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

Equine Industry Issues

World Equestrian Games

This post comes courtesy of Sarah McMullen, who is a super dedicated BOD member of the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America, a gutsy rider who can’t wait to get back in the saddle again after having her broken leg screwed back together and one who has served as a glowing example to reach toward for me in the way she handles difficult people with grace, accommodation and understanding.  Look her up. She’s worth getting to know.

Irish Draught Horse Society & the World Equestrian Games

By: Sarah McMullen

What’s WEG?

The World Equestrian Games (WEG) are comprised of the world championships for eight equestrian sports:  Dressage, Driving, Endurance, Eventing, Jumping, Para-Dressage, Reining, and Vaulting.  The Games are held every four years, two years prior to the Summer Olympic Games and are governed by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). The 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games are being held in the United States for the first time ever in its 20 year history and are being hosted at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington from September 25 to October 10, 2010.  For more information, visit http://www.alltechfeigames.com.

First US presence brings new initiatives

Unique to the 2010 World Equestrian Games is the Equine Village, which will be a central site that houses both exhibits from various equine organizations and a number of world class equine demonstrations and special events. The Equine Village will showcase the depth and scope of the equine industry to spectators.  Within the Equine Village will be the Irish Village, an initiative that is the brainchild of horsewoman, Fleur Bryan, intended to showcase Irish horses and vendors.

The Irish Village will spotlight native horse breeds including the Irish Draught, Irish Draught Sport Horse, Gypsy Vanner, and Connemara.  Spectators will be able to see these breeds performing Demonstrations from September 29 through October 10, 2010.  Demonstrations will be performed in the disciplines of Dressage, Jumping, Eventing, Foxhunting, and Hunter, showcasing the versatility of the Irish breeds.

For more information on the Irish Village Demonstrations, visit http://irishvillageatweg2010.blogspot.com.

Yes, the Irish love their beer, but they have a bigger Draught to boast about

The purebred Irish Draught is classified as a breed in urgent need of conservation, with declining population and genetic erosion. In the early part of the 20th century, the Irish farmer needed a more versatile horse than the popular heavy draft. He needed an animal that could work the land throughout the week, go fox-hunting all day Saturday, jumping anything he faced, and then be ready to bring the family trap to church on Sunday morning. It was from this need that the Irish Draught (pronounced “draft”) was born.

Over a century of selection has produced a warm-blooded breed that is very sound and sensible with good bone, substance and quality. The Irish Draught is neither as massive nor as heavily feathered as its name implies and has movement that is smooth and free, without exaggeration, and not heavy nor ponderous. Standing over a lot of ground, the Draught has an exceptionally strong and sound constitution, great stamina and an uncanny jumping ability. In addition, this breed possesses a fabulous temperament that’s willing, intelligent, docile and driven by common sense.

Not only is the Irish Draught a perfect companion mount for riders of all ages, but it possesses the ability and versatility to participate in various levels of jumping, eventing, dressage, hunting and driving events. It is all these exceptional qualities that make the Irish Draught an invaluable and irreplaceable element in the production of the highly successful Irish Draught Sport Horse.

The even temperament, durability and power of the Irish Draught, mixed with the speed and athleticism of the Thoroughbred, creates a potent mix which is well up to the demands of modern day competition. World famous for jumping and cross-country ability, the Irish Draught/Thoroughbred magical cross is not only a top caliber international athlete, but can serve as a perfect novice mount, adeptly boosting the confidence of a lower level rider. Notable Irish Draught Sport Horses such as Cruising, Cagney, Ado Annie, Eezy, Carling King and Hopes are High have proven shinning stars of the Grand Prix circuit.  Custom Made, Supreme Rock, Giltedge, McKinlaigh, Headly Britannia, Connaught, and Sailing have thrilled us in the eventing world.

Come experience WEG

Being able to put the spotlight on the fantastic breeds of the Irish Draught and Irish Draught Sport Horse is one of the many fantastic aspects of the World Equestrian Games. Hopefully, the hundreds of thousands of spectators at WEG will leave more educated and aware of all the horse breeds and their many talents. To read more about the Irish Draught and Irish Draught Sport Horses, visit http://www.irishdraught.com

Who’s horse whispering today without jargon?

