Saturday, June 26, 2010

sadness is..

When you have devoted some 15 years to breeding horses. Lots of money, blood, sweat and tears have gone into it. You've met dickheads and tore your hair out. You've met opportunists, cheats, liars, glory-chasers, egoists and plain and utter pricks. You've met nice people, you have had fun.You still keep in touch with people who bought horses from you and they drop you a line every so often to tell you how they are going. Breeding horses makes enemies and it makes friends.

But what makes me most sad is when the nice horses you have bred are not wanted. I think it's hard to promote a relatively unknown breed in a country. Horse people are conservative types. Most of the good riders and horse people are already entrenched in particular equestrian persuits and it's very hard to budge them. So it's mostly newcomers who are interested in trying something new and different. Which is fabulous. But many newcomers are not very experienced. And as they embark on their new adventure as horse owners, they often hit snags. The usual snags, the ones that everyone encounters in the long learning journey with horses. Mistakes have to be made in this learning process. Unfortunately, as the experienced horseman wanders by and looks at the enthusiastic amateur with his lovely new horse, the experienced horseman sees problems. And every time he sees a horse of a new and unusual breed, he sees a horse ridden or handled in a "sub-optimal" way. It's not difficult to see how horse people can soon come to the conclusion that it's better to stay away from breed X, because they are obviously "difficult". A bit of a vicious circle.

Then you have the problem of enthusiastic amateur breeders who unknowingly propagage flaws, be the in conformation or temperament. Firstly, with new breeds, bloodlines are scarce. Secondly, there is a lack of a good eye for a good horse. On the other hand, many starry-eyed enthusiasts have been indoctrinated by pretty pictures and fabled tales of the prowess of horses from breed X in some faraway country and in a faraway time. It's not even necessary to doubt those tales. There have always been extraordinary horses, extraordinary horsemen and and extraordinary circumstances, which lead to amazing feats. What pains me is when I see enthusiastic but unknowing people go horse shopping and get talked into buying horses which are sub-standard A) as a horse and B) as a representative of breed X. I have even seen people look at flaws in some breeds which were marketed as desirable breed characteristics. For example, very flexy pasterns, very long backs, very upright shoulders and legs etc. And here again, we have the experienced horseman walk past and scratch his head when he hears the enthusiast expound the qualities of an exotic horse which is evidently not suitable for normal riding use. And that exotic horse cost an awful lot of money.

Some people will get all excited over horse colours, overlooking obvious flaws in conformation and temperament, just to get that oh-so-fabulous colour. Some people get all hooked up on fancy pedigrees, on blue ribbons or whatever.

Basically, the proof of a good horse is it's ability to perform the job it was bred for. So a saddle horse should give his rider many years of comfortable rides, be it chasing cows, chasing foxes, jumping jumps, taking the kids to pony club or going out on the trails. No matter how exotic the breed, no matter what the special characteristics, the rules of good, robust conformation and excellent temperament should never be violated. I think it's possible to have breed typical horses of ANY breed without making compromises on those general rules.

So let's say, as a breeder, I've done my best to breed horses like that. Sure, like all breeders, whether they admit it or not, I have produced horses that I considered to be below standard. However, they weren't sold for top dollar to unsuspecting newcomers. Some made acceptable pleasure horses, some ended up performing a useful function by helping roses grow. But I have produced a number of horses over the years which are really nice. Breed typical. Well put together, and moving well as a result. Nice and companionable and cooperative. Nicer than many horses I was shown when I went out looking for breeding prospect over the years. I guess I feel I had some success if the horses I breed are better than what I started with. But what a lot of searching, planning, working and waiting has gone into that!

After 15 years, I am going to give up on Saddlebreds. Not because I don't like them. I really do like them. I really do think that they would make excellent mounts for people in nearly all equestrian sports and recreational persuits. But that breed has been hampered by a lot of bad press, the image of being a crazy show horse, lousy marketing, lack of exposure and the antics of some of the breeders. Add to that the effects of the Equine Influenza a couple of years back, several droughts in parts of Australia and the recent enomic downturn which is affecting most of us, and you have a virtually non-existent market.

