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

Horse Sense and Cents

Top 25 horse blogs 2012 – Horse Sense and Cents recognized

Some exciting news for us – and hopefully for the readers of this blog. Recently we were named one of the top horse blogs with 25 others in the nation by Bel Rea. You can see the top 25 list here (we’re in some pretty good company).

veterinary tech school

Just figured I’d share the news. I’ll probably revisit this later, but, frankly, needed to get the badge up to grab the imagine for a project we’re working on.

Thanks for all you’ve done to support this blog and other activities associated with Horse Sense and Cents. You all are so special and clearly a big reason for being noticed as one of the top horse blogs.


Positive reinforcement can encourage the wrong things

Let’s set aside the technical definition of positive reinforcement in deference to yet another case of common use morphing of the language. Uncle – this post will use the term to designate reward practices as such. We’ll assume those advocating for positive reinforcement are against any actions that involve a correction that discourages a horse (or human) from bad or dangerous behavior. It still doesn’t work as well as people might think.

young horse training needs different approachesSociety seems to be focused these days on a ‘don’t say no’ mentality, for fear the mere act of providing guidance to direct behavior through disapproval may undermine the self-esteem of our youth or label someone who sets limits as cruel to their animals. What this approach is producing is a bunch of confused, aimless and narcissistic humans along with a new generation of horses who long for a human that has guts enough to challenge bad behavior and provide them with the comfort of a guide they can trust to keep them out of harm’s way.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m not an advocate of ‘keeping their feet busy,’ ‘teaching a horse respect’ or reckless punishment, but there comes a time when it’s appropriate to say no – and mean it. That’s never a good first approach with a young or confused horse, but if you’re skillful at reading what’s being projected, there will come a time when misunderstanding turns to manipulation or bullying.

Foals appreciate clear direction

We have a fifteen-month-old colt here that’s recently been feeling pretty proud of his appendages. He’s not very bold or confident, so we’ve taken extra time with each request keeping it kind, patient and encouraging. His behavior during the last blacksmith visit merited a different reaction. He figured he’d give biting and kicking a shot. One quick and timely correction (a thump to his belly) ended the antics. He was testing, seemed to appreciate having some boundaries set and handled the rest of the session with ease and grace. A scared or confused horse would have reacted very differently. It was time to say no with this coming cocky colt.

 Youngsters live happier with limits

If you think you’re doing your horse a favor (or your kid for that matter) allowing them to find themselves without negative reinforcement to help them understand appropriate social behavior or avoid danger, you’re not. People, like horses, are better adjusted and more joyful when guided on how to be a productive contributor in life. Even in wild herds you see this. Regardless, horses have been domesticated for millenniums. Most I’ve encountered seem to be hard-wired to seek out humans for work fulfillment.

Done right, horses appreciate the attention and engagement riding time brings. For most, finding a confident and responsive leader makes activities a lot more fun.

Keeping the horse in the conversation is critical.

That doesn’t mean you always have to agree or cave, just listen. Acknowledging the horse’s perspective and then saying no is a happy place for most equines, provided you let them express their views and, when appropriate, contribute to decisions on training activities. Some days this can mean a shorter session or none, others a longer one. Often a horse will suggest a different approach than you had planned, making the learning experience better for both of you. Why not let your horse help decide what you do in a session if it keeps you both happy and moving forward? He’ll be quicker to accommodate you when requests are less negotiable.

Negative reinforcement isn’t a bad thing

Honestly I don’t get this mindset that discouraging bad behavior is wrong. Most creatures appreciate direction that helps them better cope with the world we live in. In fact, a majority out guidance and approval from those they respect (something you can’t teach, but instead, need to earn) to help keep them safe, happy and fulfilled. Setting limits isn’t evil. In fact, done right, it’s a kind way to show you care. If you never intercede to guide one away from danger, why should they trust you (or themselves) to make right decisions when faced with new challenges?

Negative reinforcement doesn’t mean violence. It’s simply a matter of making it less comfortable to act out in ways being discouraged and more pleasant to proceed in the requested direction.

Horses are being discarded these days in growing numbers. It’s sad. Many novices take on a project they’re ill-equipped to handle. Most are good-hearted and well-intentioned, but lack the ability to understand how their actions are shaping horse behavior. You can literally kill a horse with kindness when only positive reinforcement (applied to both good and bad behavior) creates an equine that’s dangerous to themselves and others. These horses are being turned loose, dumped in auctions and left to starve. The horse is blamed and labeled a problem by merely doing what he’s been taught.

Horses and humans can live happier lives with clear boundaries. Sometimes a little bit of conflict is a good thing. It’s how we learn.

Customize young horse training for better results

Seasoned equestrians and novices alike can gain more benefits from customized horse training programs than formula approaches. It’s not just the lost in translation challenge when you try to implement rigid techniques designed by others. You’ll find even more disconnects with rote tactics that assume each horse reacts the same. If you’re not keeping your horse in the conversation, you’re losing opportunities to bond on a much deeper level.