Friday’s Opinion

I’m a bit on the fence about the proliferation of material being put out there that speaks with buzz words most can’t understand and a conviction that all horses are golden and any problem is human created. Many of these people have achieved a horsemanship understanding few will achieve, but seem to have lost their passion to help the deserving horse with a message most humans can grasp.

Speaking in foreign tongues

Part of me is puzzled by the fact that this new brand of “horse whisperers” refuse to speak in terms a novice (or even a seasoned professional) can understand if they’re not part of their cadre (which usually requires buying $699 DVDs or paying to access members only information on their website). Yet, they claim their passion is to save the horses from human cruelty (usually due to ignorance).  No matter how accomplished these folks may be on the horse communication front, how aptly they can demonstrate their talents and how often they waive the horse advocacy flag, I’m a bit sceptical about those who shout horse savoir while erecting barriers for the most needy.  I get everyone needs to make a living and am not a proponent of all knowledge should be free, but there’s a disconnect with these folks when they lead with a horse welfare banner and follow with all access denied if you won’t immediately pony up.

I think these folks have a lot of knowledge to share that could benefit the horse – particularly those who are challenged with novice handlers and riders. Yet, the language they use is so esoteric to most of the uninitiated, even their sales pitches are lost on this important audience. To boot, they require almost immediate payment to reveal their secrets. How’s that helping the horse?  Still, I realize some of these talented folks have made a difference in the lives of many of the horses they’ve touched. They have a lot of insight to share that could benefit so many horses. I just wish they’d either be true to their stated mission (with terms the masses can understand and associated accessibility for those who seek to assess what’s being offered prior to pulling out the MasterCard) or honest about their intention to make their offerings (and language) exclusive to their club of benefactors.

Who’s really helping the horses?

The paradox between their message and their actions is troubling. If they believe every horse is a victim of human experience and they’ve set their life goals on saving these horses from their dumb human owners/riders/handlers, why limit the salvation to those who boast a wealthy or enlightened owner willing to immediately pay the piper for their education? Usually, those who do the most harm to horses do so without recognizing the ill of their actions. It concerns me when one who can demonstrate such character with the horses they encounter fail to extend this to the humans they accuse.

Is every horse really an angel?

Frankly, I don’t share the conviction of some of the self-described equine mind-readers that all misbehaving horses are victims of human mishandling. I’ve met some horses in my life (not many, but enough to realize not all are angels) that don’t want to be reached. Granted, I’ve spent the last couple of decades of my life dealing with Thoroughbred race horses, where temperament (forget about conformation) is an afterthought, but I’ve come across a few horses over my 40 years of riding and 20-plus years of training that  aren’t worth the costs. There are just too many great horses out there to put in time year-after-year on one that is not receptive to kindness and clear guidance. Sometimes, ignorant breeding (and yes, this is a human factor) produces horses that will be difficult for a lifetime.

Help humans to stop creating problem horses

Sure, most horse problems are created by human handling, but I’d like to believe in most cases, these breakdowns aren’t due to evil, but instead, ignorance – or more likely, fear. If we really want to help the horse – and create horseman for the future – we need to speak in tongues novices can understand, provide accessible information to help them grow in knowledge and awareness, discourage bad horse/human combinations and do all we can to help those who don’t know what they don’t know strive to learn from those who demonstrate integrity and illustrate through their actions what horsemanship really means.

Take the lead from the horse

Horses can teach us so much about communications. I haven’t encountered one yet that seeks an exclusive podium to present that message. Wouldn’t it be great if those who can be called true horsemen today could take a lead from the horses that have taught them so much by being clear, generous, honest and open with their message to the people they are trying to reach?

Going Home

Sometimes it’s nice to simply enjoy the ride.

