Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rabicano and Roan: Two Unique Horse Color Patterns

Several years ago, my palomino mare, Hollywood Royal Lady (Holly), foaled a gorgeous bay stud colt who grew up to be my current stud horse, MJ Royal Smartypants (Ziggy). Ziggy was clearly a bay, but he had a unique "mealy" color -- meaning that he had subtle fawn coloring on the sides of his muzzle, along his ventral midline, and around his groin.  As his silky baby coat shed out and the mealy coloration dissipated, I could see distinct white hairs here and there.  They weren't in solid white patches, like a pinto, but were intermingled with the red of his bay coat, with some congregating together heavily.

Now, I've always loved roan horses and, never having had my name on a roan's papers, was hopeful Ziggy would magically mature into a bay roan.  Bay roans, for those who aren't up on roan genetics, are bay horses with a roan gene that is sole and separate from the base color of the horse.  Ziggy doesn't have that roan gene after all -- which a horse must inherit from one parent.  Instead, he has what is called a "rabicano" variation.

Rabicano!  What a great name.  It sounds wild and western.  It's a Spanish word that means "brush-tail." (How romantic is that?)  Rabicanos, as you might figure from that "brush-tail" translation, also have white hairs at the tail's base. They generally have white on the flanks and often on the barrel.  Ziggy's mother, who is a golden palomino, also has the rabicano trait; she has a couple of different good-sized areas where the white hairs predominate on her hip and neck.
Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Holly's dock area, showing rabicano as expressed in the palomino color.

The rabicano color trait is commonly known as "ticking."  Consider a blue-tick hound, or an Australian cattle dog; they're excellent examples of that ticking trait.  However, many people aren't aware of the rabicano variation and will misidentify a horse as being a roan or a grey when it lacks the genetics to be either roan or grey.

If you're unsure about whether your horse is a roan or a rabicano, here's the sure-fire way to tell:  a roan will always get darker where hair has been rubbed off.  For example, if the horse has worn a fly mask, they'll often have the darker burnish on the lower front of the face where the bottom of the mask has rubbed.  You may be familiar with roans that have dark lines or marks across their body.  Those areas show the original base color of the roan; scratch a roan, you get that base color back, and only that base color.  However, if you scratch a rabicano that has no roan genes, you get white hairs.  A rabicano will respond like a solid-color horse:  with white re-growth.
Note the white hair above Ziggy's tail as well as interspersed randomly throughout his rump hairs.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Close-up of typical rabicano white hair cluster.

Just about any color or color-patterned horse can be a rabicano.  Thanks to Holly's genes, here on the property we have rabicano in sorrel, palomino, and bay.  Each of them has very clear ticking and loosely-clustered hairs forming white patches.

Now, a few words about roans.  A roan has the same genetics of solid-color horses, but with the addition of a roan gene.  As mentioned above, that gene must come from one parent or the other -- even if the parent horse doesn't express the roan color, they still carry the roan gene.  A bay roan is said to be a bay that "expresses" the roan gene.  A bay horse can carry a roan gene but not pass it on to its foal, in which case the baby horse carries the gene but does not express it.  Confused yet?  Think about this:  a bay horse is genetically a black horse that has an agouti gene (making it a bay); a bay roan is a bay horse that expresses a roan gene.

A strawberry or red roan is a sorrel or chestnut, genetically, but it carries and expresses the roan gene.  A blue roan is a black horse that carries and expresses the roan gene -- but it does not have the agouti gene that would otherwise turn it into a bay horse.  Not all horses referred to as "blue roan" are true blue roans, though:  some are actually grullo horses with a roan gene.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Here's a bay roan bucking horse.

A buckskin can also express a roan gene, if it has one parent that carries that gene and if the other parent is a cream dilution.  (I won't get into the dilute genes in this post.)  You'll never see "buckskin roan" on AQHA papers, though; they're simply registered as "buckskin" with the possible addendum, "Carries and expresses the roan gene."

For the newcomer to the study of horse color, it's important to understand that color and pattern are two different concepts, and they're often misapplied.  Horses have a base color which is affected by genes for various patterns and effects, so to speak.  A horse may have the base color for black, but carry the pinto gene so that they have a color pattern of pinto.  Perhaps an easier example is an Appaloosa:  a black horse may have the genes that cause spots on the rump.  The color is black; the pattern, Appaloosa or spotted.  It can be confusing unless one keeps in mind that all horses have a base color plus the effects of various patterns.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links to this page, however, may be freely shared (and thank you for doing so) * Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, linking, emailing, +1'ing and otherwise helping grow my readership.  Most of all, thank you for reading!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Horse Problems: If What You're Doing Isn't Working ...

