Sign-up for our newsletter to receive news, updates and more from Nanette Levin!

Equine Industry Issues

Horse training naysayers lose credibilty with attacks

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” –Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

There are two ways this quote could be interpreted and imagine both were considered by this philosopher.

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to cringe concerning the intensity and volume of flame throwing that’s going on in the horse industry. Sadly, most of the instigators encouraging the attacks call themselves professionals. In fact, they tend to call out people who don’t buy into their methods (literally – all are selling something) with rallying cries to view YouTube videos taped secretly in a way that fosters aghast responses to cruelty or stupidity and builds to public outcry. Yep, some of this stuff is a sad commentary on what others see as effective training approaches, but come on, “it was so painful, I couldn’t bear to finish watching” when a cowboy bumps a horse in the mouth  few times as she continues to flex under the bit prior to a major competition? Wrong thinking on the cowboy’s part, yes, but who hasn’t done something dumb with a horse when human emotions rob us of our communications’ sensibilities? Is this really a case for the HSUS? Probably will be. Careful what you wish for.

Getting back to Aristotle, there’s a difference between blindly accepting what others present as gospel (no matter how much media attention they get) and being humble enough to recognize that there’s a benefit to entertaining what others are doing or suggesting so you can learn from them (even if it’s what not to do) and about you. It’s OK to dismiss something you have taken the time to understand, but who gains when there’s a knee-jerk reaction to dish without time spent in understanding? Personally, when I see professed equine professionals spending more time calling out others for their bad than developing their skills, reach and impact, I shake my head. These are people with low self-esteem and suffering businesses.

If you really want to learn how to reach and teach horses, spend more time watching and wondering with your particular steed and less energy becoming disgusted and shouting about what others are doing with their project(s). You’ll learn more from watching a herd interact for a day, or including your horse in the conversation as you decide on the activities du jour than you will from taking target practice at one who has achieved acclaim (no matter how cruel their methods may be).

Frankly, while I do take issue with what some are putting out there to encourage formula approaches with horses (they’re all different in how they respond, react and learn), there’s something to be learned from the fame they’ve gained. Why not entertain how you might be able to help create a better future world for horse and human partnerships by studying their talent in reaching the masses? Seems like a better use of time and effort than chasing them with insults, accusations and a lynch mob.

What do you think? How can we better reach the uninitiated with a more positive approach? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Forevever horse homes – kind or cruel?

Sunday’s Opinion

It’s amazing how quickly people grab popular concepts associated with “saving” a horse and call them golden. Bandwagon convictions get embraced in a one-sided fashion by people who have no first-hand experience with the remedies prescribed. Unfortunately, while most of these ideals start with good intentions, few people bother to explore the downside in the clamor to influence the behavior of others. It’s the horses that often wind up suffering.

The big emotional campaign of late seems to be pushing for forever homes for horses – even better if this means a pastoral setting where they’re virtually untouched by human hands. At the same time, these prognosticators (many have never had the opportunity spend an extended period of time with any horses, let alone one) admonish those who would be so cruel to sell or place a horse with another. Is a forever home really the kindest decision for a horse’s happiness and welfare? Sometimes. Sadly, putting this mandate on horse and human partnerships doesn’t always work as planned.

Do rescues provide the best life for a horse?

Recent headlines concerning an over-zealous OTTB adoption agency have been hard to miss. Horses are starving, dying and left to languish because selected caretakers (apparently many chosen for their day rate rather than the quality of care) haven’t been paid for care costs as promised. The recues will argue the occasional shocking disgrace gets all the coverage, but that’s not an accurate assessment. Horses generally fall in the good news category when reporters seek an angle, so even questionable organizations tend to see a positive spin involving volunteer efforts and the successful placement spotlight. There are a lot of rescues doing good things for the horses and the people they place them with. Others, not so much.

Increasingly, we’re seeing situations where horses are either collected or placed in an unsuitable home with the proclamation these horses are being “saved”. Individuals claim to be rescuing horses, and some even call themselves “rescues”, yet some lack the space, time, financial resources and/or knowledge to properly care for the equine(s). Is it really saving a horse when you collect more than thirty on a small-acreage property, don’t provide shelter and feed them bread (true story)?

For the recues that guarantee a lifetime home on their dime, or require adopters to do the same, is this really the best solution for the horse?

Idyllic permanent pasture time may seem kind to a human but for a young domesticated horse that’s healthy, sound and looking for opportunities to have his brain engaged, this might be a life-sentence to boredom.

People adopting horses rarely know what they’re in for as they get swept in the emotional feel good of “saving” a horse. Many equines aren’t ready or able to do the job they’re intended for or are too much for their “savior” to handle. Often, first-time horse caretakers (most seasoned equestrians recognize the value in paying a purchase price for a suitable mount and pass on the adoption “donation” fees) are ill-equipped to handle the time and financial burden, yet get stubborn about hanging on. Even though horses are known to appreciate consistency, locking in a partnership that doesn’t work for either horse or human probably isn’t the kind of predictable scenario most horses seek. Kindness sometimes means giving the horse a different opportunity to be great. Things change, and sometimes a horse simply wants a different job challenge and living style. Contract terms that stipulate a forever home for any horse can be cruel. We’ve even had horses figured as permanent residents at Halcyon Acres® that have let us know they want a change. Being kind to the horse may mean letting go.

Does wild make a horse happy?

Last year, we heard public outcry about attempts to round up domesticated horses that had been turned loose in Florida. Anyone who’s spent a good deal of time seriously observing horses accustomed to interacting with humans realizes the “horses want to be free” rallying cry doesn’t ring true if you consider the horse in the conversation.  Yet, people reacted to the images of these horses “in the wild” (in Florida – really?) and were aghast that anyone would be so cruel as to try to help them back to a life that included human care, shelter and adequate feed.