On my return from spending time with family this Christmas, I decided to take a route I hadn’t travelled in years. This brought me up 10 & 202 through Granby, CT – a road we regularly crossed on horseback as kids to get to our favorite ice cream shop on our way to what we called the sand pit. All property owners let us travel their land with their blessing (sans the sandpit owners). There was even a horse crossing sign (that was new) where we used to land on what is now a busier thoroughfare, so maybe kids are still enjoying the freedoms we did thirty-plus years ago. Sadly, the ice cream shop was gone.

Much of the scenery was as I had remembered it from my youth. The tobacco barns remained, as did the surrounding land still being used for farming. The vet practice we used for our horses was still there in a building that had been repainted, but largely unchanged. The Granby Motel has the same street signage (with the backward N) that graced the property decades ago. Schools remained unchanged. Even the Simsbury bowling alley remained in business (remarkable given how the value of land has increased along this stretch). The same many funeral homes dotted the landscape.

As I passed into Southwick, the state line was marked with an array of package stores (Mass must still allow alcohol sales later than CT) and snow covered roads reminiscent of every winter spent in the area.

Even the old radio stations were still around – WTIC with its talk and soft music format (a station we’d cringe over as kids as my mother forced us to endure it while in the house); and WCCC screaming rock, although the new sound was a lot angrier than the 60s and 70s tunes we enjoyed.

Much of what is discussed in the horse world these days includes a call for change. I’m saddened to see many of the changes that have occurred in NYS in the name of progress, protection or rights. Some of my best equine experiences involved quiet rides across miles of varying terrain with my pony and a couple of good friends to share in the special carefree, exciting, tranquil and fun experiences each ride included. Sure, we were reckless at times – we were kids. None of us ever got hurt, though, as we were blessed with horses that took care of us, landowners who were generous about giving us safe passage and a world where parents weren’t afraid to let their children explore life unattended. It’s sad most of our young riders today won’t ever have such useful learning experiences to draw from as they strive to connect with horses.

Horse blogs worth a look

Looking for equine travel vacations?

Check out http://writinghorseback.com/

This gal can write. Nancy D. Brown draws her content mostly from personal experience (and an international array of destinations) with no qualms about recounting great memories along with where her trip fell short of expectations. She’s a professional travel writer, and it shows in this blog. The user-friendly and appealing design includes pictures, a good archive list and enough information for anyone considering a horseback riding travel destination to get pointed in the right direction for what you seek.  It should also give the more spontaneous crowd some good ideas for a new adventure that may not have ever been otherwise considered. She even spices up content a bit with an occasional political feature concerning equine related destination decisions. This is a relatively new blog (started in July 2009, but not launched until September), but she’s provided a good dozen destination posts since then and is keeping it regularly updated.  If you’ve ever thought about including riding as part of your vacation plans, this is a worthwhile site to visit prior to making plans.

Probably more than you wanted to know about hoofs

http://hoofcare.blogspot.com/

This blog includes some technical information, but also easy to understand videos and some opinion pieces. Fran Jurga focuses mainly on hoof care and concerns, but also covers other issues related to horse physiology and other issues. There’s also a lot of interesting videos and other information here that you won’t likely see elsewhere. She updates the blog almost daily and offes a wide range of interesting and educational information for just about any level or discipline equestrian.  This is a fact-filled, interesting, fun and diverse blog that’s definitely worth checking out.

Be careful what you wish for from Big Brother

Editor’s Note: We’ve moved our usual Friday opinion piece up to today given the timely and frightening news that passed in a U.S. House subcommittee in recent hours.

Friday’s Opinion

Raise your hand if you think the government should get involved in the Bute dispute (or any other equine sport issue). Think again.

U.S. House subcommittee vote today takes on college football

This is really scary. Wednesday, December 9, 2009, a U.S. House subcommittee approved legislation aimed at forcing college football to switch to a playoff system to determine a national champion (source AP). This bill goes even further, banning the promotion of a postseason NCAA Division I football game as a national championship unless that title contest is the result of a playoff (source Rochester Business Journal). Whhhhaaat????

I suppose if I weren’t so floored and incensed about seeing my tax dollars hard at work ensuring Big Brother is alive and well, I’d go fish out the language of the bill for all to see, but don’t imagine anyone really wants to read that special prose.

