No Food Was Mystery Disease in Colo. Abuse Case?

Following up on our Feb. 26 post about the Colorado feed store owner whose horses were being starved, there’s some good news. The young gelding nicknamed “Little Big Man” survived and has a new home.

Barbara Wright of Harmony Horseworks posted the good news in her recent newsletter, which provided information about Little Big Man and his former herdmates.

Apparently the two men charged in the case said the horses were underweight due to some mystery condition. However, it appears that all the horses that survived are making good weight gains now that they are being fed. Go figure.

For those of you in Colorado, a fundraiser is being planned to help cover the veterinary care and other costs for the six horses.


When I am Old ….

I just read an essay written by my friend Amanda Madorno, a thoughtful and dedicated endurance rider based in the Pacific Northwest. I liked it so much, I asked for permission to reprint it here. I’m quite certain many of my fellow horsewomen will relate.

I know Amanda has had her share of problems, both soundness issues and training challenges, with her horses over the years I have known her. And I realize that she, like many of us, sometimes feels frustrated that she’s not meeting her riding and competing goals. I also know that in spite of all of that, she is one of those horse owners who understands what is really important — relationship, connection, love.

Here’s her account of a chance encounter that served as a wonderful reminder to her, and to us all, of why we make horses part of our lives:

When I am old, I will ride my old buckskin ….

Sometimes you have an experience that reminds you, in the end, love has a lot to do with where you end up, not where you start.

Last weekend my friend Beth and I were out riding. We cantered around Bridle Trails, enjoying no rain and the promise of sun. As we came around a corner of the trail, we saw the rough shape of a horse and rider ahead, so we slowed to a walk. At first I thought that perhaps the rider was out for a therapeutic trail ride, although we did not see walkers on the side of the horse.

As the horse and rider got closer, my curiosity shifted to amazement. The horse, an aged bay gelding, moved at a stately but somewhat stiff walk. He was well-kept, but you could see that Cushings had set in.

Amanda and her much-loved buckskin gelding Cato.

An old woman, who looked at least 80 years old, was on his back. She was padded with layers of winter riding gear and her white hair fluffed out from underneath her helmet. She rode hunched over and listed to the left, as if crippled from osteoarthritis. Yet, you could tell that this was a woman who had spent a lifetime riding and had spent a lot of those years with this particular horse. The connection between them was a deep, soft radiance, filled with affection and understanding.

“Hello” she said, her blue eyes rheumey and sparkling.

“Hello” we greeted her back. My voice had a funny catch to it. I felt tears stand in my eyes as Beth and I continued along the trail in silence. We looked at each other a couple of times, as if expecting the other to speak, but neither of us did.

Finally I managed to say, “When I grow up, I want to be like her.”

Beth’s eyes brimmed with tears. She nodded, “Me too.”

And that was all we could say about it, even though our hearts were full of admiration, gratitude and inspiration.

I have thought about that old woman and her wonderful gelding often since that trail ride. I hope they have a spring time of rides together. Thanks to them, I realize that years from now, it won’t matter how many endurance rides Cato and I completed or didn’t, whether we went 100 miles or 25. I will be well and truly blessed if, when I am 80, I can still get into my saddle and putter along with my old buckskin down the trail. Now, that will be saying something!

Do You Know Your Own Horse?

I have never believed in grooming and tacking horses for my clients, except in certain very rare, pre-arranged circumstances. I have caught some grief for that over the years, especially from adults. Couldn’t I make the kids groom and tack by themselves as a learning tool, but do those tasks for the adults who are too busy, distracted, whatever? Nope.

I believe that time is essential for any rider to make a connection with the horse, to assess the horse’s mental and physical well-being. And it’s a responsibility, just part of the lifestyle of horsemanship.

There are many ways to interact with your horse that will improve your partnership. But there are practical reasons for getting to know your own horse, too. Years ago, a barn where I worked had several wealthy clients who were novice horse owners. The policy for those clients was that they could call ahead and the staff would have their horses ready, groomed, tacked and standing in crossties when they arrived. They would come into the barn and a staff member would greet them and help them get organized, adjusted and out the door to the arena. Once, though, the wife opted to ride on her own on a day when the barn was closed. That meant she had to get her lovely bay mare out of its stall, groom it and tack it on her own – maybe for the first time ever in her riding career.