Horses with generations of instincts and survival in the wild are wired to be free. Most equines bred by humans want to be fed, sheltered and engaged in a job. Right early handling sets the stage for wonderful and mutually enriching partnerships in the future, but even troubled horses can light up when they find a human who understands. Humans have been domesticating horses for millenniums.  Like it or not, we’ve changed their nature.

Who’s kind and who’s cruel to horses?

You really can’t assess what a horse needs from a distance (or a headline, or a rallying cry). Every horse is different. Sometimes it’s cruel to mandate a care, placement or environment solution without considering what the horse wants. That can only be gathered from direct contact with the particular equine. Often, it’s kind to give an equine a variety of opportunities for work (and horses do change with age – both in their physical abilities and psychological needs) that may mean new homes along the way. Others bond so deeply with a human or horse(s), it’s cruel to sever the partnership(s). One thing’s for sure, though, a contract, policy or mandate that’s inflexible doesn’t ensure a horse a happy life.

Know of any organizations or individuals that include the horse in the conversation as they seek out solutions for the horse’s happiness? Have ideas for encouraging others to consider individualized decisions on horse placement, care and career direction? Please share in the comments below. Let’s call out those who are making a difference with the horse’s viewpoint in mind, one horse at a time.

Horse sense rules: when scripts for success aren’t working, stop the stupidity

Friday’s Opinion

Seeing dumb marketing moves is like finger nails on a chalk board for me. I have the same reaction when horses are blamed for being bad because some human has scrambled their brain. Just because an ignoramus decided to try to shove a talented but difficult equine into an inflexible system designed as an easy quick-fix for the human doesn’t make it right. Sadly, when the horse finally starts acting out in a dramatic fashion, culpability rarely goes where it belongs.

Seeking higher education?

There’s a TV ad campaign going on now for a technical college that must have used a script writer who graduated from the School of Bad Grammar and Unintelligible Phrases. The sad thing is, they lose all credibility (maybe I’m the only one paying attention – it’s that grating thing) because they take some of the most dreadful language offenses and attribute exact phraseology to multiple people in their ‘candid interviews.’ I get making a mistake once and learning from it, but where’s the team that vets this stuff?

The same holds true with bad horse training practitioners and the clients who should be holding them accountable. Of course, almost every business-savvy multiple-horse-owner who has engaged vendors for training find themselves stuck with a bill that delivers a horse that is not only ill-prepared for the stated job request, but also set back by human mistakes made in the ‘schooling’ process, ONCE. What really puzzles me is why there are so many who go back for more. They complain to everyone who will listen about how disappointed they are with the results of their investment, yet continue to fill the charlatan’s coffers with new requests for services.

Whether it’s a team responsible for a series of college commercials, or those parading as equine teachers, an error is just that – repeating it with new voices – or different horses – doesn’t make it right, but does make one wonder who the brains are in the outfit. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s baffling how some can proudly display these errors repeatedly. Makes you wonder how careless they are with critical issues you can’t catch.

Catch me once . . .

Some time ago, I was managing a stable and lesson program for a fairly rinky-dink facility. The lovely location attracted some affluent boarders. One included a family that had bought their daughter a pony hunter for a veritable fortune at the time. Shortly after the purchase, this steed was diagnosed with moon blindness. When they revealed this to the seller (a high-brow show stable owner who turned a lot of horses to bolster facility profits), they were referred to the contract and told it was their problem. What shocked me is, they went back to the same seller and paid twice the price for a replacement. Catch me once . . .  yep, I get that, but twice? Dumb.

Broke horses should keep you broke

Today, I see horses coming into the track after ‘being broke’ who can’t even make it around the shed row on the end of lead without their eyes bugging out of their heads. Then it’s ‘look out’ time as they bolt, duck or freeze with every new sight. Forget about being able to pick up their feet, tie, saddle and bridle easily or handle a bath. And these horses are expected to proceed with confidence and ease on a racetrack with 50 other horses zipping around in different directions? Some even boast they ‘broke’ the horse in seven or ten days, yet it takes another six months before the horse can travel in a straight line. How is this saving money? Or helping the horse be the best he can be? I’m not seeing the ROI here.

Instilling trust, understanding and an enjoyment toward training goes a lot further in helping a horse understand and relish job requests in a faster fashion, even if the initial time is a bit longer. These same trainers who invest huge sums struggling to get such frightened horses race-ready, only to lose a race (or a horse) because he bolted from the lead pony, flipped in the gate, unseated the rider or got taken down as his ducking and diving interfered with another in the race go back for more of the same. Huh?

Take the time to discover good horse providers

I don’t have much sympathy for those who “expect different results from the same behavior,” to paraphrase Einstein. My heart goes out to those, though, who trust and get taken.

If your equine vendors don’t make you feel good about what they deliver, fire them. Sure, you’ll have to invest time in the research and discovery process to find a better provider, but they’re out there. It’s easy to be lazy and hold your course with ‘good enough,’ but the fact is, that’s not OK in today’s economy, particularly if all or part of your livelihood involves the health and performance of equines. Believe me, it’s a lot more expensive for clients that come to Halcyon Acres® with ‘problem horses’ than those that bring young equines here with a clean slate. Not only have they already paid for someone else to confuse their horse, but the time it takes to undo damage tends to be a lot longer than what’s involved in bringing a horse along right from the start.

Too remote, small, populated, locked-in to attract good equine providers? Think again.

For those who believe they don’t have choices, you’re wrong. Halcyon Acres® is located in a rural area by anyone’s standards. The population of the town where the farm sits is 1830 people (900 households). The entire county (which is large geographically) has 25,000 residents. Admittedly, I felt stuck with the standard (and popular) fare for a number of years. There’s a county veterinary practice that ‘everyone’ uses. After more than a decade of being billed outrageous amounts to educate their cow vets on equine issues, I got fed up (the final straw was a jaw-dropper – involving about $20K of costs and damage). What was their answer to the damage and loss caused by unconscionable errors? “We don’t guarantee our work.” Duh and cute.  Where’s the chalk board? I need to log a customer service cringe – offer me an apology and at least $25 off my bill. I paid in full, but they lost a huge client. They did me a favor. With strong motivation to get them gone, I found the best vet I’ve had the privilege of knowing in my 36 years of owning horses.

