No Excuse for “Training” Trauma

From a Facebook “conversation,” here’s a new one: using religion as a reason to employ the horse “training” technique known as “laying a horse down.”

The spirited discussion started when a friend shared a post promoting a horse-training demonstration by Paul Daily of Wild Horse Ministries, a portion of whose online photo gallery is shown in the screenshot below.

wildhorseministries_screenshot

The Facebook poster used the bottom picture with the caption “No life is more secure than a life totally surrendered to God.”

Apparently one way this trainer illustrates “surrender” is to make the young horses in his training demonstrations lie down in full tack. From his website:

Paul does not “break horses”, he “gentles” them, with words and pats, until they let him bridle, saddle and ride them – all within two hours. Occasionally, Paul can get the horse to totally submit by lying down. Paul says the Lord has given him this ability and is using him to reach people who shy away from organized religion and church. As the horse submits to Paul’s ministrations, people submit to God’s. “We have witnessed individual lives being changed because of their willingness to submit to Jesus Christ”, says Paul.

I’m sorry, the average young horse being saddled for the first time in a public setting is not going to simply choose to lie down and rest in response to “words and pats.” The “laying a horse down” method is accomplished with the force of leverage.

Mr. Daily’s demonstrations require that organizers provide “an untamed but rope/halter broke colt two to three years old.” For a young, inexperienced horse all the new sensory input of being in a strange place plus wearing a bridle and saddle plus the spectators surrounding him equals the type of stressful situation in which a flight animal needs to be allowed to move. Take away his legs and he has no relief, no hope of escaping to safety and surviving this encounter. He does what any prey animal is hard-wired to do – he checks out, freezes, plays dead.

Therefore, just because some horses who experience this “laying down” technique stay down without restraint doesn’t mean they enjoy or are even okay with being rubbed all over and sat or laid on as some “trainers” do. They have checked out, disconnected their brains from their bodies, so to speak.

It’s a function of neurobiology called “tonic immobility.” Search and you’ll find the condition referenced in relation to instinctive behavior of prey animals when facing imminent death, as well as to humans experiencing such trauma as physical abuse or sexual assualt.

For a prey animal, “to surrender all” is to die. I have written about this before and I also recently came across an excellent blog post on the same topic. The thoughtful writer has researched (and footnoted) her journey from supporting the “laying down” technique to questioning it.

I’ve seen “laying a horse down” defended as an effective way of creating trust, making the horse safe to work with, ensuring obedience and “extinguishing” a horse’s fear and I think they’re all nonsense. Dangerous nonsense that creates a horse with PTSD that’s going to show up sometime, maybe many years and several owners later. You know the one: that tried-and-true horse who just completely blows up one day with no apparent provocation, seriously injuring himself or his rider/handler?

The person posting the photo of Mr. Daily’s use of the technique on social media was all about the importance of “submission” and wrote passionately about her relationship with God. I support her right to choose to submit to whatever or whomever; what I don’t support is anyone forcing a horse or any other flight animal into a submissive position that triggers the same autonomic response as being captured by a predator.

I want to be absolutely clear here that I have no objection to either the poster’s or the trainer’s references to religion or to the latter’s attempt to find parallels between horse training and being a good Christian.

I firmly subscribe to the version of “religious freedom” I grew up with: everyone is free to worship – or not to worship – as he or she sees fit. That means nobody has the right to impose his or her religious choices on anyone else; that would be denying religious freedom, not practicing it.

Organized religion is not a priority in my life, but I readily acknowledge there can be a spiritual element to the human connection with horses. And I also know from decades of experience that working with horses inevitably brings up issues from and teaches lessons applicable to the lives we live away from the barn. If your religion is of prime importance to your daily life and your relationships with other people, that’s going to show up the way you connect with your horse, as well.

I just don’t think that connection is best explored by forcing a horse to submit to this traumatic technique. No matter how gently it’s done or how pure the motives, making a horse lie down while you touch him, stand over him or sit/stand/lie on him is not training.

I would go so far to say that in any situation other than, perhaps, to administer life-saving medical treatment, “laying a horse down” is plain and simple abuse right down to a very deep cellular level. The animal’s own physiology belies any assertion that this method should be regarded as humanely training or gentling a horse.

Definitely Not Your Grandmother’s Western Pleasure Horse

There’s a video making the rounds on social media that perfectly illustrates one of my biggest fears as a professional horsewoman: that the perversion of horses’ natural movement I see in most show disciplines today will persist – to the detriment of horses – for generations.

For example, I can’t stand the idea that today’s young riders, the professional trainers and judges of the next generation, may have never seen a pleasure Quarter Horse who doesn’t four-beat “lope” jammed on the forehand popping up and down like an oil pumpjack. How will they ever know that’s not how a stock horse should (or even must) move.