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller
Over the years, I've had the honor of being asked to help a variety of people out with a variety of horses they were having problems with.  I preferred to do just that -- help the people with their horses, rather than working with a horse alone for a period of time and then returning it to the owner with the announcement, "He's fixed!"  When doing so, it often surprised me when I'd suggest a correction or a new way of doing things and the owner would hold their hands up defensively and say, "No, I always just do this when he does that!"  Pretty soon it became a standard refrain for me to reply, "And how's that been working out for ya?"

Here's what I'm going to rant about today:  when something isn't working for you, don't keep doing the same thing the same way and expect different results.  We all know that principle on a conscious level, but how many of us think about it and ask ourselves (with gut-wrenching honesty) if we're doing it with our horses? Instead,  we too-often continue to dig our heels in the dirt and repeat the same ineffective technique again and again, ad nauseum.

Consider, for example, the owner whose horse is sour about the trailer.  They have the battle down to a science:  they enlist the army of friends and neighbors every time they want to take sweet Princess for a drive.  Someone stands in the trailer holding a bucket of grain; someone else holds the rope through the escape door; another two people man the butt-rope; and the last person uses the whip and smacks sweet little Princess on the butt until she's a pissy, pin-eared basket case.  (I'm exaggerating to make the point, of course, but anyone who has dealt with owners of problem loaders will know where I'm coming from.)

By this time, someone like me enters the picture.  Owner tells me the horse won't load -- can I help?  And I happily say I can.  I show up, basket of magic in hand, and as soon as I start to explain the theory in retraining Princess, the owner holds one hand up, shakes her head and says, "No, I always just do this …"  Meanwhile, the horse has gotten worse every single time the Trailer Army has been involved. The horse is angry and getting angrier; the owner is at wit's end; and yet the owner steadfastly wants to continue doing things the same way.  If the owner doesn't change the way he or she does business, then where is change supposed to begin?  Is the horse supposed to spontaneously awaken one day and say, "Gee, I had a dream about just walking politely and confidently into the trailer.  I think I'll change the way I do it!"

This human tendency isn't limited to horse people.  I read the results of a study once in which it was found that the reason doctors often misdiagnose conditions is that they make an initial diagnosis and then interpret everything else from that point forward as being further evidence of that diagnosis.  They steadfastly clung to their initial diagnosis, disregarding everything contrary to it, and continued down the same path even if the treatment clearly wasn't working.

It's safe to assume you wouldn't like that as a patient.  Why would you want to do it to your horse?

Recently, I made the difficult decision to dismiss my shoer of five years in favor of having their shoes pulled and having a brilliant local hoof-trimmer try to get their feet back to the proper angles.  (If you've read my "Open Letter to My Future Horseshoer" post, you'll have some of my perspective on horseshoers.)  My shoer started out doing great things with my horses' hooves -- but suddenly they began to backslide.  Angles were bad; too much toe; crushed heels.  I had many candid (and sometimes contentious) discussions (arguments) with my shoer.  I'd point out that the horse's heels were getting worse every month; he'd always counter with an excuse:  "He has thrush," "He has white-line disease," "He won't grow heel," "His feet are too flaky to handle a change in angle," "You're not feeding hoof supplement," "You're not feeding the right kind of hoof supplement," and so forth.  Never was the problem with the angle of the trim, of course.  He continued putting wedges under the horse's heels and the horse's heels kept getting worse and worse.  It was heartbreaking.

Finally I ranted at him:  "If what you're doing isn't working, why are we still doing it?"  And I promptly called The Magician:  my new hoof trimmer.  It took me a while to  recognize that even though I was asking my horseshoer the right question, I was allowing the situation to continue:  we were doing the wrong thing the same way each time and expecting different results.

When I was a rookie patrol officer, I was introduced to a community-policing strategy called "SARA." Cops love acronyms -- and horse people don't them enough.  SARA stood for "Scan, Analyze, Respond, Assess."  Applied to horse situations, let's consider it "Watch," "Analyze," "Implement" "Evaluate" and "Refine." There:  we have our own acronym for solving horse problems:  WAIER.

