Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Reflections on Retraining an Ex-racehorse - Part 2 -" Bombproofing" My Horse

When the junior riders at the barn were working on exercises based on the book “Bombproof Your Horse” by Rick Pelicano, I thought it was a great opportunity to get my ex-racehorse, who is afraid of everything, to build some confidence.

Objects were strewn all over the arena—wood planks, a beach ball, brightly colored squishy foam logs kids use in the pool, and, most frightening of all—a big blue tarp, tentatively anchored in four corners by orange pylons.

As soon as we entered the arena, Lady’s head shot up and her eyes went wide. The girls had been walking their horses over the noisy planks and onto the blue tarp both in hand and under saddle. Getting Lady even near the objects was going to be a challenge.

I remained on the ground, leading her in hand through most of the scary objects, saving the worst for last. Surprisingly, she walked over the noisy wood planks and stepped over the bright squishy foam things, though snorting the entire time.

Then a well-timed wind gust blew up a corner of the blue tarp so it stood nearly three feet. I almost lost Lady as she ran backward with her weird lunging hops. When I caught up to her, I began leading her again, toward the blue tarp.

She snorted at it, her hooves dancing along the edges, as she refused to actually step on the tarp. I stepped on the tarp and faced her. Lady paused and looked at me with the closest look to disbelief a horse has to offer.

“See?” I said, hopping a bit. “It’s noisy, but it’s okay.” If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she was mulling the idea around in her head. She snorted, sniffed the tarp, went to lift one hoof onto it, then thought better of it and jumped backward again.

After 20 minutes of this, through sheer exhaustion or the final realization we were not leaving the arena, she stepped onto the tarp with both front feet, and leaning way back on her haunches. It didn’t take much coaxing out of this awkward stance to get all four feet on the tarp. She stood and trembled.

After about 10 repetitions of walking onto the blue tarp, I decided to attempt the entire exercise mounted, which was a challenge because Lady had greater confidence when I was on the ground. She seems to forget I’m there when I’m astride.

But I did my driving seat, imaging that I was moving a book across a table with my hips, while closing my calves against her sides, and she walked over the noisy wood planks, the brightly colored squishy logs, and circled the beach ball.

Now it was time to attempt the tarp.

Driving seat. Squeeze calves. Driving seat. Squeeze calves.

Dead stop on the edge. Snorting. Trembling. Leaning backward.

Driving seat! Squeezing calves! Driving seat!

And she was on the tarp. For a second, we were both equally shocked. She sort of tip-toed quickly off of it, but with more urging, walked over the tarp several more times, and with each approach, she moved more boldly than the last.

Once we were done, as a reward, I let her trot long and low around the empty part of the arena. I was talking and laughing with the girls who had been secretly watching our successful tarp adventure when Lady suddenly halted, front legs splayed wide. Not paying attention, I nearly ended up on her neck. There was nothing around to spook her, so I was a bit perplexed. She snorted, lowering her head to the spot on the ground that spooked her.

That spot was her own hoof print.

I sighed. Driving seat. Squeezing calves. Driving seat.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Reflections on Retraining a Racehorse