So I'm sad. So much work, so much hope, so much enthusiasm... But let's look at the bright side. So many lessons learned, so many nice horses which are enjoyed by their owners. So many nice people I met.

I'm going to keep one, maybe even two. Just for old time's sake. And I'm not giving up on horses. Oh no. I will continue breeding and training and riding, even if on a much smaller scale. But I'm going to focus solely on gaited horses. It's my great love, my specialty. And I like the Pasos. And yes, I think there is a bit of a market for these horses. Things might be quiet now, but they will pick up. So many people are wanting comfortable riding horses, to go trailriding and enjoy themselves. What better way is there than a Paso?

So I'm sad, but I'm also happy. And on that note... Sadness be gone!!

Friday, June 18, 2010

two steps forward, one step back

It's a bit lik a dance. Working with young horses, that is.

We had another classic case of two steps forward, one step back recently. One day, the young mare has a breakthrough. There had been some trust issues and some problems with her not wanting to see me out of her right eye. Then she is ok with that. Not just tolerating it, she is ok. I can stand and walk on her off side, I can lean over, jump up and down and be a clown on her off side. All great. We finish the session on a great note and are over the moon with how she's going.

Two days later, different story. She's not keen on coming, in fact, she plays hard to get. Which is back to square one in that department. One of the reasons she is here is to address the hard to catch issue, and we had been making good progress in that area. She is also spooking at stuff that was fine a few days ago. And when on the lunge, she gets upset, starts running and reefs away.

Sigh. BIG sigh.

It was like a different horse. The session essentially ended up just working on walk + trot on the lunge and giving to requests. I did not have the impression that she was worried or scared, more that she was in a shitty mood. Some of the rubbish she pulled certainly appeared pretty deliberate. For example, twice she trots calmly past a corner, third round she starts taking up the slack in the rope and then either stops or starts running and then reefing on the rope. The face wasn't worried, it was more wrinkled. As though it was beneath her dignity to work with us that day.

Oh well, what to do. I was as hard as I needed to be to stop the reefing and I gave her slack and praise when she did as I asked. After a little while, she was fed up and hot and started giving to my requests with greater frequency. She even offered a couple of rounds on a loose rope with a relaxed topline. At that, we stopped and put her away. We didn't even try to work on the stuff she did so well the previous session. We just took the first try and stopped there.

If I were new to horses, I'd be tearing my hair out and I'd be beating myself up over the whole thing. Of course I asked myself what I was doing wrong. But there are some days when, for reasons not evident to us humans, a horse does not want to play. I think that's sort of like the days when I feel like the whole world ought to leave me alone and I find it hard to be civil ;-). Yes, we all have days like that. So why not horses? But the behaviour she showed was unacceptable, so we didn't tolerate it, and we left her alone when she started behaving in an acceptable manner. Some days that is all we can achieve.

Our next working session together will most likely be fine. We never deviated from the general theme of rewarding wanted behaviour and ingnoring and/or discouraging unwanted behaviour, in any of the sessions. So while the apparent progress in the last session seemed nil or negative, in fact it still amounted to a learning experience for the mare (and us!!). And there are unlikely to be negative carry overs from it.

It's not the first time that we've experienced this dance with horses. It happens to a lesser or greater degree with any equine pupil at some point. Sometimes, it seems like three steps backwards for a few sessions in a row before we make apparent progress. Sometimes, I DO tear my hair out and I rummage around in my toolbox of tricks and techniques, so that I find something that will help the horse to understand what I want. Sometimes, it's a rocky road and we go up blind alleys and have to backtrack, and then again it's like hitting a freeway and we race along.

It is from difficulties and problems that we achieve the greatest learning as trainers. The knowledge gained from dancing the training dance with challenging horses is what makes subsequent dances a greater pleasure. For horse and human.

Monday, June 14, 2010

buy cheap - buy twice

What seems like a fabulous bargain at first glance might not work out so cheap in the long run. Put differently: you get what you pay for. Sure there are exceptions, bargains can be had at times, and on the other hand, not everything that is expensive is good. But in the greater scheme of things, I think we can safely say that quality has it's price. And spending money on quality goods and services is money well spent.