Luckily one of the training staff stopped in just as client wife had completed grooming and tacking. There was, indeed, a horse in the crossties, groomed to a shine and wearing the client’s tack. And it was a bay horse. A bay stallion. (!!) That belonged to another boarder.groomingbox

Yes, all the experienced horsemen and -women reading this are cringing at the little movie in their heads, the one in which novice rider thinks she’s getting on her quiet, well-mannered mare and instead mounts someone else’s not-so-docile stallion and havoc ensues. Yikes! Happily for all concerned, that was averted. But, really folks. Spend the time. Do the work. Get to know your own horse.

If you don’t go home from the barn dirty, you didn’t do it right!

Riding: Good or Bad? A Reader Question

“I find myself going back and forth in a quandary of whether or not riding a horse is disrespectful to the horse and whether or not it can be done in a way that is not in any way painful for the horse.”

It’s such an interesting question you ask, one that in my experience most thinking people who have horses face at some point. I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell you or anyone what is right for you and your horse. All I can tell you is what I believe to be true about the reasons horses have chosen to stay on this planet and what they bring to their human partners.

Let’s face it, there’s no practical reason for horses not to be well on the way to extinction by now. Their natural habitat is pretty meager and humans have selectively bred for traits that don’t necessarily set them up to succeed in the wild. Their original usefulness to people, as means of transportation, is no longer relevant. So, by many standards, we should have stopped feeding and housing and breeding them decades ago. But we didn’t. Why not?

I think so many people find horses to be essential elements in their lives because the horses negotiated a new deal with the universe to be of service in a new way. We don’t need them to help us explore the frontiers or defeat an enemy or carry heavy loads. So they stuck around to help us face some other, less obvious challenges. To save us from ourselves, in a way.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ask a person, horse owner or not, why they like horses and at first you’ll hear enthusiastic exclamations about how beautiful horses are, how graceful their movement, how fast they run. Foals and ponies are cute and fuzzy. Stallions are majestic. Mares are sweet and nurturing or fiesty and interesting. But let the question hang in the air a while, especially among people who really do spend time with horses, and you’ll start to hear the deeper reasons. Horses can help us feel our power (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). They connect us to nature and the earth – just think, if you live and work in a city, the only concrete-free ground you ever touch might be the arena. And they hold up a big mirror and show us who we are, the good bits and the warts, in a non-threatening, judgment-free way that other people just can’t manage.

For those of us born with that mutant “horse” gene, they just make us feel good. We love the sound of them munching sweet-smelling hay and the feeling when they share their breath with us. We love the way they smell and how soft and fluffy or sleek and glossy their coats look and feel. We like the sounds their hooves make on various surfaces – the clippity clop on a paved road and the cushioned thud on green pasture and the thundering roar on a fast racetrack. They’re our friends, our therapists, our family members. They require us to focus, to learn to quiet our mental chatter and learn to just be, to intentionally choose to inhabit our minds and our bodies now, in the present. There’s even an interesting study, I think still ongoing, that shows the heart rates of a human and a horse entrain when they interact. So there is a definite physiological effect to spending time with a horse, even just sitting near one.

How do they choose to interact with us to accomplish all this? The answer to that is as diverse as the horses and humans. I’m lucky to have two horses who have chosen very different paths. Sport, the younger of the two, may never be ridden. He didn’t have a very good start in life and he doesn’t tolerate the feeling of being bound up around the middle of his body. Even the soft fleece “girth” of a bareback pad causes him to dissociate to the point he doesn’t realize when a person is standing next to him. He has other talents and skills and is a wonderful horse. He’s just not a riding horse.

On the other hand, Ichobod, my old gelding, has taught me many lessons that weren’t about riding at all while still making it very clear that he wants to be ridden. He chose and is very content with his role as teacher and he has brought along his riding students very effectively over the past few years. He has quite different lessons to teach each of them and has unique relationships with them that have very little to do with his partnership with me. At 27, you might think I’m overdue “allowing” him to retire. But he loves what he does, he’s good at it and I trust that when it’s time to change, he’ll let me know. I no more believe in forcing a horse to stop doing his job than I believe in forcing him to do a job he doesn’t like.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

There is, in my opinion, absolutely no question of riding being disrespectful or cruel at all if you and the horse agree that’s going to be part of your relationship. They’re big, strong animals with reflexes much quicker than ours, so if a horse really, really doesn’t want someone on him the person is not going to stay on. (Not to say that every time a horse “loses” his rider, that means the horse doesn’t want to be ridden. There are many factors.)

Do I think you are capable, either physically or emotionally, of inflicting that kind of abuse on your horse? No, never. To do that you have to completely dominate and break down a horse – and that attitude would have to define your entire relationship with the horse, not just riding time. You’re not going to do anything like that, and I don’t think your horse is the type who would be likely to fall victim to it.