Do you want Big Brother dictating equestrian sports?

As I see more banter over FEI’s decision (or non-decision) on Bute, the relating clamour on banning this drug for the harm it does to horses (with little comment on how it is prolonging the quality of life for some older hacks) and a groundswell of chants from uniformed lemmings starting to push for government intervention, I worry that the cure may be much more harmful than even the promise of the worst apocalyptic prognosticators who are running with this cause with third, fourth and further party information.

Be careful what you wish for.

What could this mean for our sport and our horses?

Forget about how this actually applies to The Declaration of Independence (“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”) , let alone the Constitution (not to mention the cost associated with putting such matters in the bureaucrats hands – NFPs spend, on average 10% on administration, the government handling similar programs, more than 70% – source, “A Time for Caring” by Dick Kaplan), and think for a moment about how embracing such intervention will hinder our sport and hurt our horses.

Want to see how great the government handles equine issues? Take a glance at the conditions Mustangs are being subjected to in the roundups occurring in the U.S. West.

Hey, if we abdicate college football playoffs standards to the government, why not have Senators supervise and influence vet checks at C**** events to ensure a fairer (right) decision on the winners? Maybe the House could look at breeding operations and determine that collecting semen is unnatural and legislate live breed for all? Perhaps the President should use his executive powers to ensure all heads of equine associations are appointee buddies? Hell, maybe the Supreme Court should rule that it’s cruel to ride horses and take on a case that renders a decision that equestrian sports are illegal (without consulting my horses, who have strongly indicated they want a job).

OK, maybe I’m getting a bit out there on the hyperbole front, but not by much. Horsemen understand equine issues and industry concerns – elected officials don’t. Once you invite legislators into the fray, you risk losing input and influence on decisions that are critical to your livelihood, recreation, enjoyment and activity by giving permission to those who have no understanding to dictate your equine future. Most elected officials run with what’s popular and spend little time researching how what they support may impact the industry they are making mandates about – let alone the economic or equine enjoyment impact.

Look before you leap

I was shocked to see that a House subcommittee is spending time (and our tax dollars) on mandates for college sports (these are kids, for goodness sake). Ditto for those many comments I’ve seen calling for government intervention on equine sport decisions. At first, I dismissed these suggestions for government action as silly and without legs. Now, it seems, the U.S. government has sports in its crosshairs. Do we really want to invite government interference in our industry? Be very careful what you wish for. It looks like the genie is laying in wait.

Nanette Levin

Rolkur, bitless bridles, tom thumbs, herd reduction – come save the horse from the cruelty of others

Friday’s Opinion

The big news these days seems to be focused on all the nasty devices and practices that need to be eliminated “if you care about horses.” Every day there seems to be another “crusade” launched to “stop the cruelty.”

How about rallying for horsemanship?

What if half the energy devoted to championing these causes went toward  instilling better horsemanship precepts on those who don’t know what they don’t know? Imagine a world where future generations of horses, equine handlers and riders blossomed from guidance and information that helped them make better choices from a position of awareness and knowledge coming from understanding and education vs. hoopla and hype. What if they had the tools to troubleshoot issues instead of spoon fed formula approaches rendering rote reactions? The resulting horses and riders could be amazing.

You’re the cruellest (or the kindest) tool

Here’s my take on the bit and device uproar – a tool is as caring or cruel as the hands that hold it (or the coach that suggests it). Hackamores can be an extremely severe contraption when used by a novice who doesn’t understand how they work. I love a tom thumb and use it to keep a very soft mouth on a horse (without the curb chain). In the same vein, one can hop on a horse with an elevator bit and make this a kinder solution than a snaffle in the right situation.

It makes me cringe to see some racehorse trainers adamant that every horse must be taught to pull against the bit to ensure a vigorous and proper workout. Then they curse out the horse (or rider) when the poor critter spends every stride rooting or locking his jaw to render the hands useless in his attempt to avoid anticipated pain.

Instructors who keep ratcheting up the severity of a bit because the rider can’t control his horse, then label the horse a problem, don’t get it.