Is it you or your horse that’s stuck?           

If you keep doing the same thing and your horse doesn’t get it, is he dumb or are you? As Albert Einstein quipped ““Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

To be fair, most novices that get stuck really try to do the right thing with their horse by seeking out knowledge from people they believe to be good advisers. I really feel for them. Not surprisingly, they tend to gravitate toward the most heavily publicized and artfully marketed products. Just because a method is popular doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you or your horse. What the promoters fail to disclose – in fact they do the opposite and tend to claim if it didn’t work you did it wrong – is that each horse is different. How they respond to you depends on how you respond to them.

To bring this back to the media for a moment – sex and violence sells (sadly) so this is most of what we see in the news. Today, what seems to be the rage with horse training is the “easy, do-it-yourself kit” that promises your ‘Bucky’ will magically transform to ‘Rover’ if you simply follow the program. Which begs the question – even if that were so, do you really want an obedient horse that blindly does what you tell them or is it better to encourage a horse to think for himself so he can save your butt when you get him into trouble?

Customizing a young horse training program that works

If you’re determined to bring your horse along without help from a competent trainer or instructor, there are some things you can do to make it a more pleasant experience – for you and your horse.

  1. Reward the tries. Any time you’re teaching your horse something new, it’s important to acknowledge the try immediately. If you demand he respond perfectly to your first request, he’s not going to understand what you want and will likely get frustrated.
  2. Get the timing right. Mot novices tend to either bribe the horse too soon with rewards before the horse responds as desired or take too long to reward the horse for effort. The latter often leads to reinforcing an undesired behavior (e.g. the horse comes forward when you want but you congratulate him as he’s backing away from you – so you’re unknowingly teaching him the back is what you want).
  3. Keep lessons short. Two hour drill sessions are rarely effective with young horses – and not too welcome with older ones either. When tackling something new or unfamiliar, strive for 10-15 minutes of training time, tops. End on a good note so you both feel good and can start with the progress you gained the next time.
  4. Don’t rely on a single method. No one is absolutely certain what’s going on in a horse’s mind. You can guess and get it right sometimes, but not always. Plus, every horse is different. Instead of rallying behind a single approach as the only right way to reach every horse, take the time to read, watch and learn what others are doing so you can incorporate a mix of techniques to find what works. There’s merit in every approach (even if it’s learning to never do that again) so it makes sense to be open to what your horse is trying to tell you as you experiment.
  5. Watch what more experienced people do. There’s nothing like seeing it live to help gather understanding for reaching your horse. Books, videos and other at-home resources aren’t the same as seeing what’s going on unedited. There are tons of clinics you can audit for a small fee, lesson stables that will let you watch and even some trainers who welcome the public on certain days to their facility. Ask around to find someone local who’s known for their ability to reach challenging horses. Make a call to see if they’ll let you watch. They might say no, but they might say yes. Imagine how much you could learn.

The next time you blame your horse for misbehaving, consider what you may be doing to cause misunderstandings. Just because a rich guy or a celebrated gal claims they’ve discovered the cure-all for every horse issue they’ve encountered, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Trying to mimic what someone else designs (or copies) is rarely a good way to connect with your particular horse. The best trainers customize their approach to build a responsive rapport with every horse.

If you find yourself challenged with a horse training issue, feel free to shoot me an e-mail and I’ll try to help. We also offer on-site assessments (for your horse or one  you’re considering for purchase or adoption) in the Western New York area. Call (585) 554-4612 for more information on our services.

Horse temperament trumps just about everything else

There are a lot of people out there with a mission to ‘save a horse.’  Heartstrings pull when they encounter one suffering from poor early experiences with people, a bad attitude, health issues, soundness problems or a free price tag. Do people cause many of these problems? Yes. Is it worth the emotional, financial and time drains associated with trying to bring back an equine with lots of issues? Sometimes it is, but usually not for your average amateur seeking an enjoyable partnership. (more…)

Gatsby spent one life too many

There’s an emptiness in my heart that I’m not sure will ever be fully refilled. I was prepared for this –but I wasn’t. At fifteen (ancient for a dog his size – 85-90 pounds for most of his life), Gatsby had lived long and happy. Still, it seems surreal to be going through the motions around here without him. My favorite little man has been my loyal and forgiving friend, security stalwart, varmint eradicator, best ever assistant horse trainer, 911 fallback, constant companion and blissful steadying force going back to last century.

Dog and cat getting along
Pillsbury (the cat) was extremely fond of Gatsby. The two palled around the farm for 15 years together.

It was a heartbreaking experience to see this fighter loose the spark in his eye and wag in his tail on Wednesday. We euthanized him at the farm, his lifelong home, on Thursday. The place just isn’t the same without him.