That doesn’t mean that if you decide that riding doesn’t feel right, now or at any time in the future, you shouldn’t choose to spend your horse time differently. There are certainly a lot of good choices – all kinds of fun and beneficial ground exercises you can do. To my way of thinking, you can’t make a wrong choice in this. Just different choices that lead down different paths.

Read a discussion of this topic on Facebook.

No Poker Face


I admit it. I do not suffer fools well. And I have no poker face. So if you say something about horses and training that I find horrifying, you’ll probably know that by my expression.

Want to test that out? Just show me the latest, greatest head-setting gadget. Or tell me how much your horse loves the feel of that long-shanked bicycle chain bit in his mouth. Or lament the lack of rowels on your new crystal-encrusted spurs.

I try to stay neutral, I really do. I can nod and smile and say “oh, really.” But you don’t have to know me very well to tell that I’m thinking “How could you?!”  “What are you thinking??” “Oh, that poor horse!!”

Can you imagine my expression the first time I saw the “bridle” pictured here? Yes, I believe someone actually used this on a horse. I found it left behind in a trailer I acquired and one of the only things I know about the previous owner was she owned a gorgeous 18-hand mare who was considered unrideable because she flipped over backward. “Hmmm …” I say, trying not to grimace or jump to conclusions.

It’s not that I’m rude. Or offensive. I don’t insert myself when and where it’s not my business. Even though it sometimes makes me feel like I’m tying myself in big knots not doing so, I do not generally offer unsolicited advice about equipment choices, training methods or riding abilities. (I do, sometimes, say a little prayer to the horse gods that someone will ask, though!)

I just love those days at the barn when I’m surrounded by like-minded folks and their horses. One person might be doing groundwork S-turns as a pre-ride warm-up, physically and energetically connecting with her horse before she mounts. Another is longeing a horse in a TTEAM bodywrap to improve self-carriage. In an arena, a rider is bareback, perfecting her feel to improve her balance so seat aids flow with ease. And in a roundpen another person is practicing yoga poses supported by her horse, who is moving his body along with her.

Those are the days when I can breathe. Bliss! Guessing that probably shows, too.

When a Bad Horse is Really Good

Yes, horse people are strange. And the oddest things make us happy. Take today for example. At my first lesson venue, I had the distinct pleasure of telling a client that her horse had been naughty yesterday. The announcement brought a big smile to the horse owner’s face and got a resounding “Woo Hoo!” from the small group of horsewomen within earshot.

“What?!” you ask (quite sensibly, I might add.) Why in the world would someone be happy that her horse behaved badly? Well, in this case, a spook sideways at barking dogs and two attempts to trot right past me on the leadline meant this mare is well and truly ALIVE.

The naughty horse in question is a 23-year-old mare who was bitten by a rattlesnake on her left hind fetlock on September 13. She is lucky to live at a boarding stable where the owner and staff pay close attention and she got the very best of care as soon as possible. Still, when I first saw her two weeks after the bite, she didn’t look so great and her owner feared the end was near for her beloved companion.

Her left leg was still significantly swollen from coronet all the way up the column to the gaskin and the fetlock joint seemed frozen in a position that made her stand and move on tiptoe. And the right hind was subject to a kind of tic – spastically lifting and setting down at seemingly random intervals, forcing the full weight of the hindquarters onto that tiptoe left hind. The vet was using dire words like “founder.”

After three weeks of her owner’s loving care, plus every therapeutic modality both conventional and complementary she could muster, the game old mare is showing great improvement. The leg returns to normal size after some hands-on drainage and a walk and the odd neurological symptoms have disappeared. The fetlock still wants to knuckle over some, but that seems to be resolving as well.

So, when this mare spooked and got silly on her walk yesterday, it was cause for celebration for all who have helped and supported her recovery. Woo Hoo!

Photo at left is before massage session five. Center photo is before massage session nine; right photo is after session nine.

Fall Cleaning Tips From a Horse

Cooler days mean it’s time for many of us to get the house and barn clean, organized and battened down for winter. In case you need a bit of inspiration to get you going, here’s some advice from Flash, a Morgan gelding who is very serious about the cleanliness of his home.

First, It’s important to clean up all the litter that may have accumulated around your home.

If you have time, help your neighbor clean up around his house, too.

Finally, it’s important to keep the vegetation around your home neatly trimmed so it doesn’t provide habitat for predators or create a fire risk.