If your horse is having an issue, watch and study that issue closely.  Whether it is the way they're traveling or the way they're changing leads, look at your horse.  Videotape if necessary.  Have others watch if you're the social type.  Whatever it takes, watch.

Now, analyze the situation.  What have you been doing?  Has it been working?  What's another approach that might work?  Try it.  Maybe just quit doing what you were doing before.  You switched bits and your horse tries to flip over every time you use the new bit?  Don't keep using the new bit -- at least until you've figured out what hurts your horse so much, or frightens him so irrationally, that he wants to flip over to avoid the contact.

Now implement the action (or removal of a previous action) in an effort to solve the problem.  If you're trying a different way of trimming his feet, do so now.  If you're trying a different training technique, get on it.  Do something different!  Your horse doesn't want to go through water and the many times you've spurred the ever-loving snot out of him and he still won't go through?  Try ponying him off an older, seasoned, water-loving tank of a horse.  Think outside the box.  Dare to be creative.

Now evaluate where your horse is with his issue.  If you've just trimmed his feet at a different angle, watch him walk again.  If you've tried a different technique of exposing him to the trailer, keep a notebook of his progress every time you work with him using that technique.  Here's the deal:  you should see improvement after a few sessions.  It may come slowly (as with fixing those under-run heels) or it may come dynamically (as with a horse who suddenly realizes the trailer isn't a scary bear-filled cave) but it should come. You should be going only in one direction with your horse:  the right direction.

I added a fifth dimension to this adaptation of the old SARA model:  refine.  After you've implemented the change and watched your horse's behavior again, and after you've assessed whether or not the change is helping, you must refine your approach.  Do you need to be more aggressive on correcting the angle of that hoof?  Or do you need to alter your trailer-training methods slightly?  Maybe you've been working on your horse's failure to collect properly and in doing so you've overworked him to the point he's sore and now he's stiff when you ask for collection.  Do you need to slow it down?

These are questions we should be asking ourselves to truly be an enlightened horseman.  And that good first question is:  Is what I'm doing working?

And if it isn't … why are you still doing it?

Copyright © 2014 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.  If you are reading this somewhere other than on, you are reading stolen content.  Please notify me so I may take appropriate legal action.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part III

Here it is:  the anatomy of a wreck.

If you have read my first two installments on this subject, you've already seen it coming:  you know I was headed for a fall.  A launch, specifically -- as in launched from the back of a spoiled, sour horse.  I guess I can now consider myself one of those "ladies who launch" -- or was that supposed to be lunch?

I'd spent a few weeks retraining Whiskey, that adorable buckskin gelding with the sweet face, in the round-pen and on the property.  He'd shown distinct resistance as described in my previous posts (and as seen in the videos I attached.  I'd given him the benefit of bitting him up and teaching him how to  useful himself better so that he wouldn't get sore when ridden; I'd legged him up a bit, and begun working on a proper foundation that he hadn't gotten before. We worked on head-set, backing, collection, impulsion, straight lines and round circles, and the beginning of lateral motion.

I was well aware that Whiskey had been ridden on several very long and challenging trail rides, and he performed very well for his riders -- he had a reputation as a good, solid horse.  I've done the long rides he has done, but not at the same time, and I know what he had to have been capable of to complete them.  Whiskey is, therefore, a very experienced horse.  There was no reason to suspect that he was going to be a dangerous horse when I took him out on our first trail ride together; in fact, I wondered if I was being too cautious.  I had worked him in the round pen the day before, and ridden him briefly around the property afterwards.  He'd been more distracted and unwilling to pay attention to me than the previous few sessions, so I worked him (bitted up) until he did so.  He worked hard and should have been tired the next day.

That next day, I skipped the round pen.  I relied on the fact he had so many wet saddle blankets in his past and had done so very much on the trail.  My husband would be accompanying me on his calm, seasoned gelding. I wore my usual riding gear -- jeans, boots, gloves, thick long-sleeve shirt, and hat.  I rarely go out on the trail without that outfit (although in the summer my long-sleeve shirts are thinner) as they offer some protection against trail hazards from sun to cactus to being tossed.  I felt I was being as safe as practical on this first-time trail ride with a new horse.  It was even a quiet day in the Tonto, the only shooters quite a distance away.

