muscle and brawn of a few horses but without the hay consumption and pooping. Perfect!
Today, I hope most consumers realize how defectively 'horsepower' defines what it purports to. For instance, I hope mega-billionaires realize when they rev up their 200 horsepower sports car engines that if, in reality, 200 equines stood at the ready in their driveways, only about ten of them would produce any power. The other 190 would be spooking, grazing, mating, or napping. How's that, for horsepower?
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
See, here's the profundity of feed stores: time stands still there. Just last week, I found myself fiddling with a multi-tiered chicken feeder one moment and then looking at squishy bottles to feed baby calves the next. Everything I fondled seemed devoid of any relevance to our modern times. It was grand! I inhaled deeply the old-fashioned smell combining oats, rubber footwear, and caged Angora rabbits in a nearby corner. I recollected moments with the exact same ingredients in various times and feed stores throughout my life, at 6 years old, 12, 15, in my 20s. Nothing ever changes in these places. Nothing. Being inside a tack and feed store is so delightfully timeless and technologically deficient that a person can actually forget about cell phones, text messages, day planners.
In fact, if a person were to spend an abundance of time in these wonderlands, her bonds with modern day reality would loosen pretty swiftly. Spending all that time surrounded by hand-held scythes, garden seeds, and livestock troughs can skew someone's perception of which century we're in. From inside a feed store, you might easily assume everyone led a homesteading lifestyle, driving their horse and buggy to market and raising hogs at home. You'd think that everyone in your mostly urban surroundings knew what to do with the oddities I played with last week: four types of chicken scratch, a sleek magnet for pulling nails from cows' bellies, bags of sodium chloride, seed potatoes.
It's definitely not your average retail browsing experience, though feed stores are predictable and that's what comforts me. Ironically like McDonald's and Starbucks, every feed store in every town across America is nearly identical except for small differences in floor plans. They all seem to have a senile old cat curled up by the cash register, a quirky fellow (or gal) behind the counter who has lived in the same town a lifetime and knows every scrap of historical lore. They all have stacks of free agricultural magazines by the front door and fly catchers hanging from the ceiling. There's a guy out back who divides his time between loading sacks of grain into patrons' trucks and flirting with women in the bird seed aisle. His sidekick divides his time between loading hay bales and napping. Some of the store aisles will be laden with cans of brass polish and leather dye so old and dust-covered now that they qualify as antiques. And no feed stores I know follow normal business practices like sales, promotions, or customer appreciation days. Nope, they all just keep marching along to their own never-changing beat.
The feed store of my youth-- Braley's Feed in Randolph, Vermont-- was a high point for me when Dad took me along on Thursday mornings. During my decade of visiting Braley's, the scene inside remained unchanged. Braley himself, grandson of the original founder, wore a long sleeve white thermal shirt under denim overalls no matter the season. He always lingered near the front of the store, flanked by four or five local farmers that came in every morning around 7am for the hot coffee and fresh glazed donuts that Braley set out between the Farmer's Almanac stacks and display rack of gardening gloves. Their conversation lasted the duration of a glazed donut for each, or approximately enough time to comment on the weather, their hay crop, and the maple sap flow. Extra agenda items included the idiocy of members of the local select board.
Initially, I loved Braley's because of the glazed donuts. Then, over the years, I began to savor the scene. The brown braided rug by the front door occupied by a three-legged black Labrador, the way Braley wrote out receipts with pencil and paper even long after the invention of computers, the cluster of farmers or wanna-be farmers leaning against his counter with a cup of hot coffee and no other place in the world to be at that moment. The lazy conversation and Braley's opinion (he had one for everything) about the best type of salt minerals for livestock. The boxes of peeping fuzz balls in the spring that would grow into chickens by autumn. As I grew up and changed, Braley's remained the same, which in time endeared the place to me. It somehow made the store more precious and trustworthy to me in a world quickly becoming fleeting, changing, or deceptive. Braley's is in fact still operating in Randolph, Vermont in the same location, and probably with the same handwritten paper receipts, although it's a younger generation of Braley now writing them with pencil.
Last week, after spending more time than I realized in the feed store and pondering the purchase of nostalgic items I didn't really need like little cans of Bag Balm, I wandered slowly out to my car. A very busy day lurked ahead of me and, yes, I should have been moving at a franctic pace. Instead, though, I meandered. I clung to the slow rhythms of our local feed store here and thought about finding uses for a hand-held scythe. A noise startled me once I got back in my car. My cell phone rang from the passenger seat and due to my temporary time warp, I wondered aloud "What the heck is that thing?"
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
So much thrill and excitement followed these races. Sports announcers went wild into their microphones, newspapers clamored for the story, television news would broadcast the footage over and over in slow motion. And in mere seconds, a single moment in sports was carved in history. A previously unknown athlete with no Nike sponsorships or other endorsements had written her ticket to the top of her sport. I remember walking away from the television with a warm glow of inspiration inside my chest as if I, too, could someday blast out of a rural town in Vermont into the history books.