For all the ‘lucky to have had him in your life,’ ‘he lived a good life,’ ‘he’s in a better place’ and ‘it was his time’ comments, it doesn’t lessen the pain.

This dog knew me better than most people do. He’s been my protector, eager and intuitive farm hand and rock through some of the toughest years in my life. How do you fill that void?

Determined and stubborn to the end

My vet’s described Gatsby as cat-like for years. She doesn’t know the half of it (I was lucky to find her about five years ago). He’d probably already used up more than nine lives before she came on the scene, and many more since then.

There have been a lot of times in the past nine months or so I thought it was over – starting with the October WHIN Conference in Tennessee where I pushed up speaking commitments to rush back home after he fell down the stairs. It’s been a roller-coaster ride over the recent months of vet calls figuring it was time. But Gatsby always ultimately said no. This week, he said yes.

In typical Gatsby fashion, it took close to an hour for the multiple heart injections to stop his breathing and heartbeat. Fortunately, I was blessed with the kindness, comfort and understanding of a vet willing to come out to the property for this. One I’ve come to call friend.

The horses freaked out as I gathered tools and waited for a friend to arrive to help. Remi (we both decided to give up on making her a working farm dog at about a year ago) didn’t seem to notice or care at the time, but seems to be mourning his loss now.

Gatsby’s now buried in a place I think he would have appreciated – with a view of the horses and pastures, the house, my office, the barn and the trail head that served as the launch to his playground for so many years.

Oh, the memories!   

gatsby the dog
Gatsby stayed pretty spry for most of his life. There wasn’t a road trip we made together where toll collectors and drive-through servers didn’t exclaim – ‘Spuds MacKenzie’ or ‘The RCA dog’ or ‘Petey’ with the older set. He insisted riding shotgun and his head towered over mine in the passenger seat.

Gatsby came into my life shortly after my ex-husband left. He’s been my rock for fifteen years – and a huge helper around the farm.

This dog grabbed me when I visited the Rochester City Pound. As all others were barking fiercely and nervously at the cage doors, Gatsby rolled on his back, wagged his tail and offered his belly to scratch (of course I couldn’t reach it through the bars) before he greeted me with a calm and happy demeanor. He’d been running the city streets for months (the skin had grown around the collar on his neck) and still had a joy for life that was uncanny.

It was clear he had been tied and tormented, but that didn’t seem to have any impact on his zest for life and joy for living. Trying to do the right thing, I set up a long run for him where he could be outside but safe from the road and wildlife while I was busy doing chores. He always managed to free himself the moment I left his sight. After different collar configurations, a full harness and all sorts of other ideas to secure him, I finally witnessed how he did it. He’d back up until the line was taut, run at full speed toward the other end, then send himself ten feet into the air as he reached the other side with such force his airborne state ripped the collar or harness off. I never tried to restrict his freedom again.

Gatsby came to learn the property lines (it took a while to teach him to stay off the street) and forged a three-inch trench that represented his patrol route around the perimeter. Ultimately, the only time he’d cross the street was to get help if I was in trouble. All the neighbors knew this. So, I never felt like I was alone or without help when riding the trails, running farm equipment or doing dangerous work on the property. Forget about intruder threats.

Gatsby never seemed loyal to the casual observer, but anyone approaching the property knew exactly where I was by noting where he was planted. His devotion wasn’t the racing to greet you, helicopter tail, face licking kind of display – it was much deeper.

dog couch potatoes
Spoiled? Perhaps, but Gatsby earned a few privileges over the years (he didn’t always have them) with all the hard work he did around the farm. Plus, his example through the constant state of bliss he carried with him probably saved me a ton in possible shrink bills. Remi (on the left) has adopted an ‘if he can than I can’ attitude, so there’s not much point in expecting her to earn rights. She’s 65 pounds, by the way – Gatsby’s a big dog.

He eradicated the entire ground hog population on the property. We filled in over 200 holes of gone gophers prior to a recent 26-acre fencing project. Gatsby also encouraged a huge coyote population to find a better place to live. Raccoons were his play toys. He’d carry them home, chase them up a tree, then run up behind them and bring them back down. Besides a scar across his nose (I don’t imagine this aggressor fared well after that move), he managed to have his fun without getting hurt. Still used to put my heart in my throat to witness this, but it wouldn’t have been very wise to put myself between Gatsby and a coon (there were some things that just weren’t negotiable with Gatsby – meals he secured were his or else).

What a character!    

When I called Gatsby to come, he’d give me a look and either decide to amble over to me at a slower than normal pace or merely turn his head to acknowledge he heard and is now ignoring. He ultimately became stone deaf, but it was hard to figure out when selective hearing ended. Ultimately, I added hand signals to the mix, but still got ‘the look’ periodically.