Those who look first for tools or techniques to restrict or force their horse into a compliant or manageable state (often through pain or discomfort –whether they realize it or not) instead of first reflecting on what they are doing (or not doing) to cause certain behavior, will never be horsemen in the true sense.

How’s your mirror looking?

Some of the people screaming the loudest about the cruelty of others should take a look in the mirror. It strikes me as interesting that those who are most incensed seem to feel their horse handling, care and approaches are impeccable and their knowledge so vast they feel qualified to judge universally.

Horsemen are humble

The true horsemen I’ve met over the years are always learning. They admit they don’t know it all, learn the most from the mistakes they make and welcome other opinions and perspectives. You’ll rarely see a talented, accomplished and wise equine specialist claiming they have the only right answer. They get that all horses are different, there are people who can always enlighten them on new approaches and things are seldom as they appear. As is the case in most industries and realms, true leaders have strong opinions, but welcome input from others to improve their understanding and change their minds. Little minds know it all.

Is the horse economy in the tank?

Friday’s Opinion

Politics aside, it’s been a challenge for many equine operations focused on commerce and profitability this year. I’ve always been a big believer in attitude shaping results. Collective cries of woe can be even more dangerous than individual negative thinking for your business.

Admittedly, this year has been tougher than most for me on the optimism front. Dealing with the first broken bone (besides fingers) provided a huge awakening. The fact that this required couch potato status for three full months was major incentive for a reality check. I literally had to stop the trucks in transit with young horses loaded and destined for staring under saddle training at Halcyon Acres®.

Diversification helps in the horse industry

Diversification is critical to survival in the horse industry, or just about any business, for that matter.
The bad leg break provided a heads-up on the foolishness in depending solely on physical prowess for a considerable chunk of my income. It also alerted me to the need to be better equipped with staff that could carry out day-to-day herd management and care without my participation (something that should have been delegated a long time ago) and prompted me to start looking for an assistant trainer with the young horses.

It also prompted me to look deeper at my diversification strategy (all aspects of the business suffered during this time sans article submissions, including breeding, starting, reprogramming, training, horse sales etc.) because each required me to be present and healthy. So, I had lots of time to develop a better strategy for the future. Not only did I get determined about delegation, but also planted the seeds (including writing the first book) for the Horse Sense and Sense series to be launched in early 2010. The business will never be crippled again by an unexpected injury.

Horsemen aren’t feeling the pain

In talking to horsemen (and I do not use this term lightly) in the US and other countries, they have more business than they can handle.

Horse sales are an issue, but few depend on this for livelihood income and are more inclined to hold rather than reduce prices to silly levels. We’re offering fair prices for good horses and have seen a huge uptick in interest this fall, so believe the market is coming back here.

As far as the trainers, clinicians, instructors and handlers that we’ve spoken with, if anything, the perceived bad economy is bolstering their business. These are people with solid reputations for expertise and honesty and it seems clients are still putting money into the horse industry – but being more careful about who they choose to work with. Most of these people have a number or revenue streams associated with horses and when one is a bit soft, the others seem to be taking off. It is interesting that the rallying cry from those who are respected without the hype to make it so is “I need a vacation.”

Breeders are pulling back

I’ve seen a lot of breeders pull way back in the past two years.

We didn’t (although our efforts were not rewarded this year due to the most freakish cycling issues I’ve seen with mares in my lifetime). With the increased interest in horses this fall, it seems moving forward with future crops was a smart strategic decision. We did decide to pull out of the Thoroughbred industry (we just don’t have the mares to consistently produce allowance caliber foals with the tougher competition coming in) and put the full focus of our breeding program behind the Irish Draught Sport Horses (with different mares more suitable for this aim). These foals are proving to be standouts and although it requires a much longer time investment, the total costs are less and the rewards are much more predictable.

Being able to weather economic storms in the horse business also requires an ability to assess and redirect when necessary.

What’s the answer?

So, the answer on the horse industry economics is “it depends.”