Whiskey and me, still enjoying a lovely fall ride.
Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller

I led Whiskey on the small patch of blacktop we had to cross to get to the trail head, paying attention to his attitude; he was alert but pleasant.  When I got to a safe spot to mount, I hopped on.  Not far along, I asked him to leave the main, well-used trail and take a narrower trail.  There, he showed his first sign of resistance:  he spun away slowly, half-rearing, in avoidance.  I got after him verbally and pushed him with my legs (I wasn't wearing spurs) and he proceeded.

We rode for several miles in perfect bliss.  He was a perfect gentleman, albeit moving along ploddingly.  Russ commented to me on how pleasant he was being, and with some sort of vague presentiment I said, "Yes, he is -- but the true test will be on the way home, when he wants to get back to the barn."  Whiskey definitely put it into second-gear on the way back, walking much faster than before.  I asked Russ to go in front.  We started to go down a rocky patch, and Whiskey squealed and began to buck.  They weren't serious bucks, but they were definite bucks and not just crow-hops. Puzzled, I hopped off and checked him for any possible explanation:  was it pain?  Was it cactus?  A bee sting?  I could find nothing that might be aggravating him.  I walked him a bit further and hopped on again.

It wasn't too long before he started to buck again, yet again on a rocky patch.  I dismounted and slapped him twice with the reins.  I do not want a horse thinking he is going to get out of work every time he acts up, but it was too rocky to have it out with him where we were.  I didn't want it to be pleasant for him that he was able to talk me into getting off.  Go ahead.  Call PETA.

I walked him again until we were at another safe area to mount,  talking to him and rubbing his face, striving for rapport.  On I climbed again.  He was clearly unhappy that we weren't racing back to the barn, and began to toss his head and swish his tail in agitation when I'd ask him for slow or whoa.  He wasn't jigging, just displaying annoyance.  I asked Russ (still in front) to walk ten steps, then halt (at which time we'd both ask our horses to lower their heads, breathe and settle) and then proceed -- and repeat until we got to the forest road.  That tactic served its intended purpose:  it forced Whiskey to calm down and settle, and it kept him from picking up dangerous speed or building in agitation.

At the forest road, I changed tactics.  I moved Whiskey in continuous serpentine motions back and forth across the road, bending, flexing, bending.  It helps a horse use up some of their excess energy to do diagonal work -- but the problem is, Whiskey's issue isn't excess energy, it's a pissed-off attitude.  Still, it got us safely to the little patch of blacktop near the house, at which point I again dismounted and led him to the driveway.

As Russ put his horse away, I rode Whiskey to the tack room and got my spurs.  He stood pleasantly, ground-tied, at the tack-room door -- no sign of agitation now.  He was happily home and couldn't be nicer.  I did not want him thinking that his day was over, though, just because he'd been a jerk on the trail, so I led him to the clear, unfenced area we used as an arena, and once more I mounted.

I don't believe in hopping on a horse and running them until they drop.  I want them to control themselves, not think that their reward for bad behavior is getting to run until they feel like behaving or stopping.  Instead, I want to work them at a trot -- a trot of varied degrees of collection and speed, so they must focus.  I trotted Whiskey out, first at a jog, then asking him for a faster, extended trot, and back to a jog.

Russ came out and settled into a chair at the end of the arena to watch.  He had barely done so when, at about our third time around, I could feel Whiskey prepare to act up.  We were going to the right, on the straightway just past the curve, when he dodged to the left.  I tightened up the reins and then he began to pitch.  These were not rough stock bucks by any means (he's no Steamboat!) but they were definitely a big enough running buck, the kind you'll often see a young horse do when they want to run back to the barn.

On buck number three, my hat blew off.  I reached up with one hand to grab it, as I'm always concerned that a flying hat will frighten the horse more, and I briefly lost my seat.  I regained it and hung on, scolding Whiskey at the same time.  At that point I thought I'd be able to ride out the rodeo and that he'd quit.  Just then, he began to buck in the direction of a large palo verde tree to my left.  I could see those spiny branches coming toward my face and I leaned to the right, thus losing my seat again.

That next buck -- buck number eight -- launched me as hard as I've ever been launched.  I'll admit it:  I'm not the scrawny youngster I once was.  I landed like a shot put or a kettle bell.  There was no rolling, no sliding, nothing graceful nor lithe.  I landed and stuck, striking my right side at the knees first, the impact then extending into my right shoulder and then my face.  The momentum then drove me onto my chest.