It's curious now to find myself in the world of dressage-- a sport with no underdogs. During primetime coverage of this past month's dressage World Cup in Las Vegas, I reflected on how anti-climactic these big events can be when there are positively no come-from-behind moments in the sport, or unlikely candidates competing alongside the 'big names'. I mean, who has ever seen a Welsh Cob at the Olympics? Or a rider from Belarus on the medal podium? When has a Bashkir Curly horse ever shown up in a Grand Prix test? Now, that would be cool.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not denouncing modern Grand Prix dressage competitors who have worked long and hard to claim their accomplishments. I'm just saying that if every now and then a Shetland pony actually ended up on the winner's podium, dressage competitions would be a lot more... well, exciting. We'd get announcers yelping into their microphones rather than droning in hushed librarian-like tones. We'd have spectators showing up in dozens, wondering which underdog might make a run on the first place ribbon-- the Appaloosa, the Arabian cross, or the Fjord pony. We'd finally get some news coverage and little boys and girls saying they wanted to grow up to be dressage riders. Wouldn't this be different? If nothing else, it would definitely change the landscape of modern competitions.
As is, the only time I find myself saying "Holy cow! How about that?" is while watching an upper level stallion blow up in the warm-up arena, clearing out other horses and riders like bowling pins, rather than when an unlikely candidate turns in an impressive performance and WINS. The only 'excitement' or unpredictability comes when high winds pick up and horses start losing their marbles. The only spectators that come to endure the hermetic silence at dressage venues are family members who have been threatened/cajoled/arm-twisted to be there. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have them come willingly because there were some storylines to follow (like the Chincoteague pony that used to live in the wild and is now going head to head with the top-ranked dressage horse/rider in this country?)
By its nature, dressage is a sport for all. It was developed to improve the training and performance of any horse, regardless of breed, talent, or Olympic potential. And for that reason, riders of all abilities and financial means undertake it as a hobby in this country, many of them with lofty competitive aims. The caveat, though, is that in theory a horse need not have Olympic potential to participate in dressage. When it actually comes to the Olympics or World Cup, though, you darn better get the right horse. I might be unpopular for saying it, but in dressage, someone who rides a $10,000 Welsh-Arab cross is very simply never going to pull off a feat like the relatively unknown runner Wilma Rudolph in the 1960 Rome Olympics, sprinting on a sprained ankle to become the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in a single Olympics. Rudolph had overcome a premature birth, polio, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and measles.
During last summer's Olympics, I watched with glee as a 16-year old member of the Brazilian dressage team competed aboard her plump Lusitano stallion-- a total oddball for such levels of this sport. Maybe I hoped for the equestrian version of Rudolph. Luiza Tavares de Almeida performed nearly flawlessly. I held my breath, sort of like you would for a girl of modest means from one of those Balkan countries doing her floor routine in gymnastics. The Brazilian gal turned in an incredible ride, her perfectly obedient steed huffing and puffing his way through the test. I couldn't wait to see her score, hoping she'd make the cut for final rounds.
It was one of the lowest scores I've ever seen in an Olympics. And, see, that's my point. How exciting would it have been if this gal stood a real chance of scoring well and getting into the top ranks. How many dressage announcers would have jumped out of their chairs? Darn it, dressage might have even made it into mainstream news for a moment or two. Other riders with plump unfavored breeds of horses might show up at competitions and that would be... well, fun.
Ever since my 8th grade English report on Wilma Rudolph, I've always had a picture of her with me, either taped to a wall or close at hand someplace. Strategically squinting my eyes regarding reality, I just can't let go of this notion that sports should be a place for everyone. Dressage included. Maybe one day in my lifetime, things will change drastically and our sport, too, will suddenly have underdogs! And story lines! And hype from sports announcers! Just to be prepared, I'm in the market for an Olympic caliber Chincoteague-Bashkir Curly cross. One with really bizarre markings would be preferred. And one that can do an excellent victory lap
Friday, April 17, 2009
During two months every spring, this segment of the population quite simply stops leading normal lives. Every moment-- literally every one-- is spent waiting for a new baby horse-- slimy, delicate, and hopefully healthy. Any number of misfortunes can strike in those first few hours of life, a fact about which breeders hold their breath starting in February every year. Sleeping in their cars or the barn aisle begins soon afterwards. Skipping meals and all social interaction with fellow humans follows. Friendships are put on hold, household obligations suspended, national news ignored.