I think those who are excellent at what they do, clear about who they are, operate with honest integrity and are devoted to those they serve do not suffer from the expressed malaise. It helps if you have a number of equine revenue streams in case one grinds to a halt due to market conditions.

We’re not quite yet at the impervious level at Halcyon Acres® and have found diversification and cost-reduction strategies to be fruitful.

We fenced in 26 acres (nine separate paddocks are enclosed in this perimeter) this spring and this has provided huge savings ono feed and bedding and an unexpected benefit of a much healthier looking herd. Surprisingly, this became a more time-intensive horse care strategy that needs reworking. We’ll have to rework this prior to spring as our plans include offering turn-out board (full care is break-even at best).

The launch of the Horse Sense and Cents™ book series this winter is an exciting initiative for us that will help market the farm services and horses, provide an additional revenue stream and offer a fun cerebral distraction during bad weather and injury healing times (and every evening and weekend :-)). Plus, it’s a great product that will help readers better enjoy their horse experience (while giving their horses better life opportunities). Of course, this is also something I can do when I’m old and decrepit, so it serves as a good component of the long-term strategic plan.

I was amazed at how quickly and enthusiastically the demand for horses for sale here rebounded. This bodes well for the future, not only for us, but others who produce and/or offer quality horses at fair prices (we did not drop the price of our stock in response to the stall in demand).

How are you weathering the global economic challenges with your horse business?

Nanette Levin

Quick Tips for selecting an OTT TB

Whether you’re buying or adopting (and if you’re looking for a suitable riding horse, don’t let the heartstring reflex color your decision to be smart and cost-effective with your investment – bad horses cost as much to feed as the good ones and often those donated are discarded for good reason), you can hedge your bet on finding a likely safe, sound and solid mount by understanding a bit about the racehorse life.

Look at the racing record

If you have a horse’s name, you can easily contact the Jockey Club (http://www.jockeyclub.com). They’ll send you to (http://www.equineline.com). Some of these reports are free, others they charge for, but most of the gals at the Jockey Club are wonderful to deal with and will do what they can to help you find what you need if you call them at (800) 333-1778. With the horse’s tattoo number (look under the top lip) use The Jockey Club’s free Tattoo Identification Services at the Registry homepage (registry.jockeyclub.com). With the horse’s name go to http://www.pedigreequery.com and get a free pedigree report going back five generations.

Was the horse a dog (having run for bottom claimers and never managed to log a win)? This usually bodes well for soundness (he doesn’t try too hard to hurt himself), but not so well on the heart or talent front – at least as far as racing is concerned (if you’re looking for a high level competitor, this may not be a good horse for you).

Does the race record indicate a lightly raced horse at the allowance level? Could be good, or bad. If you see major gaps in his racing appearances and/or a very short career, you’re likely dealing with a horse that has had major soundness issues (or bleeding problems).

Look at the breeding

With the horse’s name you can go to http://www.pedigreequery.com and get a free pedigree report going back five generations. Even if you don’t know progeny lines, you can look for black type (indicating stakes placed) and earnings. This usually translates to heart in the line, which bodes well for intended performance horses. We’ve had great success crossing TB mares from the Northern Dancer and Key To The Mint lines with Irish Draughts for anticipated standout jumpers.

Ask around and find out what studs tend to carry the crazy gene through to their foals. Since he’s dead now, I’ll freely mention Scarlet Ibis as a notorious NY producer of nuts. Many TB studs are very consistent on this front and it’s worth learning which ones to avoid. Trying to reach a horse that has trouble in their blood is extremely difficult, and often not worth the futile effort.

Learn to read the horse

Eyes are so telling. Watch a horse’s eye and see how he reacts to you, requests and new situations. Fear is something more experienced equestrians can resolve, but not a good match for a novice (you need to me unflappable and extremely confident with such horses as a tentative or insecure handler/rider will escalate the horse’s concern). Mean horses can be dangerous and the challenges are often compounded by a sour nature. If you’ve seen a mean eye once, you’ll never forget the look. It’s best to try to find a horse with a calm and quiet eye that tells you he’s willing to work with you.