Helped a blacksmith out as he was new to the area and building his business. He was great with the babies (that’s huge for me – early patient experiences with vendors shape lifelong attitudes and behavior) and so, I spent a number of years referring others to him to help him grow. In September, he asked to reschedule an appointment (so he could attend his birthday party). No problem – but I spent another month asking him if he had looked at his calendar yet for a date. When I finally pushed him as the state of the horse’s feet were getting pitiful, he admitted he was too busy to make the drive and was firing me as a client. Now, I get the need to stay closer to home as business builds, but the way he handled this was idiotic. Give me notice and I’m happy to understand and still sing your praises. Leave me in the lurch scrambling to find a new provider after a month in wait for a promise to be fulfilled – now I’m annoyed and sharing the (bad) story.  This ranks way up there on the scale of dumb moves to alienate those who have helped foster your success. Who was it that said something like be careful of the bridges you burn on your way up as you’ll meet them on the ladder down? Where’s the chalk board?

The good news is, my (fantastic) new vet provided two blacksmith referrals that were thrilled to come out quickly and add a relatively large client with extremely well behaved horses to their mix. One scheduled an appointment to handle the entire horse population at Halcyon Acres within days of my initial query. It’s nice to be appreciated again.

Economy aside, your attitude is the real factor

Today you can’t afford to alienate good clients and referral agents. Great providers aren’t being hit by the noted downturn, but those providing lousy experiences are sure blaming it for their struggles. Everyone realizes mistakes are made, and most are extremely forgiving when you are fair and honest when problems arise. Few are as understanding when dumb moves are repeated.

What’s even more irksome is being treated without regard by a vendor that you’ve supported in a big way over an extended period of time.

I’ve fired clients too – and get that this is a part of business growth and/or a change in focus. How you do it, though, can mean the difference between good will and resentment. This effects your future prosperity. Make people feel discarded and unappreciated and you’ll lose critical referral agents. Help them ease into a new provider with notice and an explanation that helps them understand your choice, and you’ll likely keep a crusader. You never know what tomorrow will bring. I have people I left well still referring business to me decades after our business relationship ended. Of course, if you’re cocky enough to believe you’ll never need the people who got you there – go for it. I wish you luck (you’ll need it).

Share your stories

Do you have a vendor that has you thrilled to know them? Please give them credit in your comments below. Is a horror story haunting you that you’d like to share so others can avoid your pain? Consider how your cautions may save another from mistakes with your insight through experience by sharing your message as an extension of this blog post. Thanks.

P.S. I did a Google search of the technical college in question seeking exact phrasing on the two quotes I wanted to include in this blog. Couldn’t find them (the website is pitifully void of much more than a sign up requirement), but did find dozens of parody videos on the TV commercial search that blasted this school for their results. It seems they’re consistent in their attitude toward excellence. So are most equine providers. Notice the little things and that will tell you a lot about the character of the people you are considering as business providers.

Horse people who are kind are easy to find

Friday’s Opinion

Recently, there’s been a good deal of chatter on a variety of online venues about the dishonesty, elitism, divisiveness and agendas of those labeled equine professionals (or even those who are far from professionals but present themselves as knowledgeable). Whether it’s brokers, trainers, instructors, breeders, show competitors, sellers, novice educators or an array of vendors who serve the market, there’s always someone quick to label the bunch with a horror story they’re excited to share (usually heard third-hand).

Admittedly, I’ve met some jerks in the horse industry during the 41 years I’ve been riding and the 25-plus years I’ve been earning income from horse training (and more recently, breeding – kooks tend to gravitate to the rare breeds, which may be a bigger reason they’re rare than the qualities of the horse). There are also some things celebrated equine advisors are doing that I find sad for both the horse and human. Fortunately, though, these are the exceptions. It’s not hard to find the gems. Most of the professionals I encounter are caring, giving and honest people who are generous with their time, expertise and help, whether money is exchanged or not.

Horse help shouldn’t be something you settle for

Where people seem to go so wrong is when they assume what they see is all there is. If you are taken, shunned, dismissed or neglected by a vendor you’re paying or a group you’ve embraced, find another and be glad to see them gone. Most equine professionals I’ve met are kind and inclusive, in part because they’ve benefited from the kindness of others in their ascension, but mostly because they ooze integrity.

The decision to add  the ‘Tips from the Professional Trenches’ section to the Horse Sense and Cents™ books really underscored the generosity of horsemen and accomplished professionals in the equine world. For the first book, Turning Challenging Horses Into Willing Partners, we identified about fifteen people as ideal contributors to the title. Of the ten that responded, all were not only gracious with their time for interviews, humble in their approach to the topic and willing to share mistakes learned along the way, but also did so with the sole objective of helping others gain insight from their experiences with the hope of a shorter learning curve for future equestrians (none were compensated for their contributions). It’s amazing how altruistic most who earn their living from the love of equines are when asked to help others find ways to be fairer to the horse.

Sure, there are some charlatans out there. It’s a circular world, though, and most get what they give in due time.

Good horse groups are out there – just look

Pony Club and 4-H are great organizations for any kid learning to ride. I was lucky to find a Pony Club located in a rural area (try making attitude work for you with a group of farmer’s wives running the show). Even if you’re a novice adult, you can learn a lot from watching the programs and lessons and connecting with other adults who may also be riders. You can also volunteer to help.

There are also organized trail riding groups, breed collectives, lesson stables, horse riding clubs and a variety of discipline trainers and instructors in almost any community.

Sometimes just attending something like a team penning or obstacle horse competition will give you a chance to get to know some of the most fun-loving and supportive horse riders in your area.