I've come off a lot of horses over the years in a lot of different ways.  I've been lawn-darted face-first, had horses fall beneath me in a variety of locations and manners, and had one tumble head-first.  The first time I ever came off was on a buckskin the same color as Whiskey, a beautiful horse named Buttermilk, who bucked me off.  I was seven.  I've collected a nice series of non-standard dismounts in the decades since.

None of them ever hurt like this one.

I consider myself fairly tolerant of pain, even having a root canal without anesthesia once, but I've never been in so much agony that I couldn't help but yell.  This landing changed all that.  I was aware of everything as it happened:  the way Russ left his chair, his hands outstretched as if to catch a football, as I was airborne.  The way I hit and smacked my chest so hard I briefly wondered if it would stop my heart with the traumatic force.  (It didn't.)  The way I rolled over and my face ground into the dirt and gravel … and the pain.

I bellowed like a water buffalo.  Or a whale, the way Russ put it.  I couldn't quit bellowing.  I was aware of my bellowing and the fact the neighbors might hear and I still couldn't quit bellowing.  I was in absolute agony.

At first, it was the pain in my chest.  Then, immediately, it was the absolutely excruciating pain in my knees and surrounding area.  I have never felt that sort of pain, a relentless, horrid, hair-curling pain that took over my whole body.  That pain was, of course, proof that I wasn't paralyzed -- great!  I wasn't growing cold -- I knew I wasn't dying.  I was just hurting.

Russ was quickly beside me and asking me questions, telling me to sit up, and all I could do was bellow and say, "I hurt too much, I hurt too much."  Humbling, that!  And soon I was well aware that I was going into shock:  I was getting shocky from the pain.  My field of vision started to constrict and I was quite literally seeing scintillating white stars, or maybe abstract flowers … everywhere.  I told Russ I was going into shock and that I needed water and that it was in the barn … and as he ran off for a bottle of water I talked myself out of shock.  I could feel what I can only describe as projectile sweating:  bullets of sweat shooting off my scalp, my face.  I focused on my breathing and telling myself that everything was all right, and soon Russ was back and checking my teeth.  Yes -- checking my teeth.  My bloodied face and chin meant nothing to me in the wake of my painful legs, but he was clearly focused on the streak of blood beneath my nose and the road-rash on my cheek and chin.

I washed the grit out of my mouth and sat for a few minutes.  With Russ' help, and plenty of bellowing, I got to my feet and made it to the barn, still fighting the last vestiges of shock.  I told Russ, "You sure know how to show a girl a good time," as we walked arm in arm to the barn, where I unashamedly tossed a horse blanket on the floor and tried to lie down -- but everything hurt too much.

I soon made it to the house and into the bathtub, where I dumped epsom salts into the hot water and soaked, keeping those knees above sea level, ice bags covering them.  I took inventory of injuries:  left hip, left wrist and thumb, both knees, face, rib cage, left breast, and some internal place just left of my right pelvic area.

It was a long and painful night.

In my next posting, I'll debrief a little bit of the aftermath -- and ponder my after-the-wreck assessment of the horse, the fall, and the future.

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  *All rights reserved.  *No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express permission of the author.  Links, however, may be freely shared.  *Thank you for liking, pinning, sharing, emailing, +1'ing, and otherwise helping me grow my audience.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: The Sour Horse, Part II

Although horses have a naturally defined personality, we shape it.  They are born with a personality that is like metal -- some are gold, some are tin, and they all have their own unique traits -- but we can shape that metal, mold it, melt it, form it into something good or great or really awful.  Some horses have naturally pleasing personalities; others are less honest, and they will perform beautifully if they know that there's something in it for them (just like humans).  How we decide to shape the metal of their personality -- the metal of their mettle, if you will -- is critical.

Whiskey, from what I can tell, was born as a level-headed and affectionate horse.  He was probably never the most motivated animal; that, like other components of personality, is something horses are born with or not.  Whiskey would have made a wonderful backyard horse, laid back and happy to hang around beside you, getting his head rubbed and sneaking a treat here and there from your pocket.  He's a lover, by nature.

I'm always telling my riding students that horses' life stories are written on them in the form of their behavior -- just like us.  What has happened to a horse can be read in them by a person who is attuned to that sort of thing.  Many of us do it intuitively, although we might not analyze it and put it into so many words.