It is pretty much the same when it comes to paying someone to educate your young horse. There are plenty of "breakers" and "trainers" out there who will sort out your youngster at an appealing sounding price. First problem is the fact that there are no standards, no accreditation schemes and no warranties when it comes to horse training. So all that a horse owner can go by are the adverts in the local paper or the recommendations of other horse people in the area. Of course, the opinions of fellow horse people are just opinions. And one man's idea of a "good job" is another man's nightmare. The average self made horse trainer may even do an acceptable job on an average to super pleasant young horse for an owner who is happy if that horse comes home with brakes and steering. So ten people might say that trainer X is "great". But what if your young horse presents a bit more of a challenge? What if you, the rider, want a horse which has been taught more than stop on a rein pull, turn left on a left pull and go on a kick? Chances are, you will not find trainer X suitable for your horse.

Worse, as trainer X's approach fails with your young horse, he is unlikely to ring you up and say: hey, this is beyond my experience level, please find someone with more finesse and experience. No, chances are he (or she!) will try this and that and build up a great wall of frustration, which is often only resolved with force. Many times, young horses are shoehorned into a behaviour set by the use of various training gadgets, and being the nice critters that they are, a lot will put up and shut up. That goes well until they go back to their often inexperienced owners, where the thin veneer promptly crumbles and all the unresolved issues surface. And now there is a BIG problem, because the horse has learned that it can evade and avoid the unpleasantness. So it's called a problem horse and it goes back to trainer X for "fixing" or maybe to trainer Y. From there it is often an ever declining spiral of problems and "fixes", which inorexably leads to a pen at the local saleyards and a trip to the knacker's yard. Good bye promising young horse.

Buying a cheap and nasty saddle, which was a shiny "bargain" at the sales is bad enough. But at worst it will fall apart or a strap will break and cause you a nasty fall and a trip to the hospital. But with a young horse's education, we are talking about the future of a live being. It's not as though once he's been to a crappy trainer and you have wasted your money (seemed such a bargain to get him started for a few hundred bucks, eh?) and still haven't got a horse you can ride. No, it's much worse than that. Your horse has learned to resent the whole thing. Before there is a chance that he can be rideable, he needs to unlearn all that rubbish, re-gain his trust in people and only after that can he learn how to properly be a riding horse. Or even just a safe horse to handle.

Remember, if you are going to ride this horse when it comes home from training, you place your trust in your horse and the work that the trainer has done. Your own safety, that of your horse and all the people around you, are you willing to gamble with that with cheap but potentially shonky training? Buy cheap, buy twice. First you pay the cheap trainer to ruin your horse, then you have to pay a good trainer at least a normal training fee, maybe more for the extra correction work needed. So in fact, buy cheap, buy thrice? And that's assuming there is no lasting damage to your horse which can't be made undone!!

So before you send out your youngster, do your homework. Meet the trainer and watch him work horses work and his in the paddocks. Look at his equipment. Check his facilities. Talk to clients, the more the better. If the trainer is good, he will gladly give you references. Talk to him about your expectations, be honest about your own experience level. Tell him everything you know about your horse. And expect to have to pay good money for a good job. If you can, go and watch your horse being worked. Don't bug the trainer all the time, but make the effort. No good trainer will have an issue with you watching. If you have questions, ask. If you are not happy, say so and if need be, take your horse home. It is a fine line of course, as many horse owners are not really aware of what is OK and what is NOT OK in horse training. I have ranted often enough about that! Still, a good trainer will be able to give you a reason why he did something, and that explanation won't fall under the category of  "I needed to show the bastard who is boss here!".

Good horse trainers are hard to come by. They have years of experience and are more likely to be able to deal with challenging horses than a backyarder who has "broken a few horses" for his mates and thinks this might be a lucrative sideline. But expect to pay for the services of a skilled and meticulous trainer. Their time is valuable and whether they do it for the love of it or to make a living, the quality time they put into your horse is worth what you pay for it.

Just remember though, in case you do decide to send your horse to a backyarder to save money, and the wheels fall off. Please don't insult the good trainer (whose know-how you found "too expensive", so you went to the cheap guy) by asking for free advice on how to fix the balls-up which has been created. That is not only unfair, it is insulting.