Last week, I noted that an ordinarily reliable client of mine had failed to pay her bill for three weeks. Since this was unusual behavior for her, I called to see if maybe she'd fallen ill or had a family emergency. She answered the phone gravelly voiced and sounding confused, as if her ringing telephone perplexed her. After gaining some bearings, she cleared her throat several times (most likely from hay chaff and sawdust) and apologized profusely. What day was it, anyway, she asked? Had the first of this month already passed?
Yes, about 20 days ago, I pointed out.
Oh. Well, then was it still the month of April? Or did we somehow skip right over into May?
No, still April, I said. But well past time for a paycheck not only to me but probably other folks, too, like landlord, tax guy, etc.
Oh. Oh dear, she replied. She must have lost track of time, she explained, sounding slightly less confused now. Without hesitation, she told me she'd been sleeping on a hay bale outside her pregnant mare's stall, wearing more or less the same pair of clothes for weeks now. In fact, she couldn't remember her last meal or the last time she'd spoken with a real human being besides her veterinarian.
The good news, though? Her mare gave birth to an adorable brown filly yesterday morning. And the little girl looked healthy so far. This meant that in another 24 hours, my client could probably comfortably move back into her house, start picking hay from her hair, and maybe eat something other than carrot chunks and oat cookies. Normal life could start back up and my check would be in the mail pronto.
I chuckled to myself, knowing what "life as normal" consists of for horse breeders immediately following a new baby. It usually starts with the proud breeder referencing herself in the company of friends as a "grandma" and asking every one's opinion about potential names. I could picture my client at the supermarket querying the checkout clerk "What do you think of the name Maestoso? Or should I save that one until I get a boy next year?"
The clerk, oblivious to what on earth she's talking about will stare back at her blankly, waiting for an explanation beyond the bits of hay stuck in her hair. Taking this as an opportunity to show off baby pictures, my client will quick-draw her digital camera from her hip and show the clerk a slideshow of a knobbly kneed creature teetering next to its four-legged mother. She will follow the picture show with descriptions of umbilical, colostrum, and nursing. Other patrons at the supermarket who assumed this beaming woman was talking about her own newborn will suddenly wonder how come she has a camera with her but no baby? Where's the baby? Now uncomfortable, they will start to shift away from her or sprint out to her car to see where she's left the newborn.
Poor souls, they've just never met a horse breeder. They've probably also never met anyone who would willingly exchange a warm bed for a scratchy hay bale.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I knew equine media would provide me the obscurity I sought, because the horse world excels at distancing itself from fiscal norms and realities. So, yes, while unemployment rates in the U.S. surge higher day to day, banks collapse, and businesses capsize, the prices for horses are... going up. In a market where--logically-- sale prices should be shockingly low, there is not a deal to be had. If I relied on the equine industry for my bearings, I would be led to believe we're actually in financially lush times where money is spilling in abundance from Americans' pockets.
This is nothing new, though. The horse sales market is one that makes zero sense. It follows no such thing as trends, measurable gains or losses, logic, or financial cycles. Above all, it does not make sense and likely never will. In fact, I'm recounting the number of my mid-30 year old students that have decided at some point to buy a horse. Each one has set out on his or her shopping spree with specific requirements such as wanting only a male horse, 10 years old, extensive training, black in color, priced around $5,500. A week later, every one of them has returned with a three-year old female possessing no training (unless you count the four times it bucked off its current trainer) with a $12,000 price tag. When I point out that the new acquisition is neither rideable nor sane and then query about the logic behind its purchase, my client can only stammer: " I can't explain, except as soon as I looked in her face, I knew she was my horse. She chose me."
This horse, which will turn out untrainable, will cost the proud owner roughly $50,000 in board fees over the next ten years. And here's the thing: unlike real estate and vintage cars, horse's don't gain value. The new-- and, now, poor-- owner will eventually sell this horse for $1,200. Anyone with an ounce of financial savvy will be shaking her head by now. But the horse world does what it does, which means it keeps stumbling along in its illogical and nonsensical ways, daring somebody, anybody, to figure it out.
For sellers, this is good news because it allows them during times like this to charge staggering sums for four-legged steeds without talent, brains, or beauty. Last week, I was contemplating a photo of a horse for sale that, all kidding aside, had such a dysfunctional body that I couldn't tell for a moment which was the front end and which was the back. Yikes. The cost for this gem? $9,500. The seller had indicated the price was "a steal" in this bad economy. I held off calling her to suggest she donate the horse to the petting zoo because it would never be capable of a riding career.
At the end of the day, though, it will be her and not me laughing to the bank. This seller has obviously operated for a while in this bizarre horse economy. She knows how it works. One day, her phone will ring and the caller will say he's looking for a bay colored, 16-hand Anglo-Arabian with competition experience, but within a week that same caller will be loading her midget 14-hand unregistered and untrained brown horse into his trailer with a money order payable for the full amount.