When I was a teen rider in the 80s, I rode with an instructor who purchased off-the-track racehorses for resale. Because of my slight frame, I was the first rider to get on these horses who were just a day’s trailer ride from their last race.
After some nightmarish runaways, layers of ripped gloves, blistered hands, and some launches through fencing, at least I had come away with some experience, no terrible injuries and a healthy respect for a horse that was bred to run at breakneck speed. That is, until I recently acquired my off-the-track racehorse Lady.
Lady became an option when a horsewoman I knew said she didn’t have much use for her except as a broodmare. But she felt that Lady needed a job besides raising foals. Lady had been taken off the track by her friend who had soon died from cancer. Working with Lady, I had been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to pull from memories of the racehorses I reworked 20 years ago. She was terrified of any change in her environment, for example, if boxes appeared outside the stall, a new steel feed bin instead of plastic, or a flowerpot in front of the barn. She would rear or bolt if the ground changed in color or consistency, like going from sand to grass. She was even afraid of the flattened tracks that a grass mower leaves behind. Getting her to and from the indoor arena, which was several yards from the barn, had been a challenge, but she began working consistently quietly in the indoor arena.
The biggest obstacle to overcome, however, was riding outdoors, especially if I ever wanted to show her. When maintenance was being performed on the indoor arena one day, I was forced to revisit riding outdoors earlier than I had hoped. Our previous outdoor experiment ended with bucking, rearing and me on my butt. Now I had no choice but to either bag riding altogether for the day or attempt it outside again. It was time to suck it up and see what would happen.
She snorted the whole way to the outdoor arena. Leaves blew across the sand, and she danced over them like they were attacking her. Her body trembled, but I used the longe line to allow her to have me in her sight while she worked quietly at the walk and trot only. Like all our sessions, the workout was about building confidence and learning, never about running the energy out of her.I walked and trotted her on 10 longe circles total. She was snorting, but her eye started to soften. That’s when I decided to get on. I removed the longe equipment and walked her to the mounting block, but as her head shot up, I realized I had made a fatal error.
The mounting block was in direct line of the pig pen, and the pigs had no idea that it was supposed to be too cold for them to be outside of their heated shed. They were milling about, grunting and rummaging for food. Lady was immobilized by terror.
Typically, when we were in this scenario previously, Lady would start rearing. But this day she didn’t. I kept talking to her, apologizing for not seeing that they were out, muttering to myself that I don’t know why they’re out. It’s too darned cold and windy. But, in the back of my mind, I thought, danged pigs know when the gray horse is around, they always come out when they see her. They love to scare her.
I grabbed the mounting block and walked with it and her up to the other side of the arena, the block banging against my bad leg still swollen from when she impaled me into the indoor arena wall last week. She was prancing and snorting, bringing to mind all the "I just love Arabians" comments she gets, even though she's not an Arabian.
Now came the difficult decision. Did I risk mounting? Her head was so high up as the pigs held her complete attention. Her 16.1 hands seemed more like 18 now.
Just get on. See it through, I thought.
"I'm not 20 years old anymore, Lady Jane," I said as I swung my bad leg over her back. "I don't heal that easy. Be good."
I was on. The horse was still shaking, shivering, with fear. Or was that me?
I put her through her usual paces, loosening her up, gaining her attention, asking for more, and after 20minutes of a successful, quiet, forward and submissive trot work, I briefly considered cantering. But as she had the typical ex-racehorse right lead canter issue, I decided it was better to live another day and attempt it tomorrow. Dealing with the pigs was enough of a win.
Teary with pride, it didn’t occur to me that it was going to be an ugly situation trying to get her by the pigs back to the barn.Would I now undo all that we had gained in this session?
Leading her from the outdoor arena, I decided to walk her on the off side, placing myself between her and the pigs, which were grunting acknowledgment to the frightened gray horse. I kept saying aloud softly and encouragingly, as I always do, “It’s okay. It’s okay. They can’t hurt you. You’re bigger than them.” This time, she paused one hoof off the ground, and shocked me by turning full face to look me in the eye, as if to ask “Really? Are you sure?” I patted her, she snorted, looked at me, over my shoulder at them, then turned forward to continue her fast walk pace, but without a rear or a bolt. It’s often small steps with an off-the-track racehorse that mean most, and for me, more than any blue ribbon ever did.
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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Equine Cancer

Many horse owners are unaware of the fact that horses can also develop cancer. Usually our fair skinned white equines are the ones that are more susceptible because they have sensitive white areas that can develop skin cancer easily. However, horses may develop internal tumors as well and this is something to watch for if a horse does not seem to be doing well, but doesn't really seem sick either. In the Equine Health section, you will find an article that covers the basics of what cancer horses can develop and the treatments used.As I was writing this article it reminded me of an Arabian mare that I briefly knew. I had been at my boarding barn for a month or so and a new girl arrived with a beautiful bay Arabian mare. Her parents had bought it for her and they believed that she was pregnant because of her round belly.In fact, we all thought the mare was pregnant and were happily awaiting the day she would foal. Unfortunately, a very short time later about a week or so, the mare had a horrible seizure. She busted through the wall in her stall and into a pen with some other horses. She also broke through a fence before she finally laid there dead. The event was tragic and happened early in the morning when the other boarders were arriving to throw the morning feed. The event was unbelievable and we didn't know what had happened.Shortly later, the vet came and confirmed that the mare was not pregnant. The mare had a tumor the size of a basketball in her stomach. This was the first experience that I had ever had with equine cancer. The mare was beautiful and it was a sad loss, but she never showed any signs of being ill. It just goes to show that cancer can creep up on our dearly beloved horses as well.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

When You Can’t Have Your Own Horse: Sometimes Life Isn’t Fair for a Reason

As an instructor, I see young students from different economic levels. Many come from families who struggle and make sacrifices to pay for lessons while others are comfortable enough to buy several horses. When one of my students voiced her frustrations that her parents couldn’t afford a horse but her friend was getting a beautiful expensive warmblood, I immediately remembered back to when I was a junior rider still on lesson horses while my friend had two horses.

“It’s not fair,” my student muttered. She desperately wanted her own horse.

“Life isn’t fair,” I answered. “It just isn’t, and that’s way it goes. Once you accept that fact, you can move on instead of complaining about it.”