Look at the legs

For the A level shows, ankles, tendons and other eyesore issues will cost you (particularly on the selling price). If you’re a fun-loving amateur, though, ocelots are ugly but fine once they are set. Some of the nastiest looking tendons are a non-issue (see if you can find out when he bowed and what happened after that with his racing performance to help you determine how much of a factor this may be) and the slightest looking ones can be career ending. Crooked horses tend to have bigger issues than those that are correct. Knees and hocks are often forgotten areas that can have a huge impact on your intended career with a horse. Watch the horse move. See if there are areas, particularly on the lower legs, where rubbing has occurred. If you don’t understand conformation ideals, bring someone along who does to comment on how problems may undermine your goals.

OK, this is getting rather long for a quick tips feature, and there’s so much more to consider in assessing an off-the-track Thoroughbred, but hopefully, this has given you some resources and ideas to get started in formulating a savvy approach to assessing your possible future partner.

Is it cruel to give a horse a job? Have you tried asking your horse about that?

Friday’s Opinion

Horses’ rights advocates
There’s been a lot of discussion and controversy worldwide about a variety of horse riding and working disciplines with some groups clamoring for laws and practices that change the way horses are “used.” PETA is trying to lead a bandwagon aimed at banning carriage horses. Groups fostering a movement to end the “cruel” practice of riding horses are cropping up in different countries. The racing industry has been under attack from a variety of segments for decades. Some self-described equine mavens are blanketing the media with messages that advocate for a sensory overload approach to the point it renders the horse practically brain dead as a “kinder and gentler” method. Opinions and claims abound about how others should conduct their interactions with horses, but are these people talking to the horses? If they are, do they consider the horse’s opinion?

Domesticated horses are different than the wild, nomadic, free ancestors that offer a romantic notion of happy horses free from human encumbrance. Maybe it’s sad that we’ve made this so, but what’s done is done and it’s been in the making for a lot longer than any of us have been alive. It’s a good thing that the voices for fair treatment of horses are growing more numerous and louder. Some go too far, though, and lose sight of what a horse may need today to be happy.

Racehorses
It’s amazing how the years can change one’s perspective. Decades ago, I was among those slamming the racing industry. Of course, I had no first-hand exposure to the trainers, horses, practices and backside, but carried the message of supposed neglect and abuse to others with conviction. Are there bad practices and bad eggs in this sport? Sure. But the reality is that the accusations heralded by the uneducated masses miss the mark on where these are. Many owners and trainers of racehorses view them as commodities. Surprisingly for most, I imagine, this translates to more fastidious care than is seen at the most affluent show barn (or most other equine discipline facilities). The good Thoroughbred grooms know more about legs and related care than most vets I encounter. What amazed me most, though, was how much care and attention these horses get.

Those bred to race – particularly the good ones – want to. I’ve owned horses that have made more in a few years (not on my watch, unfortunately) than I will see in a decade. Even sore, they’re miserable at the farm and can’t wait to get back into the racetrack to train and run. They want a job to do – and relish the opportunity go play the game to win.

Herd experiment brings horse training insight
This year, we fenced in 26 acres at Halcyon Acres. We didn’t do 24/7 turnout because the run-in sheds simply didn’t provide enough relief from the relentless insect monsters that appeared during the day, but it was enough to foster a herd mentality.

What we witnessed through this natural approach to what should be a horse’s delight was surprising. Those we culled out of the herd to start under saddle or train for new careers were the most eager and quickest to approach the humans in the mix. They wanted a job and relished the work. No treats, clicks or other enticements played a role in this behavior, yet, the chosen transformed into happier horses, excited to greet the challenge of the day (and those who represented this opportunity).