Here's what I read from Whiskey's personality:  He'd been born calm and friendly, and that personality made him a perfect choice to tote green riders around on a guest ranch.  He is cute as can be -- a sweet eye, a gorgeous golden color, and his black points.  He is a nice all-around horse with a smooth trot that hints of something gaited far back in his pedigree, maybe back when the Quarter Horse was infused with plenty of its Narragansett Pacer foundation stock -- maybe there's some single-foot still in Whiskey.  Since I don't know his pedigree, I can't rule out that he has some Walker blood in there somewhere -- who knows?  I do know he's got an easy trot to sit.

What else I've read is that somewhere, Whiskey got spoiled and sour.  All the different riders with their different styles bred an inconsistent approach when he was ridden.  He likely never had a proper foundation -- meaning that he never learned fully the principles of collection, submission, and impulsion.  He was taught to steer and to stop and to move forward when asked -- and that's about all, but he did it well.  And then he learned that no matter how good he was, people would pull on his head and the bit would hurt him, so he began lifting his head and bracing his neck.  This gave him some measure of comfort, but it would cause him to hollow his back -- and that would cause him back pain.  Guess what?  That back pain would make those rides not so much fun for him.

That's the point where resistance comes in and becomes a habit.  An otherwise fine horse learns that the reward for good behavior is no reward at all:  it is more riders, more work, more discomfort, more pain. Whiskey soon figured out that as long as he behaved, the work would keep coming.  I do know he was overworked -- and then he was very, very fortunate, because a very loving couple acquired him.

Whiskey did a few more long rides, and then he came my way.  With him, he brought his natural affection -- and our man-made resistance.  If you've read my previous post, you'll know how that resistance showed in his motion and behavior.  If you haven't, read it here:  From Resistance to Wreck, Part I.  In my next post, I'll share more of the sequence of events that lead to the making of a "dirt angel" -- that distinctive imprint in the dirt of someone whom, moments earlier, was happily a-horseback, and then launched into the dirt to flail around for a few unhappy moments, unable to do anything other than writhe in pain (and bellow like a water buffalo).

Oh, the joys of horses!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  No part of this content may be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the express written permission of the author.  Links to this page may, however, be freely shared.  Thank you for sharing, liking, linking, +1ing, pinning, emailing and otherwise helping me grow my audience!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

From Resistance to Wreck: the Sour Horse, Part I

Oh, what a transition.  For the past two weeks I have intended to sit down and proclaim first the joy of "that new horse smell," followed by a few updates on retraining what is clearly a resistant horse with some bad manners.  I had looked forward to sharing progress reports on an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding who had plenty of experience under saddle but a poor foundation.  I was eagerly anticipating writing, one day, about the pleasure of this now-reliable horse, and about many trail miles we were sharing.

Whiskey, an absolutely adorable buckskin gelding!
Copyright (2013) by MJ Miller

Whiskey came to me from a much-loved friend who needed to place him due to a move.  I was honored and flattered and excited.  I let him settle in for a couple of days and then carefully saddled him and led him to the flat, less-rocky unfenced area we consider our arena.  I was cautious but was well aware that he had been ridden on several long, demanding, multi-day group trail rides and was highly spoken of by all the people I know who had seen him.   As such, I climbed right on him to assess him.

Wow.  Suddenly there was resistance.  He wouldn't turn to the right; he started tossing his head in agitation, trying to avoid the bit; and his tail was switching constantly.  He was … pissy.  I asked him to move forward in a walk and he started moving sideways and acting as if he was about to buck.  I hopped off, took him to the round pen, and watched him move.

Even in the round pen he was an annoyed little man.  He bucked a few rodeo bucks with the saddle on -- nothing that concerns me, really, as I don't mind a horse that bucks with the saddle as long as that saddle is empty.  He ignored me, for the most part, and turned away to watch whatever was going on in the neighborhood beyond.  He was lazy and he didn't want to complete the circle without continually turning of his own accord. I could see that he didn't really know how to carry himself; he held his head too high, wouldn't give to the bit, and moved awkwardly.  I bitted him up, very gently and slowly, and worked him for a few minutes.  He quickly started to grasp the concept but his neck was ewe-shaped from carrying his head high to escape the bit for the past couple of years, so I figured I'd bit him on a regular basis (but not too long at one time) to help him develop those necessary upper-neck muscles without getting sore.

And so I did.  I bitted him using an elastic bitting connector I made, so he'd learn to give to the bit.  He began to set his head nicely.  His loins began to develop and his neck got prettier.  He became less eager to challenge me by turning in the direction I did not want him to go.  I could see great signs of progress.