If you’re in a rural area, stop by obvious horse farms or a home with horses and strike up a conversation. Be careful if you’re in a ‘shoot trespassers’ area, but most farming communities provide a snapshot of the great things we’ve lost from our past – a community that naturally helps others without an eye toward reciprocity. It’s likely you’ll find the owner mucking stalls or mending fences and happy to share his experiences with you (make sure you don’t have an urgent appointment if you choose this approachJ).

Equine disciplines abound – find one where you like the people

When I was a kid, I started showing early. In fact, I participated in a stable show after my third lesson, crying uncontrollably when my promised mount was given to a partially paralyzed kid. Sam was a former circus horse with a brilliant white coat and a keen understanding of voice commands. He was the only horse I had ever ridden and one I figured I’d always ride. The idea of riding a horse that had actually been in the circus was so unbelievable and tremendous at the time, bragging rights seemed necessary with everyone I encountered, so the idea of others seeing me ride a circus horse in a show was critical to my credibility. I sulked that I placed second in the class, sure I would have won if on Sam – five-year-olds can be that way.

Popsie became my new lesson mount after this show. I hated her, particularly after she left a full hoof print on my right cheek that lasted for weeks. She dumped me and I responded by running all out behind her. Who knows what I was thinking (I do remember being mad), but I learned that day that horses kick.  Not a bad lesson to learn at a tender age. I made sure when I became an instructor that was a fact I presented on day one.

Showing seemed like the thing to do as an English riding student. I even competed at A shows with my cheap, short-strided mutt who arrived behind a yellow station wagon. Imagine the snarky whispers. Anyway, I’d pin over fences at shows like Farmington Children’s Services (I also was asked to leave the flat classes on more than one occasion). A flawless round was enough to make me proud with the added giggles gained from pissing off the princesses on their $30K mounts who missed a spot or two. Still, doing the same eight fence routine over and over again was boring for me.

Then I discovered eventing. It was great to find a group of people who were supportive and real. Plus, you compete against yourself and the course in this sport – not others. What a blast we all had over the years cheering on each other and seeing different challenges at every competition. Of course, the entry fee at the time made it easy to compete often (the entire day was less than the cost of a single class at a rated show). If my mutt didn’t get eliminated in the dressage phase (he liked to jump – a particular problem if there was a judge’s trailer easily avoided by leaping over the arena perimeter), we were sure to go clean in cross country and stadium.

As an adult, I guess I’ve been lucky to meet up with the right kind of horse people. Frankly, I’ve never had much patience for pretentiousness or bravado, so have some built-in radar to dismiss these types early. Still, I continue to be amazed and the depth and breadth of the kindness so many of the more accomplished equestrians offer in their accessibility and shared wisdom. It’s also wonderful to continue to meet groups of horse lovers, amateur competitors or professional equestrians who truly care about both the horses and the people they connect with.

How can novice riders find the right people?

They’re out there. The easiest way to find equestrians with character is to meet one. People tend to associate with like-minded professionals and groups. Most respected horsemen have a vast referral network of individuals who can meet your stated needs and exceed your expectations. Novices tend to focus on reading to get their information, including horse publications, books, internet sites, etc. – and this thirst for knowledge is great – but there’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters when you really want to get to know someone.  Take the time to get to learn about the players. Find out what horse associations exist in your area. Go to watch lesson stables, breeders and trainers and talk to clients about how they operate. Seek out riders who appreciate their vendors and ask about their experience and recommendations.

Horse health – stop whining and start finding

If you want to discover ways to ensure your horse riding experience is the best it can be, take the time to talk to people who can help you find the people you need. Even if you know nothing about horses, you can easily find places with people who do. Forget about your naivety with horses and trust your gut that’s served you well in other relationship matters. Usually, someone willing to listen and interested in understanding your concerns and objectives is a better bet than someone who immediately has all the answers for what you must do.

Go to places where groups of riders congregate. Talk to them. Take note of who seems to be having fun and who is more concerned with image. Discover where the learning opportunities are for you. Decide what you want from your horse experience and seek out groups who can provide this. Ask others about who’s been a good provider for them (and get second, third and fourth opinions) before you select an equine professional (or horse).

If you’re a more experience rider who’s jaded by the people and places you’ve met with your horse, look elsewhere. Just because you joined an organization, hired a trainer or decided to focus on a particular discipline doesn’t mean you need to stay there. If you’re miserable, you’re with the wrong crowd. There are tons of great people and opportunities out there for you to have fun with your horse.

Genesee Valley Hunt Races were a blast with great weather and fun for all

Usually once a year (used to be twice, but races haven’t been held at another facility in recent years), I don jockey silks and test my mettle racing for money at an area event that doesn’t require you weigh in at 110 pounds with tack (some races are even catch weight), nor be registered with the Jockey Guild.

The first time I was asked to pilot a mount in a money race, I was shocked, but excited to have the opportunity to experience the thrill of being responsible for the trip on a horse I had exercised at an area Thoroughbred racetrack. We didn’t finish well on that particular day, but the experience was an adrenaline-filled rush I will never forget.

The professional TB jockeys from Finger Lakes Race Track on my introduction to this course had their hearts in their throats as they tackled the hills and uneven terrain (most didn’t bother walking the course – an added challenge as they set out with stirrups set so their heels where touching their butts) and many didn’t come back. I was in my element, having spent a good number of years (a long time ago) eventing through the preliminary level. That day, I resolved to return with a better strategy and a live mount.

New experiences are fun and provide a great equine learning opportunity

Since then, I’ve probably ridden a dozen races on as many horses (some ridden for the first time in this competition) and have learned the art of the tactical approach to finishing well. The flat races on this property run the perimeter of a steeple chase course in what used to serve as a cattle field for much of the year (I think that’s changed as I didn’t see the ‘ cow patties’ walking the course yesterday).

This year, I was planning on being a mere spectator and enjoying the opportunity to relax and experience the party that permeates the grounds each year at the Genesee Valley Hunt Races. Thursday night, I got a call from a trainer who twisted my arm to ride a mare I had a good relationship with (she has trust and nervousness issues) and enough miles atop to feel comfortable with her ability to handle the course and be a contender.