Ichobod, the Pony Pincushion

Ichobod, who is 27 now and is happily and soundly teaching two or three lessons a week, got an acupuncture treatment on Thursday from Dr. Mike Hutchison of Pegasus Equine Veterinary Service.

Ich was injured a couple weeks ago when a turnout buddy got way too rambunctious and either kicked him or ran him into something. We had a week of soreness and edema on the right side from the shoulder back over the ribcage. That cleared up with a few hours of gentle movement (hand-walking), cold hosing, movement, massage, arnica and, did I mention movement. But he was still stocking up a bit in his front ankles, which is not at all normal for him. He’s not like many older horses whose legs tell the tale of  their years. His tendons are clean and tight and he has very few bumps and bulges.

I wasn’t worried, because he worked out of the swelling and wasn’t at all lame. And it has been cool overnight here, but with record triple-digit temps. during the days. But I don’t like that kind of physical change, especially in a horse his age. I’m acutely aware we’re on the downhill side of his sound and happy life, and every new issue just points that out once again. Ichobod loves his job as teacher and will miss bossing his students around to help them learn, so I just want him to have as long as possible to do his important work.

Dr. Mike came Thursday evening and spent about an hour-and-a-half assessing Ich’s body, getting mugged for treats (he had to go back to his truck once to refill the treat pocket) and turning my horse into a four-legged pincushion. Ichobod got big-eyed a couple times when needles created new or unexpected sensation, but otherwise he was quiet and calm.

He hadn’t worked on Thursday, so he was stocked up before the treatment and I didn’t notice much change during. But the next afternoon when I went to work with him, both front legs were cool and tight. He was moving quite well and even did a couple silly spurty canter transitions – the old-man version of messing around during working hours. Same thing today – I wasn’t at the barn until afternoon and again, despite the heat and his relative inactivity in his stall, there was no edema in the legs.

Thanks Dr. Mike!

My Insurance Costs How Much?!

In an article titled “6 Things You Should Never Reveal on Facebook,” Kathy Kristof of CBS writes about how insurers are starting to use information posted on social networking sites to determine whom to cover and how much to charge.

“The folks at also say that ill-advised Facebook postings increasingly can get your insurance cancelled or cause you to pay dramatically more for everything from auto to life insurance coverage.

“You take your classic Camaro out for street racing, soar above the hills in a hang glider, or smoke like a chimney? Insurers are increasingly turning to the web to figure out whether their applicants and customers are putting their lives or property at risk, according to”

First, do these insurance company reps really believe that everyone tells nothing but the truth in their tweets and posts? That’s like believing what you read in personals ads, and I’m here to tell you that every single man on the planet isn’t kind, honest and addicted to sunsets and cuddling. Wise up, guys!

Second, I wonder how long it will be before all of us involved with horses, doing things insurers are surely going to classify as a potentially (profitably) dangerous, will be paying higher health and life insurance premiums than the average couch potato. And, of course, some riding disciplines will no doubt be considered even more dangerous. (All you folks who jump better start saving now to pay your extra premiums.)

I don’t know why I found this information shocking. I had a similar experience recently when I was exploring changing carriers for my professional liability insurance. In fact, all my fellow equine professionals who purchase liability insurance to cover their lesson and training activities will probably encounter this sometime soon.

In my case, even after I had filled out a rather detailed application form, the underwriting department at the new company I was considering actually based some of the decision about whether to cover me and how much risk I posed (therefore, how much premium I should pay) on information gleaned from my website.

Yep, all those prying financial questions on the application form, and the inevitable affirmation of truth and accuracy that precedes your signature, don’t give them enough information. So, they comb through your online marketing materials, assuming their interpretation of your promotional copy will give them a more accurate risk assessment. (I’d say “justify charging a larger premium,” but that’s just my interpretation.)

How preposterous is it to think that marketing information, by definition intended to sell your organization and services to potential clients, in any way represents a concrete, objective picture of your company? That makes no sense at all, unless your promotional copy reads like a resume or a statistical analysis. “In 2008, XYZ Riding Centre provided 635 riding lessons to 85 clients with a reported success rate of 93 percent.” I don’t think so!

The point of marketing is to be subjective, to puff up and overstate and exaggerate and generally paint a rosy picture. The degree to which those things are done differs depending on the personality of the person whose services are being sold. Some of the training gurus come on with all the subtlety of used-car salesmen, while others take a less flamboyant approach. (Someone recently referred to my web bio as “humble.”)