His instincts with the horses were amazing. For more than a decade I felt safer with him along on the ride than any person/equine combination I could have conjured. He knew exactly what to do to bolster a young horse’s confidence, was artful at patiently desensitizing for career demands and quick to take the lead when a tentative mount needed to be encouraged over or past something scary. He had an incredibly calming effect on any horse not only during training time, but also during vet emergencies.

Gatsby with my dad
This photo was taken last month during my dad’s visit. Even with his hind end giving out and weight loss challenges (cancer), he remained a happy-go-lucky guy – and happy as ever to have my father here.

Gatsby loved my dad more than anyone in the world. When I’d tell Gatsby he was coming (my father lives out of state) Gatsby would bounce, spin, squeal and keep looking down the driveway with the eagerness of a child just given money for the ice cream man. When my dad left (Gatsby always knew when he was getting ready to head back home – no idea how) it was without a goodbye. Gatsby would hide. Seems he figured if my dad couldn’t offer proper adieu, he wouldn’t leave. Then he’d sulk for hours after his departure.

I had to teach Gatsby how to bark. Actually, I’m sure he already knew how, but wouldn’t. He probably learned at a young age it was easier to skirt the dog catcher with silence. Anyway, I’d lavish him with praise for every little muffled woof he’d offer when a stranger approached. Eventually he learned to signal unknown company, but rarely barked otherwise – except when hunting ground hogs. For that, he’d stand atop a hole and bark incessantly until the critter popped his head out to strike an annoyed blow. Gatsby was quicker.

Goodbye Gatsby

Gatsby touched a lot of people in his life – especially me. He was also a trusted and appreciated teacher to hundreds of equines over the years. There wasn’t a vendor, friend, business associate or other visitor that didn’t develop a fondness for this guy – except for maybe my mailman (apparently he tried to put a package inside the screen door one day when I wasn’t home). Vendors even came to bring their dogs along for a romp because they knew Gatsby would keep them safe. There was just something special about him that everyone picked up on.

gatsby on couch
Goodbye, Gatsby.

Gatsby wasn’t in pain. In fact, he handled increasing physical disabilities comfortably and without complaint. He simply decided he had enough. I’d never seen this determined, stubborn dog give up. Now I have. That hurts.

Horse leadership doesn’t work well when you demand respect

Young horse training is an art that works best when you cast aside the lesson plan and listen to your horse. Often a horse that’s labeled spooky or timid or uncooperative or afraid isn’t. They’ve been taught to react this way by the humans who have touched them. Yes, horses are naturally flight animals (although our eight-year-old Thoroughbred farmhand Cowboy would beg to differ on this point), but there’s nothing natural about riding and the way horses are introduced to this activity – or treated as seasoned mounts – will affect how they handle each new request.

Creating confidence with young horse training

keeping it fun for the horse with young horse training
Hills on trails are a great way to build young horse confidence, balance and an eagerness for training challenges.C

I always try to help the young horses that come in here to be brave. Beating them past an object that concerns them isn’t going to make this so. It just adds more fear and pain to existing fright that’s likely to cause them to react more dramatically the next time something scary catches their eye. Yet, if you quietly encourage a horse to proceed while giving him time to process the sight, he’ll want to show you how courageous he can be the next time.  Of course, if you’re timid or alarmed or tense or even shaking, the horse will pick up on this, so it’s important, if your goal is to help a horse get gutsy about new situations, that you are confident, relaxed, encouraging and clear.

One of the best approaches to building confidence in young horses (or taking a little bit of the cockiness out of a pugnacious one) is with hills. Obviously, you don’t want to tackle a cliff your first day out, but when young horse training is geared toward building confidence and a partnership, there’s nothing like a hill to improve balance, help the horse learn how to carry himself (and you) properly and encourage the horse to look to you for some guidance in maneuvering through difficult terrain. Plus it provides the added benefit of legging up a horse at slow speeds with low stress on young bodies.

It’s remarkable to witness the glee a tentative horse shows after successfully handling a difficult downhill slope. What’s incredible is that finishing this feat also tends to reduce spookiness and hesitation with all other issues encountered on the trail afterward. They know they did it and are grateful for your help – and confidence in them.

Trails are the best for starting horses under saddle

Horse trail riding for training young horses
Trail rides are a super way to help horses learn how brave they can be

Trails in general are a great way to start young horses under saddle. We’re fortunate at Halcyon Acres® to have a laneway that’s lined with cherry trees on about a ½ mile gentle slope at the start of the trail head (up heading out and down coming home). It’s straight so you can see if there are deer or other wildlife ahead long before you reach them. Behind that hill is a steep slope down that requires the horse to depend on the rider to navigate the trail without getting into trouble (there’s a bit of a cliff to the left). This second hill is a major milestone for young horses. Of course, we could ride the perimeter of fields and stay on relative easy rides, but these challenges help the horse gain confidence in himself. It’s so much more fun to ride out on a horse that’s eager to see new things and tackle new challenges than one that’s wondering what’s going to eat him next.