 

The clearly intelligent, accomplished young woman who posted this “educational” video to her Facebook page is exactly the type of professional I’m worried about. She seems honestly to believe this perhaps slightly less egregious peanut-roller posture should be celebrated.

Compared to the worst of what has been in the showring in the past three-plus decades, it’s just parsing degrees of awfulness, I’d say. Considering how stock horses were shown up until the late 1970s, there’s just no comparison.

I keep asking myself what can this winning trainer possibly be seeing when she remarks how “forward” these horses are moving when clearly not one of them is stepping through from the hindquarters?

How can she not see that all of these horses are dumped on the forehand, four-beating and their polls remain well below the withers except in that portion of the lope when they have to pop their necks up to drag themselves forward? There’s no push, no engagement, no impulsion at all in these horses.

The answer must be that she’s seeing what she’s used to seeing, what she has likely seen every minute of her equestrian life from the first time she sat on a horse or went to a show. Hence my fear. When horrific, unbalanced, joint pounding gaits are all that stock-horse show riders have been taught and practiced and rewarded with ribbons, how can we expect them to cringe at every step of this awfulness? They simply can’t see what I see.

I give the video’s poster credit if she really is working to move her industry to back from the brink of absurdity and encourage more sensible and humane standards. But this video’s value for showing the industry’s return to biomechanically correct movement is miniscule and this performance is certainly worthy of kudos for the AQHA or anyone else involved.

The only thing I do agree with the FB poster about is her statement that this class of the top 20 youth pleasure contestants in the nation “.. is not your grandpa’s Pleasure class.” Well, I’m old enough to be these riders’ grandmother and I still have the buckstitched tack to prove it. I can tell you no stock horse of any breed moved like these horses back when I was showing Quarter Horses.

Here’s a little background: I had my first horse in 1967 at age four and I grew up riding daily except in the worst of winter on a ranch in northeastern Colorado. Although in my family the lines between men’s and women’s tasks were pretty traditionally drawn, at those times of the year when riders were needed to work the 400-head Hereford herd it was all hands on horseback.

I gathered and drove cattle in all weather, rode fence lines looking for strays, and roped and dragged calves to the branding fire. My absolute favorite horseback task was pasture sorting steers bound for the sale-barn from heifers retained for breeding.

Third place 9 & under Western Pleasure, September 1969.

I also showed my horses, starting out at open shows at age six, adding 4-H shows when I was old enough and then expanding into Quarter Horse shows after I got a young registered horse in junior high.

All my horses, from the bomb-proof Welsh pony who was my first show mount to the cranky King Ranch mare who neither of my parents could ride to my really nice papered Hancock gelding, had to do double duty: working ranch horse during the week and prettied-up show horse on the weekend.

I guarantee you not a single horse shown in the video above could do that, at least not without some serious re-training including months of bodywork and rehab.

My only hope for the “AQHA Pro Horseman” who created the post and others like her is that they spend a good long time with some of the folks who excel in the increasingly popular Ranch Versatility competitions. I’m so thankful there are still ranches where the wonderful working Quarter Horse bloodlines have been preserved and that those people have some public outlet to show how a stock horse should move.

Here are some examples of what grandma’s pleasure horse actually looked like:

This young horse and rider could easily have been one of my competitors in youth Western Horsemanship at a show in the 1970s. The rider’s turnout and way of sitting the horse, the horse’s conformation and flat movement, and even the pattern look very similar to what would have been in the ring back in my show days.

The only obvious difference is the tail; back then we shortened tails to hock level on working horses to avoid picking up brush and stickers on the ranch and to emphasize the powerful hindquarters in the ring.

Here’s a bit more experienced horse and rider pair that also could have been plucked right out of the ring at any Quarter Horse show I went to in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. This solid, workmanlike pattern probably would have earned a ribbon the open Western Horsemanship class.

You would even have seen a few horses with suspension like this mare’s both on the ranch and in the ring. She wouldn’t have won the Western Pleasure, which was strictly a walk/trot/lope rail class back in the day. But any rider who could sit that trot well would surely win Western Horsemanship, the class judged on equitation and often run as a “pattern class.”

These horses really could work stock, and some of them probably do. A Quarter Horse is, above all, supposed to be able to perform the work he is bred for. And that’s what makes a beautiful horse.

I hope there will, some day soon, be a full-scale revolt against the showring peanut-roller parades so horses with sound minds and bodies will once again be prized.

Boarding Barn Drama – The Hilarious and the Hateful

A lovely setting doesn’t guarantee a pleasant boarding experience.

A much-shared article that ran in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal this spring got me thinking about the ghosts of boarding stables past: the good, the bad and the ridiculously funny.

The article details the challenges of being at boarding barns, either as an owner or manager or as one of the clients.