Granted, I wasn’t competing in the $25,000 steeple chase feature (if you ever get a chance to watch one of these races, do it – you’ll be wowed by the endurance and talent displayed), but, I’m not in my twenties anymore, so the idea of sitting this one out was appealing.

Anyway, we finished second. Even though my mount gave a great kick for the last ½ mile that should have eclipsed the leader that distanced the field by many for most of the race, the champion was far the best. It was shocking that the winner didn’t tire after the 2 ¼ mile trip. In fact, I’ve never seen a horse in this race take the lead so early and maintain such a rapid pace to the end. Stalkers are usually victorious, having something left after the front-runners exhaust themselves too early. But, all entrants were focused on fun, and so it was.

Get your priorities straight

It was funny to visit the tail gate party section of the event after the race (people pay good money to park their car and exhibit their food spread near the course). The chatter was more focused on who won the award for the best display than race results.

Great people abound in the horse industry

Going to this event is always a joy. Real people who truly care about each other come to cheer on everyone and have a good time. If you ever find yourself in New York in early October (it will be a bit of trip if you’re flying into JFK or LaGuardia – plan on a six hour drive), this event is worth seeing. You won’t meet a nicer group of equine enthusiasts nor see a more entertaining or educational mix of activities.

If you’re convinced it’s hard to find communities of horse owners and equine professionals that are in your corner, wanting you to excel and learn, think again. These groups are prevalent. Sometimes, though, it requires a willingness to take a little leap out of your customary zone.

Have you found a great group or an interesting experience reaching beyond your typical horse horsey gang and environs? Please share your find in the comments below.

Natural Horsemanship should be happy for humans and horses

Friday’s Opinion

This summer has provided a wonderful opportunity to focus on some of the farm-owned horses at Halcyon Acres. We shipped out the last Thoroughbred client horse at the end of May (with only a single talented older client horse remaining – a  non-TB therapy project) and had a couple of months before the next wave of starting under saddle horses began shipping in. That hiatus provided a great learning experience and an excuse to put full-focus on listening to the horse.  It’s been an enriching endeavor for both the humans and horses involved in this awakening.

Natural Horsemanship –Really?

There’s a whole lot of buzz – and controversy – going on right now about current popular horse training precepts. While much of the criticism is centered on one business entity (and that corporate mentality is the problem – whether horsemen once or not, much of the focus has turned away from the horse and horsemanship in deference to the marketing machine minds that now rule these profit centers), the hubbub isn’t the result of a single method (or individual). There has been a festering groundswell of distaste for messages that are being put out there that stop considering the horse (and the novices trying to establish an understanding and bond) and, instead, are designed to drive maximum traffic to products or services for sale. This is starting to backfire for some. The resulting conversation about the wisdom of formula approaches for equines should lead to a savvier human component and happier horses.

It’s not that tough to listen to the horse if you’re willing to patiently watch and learn how each communicates. This usually requires spending time with an open mind around a particular horse, or horses in general, to get a feel what they are trying to tell you. Some people have a natural talent for interpreting a horse’s messages. Still, every horse is different and few equines appreciate an inflexible, pre-determined and dictatorial game plan (and yes, pun intended, this applies to what some label as games too) that has the human calling all the shots and the horse reduced to begging for treats or tuning out to avoid torture. Novices (and some so-called professionals) rarely realize how much damage they can do when they get the urge to orchestrate training with rituals. Horses appreciate a routine they can count on, but I haven’t met any that enjoy a training regimen that ignores the horse’s input in the process.

This moniker has been hijacked from those who had a deep understanding about personally connecting with a horse and redefined and assigned to a branding strategy to create revenue from money makers that offer answers without regard for the horse. Sad.

Novice horse riders need better information

Novices aren’t to blame when they believe the messages they are inundated with that offer tips and tricks to “easily” go it alone without regard to their horse’s issues. Of course, these secrets are only revealed to those that pay $97 for a DVD or learn from someone certified through an expensive qualification process (where money trumps skill for the designation). It’s a crime that beginners are “blamed” by their selected cult leaders if things don’t work out for them “because they didn’t follow instructions”. People who claim they have a “one size fits all” solution for horse training are charlatans, in my opinion. It’s sad to see what happens to the people and horses that adhere to practices that expect the horse to “get with their program”.

There’s no exact science when it comes to working with green horses. The secret isn’t a method – it’s learning how to read each horse with a willingness to include them in the conversation.  It takes time and experience to get there. Those who continue to encourage novice riders to pair up with green horses because their silver bullet (available for cash, credit card or cleared check) provides a catch-all solution to any horse/human challenges should be called out, shunned and shut down. There’s no horsemanship left in the minds of these folks – only dollar signs. it’s unconscionable to put novices in such potentially dangerous situations that also damage the horse ‘s psyche – sometimes for life. It’s ironic that the current blame being put on so many for unwanted horses doesn’t seem to include some of the biggest remote contributors.

If your horse doesn’t beg for the opportunity to train (and this doesn’t mean doing tricks for treats), you’re doing something wrong.

Ask the horse what they want to do

Buster is special - here he is helping Carl enjoy a safe first ride alone.

The nice thing about schooling farm-owned horses (vs. client projects), is you can ask the horse what they want. Even young horses will tell you when they’re ready to begin working under saddle (and in the case here sometimes – way past ready to the point of getting frustrated that they don’t have a job). Watch, listen and then offer training as an activity (keeping it fun by including the horse in the conversation), and you might be amazed at how eager the horse is to work. Even better (provided you’ve developed a skill for reading a horse’s proclivities), you can be flexible and insightful as you set the foundation for a career path that a horse will enjoy.