A year later, the fellow will probably return the horse to her, explaining that it just didn't work out for him. He will swallow the $9,500 price he paid for the horse, an additional $4,000 in board fees, and $1,300 in vet and farrier costs. Then, odds favor him repeating the whole scenario within six months-- purchasing an unsuitable horse for $9,000 or more, dumping time and money into him, and then either giving him away for free or re-selling him for $1,500. How's that for a return on investment?
Meanwhile, the seller of the original untrained unattractive brown horse I saw last week will gladly accept the cost-free return of her horse, because soon her phone will ring again and she will sell the horse for $10,500 this time around (because he now has a year of training, compliments of the fellow who returned him). It ends up being a sweet deal. She gets to profit twice on the unattractive horse with no talent and escapes paying a whole year of his feed and upkeep expenses. It's ingenious in an unexplainable way. Really, automobile dealers could learn a thing or two from the horse world. If it were measurable or made any sense, that is.
For anyone who's genuinely downtrodden about this economic downturn, I'd like to offer up my couch and this pile of horse magazines as therapy. A few minutes immersed in horse economics will leave you feeling more upbeat or at least so perplexed that you'll forget your woes. By the way, I know of a horse with relatively no talent for sale. Any takers?
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Personal preferences determine whether the rider in question opts to tuck and roll, lands on her feet, or keeps hold of the reins. After her first emergency dismount, a rider tends to bring her own individual style to the maneuver. A trademark, if you will. And from then on, this tumultuous parting of company from one's mount becomes a bragging right. It's a way of holding onto our human integrity, maintaining a sense of control. It's our mortal way of believing that, in the face of no possible good outcome, we made an optimal choice to rectify a bad scene. Yes, instead of going down with the ship, we bailed out early. And therefore that proves our intelligence.
Style aside, though, the emergency dismount is never a good thing. It's generally accompanied by life-ending reflections or other "this is how I'm going to die?" sorts of thoughts. And, let's face it: most riders really intend to stay mounted once they get on board every day. Who, after all, wouldn't prefer to be jogging around rhythmically on her horse rather than tucked into a tight ball flying through the air ready for impact with the ground?
For obvious reasons, the emergency dismount is a major bummer. Not only does it bang you up but it bruises your ego, too. When your barn mates ask how your ride went, you hate to answer "Well, things didn't go quite as planned..." In my lifetime around horse people, though, I've observed that after an initial few hours of feeling embarrassed and battered, riders use the mishap to explore the reaches of metaphor. Put simply, they start bragging. In fact, they end up bragging about the unscheduled dismount more than they would about a perfectly flawless ride.
It starts innocently enough with the rider admitting to his or her coach that, after an unexplained something or other spooked her horse, she decided to bail off. Then later she tells the same story to her friend, except embellishes it with a colorful detail like this: "At first, I hit the ground running, but then I figured I'd tuck and roll, because why not? Well, after the roll, I was right back up on my feet."
Later that afternoon, she retells the story to a group of fellow riders, adding a little more flare: "After somersaulting through the air, I ended up on the other side of the arena fence, but I broad-jumped back into the arena, ran alongside my horse, grabbed his reins..."
By the time, the story reaches its final version, the rider performed a stunt that involved hitting the ground and then somersaulting under the horse's galloping hooves, then she sprung back up on her feet and swung her leg up (while sprinting at Olympic speeds, mind you) and did a flying re-mount onto her horse. So, basically, she never dismounted in the first place. Not only was there less shame in this version of the day's happenings because it maintains the guise of control but it was so grossly exaggerated that her friends thought Hollywood would be calling any second for stunt training. In sum, it was far more exciting-- and in some ways, fruitful-- than just another day in the arena.
Admittedly, I've spun my own fanciful tales about emergency dismounts. I've added a fictional somersault here and there, exaggerated the speeds of the occurrence, etc. I mean, it's just a lot better than saying Things got bad and I jumped off. So, now as a trainer, I know to believe only a fraction of what follows when a student starts out "Well, things didn't go quite as planned..." And for this reason, I think I'll petition the American Riding Instructors' Association to develop standard operating procedures for these emergency dismount maneuvers. I'm envisioning something like this: Step 1.) Admit things are getting bad quickly, Step 2.) Recognize that you are neither John Wayne, a circus trainer, nor a rodeo rider, Step 3.) Say a Hail Mary and jump! Forget about gymnastic routines, cartwheels, or other heroics.
Monday, March 16, 2009
I've seen terrified veterinary assistants tethered to the end of a chain shank holding a snorting, leaping stallion uttering "whoa" incessantly in barely audible tones with blank stares and obviously zero conviction that "whoa" is actually going to STOP the menacing beast from his antics. Likewise, I've seen owners trying to groom their antsy, dancing horses at a tie post, chasing the steeds around in circles with their brushes and muttering 'whoa,' 'whoa,' 'whoa.' Now, if they intended that word to actually mean something, they'd be darn sure to get a response when they said it, rather than continuing to chase their four-legged friends around to brush mud off their hocks.