I’ve been pretty lucky with the places I have boarded my horses – usually small mostly private places where I more often than not had the place to myself. But I’ve heard a lot of stories of things that happen at barns and boarded at a couple where people either made me crazy or made me laugh.

For crazy-making, picture the time my teenage students left off their fun jump-painting activities in a big hurry and came to tell me they were afraid to stay in the arena because one of the boarders had his crazy Arab mare racing around on a longe line right next to them while he first sat and then LAY DOWN on the ground holding the end of the line. Yep. A full-grown male human showing off his horsemanship skillz in front of the girls, who sensibly saw him for the imbecile he clearly was. What a challenge it was to run a safe riding program surrounded by yayhoos like that guy.

On the funny side, imagine your barn being leased on Sunday afternoons for a community college’s novice riding course and the boarders being treated to the performance of a full-of-herself young woman prancing around showing off her backside in very tight jeans and flashing her ample bosom. By the time class started, she had the young instructor so flummoxed that his instructions to help her mount the patient lesson horse started with her placing her right pink-booted foot in the stirrup and ended with him boosting her booty into the saddle facing backward. (Yes, we did indeed laugh ‘til we about peed.)

But reading the WSJ article reminded me that it just takes one person to create an awful atmosphere, as well. At one barn the manager was so scary that more than one boarder quietly asked me whether I thought she might be poisoning the clients’ horses, and I had to honestly reply that I couldn’t rule it out. (It’s the same manager I wrote about back in 2011 who ordered bloodwork on boarders’ horses without permission and then expected the horse owners to pay the bills.)

That stable was the absolute worst I’ve ever encountered on many levels, but running a close second is the little facility where I moved my business for a few months last year, seeking a pleasant, quiet, low-key place for myself and my students. Sadly for me, it was anything but pleasant, with the good features and great potential of the place completely canceled out by impossible people.

First there was the venal, verbally abusive property owner whose main ambition seemed to be charging full-care prices while never lifting a finger on a facility I’ll diplomatically describe as a monument to deferred maintenance. Jeff Brock DVM, Mesquite Springs Quarter Horses

Even worse (!) were two long-time boarders stuck in some kind of junior high school mean-girl time warp. Seriously! Think two 12-year-olds huddled together whispering and shooting you dirty looks every time you’re on the property; then picture the same scenario with women in their 50s. I kid you not! Lisa Courtemanche

The barn cats were friendly but the women were terribly catty at the barn where I spent several months last spring.

Annoying, but their own business and something that could, with some effort, be ignored. But definitely my business when the mean girls and the self-important property owner were openly rude to my clients, making them feel uncomfortable coming on the place if I wasn’t there – and sometimes when I was. The owner seriously offended one of his new boarders by saying in her hearing that all the new horses we brought in (to pay him board he purported to need desperately) were “crappy.” Bad enough to diss the people, but insane to insult their beloved horses.

Not that he seemed to like horses much or, really, give a damn about their well-being – a strange mindset for an animal health professional. When my old gelding got pretty seriously injured getting a leg caught between the barn door and the door frame because a metal catch didn’t hold, the owner never expressed any concern for the animal, but instead grumbled that the horse “broke his barn.”

The irascible owner’s post-happy-hour rants were enough to make me repent of my choice to move my business, but it was really the two toxic women who sealed the deal with their incessant petty nastiness. Refusing to share barn implements like rakes and muck buckets, pitching a fit if a bottle of shampoo was left at the washrack while someone led a horse back to its stall, and snarking at my students and friends. One of them actually stole and hid the facility’s mounting block, which another long-time boarder confirmed had been on the place for general use “forever.” Lynn Callaghan

And their parting shot the day I hauled my horses out was truly astonishing. I loaded up horses and equipment early in the morning and said I’d be back to clean my stalls (which were going to be left in much better shape than when I moved horses in.) By the time I got my horses situated and my gear unloaded and went back to clean, the over-grown adolescents had mucked the rest of the stalls on the property and instead of dumping the manure and dirty bedding on the manure pile in the field, had deposited it in the stalls my horses had vacated that morning.

Really?! That would have been a mean stunt pulled by a snotty 12-year-old bullying a rival. But I have no words for a grown woman (or women) who would do such a thing.

No wonder so many people dream of having their own little horse property where they can deep their horses and themselves away from boarding-barn drama. And no wonder barn drama ended up in the Wall Street Journal. yn

The View From My Office: Oh, the Unbearable Cuteness

One of the benefits of being a traveling trainer/instructor (as in not based at just one facility) is that every place where I teach has something different to interest and entertain.

Especially at the private barns, that includes the owners’ family of miscellaneous critters, many of whom inevitably become my friends. These are and have been, of course, assorted dogs and barn cats plus goats, mini donkeys, miniature horses and a fascinating alpaca nicknamed Dave who has watched so many lessons with rapt attention that surely he could open his own riding school if only he could master speech.