If you’re wondering what to do to start off on the right hoof, here are some quick tips on young horse training to consider as you begin to ride out. You can also find ten tips on keeping horse training a happy event for you both. Try some of these ideas if you’re struggling with a spooky horse.

 What are you doing to reach your horse on his terms?

I laugh when I hear the term ‘teach a horse respect.’ Really? I’ve always considered respect as something that’s earned. Sure, you can teach a horse to fear or obey you, but discipline isn’t going to build trust, which is generally a precursor to respect where horses are concerned.  There are times when a correction is necessary, but with young horse training, it’s rarely when you’re on their backs. You won’t get a partnership with a horse where he’s looking out for you as much as you are for him if you rule by intimidation or force. The most reactive horse, however, can become a trusted and steady mount if you encourage his confidence and demonstrate you’ll keep him safe. Building that kind of rapport is what true leadership with horses.

Why are the horses we remember most fondly so devilish?

Mouse was my first horse (short for Anonymous – probably because no one wanted to admit knowledge of this horse’s history). I bought him at the age of ten with paper route money and a generous birthday check from my parents. We didn’t engage a trainer or instructor to help us make the buy decision. He was the first we looked at and I fell in love immediately.  Did I mention he was black (OK – a really dark bay, but to a kid at the time enamored with The Black Stallion, black was it).

This is how I felt some days on Mouse. Photo courtesy of tpower1987 via flickr

Neither of my parents were riders, but they had watched and listened during my five years of lessons and served as the eyes on the ground in support of the purchase. It took some doing to find a stable that would take on a five-year-old kid (insurance required a minimum age of six for instructional coverage), but they were looking to shut me up and figured an eight-week lesson program would end my horse craze. They were wrong

Anyway, I don’t recall how we found Mouse, but he was housed at a very impressive looking facility and handily displayed (and drugged) for under saddle work that I watched, and then experienced aboard. I was in a total state of bliss as I expertly maneuvered this beautiful steed through instructions provided by the seller. Did I mention he was black?

Childhood horses remembered

Ultimately, I was banned from Pony Club games, and when that didn’t work, forbidden from riding Mouse at the facility where he was boarded (across the street from the primary Pony Club riding spot). With huge objections lodged and arguments lost, I finally agreed to let go of the love of my life with the promise of a more suitable mount replacement. We donated him to a very prestigious riding school (hehehheh).

Still, Mouse is one of my favorite horses ever. I trusted him to take care of me – and he did. He’d run off during our conditioning training mile loops with Pony Club parents thinking a mere 150 pound obstacle waiving arms in his path would slow him down.  He would ultimately tire. Mouse got crazy at times, but so did I. He’d dump me occasionally when his mind went somewhere into outer space, but never meant to hurt me.

We replaced Mouse with Bittersweet, a wonderful chestnut pony that had a heart of gold, an outstanding foundation and tons of miles as an able competitor. I loved her too, keeping her for way more years than I should have once outgrown. My excuse was my sister needed a pony. My sister had no interest in riding. Last I heard, Bittersweet was field hunting well into her 30s and had been passed from one delighted Pony Clubber to another over the years. It was fun being able to participate in so many activities not possible with Mouse, but his character was indelibly etched in my mind with the fondest memories calling for him often.

Roscommon (yes – he really came with that name – very fitting) had a stride shorter than mine, but he could jump. He was a stocky bay mutt that could get very unruly in flat classes to the point of being excused. I discovered the joys of eventing with this childhood mount and had a blast with a horse that was likely to go clean cross country and stadium if we only managed to get through the dressage phase without being eliminated.

Ross couldn’t swim but he sure tried. Photo courtesy of Mangrove Mountain Photography Club via flickr.

As kids, we had access to many hundreds of acres to disappear into for rides that often lasted the whole day. About 80 acres were owned by the parents of my riding companions. The rest by farmers who were happy to let us enjoy the land provided we stayed off their crops. This was before the days of litigation fears that tend to prompt a necessary no trespassing policy by all now. One of my favorite activities was swimming. Ross couldn’t swim. But, he’d happily go into the water way over his head when asked. We’d all laugh as he’d touch bottom then launch himself to the surface in a rearing motion – each stride across our swim spots. I learned to remove my saddle before taking Ross in the water.

My last childhood horse was a lovely Thoroughbred mare that had spent many years as seasoned winning show competitor at high levels. I don’t remember much about her except she seemed to be lame most of the time and her nice demeanor was the extent of her personality.

Reaching the hard horse

Over the years since, I’ve worked with thousands of horses – probably tens of thousands if you include racetrack mounts.  It’s the difficult ones I remember most fondly. There’s something about that delightful moment when a horse transforms from a confused, dangerous or resistant combatant into a grateful peer. That awakening when he decides you’re a friend to be trusted, appreciated and part of a team is incredible. It’s an amazing experience to be a part of this sudden connection that completely changes you interactions from that day forward. These are the horses that will give you more than you ever imagined. Not just in keeping you safe and through performance benchmarks – but with the memories of their quirky and comical character.