I've lived a long time in the horse world and mostly what I've seen is that the word 'whoa' is used with zero purpose other than to fill silent air and give our busy human minds something to work over and repeat incessantly. Here's a perfect example. We've all witnessed moments at a barn where something really awful is happening, like a horse starts panicking while in the trailer or rearing on wet slippery concrete, etc. And how do their humans react? By screaming-- and I do mean screaming-- WHOA! at decibels that could rupture ear drums. Now why, I ask you, would a panicking and terrified animal suddenly calm down by being hollered at, especially by a word that he has been trained to ignore? Why would a whole bunch of yelling and shrieking settle the horse down? Well, obviously it doesn't. Yet, we horse people keep doing it. It proves that we have no intention that 'whoa' is going to do anything, but it makes our frantic minds feel better. And that's what counts, right?
I've ridden frequently in Portugal over the past 10 years and the horses there are completely bombproof... except for Guinea hens. One year, the riding school's neighbor bought a flock of those clucking hens and deposited them across the arena fence. When riding past that particular spot in the arena, our normally stalwart stallions bolted at the speed of light. It didn't matter how skilled a rider you were. The sheer speed alone ejected you from your seat and you could only hope to hang onto the stallion's mane until he ran out of oxygen. Of course, the flurry of bolting, charging stallions only excited the Guinea hens more, which elevated their clucking, which in turn accelerated our respective runaways.
Meanwhile, my dear trainer stood in the center of the arena quietly telling our group "whoa. whoa, Ladies." He said it so unassumingly, as if it were our ideas to have a white-knuckled ride and we needed a reminder to rein things back in. Our cries for help, our cursing at the stallions and the hens-- it all passed him by. Whoa.
Those years of Portuguese horses and clucking Guinea really confirmed for me how little punch the word "whoa" packs. So, you might say that like most riders, I had become programmed to say whoa only when I expected positively nothing to happen.
Then one night I was riding my buddie Mark's young stallion. I don't recall how the circumstances aligned for me to be in the dark arena at 9pm with about a dozen 4-H kids but there I was. The air was chilly, Mark's horse was frisky, and children on ponies darted around like air hockey pieces. I was just thinking to myself "This can't get any worse..." when the young stallion under me shook his head so vigorously that his bridle flew off. Now I sat holding reins attached to nothing. In its launch, the bridle flew towards the ground and the bit smacked my horse's knee hard, which startled him. So, he started running. I of course pulled on the reins out of habit, but the bridle was now dragging along in the sand next to me. Likely mystified by his sudden lack of restraint, the young horse kept running and 4-h children scattered.
I froze in the saddle, then quickly realized I'd need to be more proactive. "What should I DO?" I yelled over to Mark who casually watched the scene without concern. He gave me a look that confirmed I had asked the stupidest question in history. In his slow Texan drawl, he said "Well, tell him whoa."
I, in turn, thought this reply was the stupidest one in history. Why say "whoa"-- a tactic proven NOT to stop a bolting stallion? Well, apparently, 'whoa' actually means something in the Western world Mark hails from. Convinced that once again nothing would happen, I whispered "um...whoa?"
Upon hearing my feeble mutter, that young stallion screeched on the brakes so rapidly that I flew onto his neck, toppled over his shoulder, and landed on the ground beside him. He stood like a statue while I composed myself and even while kids on ponies crashed into his backside. So this is what WHOA looked like! The word did mean something! Granted, I've decided since then that "whoa" is like a Holy Grail and only precious few know its real identity.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
By page 40 of this catalogue with products promising results, I thought to myself that either horse people need things explained to them in a thousand different formats OR we trainers must have a compulsive desire to write books even though we agree that nobody learns anything about horses from a book. My mentor, for one, gets really feisty about this topic. He spews and sputters and paces around in circles waving his arms, trying to make horse owners realize they need to learn things from their horses, not from a book.
I tend to agree with him, especially since training horses is a never-ending learning process. Even after a lifetime with them, old masters still something new every day from their steeds. However, I also have observed how blissfully full of hope most amateurs and riders are. No matter the frustrations and setbacks, regardless of the financial sacrifice and marriage turmoil, their hope never dies. They have a will to improve their skills and master tricky riding techniques. And where there's a will, there's a way, right?
This optimism must be what keeps those horse book catalogues in business. Despite the fact that the last five years' worth of equestrian magazine subscriptions haven't given a rider one morsel of tangible, measurable, useful information about working with her specific horse, she will keep renewing. Never mind that the last dozen training books purchased at a recent equine trade show was so confusing that she never got around to reading them. And those instructional DVDs about how to be a better rider in four weeks? Those were both boring AND confusing, so they're now collecting dust next to an old collection of Star Trek VHS tapes.