Here he is on his first day of bitting.  You can see how resistant he is in the movement of his tail, the general body language, his obvious irritation at being asked to work -- and what am I asking him for?  Nothing more than to give to the bit, drop his head, and trot, unburdened by a rider or a hard day's work.  Just that:  trot out, submitting politely to the bit.  Whiskey, Day I. 

On day two, I saw distinct signs of improvement, and by day three, he was clearly getting the concept and just beginning to give to the bit without having to think about it first.  Whiskey, Day II.  Whiskey, Day III.  (Please note that these are brief excerpts from those day's lessons.)  After day three of bitting him, I quit videotaping it because he was going so nicely there really wasn't much to show -- just a nice, steady, polite gelding trotting around with a happy expression.

I rode him a few times around the property, using the arena area and the perimeter training trail we put in.  On several of those occasions, my husband climbed on and did the same exercises I was doing:  teaching Whiskey how to walk forward with motivation and collection; how to stop and back nicely and fluidly; how to respond to leg commands (of which he knew next to nothing).  We both agreed that he was a nice horse who needed to learn all the basics that he'd either forgotten or never knew to begin with.  He'd started out as a guest ranch horse, and suffered from that guest-ranch-horse syndrome:  a series of riders who weren't all necessarily good ones, a need to escape harsh hands by tossing his head to avoid the bit, and an overall attitude of annoyance from long and likely uncomfortable or even painful days of being over-worked.  (This happened before my friend bought him -- she was a loving and competent owner.)  It was understandable that this horse displayed the traits that he did.

As I write this, I sit with ice bags on various body parts.  I'm wondering how I'm going to pay for the parts of the urgent care visit that insurance won't cover, much less the $120 in pain remedies, muscle rubs, knee and wrist braces, and related drugstore items.  On my next update, I'll share Whiskey's progress -- and how his resistance translated to wreckage:  mine!

Copyright © 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.   No part of this content, including photographs, may be copied in whole or in part without the express permission of the author.  However, a link to this page may be freely shared.  Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, forwarding and otherwise helping me grow my audience!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thank You for Making the Perfect Horse!

Smart Lil Poppy
Copyright (c) 2013 MJ Miller

As I often do when I spend time with truly great horses that I did not personally raise, I reflect on how much of an investment someone, somewhere, made in those horses.  It takes a lot to make a perfect horse:  among other things, it takes time, knowledge, experience, patience, timing, consistency and good old sweat-inducing hard work.  It means not cheating and not skipping steps, no matter how mundane, because it all makes a difference.

Making the perfect horse is a commendable effort.  It is a gift you give not only to that horse, but to every person who handles that horse in the future -- the majority of whom you'll never meet.  It is a gift to the child who might run behind the horse waving a balloon; to the veterinarian who has to sew up a wound on his back leg; to the middle-aged woman who buys him, wanting to rediscover the relationship she had with  horses thirty years prior.

It's an incredible thing to make a perfect horse.  The building of a perfect horse means developing trust, so he can conquer those fight-or-flight instincts.  It means demanding perfect ground manners so he doesn't trample someone walking beside him, or rub his head on their back and knock them down.  It means ensuring his nutritional needs are met so that he is physically capable of a productive, long, healthy and sound life.  It means teaching him what he must know to be safe and pleasant:  stepping freely and voluntarily into a trailer, just because you ask; standing tied without setting back; lifting his feet politely; tolerating certain unpleasant things, such as painful veterinary procedures, because they must be done for his own good.  All those things, and so much more, are tedious parts of the training process -- but they are so necessary.

Much of what makes the perfect horse are things that were NOT done to him, though.  Thank you to those of you who don't put the horse in a no-win situation so that he doesn't learn to freeze up because he is smart enough to realize he'll get punished either way.  Thank you to those of you who don't ruin the most talented and capable horses by continually jamming on them, forever wanting more than they can give.  Thank you for not making them head shy, barn sour, or just plain mean.  Those of you who don't cripple up your horses with ignorance or neglect deserve praise.  You -- yes, you -- the one who went without new clothes during that rough financial time, so your horse could have ample feed and veterinary care?  Thank you.

For those of you who spend time every day with your young horses, teaching them to lead properly and without resistance, bless you.  For those of you who show affection to your horse with praise and kindness, but don't spoil them with hand-fed treats or by letting them get away with bad habits, thank you.  Did you teach your horse to lower his head when asked, or the "over" command that is so essential when working around your horse on the ground?  You're my hero.