Do you have a favorite horse memory? Please share in the comments below.


Is keeping the horse you love a struggle?

Horses aren’t just tools – they’re friends. Photo courtesy of Gesina Smith via Flickr

It can be heartbreaking to look at a horse you envisioned as a family member, companion and partner for life as an expense you can no longer afford. ‘Buyer’s market’ is a mantra we’ve been hearing in the equine industry for too many years. When that translates to needing to find a new home for a trusted friend that’s been your spiritual rock, recreation and health club combined, there’s more to consider than the money of the matter.

Fortunately, if you’re willing to be creative, you can find solutions that may allow you to keep your trusted steed healthy, happy and home or at least ensure his life without you in it will be a good one.

Know you’re not alone in the challenge to make ends meet while having a horse around the house. In fact, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis, Americans pay more in taxes than for food, clothing and shelter. In 2012, we’ll pay approximately $4.041 trillion in taxes, which is $152 billion, or 3.9 percent, more than we’ll spend on housing, food and clothing combined.

Not to get into a political discussion here, but what’s scarier is the transfer payments (basically monies allocated through taxes that are given to citizens to pay for housing, food, clothing, health care and transportation). In 1929, the percentage was .05 percent. When Medicare began (1965) it grew to 11 percent. Now, it’s close to 35%. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to extrapolate that a growing number of people in this country are depending on others to pay their way. For whatever reason this is happening, with so many unable to even care for themselves, it’s no wonder more are labeling horses a luxury they can’t afford.

But horses aren’t just recreational vehicles to be sold off as commodities when times are tough. They’re pets and partners representing ‘me time,’ emotional bonds, spiritual enrichment, psychological stabilizers and confidants. Before you decide you can’t afford a horse anymore, consider the real costs – and try to get creative about how you may be able to hold on.

In your decision to sell have you considered:

  • What you’ll do to replace the mind calming components of your horse relationship (or the toll of not having an equivalent outlet)?
  • Do you have another source for the affection and connection that comes from your horse?
  • How will you replace the physical fitness and connection to nature components of your horse time?
  • Will saying goodbye to your horse rob you of the only personal time you have?
  • Are you ready to deal with the stress of wondering where your horse lands during his life and how he’s doing? If you’re firm about selling, save yourself the misery of looking up the horse later unless you have a buy-back agreement.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways you can reduce, share or cover the costs of owning a horse. The possibilities are as vast as the ideas you can entertain. It’s not necessary to sacrifice if you’re willing to work a little more or make concessions that allow you to continue to spend time with your horse for less.

Saying goodbye is heartbreaking. It’s not always necessary. Photo courtesy of Tricia Hope via Flickr.

Here are options for getting creative about solutions to keep your horse:

  • Look at alternative, less expensive and often more effective feed programs that include quality pasture forage
  • Explore barefoot as an alternative to shoeing
  • Do bi-annual fecals instead of following a regimented worming approach
  • If you board, see if there are jobs you can do (mucking stalls, turn-out, fence repair, cleaning tack, etc.) around the facility to help reduce your monthly fees
  • Approach other horse facilities to inquire about board in exchange for work if it’s not something you can do where you are
  • If your horse is home, adding more fencing and outdoor shelter can decrease feed and bedding costs
  • Defray costs by offering a friend ride time in exchange for splitting care costs (with a contract vetted by an attorney that addresses liability)
  • Seek out a co-leaser that shares board and other costs of care (insurance is a factor here)
  • Sell the horse to someone close, who you trust willing to let you continue a relationship with the horse (this may involve a discounted sale price or a monthly lease fee – or, just a kind soul who gets it)
  • Craft a sale agreement that includes a for-life home and/or first option buy-back offer
  • Create a bank account where you put all money usually spent at retail outlets on coffee, fast food, bought lunches, lottery tickets, prepared meals, entertainment, restaurant meals and other items that are impulse buys or part of your routine and make your own or go without

Before you cast off your horse with the conviction he’s costing you too much, consider what you’ll lose when he’s gone. Money isn’t the only factor in the equation. If he’s not the right horse for you – or you’re not the right person for him – that’s a different story. But, if you have a horse that’s been your partner, your biggest enjoyment in life, your only exercise and/or your rock, the price of losing this lifeblood is a lot higher than the savings you’ll see by eliminating what you’re shelling out to keep him. If he’s really important in your life, take the time to get creative with answers to keep you both happy. Sometimes selfish is good.

Have you ever sold a horse and continue to regret the decision? Are you challenged right now with an equine you feel you can’t afford to keep? Please share in the comments below. You’ll certainly get some kindred souls sharing your pain and might even find the ideal answer to your challenge from blog readers.