We culled out three to train in earnest this summer. One was a four-year-old Irish Draught Sport Horse filly (Clover) that has been begging to go back to work. The second, a six-year-old Thoroughbred gelding (Cowboy), has been our go-to farm hand since the age of two and was showing signs of boredom. Play Play was our third selection, who was sidelined with a hock injury that resulted from a kick (she probably had it coming – she’s the only mare in the herd who is aggressive without cause – likely due to fear issues, but still, with this amiable herd, being nasty too often has a price).

Clover’s back in training (for the third time – shoemaker’s children) and loving it. We started this filly late in her three-year-old year, spent a little time on her this spring and have recently put her into a daily schooling routine. She, along with Cowboy, dismisses herself from the herd and is waiting at the gate at the scheduled time they come in for training.

Miss a training day with Clover now and she’ll let you know about her displeasure that day – and pay you back the next (she’s a character). Cowboy is so thrilled to be transitioning over to English and a direct rein vs. the Western riding that sometimes confused him. He’s relishing dressage and jumping work and eager to understand new requests. He’s a character too. He begs (to train, eat, move – whatever he wants that he’s not doing at the moment) by curling a front leg and will stand as a tripod until his wish is granted.

Speak up

It’s sad that some of the most celebrated equine “gurus” these days lost sight of their horsemanship and altruistic ways a long time ago. Most started with some decent ideas, accomplishments and intentions. The harm they’re doing to riders and horses now, though, with pat answers that include “I have a product to fix that horse,” is immense.

I’m not seeing a witch hunt, I’m seeing and industry correction. And it’s a good thing for the future of our horses and the people who love them.

Attacks won’t help the horses – nor the novices who have been buffaloed by the material they’re eager to soak up as gospel. Better guidance and solutions will. It’s time for those who operate with integrity in this industry to reach out to people who don’t know what they don’t know. Offer problem-solving tactics they can embrace and understand – including cautionary notes on marketing messages that appeal to their emotional drivers, but fail to reveal the truth. Be there as counsel to help those struggling with ideas to guide them with insight to reach their horse in a customized fashion. It’s time too, for industry players with character around the globe to align in a way that helps those thinking about a first horse purchase or stuck with a project beyond their abilities to reach out to people who can help – and really care.

Be a part of the solution

Who’d like to be a part of a free forum at Horse Sense and Cents (we may need to locate this on the BookConductors site, but we’ll offer a seamless link here) that offers novice riders and first-time hours buyers input from seasoned equine professionals for good strategies and decisions from the onset? Whether you’re an equine novice or professional, please share your ideas on how we can make this a useful resource. Feel free to e-mail me directly, comment on the blog or call (585) 554-4612 if this is something that appeals to you.

Horse boarding facilities – calculating the costs

Horse owners who are struggling in this tough economy seem to be asking the question “why not start my own boarding facility and make gobs of money.” Few who have always relied on others for the care and feeding of their horses realize the costs involved in keeping them healthy, safe and sheltered. The fact is, most facilities profit from add-on services and operate with razor-thin margins on board. Most who offer ‘cheap board’ either haven’t tabulated their real costs, or aren’t taking good care of the facility and/or horses.

Mom and baby are cute, but they cost money to house
Mom and baby are cute, but they cost money to house

Horse breeds effect costs

Of course, certain breeds cost less to feed than others (we deal primarily with Thoroughbreds (TBs) and TB crosses at Halcyon Acres, with higher feed costs, but no sugar or obesity issues, so we can use pastures for nourishment too without the health concerns other breeds face). Horses in training cost about $160/horse/month for hay/grain sustenance and bedding. There’s more to housing horses for others, though, than factoring what you dump in the stall.

There’s more than feed and bedding

Most who haven’t housed horses figure feed and bedding as the only costs. Some enlightened even calculate time into the mix. Maybe you can get by with this if he’s in your backyard and you don’t care about what the place looks like, but the expenses for a boarding facility are generally considerably higher.

Staff costs can be huge, and few consider this as a cost associated with their horse care. If the owner is doing all work themselves, they’re taking time away from other activities that could be earning them (more) money.

Electric tends to be another big ticket item if you have boarders coming into the barn to pet their horse or ride (we had one boarder who doubled our electric bill with just two horses at the barn by leaving lights on and periodically forgetting to turn off the water hydrant – flooding the barn was costly too).

Add driveway and parking lot care, manure storage and removal, stall repairs, fencing and general building and property maintenance to costs that escalate with every horse you add to the mix.

Have you tallied insurance and financing costs?

GallopDownHillWhat few consider is liability insurance and mortgage fees for financing the place. These are usually very high ticket items that need to be amortized across the number of horses the facility holds if true expenses are to be considered. You say they’re building equity in the property so interest on the property loan should not be factored in – not in today’s economy. Liability insurance is a must have for anyone who has horses on their property (even if they’re in your own backyard) and the cost of this increases exponentially if it needs to include others riding on the property.

Turn-out board

Even with turnout board arrangements, unless you have massive acreage, the only way to keep pastures and horses healthy is with rotational grazing. Moving the herd can take a lot of time. Pastures need to be mowed after the horses are moved off and given time to rejuvenate. The labor, gas and equipment costs for this can be considerable, depending on the size of the property (and your mower) and the lay of land. Pastures need to be periodically reseeded if they are to remain useful. Run-in sheds aren’t cheap (weather purchased or built) and these need to be available in all areas where horses are left outside. They also need to be cleaned at least daily and maintained (time and materials). Give a horse something they can sink their teeth into and they’ll find a reason to chew.

No matter how docile and sedate your horse may be, fence repairs are an ongoing chore and expense.

Here, we need to buy water on a daily basis. That means added costs for the truck, trailer, tank, gas, time and money necessary for the water purchase.

Equipment and traffic costs

Farm equipment (truck, tractor, brush hog, manure spreader, etc.) costs money to buy and maintain. With each horse you add, the wear, tear and operating expenses increase.

If you have boarders cleaning their own stalls, expect broken pitch forks, brooms, rakes, wheelbarrows, lead ropes, buckets and snaps as well as stock farm items being used and not replaced.