Who wins?
This year at Halcyon Acres, it was Clover, Buster, Play Play, Courtney and the nursing babies who were culled out for lessons. Frankly, this really surprised me. I expected these horses to resent the fact that they were singled out for work. The opposite proved to be the case. The moment she was started under saddle, Clover went from a precocious, independent, aloof and sometimes belligerent filly to be first to run to the gait when she spotted her trainer. Quickly, she came to insist on a stroke between her eyes and immediately stopped her former antics with the vet and blacksmith. She needed a focus and now had a job that gave her a clear mission and some satisfaction that she had formerly garnered from schooling our vendors. Buster is now bored and a little lost since we decided to give him some time to grow up after a couple of months on the trails. He seemed to really enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out new requests and terrain. Play Play, always the pleaser, continues to relish new experiences and often asks to extend the lesson time. Courtney has gone back to his aggressive herd behavior and cribbing since we stopped his conditioning training.

That’s been our experience, and it’s been an eye-opener. So, the next time you see a campaign promoting the flavor of the month for horse advocacy, ask your horse what he thinks about all this. If you really listen, his answer may surprise you.

Horse breed associations – who needs them? Friday’s Opinion

People look for a lot of different things from the breed associations they belong to. Member benefits become such an issue of contention  – on what they should be and whether they work – that often the really big picture gets lost. Every breed organization is focused on survival of the organization and continuance of the breed. An engaged membership base along with promotion is critical to this. What seems to get lost as groups scramble to please members, appeal to prospects, position the breed and respond to criticism, though, is the breed. One of the most important services breed organizations can provide for the world is a means to look back at where a horse came from (sire, dam, farm, experience) and try to help those interested replicate results.

There are some breed organizations, such as the AQHA (www.aqha.com), that have been very effective at promotion, education and a resulting growth in membership base and demand for the breed (maintaining or amending type standards for the benefit of the breed long-term is a topic for another discussion – and a different blogger). Many, though, struggle to simply survive. All, sans the Jockey Club (http://www.jockeyclub.com), seem to have lost sight of the fact that they are the keepers of the culture, so to speak.

Forgotten in the fray is the critical reason these organizations should exist – to provide clear, detailed, traceable, documented and easy to find and understand information on what to expect from the breed as evidenced by the progeny produced (and how and where to find them). Even the Jockey Club falls short here in their exclusive focus on racehorses. There are so many great Thoroughbred stallions (and mares) producing standout sport horses when crossed with other breeds. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to identify roots from any existing database or organization.

Of course, the breeders, sellers and buyers are at fault here too. So many go unregistered and a good number that have been papered are bought and sold without transferring the documentation of bloodlines, let alone the breed makeup. Years later, we find a mutt competing at FEI and Olympic levels, and the owners/riders can’t even identify the breed ingredients that created this champion.

Tomorrow’s winners are a product of today – and yesterday. Smart breed associations will follow the Jockey Club’s lead in making breed and bloodline details easily and readily available even for horses that do not arrive with papers (a tattoo number immediately identifies the TB horse and his background – at least from a racing perspective). Add to this a registry that details horse career activity (members love to talk about their horses – with today’s technology, any breed association could craft a way to capture pleasure, amateur and professional pursuits and accomplishments, and in so doing, the versatility and/or ideal activity for the breed) as a way to provide solid facts to support promotional claims. Equally important is an educational campaign directed at professionals alerting them to the importance encouraging practices that identify breed contributions early on to ensure future champion bloodlines are documented. This cocktail provides a great foundation for arguing a breed’s importance and penchant.

The majority of members in breed organizations want to be educated, entertained, informed and included. In crafting a strategy for breed appeal and continuance, though, it’s the best of the breed (and the breeders) that can make this so. Armed with the right information and support from their breed organization, this small segment of folks can create the demand while offering resources for the breed organization to easily handle the rest. Without a means to share and broadcast critical breed accomplishments, however, they are powerless to help move the breed, and breed association, to new heights. Savvy breed associations will recognize how critical this ideal is for continuance and prosperity. Smart breeders of quality horses will succeed with our without help from an organization.

Who needs horse breed associations? All those who seek help in finding quality and suitable horses. Will the organization leaders get it? The jury is still out on this one, but those determined to thrive in the future will realize it’s not about today, but instead, what is done today to document tomorrow.

Nanette Levin

P.S. Thanks to Cheryl Anderson for the inspiration on this blog post. (Note that she is not responsible for, or necessarily in agreement with, the opinions expressed).