Yet the average horse owner still hopes that someday one of these books or DVDs or pod casts will give her just the information she's searching for. And that hour in the saddle every day will suddenly take on a new level of clarity and progress. So we trainers keep writing books and horse owners keep buying them.
We do have very good intentions in writing our books. We want to be useful and helpful and to give the average rider an "ah-hah!" moment. But the gritty truth is that each individual horse is SO darn different in nature, ability, and behavior that no matter how good a respective book might be, its message will never be 100 percent applicable too all horses. Thus, Jane Doe the average horse owner buys the book on-line because it has a groovy title or at a trade show because its author gave an inspirational demo and goes to the barn intending to follow its instructions line by line.
After perhaps the first chapter, she is very confused and frustrated. She has followed all the steps so far in, say, "Finding Your Inner Dressage Path" but now it's becoming clear that her Mustang-Belgian cross actually doesn't care too much for the counter canter exercises called for in Chapter 2. And if she can't get through Chapter 2, does she just skip ahead to Chapter 3 or 4? Confused, she picks another training book off her shelf to cross-reference and hopefully find an answer to her puzzlement. But this other book suggests a lot of lateral bending, which her horse only does well in one direction. So, should she do those lateral exercises in that one direction and then attempt the counter canter in that same direction?
Even more confused, she consults her magazine subscriptions and finds an article that sums things up this way: if she sits perfectly straight with proper weight in her seat bones, her horse will execute a nicely balanced counter canter all day long.
Later that day, with two books and multiple magazine articles splayed out on the arena fence, she sits perfectly and yet her horse still turns into a chomping, agitated beast when asked for a counter canter.
Huh. Now what to do?
At this point, she might consult her friend, who will confide that she is in the same quandary. The friend may suggest a few other books to contribute to further confusion, or she may simply throw up her hands and admit that she's given up on books and other such information. But to admit this is nearly sacrilegious in the horse world. To admit that you're no longer buying and trying to navigate your way through manuals intending to guide you to the Holy Grail of horsemanship is akin to admitting that you're flunking yourself out of the community. Surely, no amateur horseman can find his or her way along without the step-by-step manuals that actually only work in an imaginary time and place where everything goes according to plan. Surely, stumbling along on one's own cannot be as productive as getting mired in confusing instructional texts, can it? Not in an industry with so much hope, that's for sure.
Stumbling along on one's one is just that: stumbling. Amateurs' vibrant hope, however, is an invigorating spark that lures horse owners into continuing to try things they've already tried and proven not to work. Just because all they've met with so far is frustration and confusion, it doesn't mean one more book or DVD won't cure this streak, right? On this note, I highly recommend that everyone should purchase my forthcoming book about Equine Fitness in the fall of this year.
Monday, March 2, 2009
To me, Simone proves a hypothesis from my trainer in Portugal. He said to me one day, "It's either in your blood or it's not." He meant it didn't matter what any person's financial situation, environmental influences, or anything else happened to be. If horses were "in your blood," you were fated to have an undying affection for them. Some folks might not actualize this fate until later in life, he pondered, while others seize on it immediately at birth. Simone appears to fall into the latter category, which warms my heart because so did I.
As a young child on our farm and surrounded by horses all day, I still wanted to play horse games at night, read horse books, or make horse drawings. I couldn't get enough. My elementary school teachers telephoned my parents on several occasions to express concern over my potential neurosis. Meanwhile, I submitted book reports about The Black Stallion, science projects about veterinary topics, history essays about ancient breeds, and I invented four-legged games at recess. My teachers panicked about this single-mindedness and told my parents to make some kind of intervention. As if they hadn't tried.
Indeed, they gave me Barbie dolls, bicycles, mini baking sets, and Lincoln Logs. But I only wanted horses, horses, and more horses. My parents had to give up and pray that I matured-- magically somehow-- into a well-rounded adult. And mostly I have. Or at least I trick myself into believing that. Then, moments like one last week rattle me out of that comfy daydream. I was chatting with Carmen on her couch when suddenly I noticed across the room a small stable filled with Breyer horse models. Childlike, I bolted off the couch mid-sentence (I believe we were discussing grown-up stuff like politics) and ran over to it. Simone joined my side instantly and I begged her to show me the little stable.
She obliged but only after her tiny hands showed me her "favorite" member of the barn, a thick-necked plastic draft horse. My favorite was the Appaloosa with splotches painted on his rump, although Simone didn't get around to asking me which one I liked best. She was excitedly relaying the details of her pretend farm to me, like the fact that all twelve of her horses were stallions. And the Palomino one didn't get along with the others. And that her horses had just gone into the stable for the night before I came over. "Uh-huh, uh-huh," I followed along, instantly a four- year- old again myself. Oooooh, my chest filled up with joy when I remembered my own Breyer stable and teeny weeny pasture fences and the endless hours of "playing horse." I was starting to feel like Simone and I were birds of a feather, never mind the nearly thirty years between us.