Fun solving a horse challenge – Linda Hauck created world-wide demand doing it

Everyone involved in creating the Inventing Your Horse Career initiative had a lot of fun with this project. It was amazing to hear the stories and histories of some of the people shaping the equine industry in the United States and Canada while fascinating to learn from their experience.   

Going global at a gallop

Linda Hauck of Spursuader

Linda Hauck struck me as a great success story when I first met her – and a perfect person to spotlight for those who dream of a job with horses in the mix but aren’t sure how to make it so.

Her story of inventing the Spursauder comes from personal challenge and a determination to find a better way. What’s amazing about her accomplishment is she managed to go from prototype to international player in less than two years. With an initial frustration about how traditional spurs didn’t work well with the off-the-track Thoroughbreds she was training and the imagination to create a better solution, she now can be proud as people spot FEI competitors doning her product.

In just months after final design, Linda secured a distributor with a long history and huge reach in Europe. Six months after that, she was signed on the spot with an Australian distributor with 40 stores. Today, she travels the world, picking up distributors and fans in new countries every month. This product was invented in 2009. What fun for her – and anyone who’s able to model her approach to achieve similar success!

Once she rolled out the prototype and confirmed on the horses she was riding it did what she intended this spur to do (provide a softer solution for more sensitive horses), she put it in the hands of as many professional riders and trainers she could ‘spursuade’ to give it a try. Her goal was to get honest feedback prior to crafting a final product design. Of course, having the testimonials of Olympic medalists helped as she moved through manufacturing to building strategies for packaging, marketing and distribution.

Horse trade shows can be a great promotional tool

Trade shows have been a perfect vehicle for her to sell this product (to both individuals and distributors), but she cites a close second as getting people to test it on their own horse. She still gives away a lot of product to tack shops (one free with every eight display purchase – recommending the store owner sign out the freebie to shoppers to test), reviewers, professional riders and others in a position to help spread the word.

“If someone had said to me a year ago, Linda, you’re going to go to Australia, England, Germany, British Columbia, Alberta, across the United States because of this spur, I would have – no, you’re crazy,” Hauck admits. It’s remarkable how fervor behind the right idea can take off.

What Linda’s managed to do is present her product in a way that crosses all industry disciplines to appeal to trail riders, extreme cowboys, dressage riders, eventers, hunters and those that just want to have fun.

Visuals are critical at trade shows. This includes making your booth look good with color coordination and banners hung high so people can see them from a distance. Linda notes the importance of having good product displays and interactive opportunities for visitors. In her case, this involves spotlighting both Spursauders® and Prince of Whales spurs and conversations that have people poking each other with both. Frequently, early visitors return with friends to exchange jabs and feel the difference.

Linda admits advertising and pictures don’t work for this product because it’s something people need to feel and see in 3D. Understanding how people will best experience your message is part of creating a good marketing mix, and one that Linda’s discovered through trial and error.

As with all of our Contributors to the Inventing Your Horse Career series, Linda has a strong focus on believing in what she’s doing with a giving back mentality. That’s been a big factor in her success. “If you’re not sold on your product, they’re going to know it in a heartbeat – believe in your product and you,” she advises.

Inventing Your Horse Career

If you’ve always dreamed about a career with horses in the mix, why not try? Of course, it will require time, dedication, research and the right idea, but if you’re willing to do the homework, weather the challenges and get excited about the opportunities, you might be surprised at how possible turning your passion into a livelihood is.

It’s critical to ensure you have a market. We interviewed a number of people who were offering something new so had little to compare their offering to, but designed a great plan to educate (and in some cases, production required a lot of creative thinking too) those who might be receptive to their idea. Plan on two years before your business takes off (and don’t get frustrated when you feel like you’re putting a lot of effort forth with no returns – early marketing, networking and outreach tend to pay huge dividends just about when you’re ready to give up).

Work the numbers (keep your other job during start-up efforts), put a marketing plan to paper and seek out mentors to help you get and stay on track (the horse community is incredibly accessible and kind when approached with clear and concise requests). Find out from those who have succeeded before you what you need to learn, who you need to know, how you need to proceed and what to look out for. If you’re serious, dedicated, passionate and willing to put the research and learning time into preparing for a smart start, you might be amazed at what you can do.

Denny Emerson shares horse career start and fun

We were fortunate to have Denny Emerson participate in the premiere CD series of the Inventing Your Horse Career initiative. He’s the only rider to have ever won both the gold medal in eventing and the Tevis Cup buckle in endurance. In 2006, he was inducted into the USEA Hall of Fame. Last year his book How Good Riders Get Good: Daily Choices That Lead to Success in Any Equestrian Sport was published by Trafalgar Square. Talk about a lifetime of achievements, Denny has even spent a total of fifty consecutive years competing at the preliminary level or higher in eventing. He and his wife May divide time between their Vermont and North Carolina facilities running Tamarack Hill Farm  with a considerable focus on helping young and novice riders enjoy the eventing experience.
If you want to meet Denny in person, he’ll be at Everything Equinein Essex Junction Vermont this weekend, presenting on Sunday, April 29th in the Outside Arena from 1:30 – 2:45 p.m.