In my case, the fact that I include on my site biographical information about a frequent collaborator, who has her own business entity and her own insurance, initially increased the rate I was quoted. Of course I had merely neglected to include her on my application form as an employee who also needed to be covered, right? And I then I mistakenly avowed that the information I provided was correct by signing the form, all the while leaving off this employee that an underwriter discovered listed on my website?

Luckily, the agent I was working with realized all this and was able to clarify for the underwriters. No, I did not forget to include an employee on my application. No, I do not need coverage for someone who is not part of my organization. And no, I was not making a fraudulent statement when I signed the form. If the person was an employee and I was responsible for insuring her, I would have indicated such on the form in the space provided.

On my website, I never, ever state in any way that this person is my employee; in fact her own business name appears prominently and there is a link to her very own website. So, clearly whomever was doing the gleaning in this case didn’t do a very good job of accurately determining actual risk. And that person’s mistake could have cost me money.

This type of practice seems inherently inefficient and practically guarantees mistakes, making it seem to me to be a bad idea notwithstanding the privacy issues. If the insurers don’t believe an applicant has provided truthful information on my application form, either turn the person down or ask for clarification. If the underwriters need to know something that wasn’t covered on the form, don’t pretend they can read between the lines of advertising copy or a social networking page and come up with concrete information.

In short, do not just pick a number out the air (or cyberspace) and expect me to pay a premium that in no way reflects the risk exposure I represent.

A big thanks to Tami George – dressage rider extraordinaire and honest, sensible insurance professional – for educating me about some of the nuances, such as the actuarial difference between an “instructor” and a “trainer.” (Be sure to ask your insurer for that company’s interpretation; you might be surprised which is considered to present a higher risk.) Her company’s quote didn’t make any sense whatsoever (they expected me to pay a higher premium for “activities” they didn’t cover)?! Even though she didn’t earn my business, I do very much appreciate the time she took to educate me a bit about her industry.

So, folks, if you’re in the market for personal insurance of any kind, you might just want to consider taking all those lovely pictures of you with your horse off any publicly available site. (And be sure to get your friends to stop “tagging” you in their photos.) Maybe you should replace your horse photos with nice shots of you doing some safe activity, like sitting quietly in a sturdy chair writing checks to insurance companies.

As for us equine professionals … I’m not sure how we’re going to promote our businesses without fueling the flames of rising premiums. But get ready, your words and images and even things you don’t say or do will be used to attempt to extract your hard-earned income and enrich the insurance companies.

Read more here: Look who’s lurking around your Facebook page: Your insurance company!

Rehab Horse Has Fun, Baby Horse Learns

It’s so much fun to have a day when all the horses and people seem to be making good progress!

Started the morning in sauna-like humidity (for Arizona) with the hardworking pair Diane and her beloved Roy. He is just under 11 months out from colic surgery and coming back splendidly thanks to her diligence at keeping him moving and happy right from the start. She says he feels stronger and more supple than ever! And she’s riding better than ever, too, thanks in part to the horses she worked with during Roy’s convalescence. Today we did a challenging bending exercise using a simple labyrinth, plus used cavaletti and a small crossrail to help stabilize her jump position. Much sweat, big smiles and much licking and chewing!

Later, I was assistant at yet another successful young-horse backing, this time the first ride for my old friend Amy’s three-year-old Friesian-cross gelding. And, like the last time, the structure of the session was built around the simple groundwork exercises I have been teaching to this gangly-but-sweet youngster for about six weeks now. Amy had been slowly introducing saddle and bridle over the past few weeks and he was pretty much unconcerned about all of that. (He had been trained to drive by his previous owner, so no real surprise that a saddle and bridle weren’t all that strange to him.)

She had also been leading him up to a mounting block and standing on it without incident; though, today he did have a little issue with her standing up there while I led him in serpentines near it and then asked him sometimes to stop with the freakishly tall human on one side of him and me on the other side. Mild baby horse sensory overload. We solved that by making the space within easy reach of the mounting block “the scritch zone.” When he stood there, he got scratched on all his itchy spots, which were plentiful as his late summer shed is in full molt. Of course, sometimes you have to lean on the saddle to reach the scratchy spot way down on the opposite hip. At one point, while his eyes were all soft and snoozy, I just put a hand on his shoulder in case I needed to steady him and Amy climbed on.

Minor weight shifting and worried eye-crinkling, but I think his passenger’s adrenaline spiked more than the horse’s did. After he’d had a good chance to feel his rider – and gotten quite a few more scratches to his itchy withers – we went for a little groundwork walk, turning in big soft S-turns and even introducing the concept of stopping from the seat. Much petting, a little sweat and even a few nice, deep breaths with the rider astride!