Then she offered to show me the 'rocking horse' that she'd received for Christmas, which I agreed to in a heartbeat. We skittered upstairs to her bedroom and within a moment, I gave thanks for the nearly 30 years between us. A lot has changed between the days of making up four-legged galloping games at recess and today. Namely, technology has intervened. Had I owned a rocking horse of the likes that Simone now possessed, I never would have stood a chance at being a well-rounded adult. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never would have left my bedroom.
Simone's "toy" horse is frighteningly lifelike. "Rosebud" stands as tall as a Shetland pony, is able to swish her tail and move her head and neck. She even chomps carrots and makes chewing noises. She is able to carry a grown adult on her back and when the rider swings her arm overhead and says "giddyup," the horse actually does. Its body starts herky-jerking and the fuzzy little technological beast makes clomp-clomp noises. When I pulled on the reins, it stopped.
Wide-eyed, deeply envious, and truly speechless, I curried this almost-real horse's hair and assured Simone she was the luckiest girl on the planet. As for whether she stands a chance of ever "out-growing" her horse-obsession, I'd say there's no way. But I secretly hope she does because I've got a place in my house already picked out for Rosebud.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Murphy's Law goes like this: Whenever something totally random can occur and cause a minor (and expensive) crisis, it will. If you adhere to this Law with horses, you're all set. If on the other hand you forget it sometimes, you're guaranteed some gnarly headaches and emotional turmoil.
Consider the following points as both illustration and warning.
- If you've secured your fencing to the level of perfection of an electrical engineer, your horse WILL still find a section to break through during the middle of the night, necessitating costly repairs to the now-very-broken fence and excessive vet bills to mend a now-gaping shoulder wound on your horse.
- Even if you put your horse in a rubber foam padded stall, he will find SOMETHING on which to bang and bruise his leg and/or scrape his face. Again, costly vet bills are in order.
- If your horse normally loads in the trailer quickly and easily, he or she will balk and refuse to do so on the one day you are scheduled to ride in an expensive clinic and are running late.
- Your horse will only be stricken with colic or other life-threatening illness when you are on vacation or otherwise out of town.
- After several months of having your farrier both return your phone calls and show up on time, he will revert to his former pattern of disappearing for long periods of time and not answering his phone.
- The trainer that you like and trust who you've been working with for a little over a year will decide to move across the country.
- Your horse will find a way to get his leg stuck in his hay feeder, no matter how inconveniently or high off the ground you place it.
You see, I'm a bit grumpy about this man Murphy and his Law and admittedly it's because I had a run-in with Murphy's Law last week.
I have a particularly feisty and opinionated mare in training at the moment that I have been preparing for some big competitions in the spring. As is often the case with mares, some days are a lot better than others. Some days she is an angel and other days she is a vixen. On the vixen days, I have a very tough time convincing her that MY way of doing things-- and not HER way-- is the best. It becomes a battle of wills and stamina. It becomes one alpha mare (me) trying to out-alpha the other. It has been this way for a few months. Some days go quite smoothly. Other days go the very opposite of smooth. All the while, I've been patiently (okay-- willfully) guiding her towards these competitions, hoping like hell that the vixen days get fewer and farther between.
And then a couple of weeks ago, aha! The little mare had a breakthrough of some kind. At last!For five days in a row, she performed beautifully. Her work ethic, her attention span, her willingness-- everything was lovely. I started to visualize success at these competitions. I called her owner with a glowing report. After workouts, I brushed her endlessly and whispered "see, my way of doing things aint so bad, huh?" We were becoming a little team, she and I. We were pretty darn ready for competitions (without suffering embarrassment). I let out a contented sigh.
Then last week I arrived at the barn and it looked like someone had swung a baseball bat into the mare's leg. A lump the size of a golf ball protruded from her right cannon bone. What? I poked and prodded it. The mare lurched back and in those two steps, showed me that she was dreadfully, horribly lame. Yes, my young training project had blown a splint. Right out of nowhere. And now those competitions that, a few days earlier, had seemed so positively do-able looked like the farthest away things in the world.
I did allow myself a brief pity party. I mean, could the timing have been any worse? My willful little mare had finally turned the corner in her training, we were coming down the homestretch. Then overnight we were sidelined completely. Damn Murphy! That stupid Law about random things! Why does it have to be so accurate?