Inventing Your Horse Career includes Denny Emerson
Denny Emerson shares on Inventing Your Horse Career

How has riding changed since you were a kid riding your pony, Paint?

“I think in some ways it’s become much more sophisticated and much more polished. In other ways it’s become much more stylized and less adventurous. When I started riding — we moved to Greenfield, MA, from Exeter, NH, when I was nine in 1950 — there were 150 million people in the United States. A year ago, or something like that, we hit 300 million. The population of the United States has doubled in my riding lifetime. With that, the riding opportunities to ride out have dwindled dramatically. I think, unless you live in the big middle section of the United States where there’s still probably more open land, if you live on the East coast or the West coast, where I think a lot of the people who ride English do live, they’ve seen suburbs and shopping malls and highways cut up a lot of the land where, when I was a kid, you could ride.
“I think that some of the riding is better, in the sense that it’s more technically proficient, but I think that maybe kids aren’t as likely to have grown up hacking around, playing with their ponies, galloping around bareback, learning to become natural riders. It’s a mixed blessing. I think I would rather have somebody start out riding bareback on a pony then riding around a little ring at a lesson barn but I think those opportunities are fewer now than they were when I was a kid.”

What people who have shaped your riding career and direction?

Denny Emerson still going strong eventing in 2009

“When I was a little kid, the farm manager at Stoneleigh-Prospect Hill School — it was called Stoneleigh-Prospect then, later it merged with Mary Burnham School, it’s now Stoneleigh-Burnham School – was a dairy farmer from Heath, Massachusetts, named Francis Kinsman. Francis liked kids and he bought a little one horse, open-topped, home-made, wooden trailer to take me around to all the little local gymkhanas. My parents weren’t horse people. Francis opened a lot of doors for me just by making it possible for me to start to do stuff. He was very influential. I didn’t even realize it at the time. He opened doors by taking me to all the little western Massachusetts gymkhanas – Rowe, Heath, Charlemont – all up in the Mohawk Trail area. Later I worked at the Green Mountain Stock Farm up in Randolph, VT, doing Morgans in 1960, ’61. The people that ran that, Jack and Art Titus, were very helpful to me.
“Then, when I got interested in eventing — I went to see an event in 1961, I’d never even heard of eventing and I decided I wanted to do that – I was at Dartmouth College and Joe McLaughlin at Hitching Post Farm was very, very helpful to me. I used to go over there from Dartmouth and ride. He’d put me on everything that was available. I started to learn to jump with Joe; I was twenty at this point. I hadn’t been in a jumping background. I’d done a lot of trail riding and showing Morgans and hundred mile adventures at GMHA, that type of thing, but I hadn’t been a jumping rider. I would say those people early on.
“Later, of course, Jack Le Goff, the coach of the U.S. three day team and Walter Christenson, who was a dressage trainer that used to come over for the New England Dressage Association, Sally Swift, Priscilla Endicott who ran all those clinics at The Ark in Harvard, MA, that Walter Christenson came to. There have been a lot of people over the years. My wife, May, who has made things very easy because she likes the same things I do. Those are some. I’m probably leaving out ten that I should have mentioned.”

Is there a particular horse that stands out in your career?

Denny Emerson

“Victor Dakin was the horse that allowed me to be on the team that won the gold medal in Burghley in ’74. I think that a horse like that changes your life, in the sense that it opens huge doors. Before I was on a gold medal team, and after I was on a gold medal team, it was like two different opportunities to be involved in the horse business. So, Victor Dakin, certainly. Then I had a horse named York, from New Zealand that was the U.S. national champion in ’79 and was USEA Horse of the Year. I think in some ways York was the most talented horse I’ve ever had. He was better in dressage than Victor. Victor was an aggressive, attack machine type of a cross country horse, suited for the long form eventing of thirty-five years ago. He wouldn’t be a good horse for today. He’d be too hot in dressage. And you don’t have to go eighteen miles on cross country anymore. But he was the right horse for me at the right time.”

Everything Equine Expo

Lisa Derby Oden (the co-creator of the Inventing Your Horse Career CD series and equine business consultant will also be presenting at EVERYTHING EQUINE EXPO on April 29th. Enjoy her wisdom at Learn From the Pros: Unique Career Paths to Success in the Horse Industry in the Equine Summit Room from 12-12:45 p.m.; and Websites & Social Media & Blogs…OH MY! Integrating Your Online Presence from 2 – 2:45 p.m..