I told her that though I grew up riding, my family was never rich. My dad was a police officer and my mom a nurse. I worked in riding camp, cleaned my own stalls and took money for schooling horses.

Then we talked about other options to not having a horse like finding free leases, shared leases, half boards, schooling sale horses or even getting paid to exercise privately owned horses. It’s possible to find because I found them even as a young adult before I could afford my own horse.

I told her that now is the time to ride every horse you can, to learn as much as you can and to decide what types of horses you really like. Now is the time to learn how to school different types of horses, to take advantage of not being strapped down to one horse. Now she can look forward to having fun on the college equestrian teams where you can’t use your own horse anyway. So when the day comes when she can afford a horse, she’ll have the requisite knowledge, experience and understanding for buying and owning her own horse.

Having your own horse is a great thing, but it can also be restricting in many ways. A rider who has access to all different types of horses keeps her skills fresh, but a rider who continually rides the same horse or the same type of horse loses her skills and her timing quickly. I see that in my students, and I see it in myself.

Life may not be fair, and some people may have to work extra hard to get what they really want. But it makes it so much more rewarding when it all works out in the end.
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AQHA Helps Us Out Once Again

AQHA is helping us out again by providing us with a free service that we can all use. If you are an owner or breeder this will be of even more value to you. Equine Viral Arteriritis is a devastating infectious viral disease that mainly causes abortions in mares. It rarely kills mature horses, but it can destro your breeding season if mares and stallions have not been vaccinated. Horses that have also been diagnosed with the disease can also be banned from entering foreign countries. For many breeders this is important as even horse semen from from horses with EVA antibodies can be kept from being shipped to breeders over seas. This is an excellent service that is being offered to horse owners and breeders. Breeders need to know if a horse has been tested or if they are positive or negative as this disease can have a dramatic impact on a breeding farm. Breeders can instantly find this information out by making one phone call.The AQHA is offering to keep documentation in your horse's file as to whether or not they have been vaccinated for EVA. A horse may have many different owners over the course of his life and it only makes sense that AQHA keeps the vaccination certificate with the horse's records. The process is simple. All you have to do as a horse owner is have your horse vaccinated and complete the official AQHA EVA Report Form. The form will become a part of your horse's permanent records at AQHA. The form does not serve as an import and export documentation but does allow for owners and breeders to call and confirm that a horse has been vaccinated.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Foaling and Breeding Season is Nearing!

The weather may still be quite cold in some parts of the country right now, but there are many mare owners starting to prepare for their new arrivals. There are also several mares that are being prepared for the breeding season. Because of this, it is important that mare owners begin educating themselves on the diseases and conditions that they want to be sure and prevent.Equine Viral Arteritis is becoming a popular topic amongst breeders these days as they are beginning to realize the effect that the disease can have on their breeding operations. Because of this, the AQHA is helping out mare owners and breeding farms by offering a free service that will allow owners to send their horse's EVA vaccination information to the association for safe keeping. Foalhood septicemia is responsible for as many foal deaths as pneumonia is. The foal is very susceptible to various infections as soon as they are born. Good breeding and foaling practices will help to prevent foals from becoming infected by these various infections. As foals are born earlier and earlier every year, this means that they are going to be exposed to different strains of bacteria and pneumonia because they are exposed to a climate they were not meant to be born in. Prevention methods such as insuring the foaling stall is clean and disinfected and that the barn is well-ventilated will help ensure that your foal arrives healthy and stays healthy. Visit the Equine Health articles for more information on these various infectious diseases that affect many breeders and mare owners on a regular basis. There are many preventative methods that will ensure both mom and baby stay healthy through the breeding and foaling season.
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Rescued from the Killer

Talk about timing. I had been doing a bit of research on the horse slaughter issue, including the types of horses usually sent to slaughter, etc. My friend Joanie and I sometimes get into heated discussions about it because she doesn't support the bill to end horse slaughter and I do. I don't think that a recent event may change our respective stances, but it certainly shone a light on a different perspective. At the very least, it was ironic in its timing and just how it played out. True story...It’s been one of the coldest weeks on record for my area of the country, so when I noticed a new horse at the barn, I was surprised. It was an odd time of year to see one come in. “You like her?” Joanie asked. “Sure, she’s real cute.”

Renamed Lola after the Kink’s song that was playing on the radio when Joanie picked her up, the new horse is just 2 years old and is a draft/thoroughbred cross. Her owner couldn’t handle a young horse and instead of trying to find a new owner who could, called the killer to come pick her up. Soft-hearted horsefolk at the barn went into a flurry of activity to try to find an alternative buyer before the killer truck made its way through town. Amazingly, in one day, they found a new buyer--Joanie--and an available stall--after Joanie shuffled her horses around. So, instead of being sold for $700 of horsemeat, Lola was sold for $700 as a riding prospect—maybe foxhunter, maybe eventer, maybe just a solid all arounder.