This spring Dave’s owners acquired a friend for him, a lovely chocolate-brown female Alpaca called Java. A pregnant female, whose baby was born just a few weeks ago. While he’s small enough that coyotes are a risk, the little fuzzy youngster and mom live in a stall and run with a front-row view of the round pen where I often work.

Momma is very sweet and for the price of a handful of Equine Senior she’ll let visitors come in and scritch the baby on his neck, which he likes very much.

My Horse is One Hundred Today

In my world May 1 has nothing to do with maypoles or the anthem of the workers’ collective. May Day is Ichobod’s birthday and this year he reaches a big milestone. Sort of. Probably.

There seem to be a number of ways to calculate the horse:human age ratio — even some that require considerably more math than one simple multiplication operation. (That’s not happening.)

For my very old and slightly senile but much-loved bay gelding, I picked the method that assigns an average of 3.33 human years to each horse year. So, on the strength of that random bit of cyber wisdom, I declare Ichobod to be 100 years old today. Roughly. Maybe. Close enough. (That’s 31 in horse years for those who don’t want to do the math backward.)

To celebrate this momentous occasion, there will be a party on Sunday, May 11. If you’re one of my Tucson friends and/or clients, you’ll get an invitation with more details in the next day or so. Just save the date and plan to come have some fun. If you’re one of Ichy’s many fans/students who don’t live near, consider yourself welcome should you plan to be in the area on that day. Just email me for details.

Also in honor of Ichy’s big day I am sharing a letter written to the woman who gave him to me way back in the spring of 1997, telling her about how much both she and this horse have shaped the horsewoman I have become. In it I share a bit of my history with Ich, as well as a bunch of pictures of him over the years. I’ll excerpt a bit here and provide a link for anyone who is interested in reading the rest:

“Dear Dana,

I have been thinking for a long time of writing to thank you for inspiring me to become a better horsewoman, both by the knowledge you shared and most of all, bysending me Ichobod, who has been a great (and sometimes demanding) teacher. Finally, on the occasion of his 31st birthday, I’m doing just that.

Over the years I have thought of you often while working with horses and riders, helping them to move better together. You were one the people who first challenged me to think about horses in a different way and to keep learning about how they function. I was in awe of your knowledge and your insight, of the way you seemed to see inside horses both physically and emotionally and how you knew both what they had been through and how to help them. I felt the breadth and depth of what you knew about horses and I knew my knowledge was inadequate if I, too, wanted to develop the ability to see and understand. Your example helped to put me on the path I travel today, and your gift of Ichobod ensured that I wouldn’t be allowed to shirk my studies.

For many years, his job in my life was to get sick or injured in ways that traditional vets couldn’t address or didn’t even recognize, so that I would have to find and figure out new ways to help him feel better.”
(Read the rest of the letter here.)

Happy Birthday, Ichobod! I wish you 31 more years of health and bossing people around.

Springtime in the Desert Means Wildflowers

Though we had a cool, windy day with a bit of rain yesterday, here in Southern Arizona spring is definitely in full swing. We’ve even had a few days in the 90s to give us a taste of the summer to come.

Hard to believe much of the rest of the country, and even our neighbors in northern AZ, are still in the grip of winter. Snow, cold, high winds, severe thunderstorms, hail and even tornadoes were all over the news the past couple of weeks.

Here the wildflowers are brightening up the desert. Hope these photos brighten up the day for all those of you longing for spring.

(Select the thumbnails to see larger images)

 

 

Animal Massage in Arizona: A Constitutional Fight For Rights

Anyone who has been acquainted with me for more than about 20 minutes knows I am inclined to explore a variety of non-medical (as in conventional western medical) approaches to caring for and healing horses. Why? Because in 46 years of owning and working with horses, I have found that while conventional veterinary care is essential in some situations, in others, it just doesn’t provide the answers I need to keep my horses healthy and happy.

I’ve written about this issue before, questioning the irrationally broad definition of what supposedly constitutes the practice of veterinary medicine in Arizona.

So I am very pleased to be one of three practitioners representing both my fellow certified animal bodyworkers and fellow horse owners in a constitutional legal action asking the state of Arizona to stop being so ridiculous as to consider animal massage as “practicing veterinary medicine.”

Massage, both for humans and for animals, has become a mainstream healing modality both for elite athletes and for the general population. And I don’t expect there is a single sensible person who expects his or her own massage therapist also to be a physician.

So why does the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board seek to require animal massage therapists to spend the money and time to attend vet school where, incidentally, massage is not part of the curriculum? Good question.

All the Board’s interpretation of the Arizona statute really does is interfere with the livelihoods of people who seek a career in animal massage and limit the choices of Arizona’s animal owners seeking to provide the best possible lives for their horses, dogs, etc.