Paint, lumber, hardware and other costs associated with keeping the property maintained are constant costs few consider as expenses in keeping up the farm for boarders. The more boarders you have, the more you will need to invest in these items.

Of course, you need to equip the barn with medical and doctoring supplies (you don’t want to face an emergency and have the horse wait until the vet arrives or you get back from your trip to the store), which aren’t free – nor generally replaced by boarders who need them.

Here, the cost of boarding horses (this only applies to client horses in for training, so we collect other fees to make it work) is break-even, at best. We’ll be experimenting with turnout board in the coming months (for horses on layup, retired or for other reasons there would be no rider in the mix). It’s still not clear if the additional pasture drain and run-in shed costs will make this a profitable activity, but it’s worth a test.

Expect expensive surprises

Sometimes you don’t see the added costs until after a horse arrives. We’re keeping a horse here for a friend who is facing some health challenges. After she was put on the truck (from the Left Coast) we were informed she had an allergy to alfalfa. Our standard hay is an alfalfa mix. So, we had to procure hay quickly (at a high cost) for her particular needs as she traveled cross-country. Her special hay is not something our usual providers can supply, so we’re constantly spending time and extra money putting custom roughage in the barn for this mare. The initial plan (and at-cost calculation) was a turn-out board situation with the farm herd. She’s on supplements (something we also discovered while the horse was in-transit), so she needs to be brought into the barn twice a day (or reside for half a day) to be fed. We opted to include her in the crew that is housed in the barn and turned out during the day (or night when bugs and heat are an issue). Add bedding, more labor and stall repairs. We tried turning her out with a couple of different mares (one at a time) and she beat the crap out of them (resulting in vet bills for our mares – she was fine). Now, we need to allocate a pasture for a single horse – creating challenges in our rotational grazing plan. Board is late every month, so we’re paying interest on borrowed money to cover the cost of buying hay and blacksmith services if we don’t have reserves to finance the extra unanticipated outflows. Lesson learned – ask all the questions early and plan for the unexpected.

A horse at home is not the same as a boarding facility

There’s a big difference between putting a little barn at your house and running some fence line and shouldering the costs of a boarding facility. Even if you just add a couple of horses and leave the responsibility of their care to the owners, you’ll be shocked at how quickly your costs escalate. Plus, unless you hire help, your schedule will no longer be your own as it will revolve around horse care, feeding, doctoring, etc.. It’s great fun to have a horse around the house, but a lot of work and probably not as inexpensive as you envision. If you can bring your horse home – go for it! The time and money you save commuting to a boarding facility along with the opportunity to go hang with your horse 24/7 is worth it. If you think you’re going to make a million collecting boarding fees, you might want try the lottery for better odds.

If you’ve figured out a way to make a mint boarding horses, please do tell in the comments below. Are you a boarder who has witnessed great ideas that make your experience better and more cost effective? Share what you’ve experienced with others so we can all learn from your knowledge, if you would. Have something to add that has been forgotten in the list above? All will likely welcome your wisdom. Help build this community and others will undoubtedly chime in to help you learn and grow.

Hire the right horse employees and fire the wrong clients

If you’ve been in the horse business long enough, you’re going to meet someone who has no qualms about thanking you for your kindness by taking your property or unpaid work-product into their possession. It’s sad that some people operate with an entitlement philosophy that deems it OK lie, steal and abuse liberties given, but, sadly, there are some in the world that are artful manipulators who exist without integrity. Don’t blame yourself for being stupid to have empowered such players – we’ve all fallen victim to naive trust.

Questionable characters are rarely the culprits. Even if they are, you’re prepared for unethical behavior with these red flags. What really burns is when you go out of your way to help someone, donating time, resources and wisdom, to be rewarded with thievery.  It happens and it hurts, but there are things you can do to help avoid bad decisions concerning  the staff and clients you choose to bring into your equine business. While one will slip through occasionally, we’ve found some early vetting can uncover most bad actors.

Tips for equine business money decisions

  • With the young horse training business at Halcyon Acres (http://www.HalcyonAcres.com), we now require the starting fee before the horse trucks in (board is a separate item and it’s amazing how quickly these payments come in when a client is invested upfront in the outcome). The ones that baulk about this (they’re often wealthy), are referred elsewhere and invariable leave a trail of unpaid bills in the horse’s wake.
  • Where farm help is concerned, this is a tougher challenge in this remote area. It’s best if you can witness them working for someone else over a period of time, but that’s not always possible. Get references and make the calls. Time spent with employers can be an indication of how reliable (or not) they are. Be wary of those moving from jobs (or states) every couple of months.
  • Don’t give away time and resources. Offer an exchange of work for professional services instead, or a trade arrangement where you get something you really need to help improve your equine business. Few seem to value something that is free. Hard-earned benefits are appreciated more. Such a pact also gives you the opportunity to witness the dedication and ethic of the ‘student’ or ‘client’.
  • Set clear expectations from the onset. It feels right to bring someone on board with the ideal that they will help define their job, but this rarely works. Instead, take the time to put a job description (with associated benchmark expectations) in writing. Hold the employee accountable (and bring it to their attention immediately when work isn’t up to par) for agreed upon performance.
  • Periodically stop in unannounced to see what’s really going on when you’re not there. Sadly, many trainers are now resorting to always-on cameras that they review in fast-forward to get an honest picture of what goes on ‘behind their back.’ This shouldn’t be necessary if you hire the right people, but it’s a clever way to get behind the scenes when you’re unable to be on the grounds.
  • Hold on to the gems. If you find someone who is honest, hard-working, talented, reliable, kind with the horses and a joy to be around, pay them a king’s ransom, shower them with compliments and be flexible about time off.