Why the disposable mentality for such a horse, I wonder. Is life that cheap to people? Or is it just a horse’s life that is so cheap? Or is it because it’s just too easy to call the killer?

This scenario amazes me especially because this horse is sound, young and healthy and also because draft/thoroughbred crosses are becoming the rage for people who want the athleticism of the thoroughbred without the flightiness or the sensitivity. The draft blood makes for a solidly built animal with a quiet, easy-going mind. Practical Horseman just ran an article extolling the virtues of unique crosses including draft/thoroughbreds, and Rutgers University’s young horse training program specifically targets this type of crossing to produce all-arounders that appeal to many. Heck, I was considering going to the next Rutger's auction for a draft/thoroughbred cross and, in looking at previous auction results for such crossings, thought $1800 would be a great deal!

Plus, Lola really doesn’t look like a draft cross. Whoever bred her took the effort to breed for a baby that isn’t clunky while still having good dense bone and a pretty face that isn’t heavy draft looking at all. And she’s a cute mover and isn’t built like the draft horses that are built to pull carts.

Was it the money? The killer would only pay $700, and if the owner took the time to actually sell her to someone, he could have made more money. The Rutgers babies auction for higher than $700, usually more in the $1500-$2200 range. The lack of logic is astounding. Maybe he’s just cruel and dumb.

But at least the end is a happy one. Lola won’t end up on someone’s plate in Japan and instead has a wonderful new owner who will take the time to train her. And Joanie has a really nice new prospect that is worth more than what she paid for her.

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A Farewell to Horseracing: RIP Barbaro

My mom, now in her 60s, won’t watch horse racing anymore. Some years ago, she and my dad had gone to the track, and several horses in the field tumbled. Two horses were destroyed. It was enough for her to never want to see another race again.

For me and my dad, during my childhood, time at the track was father-daughter time—maybe an odd thing for family interest, but it was a way in which we both shared our love for horses. My dad still laughs at how long it took him to realize that my estimate of a horse as being “pretty” went far deeper into an analysis of the potential run ability. At just 12-years-old, and with only two years of riding lessons under my belt, I would go down to the paddock to watch the post parade and pick which horses I thought were pretty. After those horses won consistently, and the track handicappers were looking over my shoulder for my picks, my dad finally asked what I meant by “pretty.” I told him how I sized them up based on conformation and length of race—big, long-strided horses with nicely sloped shoulders for distance or close-coupled, compact, uphill built horses for short distances that required quick speed.

But the most recent tragedy with Barbaro has brought back memories of other track moments that I’ve tried to forget. Like the death of jockey Chris Antley just one year after his Kentucky Derby win aboard Charismatic. I had such a teenage crush on Antley when he raced at Monmouth Park, N.J. For those who watched the Triple Crown run in 1999, who could forget Charismatic’s Derby and Preakness win and the country’s hopes for a new Triple Crown winner as he moved into the Belmont?

Unfortunately, at the Belmont, Charismatic broke down in the stretch, losing his lead and finishing third, with his left front leg broken in two places. Antley’s immediately dismounted from the horse and as the cameras closed in on the jockey, who was holding up the horse’s left front hoof (and saving the animal’s life), tears streamed down the rider’s face.

Charismatic’s career may have ended there, but surgery saved his life. Unfortunately, Antley faced many demons in his life, including trying to make the weight to maintain his eligibility as a jockey, and ended up overdosing on drugs—a sad end to a talented rider who seemed to truly care for his mounts.

But the racing heartache really began in 1975 for me. I was 8 years old when Ruffian ran her last race—the match race against the top colt Foolish Pleasure. The moment of her breakdown is still fresh as I watched the race and its tragic end unfold with my parents—all of us rooting for the filly phenomenon. I didn’t understand what was happening as the filly was being pulled up, her hoof, flopping uselessly. I glanced at my father for an answer, but he looked stricken. My mother had her hand over her mouth in mid gasp. For someone who barely can recall what she ate for lunch yesterday, I’m amazed at how grotesquely clear the memory still remains fresh in my mind like it was just moments ago.

Remembering this moment, I look at my retired racehorse—now my dressage horse—a sweet, people- , horse- and dog-loving animal without a mean bone in her body-- and think that she could have easily been another track breakdowns statistic.

Now after Barbaro’s death, I’ve become like my mom, I just can’t watch horse racing anymore. Not until the racing rules change so they stop breaking and racing babies so young. I’ll start watching racing again when the industry gives these horses a better chance at maintaining their health and not breaking down.
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