Do the right thing by your young horse. Give him the best possible start, it is an investment for life.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Horsemen - a dying species?

While working with a young horse today, Yvonne and I were talking. As we do...

It seems to me that there are a lot of people who would love to do horse things. Some want to ride only, some would love to have and care for a horse. It also seems to me there are a lot of people who lack some very basic knowledge of horses.

It was only last night we were discussing over dinner how Walt Disney has a lot to answer for. All those Disney movies and cartoos which are brilliantly done but which present a completely distorted, even false picture of animals. More than a single generation of kids (and adults!) were indoctrinated with the belief that Lassie really had near human intelligence and feelings. Not to mention the jungle animals, Bambi and all the rest of them. It is one thing to make cartoon animals clean and beautiful and with lovely big, soft eyes. But to show them to have human emotions is another thing altogether. And then there is Barbie! She is as unrealistic a representation of a human being as her Barbie Horse and all it's pink accessories are fake.

No, this is not a rant against dolls and teddy bears and cartoons and feel good kid's movies.

But I do feel that there are too many animals in movies which pretent to portray animals as they are. Where in fact, they are completely removed from reality. So we end up with lots of little girls dreaming of having a horse, without having an inkling of the real world. I think that little girls should dream of horses, just as I did. But I do not think their dreams should be fed on Barbie horses and Walt Disney horses. Unfortunately, most kids grow up in an urban setting, so far too few have the opportunity to grow up with animals and naturally experience the reality of animals.

So, coming back to where I started this thread... I wish that ALL kids had the opportunity to spend some time with various animals in their normal setting (as in: go to a farm and see, touch, hear animals). I think all kids should also visit the zoo to be exposed to the fascinating variety of wild animals. The patterns, the movements, the ferocity, the colours, the smells!!!

And I wish that there were more good documentaries. Not just about wild animals (there are already lots of excellent ones), but about all the common farm animals and horses. But documentaries showing ALL of it. Not just the pretty bits. There should be healthy animals and sick animals, feeding as well as the other end. There should be comments about things that can go wrong with riding, with husbandry, with feeding, foaling and every other thing. There should be something about how horses think, how their eyes work different to ours, how their reflexes are so fast and how their wiring as prey animals determines their behavious. There should be beautiful footage of people and horses who really work together, how healthy horses look and how they naturally interact.

Maybe with more of that, there would be a more realistic attitude towards horses.

We've (mostly) gone away from the bad old days where horses were a commodity, an intrument of war, a mere beast of burden, to be used and abused as necessary. As humankind is growing up, such things as slavery went first, then women changed from being mere chattels to getting a say and a vote. And with time, the abuse of animals is decreasing. Partly as there is no longer the need and partly because the more enlightenend thinking, which saw off slavery and the rest, is now starting to permeate the human - animal relationship.

Unfortunately, the way I see it is that we are overcorrecting. It is no longer acceptable (in most parts of the world) to tie a horse to a post and beat the living daylights out of it, or starve it for days, to make it amenable to being "broken in". Thank goodness for that. But now we've gone too far. We live in a society that finds it abhorrent to correct an animal. It is considered cruel by many to put a bit in a horse's mouth. It is unkind to raise the voice to give a NO correction to a pushy horse. It is unacceptable to tie up a horse and leave it to learn patience. It is mean to flap a blanket at a horse, if it might get scared and back off a few steps.

I think that there are a lot of people out there who have or would like to have horses, who need a severe reality check. Horses are animals. Hallo!! Do you read me? Unlike the Barbie horse, they do unpleasant things like shit and urinate. And bleed when they hurt themselves. They run off when they get scared, or they kick or pull back if in panic. They have a hairpin trigger. They have motives and emotions, just not like Bambi, but real horse ones.

What I would like to see is another generation of horsemen/women who truly understand how horses tick. Who will love their horses and treat them fairly. Who will understand their needs and who can take them to their full potential. Who will educate them and correct them with love and firmness and with full understanding of their capabilities and limitations. And who understand the bridges that must be made between humans and horses, within the boundaries of modern life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

yet another blog..

I've decided to start a new blog for Narrawin Stud. That's to replace the ageing news page, and will contain news and updates related to the stud itself.