Bad decisions build horse sense

Some years ago, we gave a kid of little means an opportunity at Halcyon Acres. She had a young horse parked on the acre where her family’s trailer sat. Her attempt to start this pony under saddle created a monster that learned violence was her best defense to a training regimen that didn’t reward efforts.  So, with donated training and lesson time to reprogram the filly and the rider, the two parted better connected – and better equipped with a good deal of supplies stolen from our tack room. We installed locks after this incident.

More recently, we opened our home to a twenty-year-old. She was a clever manipulator and adept at portraying herself as a victim to the trusting. Her departing acts would have ended her career as a jockey if we chose to press charges, but we decided to let it go. We filed the police report paperwork needed to resolve some of the resulting problems, but refrained from supplying a name and OKing and investigation that would have resulted in an arrest on federal felony charges.

The fact is, there’s little reward in vengeance for such acts, but you sure feel violated when you decide to extend yourself to someone who sees kindness as an opportunity to case the joint for their profiteering plans. Take solace in the fact that such little minds live a miserable life. If you let them suck you into their world, you’ll spend countless hours shrouded by negative energy that will ruin your day (or week, or month, or year). One trip to small claims court (we won), was enough to realize the cost is too high for any of the rewards to cover the loss.

Think before you leap into horse business hell

A much better strategy is to be smart in how you screen and/or prepare the people you decide to embrace as you work to build your equine business and reputation. Couple this with the realization that no matter how hungry you are, a client who doesn’t pay or makes your life miserable will cost you dearly and isn’t worth the price, and you’re on your way to working smarter instead of harder.  The next time your gut says no or whoa – listen, slow down and consider the consequences.  Set your mind to turn away clients that don’t fit and wait for employees that do and you’ll be amazed at how more profitable and in-demand you become.

Do you have a story about an employee or client that you want to share? Questions on warning signs you may sense but need confirmation on relative to hires or clients? Great experiences you want to tell to serve as models for others? Ideas others can benefit from? Please leave a comment below to get the conversation going.

What makes a horse too old?

Age in horses is so relative. Many horses continue to work well into their 30s while others are deemed ancient for their initial career at six. Some breeds are best started at a much older age, while some industries are backing horses as yearlings. Of course, much depends on the horse, but the perspective of the humans involved plays a major role.

Keep your horse young with a new career

Just because a horse may be past his prime in one career doesn’t mean he’s ready to be literally turned out to pasture. Few horses seem to enjoy being returned to a wild-type state of unfettered grazing and a dearth of human contact. The current popularity of the ‘forever-home’ concept may do the horse, and the human, a disservice. Sometimes offering a horse a different home with a new career can be the kindest thing to do.

Horses tend to age more quickly when they are idle and bored. They pick up bad habits, are more prone to illness and lose tone.

Equines that relish training and/or are given the opportunity to transition to new and exciting careers seem to stay in their prime for more years than expected.

Help your horse’s head

Like humans, horses seem to thrive on a mix of physical and mental stimulation. Rarely, with domesticated horses, does a natural herd environment alone provide the bliss so many imagine. Instead, those culled out from the herd for training activities that are presented in a fun manner with the horse’s opinions considered in the activity mix appear to be the happiest and healthiest. Training doesn’t always have to involve riding, but the engagement and attention that comes with lessons offers a purpose for the horse that they seem to need. You can play with nursing foals as well as old cripples in ways that help improve their quality of life and yours without stressing feeble bodies.

Talk to your horse about campaigns

The next time you rally behind a cause that advocates forever homes or offers a pastoral return to their wild roots, consider the horse.  If they spoke human, most would say they’d rather have a job. Listen to more subtle cues, though, and you’ll hear their desires.

It seems like so much of the current ‘humanitarian’ effort applied to horses in an effort to ‘protect’ them forgets that we’ve been domesticating horses for millenniums and in so doing, have changed their nature.  If you’ve ever experienced that miraculous moment with a horse when they’re even more excited about excelling at the human-horse partnership challenge than you are, you’ll get this.

Are you making your horse feel old?

So, what makes a horse too old? Usually, it’s what we do to them. Of course, there are genetic and injury issues that can end an active life too early, but more often it comes down to what we do to help our equines live a fulfilling and interesting life. For most horses, that means having a job they can get excited about. Welfare is a wonderful concept – too bad the term has come to mean provider for so many. You might be amazed at how special a horse can become when empowered to give back in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling for both of you (or a new owner who can offer a job). Given the chance, most horses will gladly earn their keep with jobs you request. Those left to languish in freedom get old fast.

Do you have a horse that lit up when you discovered his desired job? Did you make the hard decision to re-home a horse you loved so he could have a more fulfilling life elsewhere? Are you struggling with a horse you just don’t know how to engage? Please share with comments below this blog post. Thanks.

Remember on Memorial Day

In the United States, Memorial Day (today, May 31st) was created as a poignant holiday to remember and recognize those who have sacrificed their lives to help maintain the freedoms and safety we enjoy in this country. Regardless of your political leanings, feelings about warfare, ethnic background or apathy, the men and women who have died trying to protect your rights deserve thanks. Those killed in conflict weren’t there because they towed a party line, didn’t decide to wage war, were of many races and cared enough to put their lives on the line for a country even those who don’t seem to appreciate enjoy. While the holiday now includes advertising overload for picnic food, cars, vegetable plants, sales and all sorts of diversionary activities and purchases, planning a barbeque should not be the primary focus of this day.

What does this have to do with horses? I could go off on a tangent about how horsemanship seems to have been forgotten with the popular training precepts of the day, but I won’t.

Please spend a few solemn moments today to remember and appreciate those who were killed because they cared. And since Veteran’s Day seems to be a mostly overlooked holiday of late, how about going a little further and thanking a vet who made it home alive?

For my part, I’d like to not only send a message out to surviving families of those who lost a loved one that I deeply appreciate the sacrifice and feel for you, but would also like to send a huge hug to all those still alive who were willing to leave behind their home, family, friends, job, a living wage and in many cases, their sanity, in an effort to serve so others could relax. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do what you did, but hold you in high regard for your selfless and patriotic perspective. Thank you!