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Horseman's lore has long defined ponies as just plain ornery. But as a trainer, you tend to dismiss sweeping generalizations like this. How can one section of the equine population, each with completely different breeding and upbringings, share the same behaviors? Nah, it's just not plausible. We trainers like to believe that a horse's demeanor and attitude is the direct result of any handling and training he's had. All those stories about ponies bucking their riders off and galloping back to the barn, or ponies that turn from angels to stubborn beasts back to angels in the blink of an eye-- all these antics we trainers diagnose as simple training problems. Those particular sub-15 hand steeds have been allowed to do naughty things and therefore they continue to do so, we say.
Then along came Sally. Jet black, doe-eyed, and just 14 hands, this pot-bellied little Morgan mare strolled innocently into my training barn as a three-year old. She was the sweetest looking animal I'd laid eyes on. Or so I thought. She fixed me in her big-eyed gaze, sashayed her round rump around the stall and left me with the impression that I just scored a really easy training project. In hindsight, I can't stop laughing at the foolishness of my thinking.
I would estimate that for 80 percent of the time, Sally is pure delight. She is sweet, docile, pretty, mostly uncomplicated. Then there's that erratic 20 percent of the time when she is devilish, sneaky, and highly unpredictable. And as much as it pains me to admit this, no amount of good consistent training will ever change these facts. If Sally were taller than 15 hands, I might stand a chance. But she never will be. So, therefore I am forever at Sally's merciless whims.
There was one particularly memorable afternoon at Pebble Beach Dressage Show, a very high-pressured and classy competition, when 30 minutes before her scheduled class, Sally "colicked" in her stall. This is to say she buried herself in shavings, splayed out flat on her side, and could not be made to stand up. I got down in the dirt wearing my show jacket and boots trying to roll her up onto her knees at least, but the little pony laid out stiff as a board. Panicked, I called the vet and cancelled our class. Within about 60 seconds of my canceling the class, Sally hopped onto her feet, shook off her shavings, and batted her eyes at me. Had she been faking sickness? Nah, said my inner trainer voice, horses do not fake things.
When Sally's self-burial in shavings began happening at every competition we went to, I had to concede that the blasted doe-eyed mare was in fact out-smarting me. She was faking sickness in order to get out of this stupid thing called Dressage that she was being made to do, she let me know.
Sally sometimes goes months at a time behaving like the world's most perfect equine. She is so submissive and well-mannered that a complete novice could handle her no problem. And then one day, like today, half-way down the barn aisle she will stop dead in her tracks, grow roots, and refuse to move an inch further. She will become the world's most stubborn beast for a few sweaty moments as I cluck, pull, poke, and prod her forward to the cross-ties. Finally, when she budges, Sally blinks those big lashes of hers and looks at me as if to say "What was the problem?"
Our ride goes no better, though. She spooks at an imaginary something-or-other in the brush, which sends her tiny body squirting straight ahead at light speed bucking and snorting. When she regains her composure (amidst much yelling from me), she again stops dead in her tracks. Like she has grown roots into the ground. I kick. I tap with the whip. I scowl. This is a horse that I have competed all over California in all kinds of weather, noise, and disruption, sometimes competing in classes at 10pm, and yet here we are acting like she's never had a day of training in her life. She stands there flicking her ears, annoyed by my disturbance atop her back.
Finally, she obliges me and walks forward... and then swivels her neck around and grabs my stirrup in her mouth. Now we are cascading sideways towards the fence as a colleague of mine looks on in wonder. I know what she's thinking. After four years in training, horses just don't do these sorts of things.
Unfortunately, she had also last week witnessed a mishap when I was leading Sally to turnout. I marched along in my ever-alert and attentive trainer's way with Sally close at my heels. Seeing my fellow trainer, I nodded my chin briefly to say good morning, and in that nanosecond my eyes shifted their gaze, Sally struck. Like lightning, she darted sideways, yanking my arm nearly off my body. Once she had me off balance, she kept pulling. Her target: a patch of sweet spring grass 20 feet away. I stumbled and staggered, trying to yank her back into my control. But I soon found myself ankle-deep in a mud puddle and looked around for the quickest way out before I ruined my new Ariat paddock boots. Damn!
Now splattering mud in all directions, I was still yanking and growling at Miss Sally who had arrived at her destination and burrowed her face in grass (she avoided the mud puddle, by the way). "S-A-L-L-Y!!" I snarled as I tugged on her halter with a force that would dislodge a draft horse. But not a pony, obviously. She had again grown roots.
The other trainer abandoned any attempt at being polite. She now stared unabashedly at me. My face flushed with embarrassment. I knew how ridiculous the scene looked-- me , a trainer, getting dragged around like a novice child.
In that moment, I swallowed my pride and all my former beliefs in training, horsemanship, horse behavior, etc. I heard myself saying out loud what I once believed was just a cop-out for explaining behaviors that hadn't been properly addressed. Trust me, I have addressed ALL of Sally's behavior more than once.
"Ponies! You know, they just do the darnedest things," I mumbled to my colleague. "I mean, they're just plain ornery."