Special thanks to you who register your horses.  No, I'm not a believer that horses have to have papers to be of value.  But I am a believer that a registered horse has a better shot at a happy and long life, because they are important to many people.  Those registration papers may make the difference between a horse going to auction or going on to a new life as a broodmare.  Thank you for investing in registering your registrable horses -- and more importantly, thank you for breeding good quality horses.

That's where the perfect horse begins, of course -- at conception.  If you refuse to breed that high-dollar horse that carries a genetic disease or disorder, thank you.  If you refuse to breed a horse that is dangerously crazy, mean, or terror-stricken despite being handled properly from birth, thank you.

And for those of you whom don't own even horses, but handle them well -- the trainers, horseshoers, veterinarians, grooms, and riders on borrowed horses -- thank you.  Horsemen know that it takes just one idiot to ruin a horse that was years in the making.  If you care enough about horses to do the right thing even if you only handle a horse once, you're deserving of great respect.

Thank you to all of you whom contribute in some way to those perfect horses.  It is, ultimately, the horse who benefits most from your care and expertise.  They can't thank you -- and I can't thank you enough.

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller.  All rights reserved.  No part of this article may be used without the express permission of the author, but links may be freely shared.  Thank you for commenting, sharing, pinning, liking, and otherwise helping grow my readership.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

An Open Letter to My Next Horseshoer

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller

I've often told people that when I ultimately quit horses, it won't be because of the cost -- hundreds every month in hay, grain, veterinary bills, fly spray and the endless litany of other products they need (or I want).  It won't be the hard work:  the hours every day of cleaning stalls, dragging hoses, measuring supplements, or grooming.  It won't be the injuries, not the major damage from having that horse fall on me on the blacktop, nor the daily minor bruises and cuts and scrapes from tending them.  It won't even be the heartbreak:  those awful moments when you say goodbye to an old friend who just can't get up again.

Nope.  It won't be any of those things.  It'll be horseshoers.

Now, I've got a great deal of respect for anyone willing to work long hours in the heat and dust and grime, doing backbreaking work with hammer and nippers, while having invested their own time or money in learning everything from equine anatomy and motion mechanics to how to control sheared heels.  A good horseshoer is a hard-working, knowledgable member of every horse owner's extended family.  A competent and professional horseshoer who also is kind to the animal is worth his or her weight in gold (and to those petite gals who do just as great a job as their bigger guy colleagues, you're worth twice your weight in gold).  I love you horseshoers, I really do.

But having seen those T-shirts and coffee mugs with "things you never want to say to your horseshoer" and hearing those horseshoer gripes (face it, there are many), I need a little equal time here.  Any of you who've worked on my horses know I'm going to tell it to you up front -- it doesn't benefit your business when someone doesn't communicate with you, then lets you go only to talk smack about you to their horsey friends and neighbors.  I'm not going to do that.  I'm sharing this with those of you who are starting out, or who might be parking in front of my barn in the future.  If you're losing customers faster than a horse will lose a shoe in a chain-link corral, maybe this will come in handy.

Here are some things I'd like you to know, future horseshoer guy.  I want us to have a long, productive, professional relationship in which my horses are safe and happy and you, hardworking horseshoer guy, are safe and happy, too.

  • Please ... listen to me.  I see my horses on a daily basis.  Heck, on the best days, I even get to ride them or spend time working them on the ground.  I watch.  I know how they move, I know what I do with them, and I know how I want them to move.  If you're so committed to your opinion that you'll value mine, I'll shop for someone who does.

  • Be kind to my horses.  Every one of them will stand quietly if handled properly.  By the time I'll ask you to work on their feet, they are trained not to kick, bite, invade your space, or jump on top of you because they see their shadow.  When they're babies, I'll pay you a few bucks just to go in and pet them until you know each other.  If they have behavioral issues, I'll tell you about it and I'll be right there making sure you're able to safely conduct your business.  In return, don't constantly snarl and growl at them.  Horses are big, fearful creatures and you're not going to alleviate that fear by continually barking at them until they're so edgy they'll jump when you sneeze.  If you make them tense, I'll find a new shoer.  If you strike one of my horses, you'd better have a damned good reason to do so (and yes, a horse acting aggressively towards you -- not fearfully, but aggressively -- qualifies).  We're partners in this thing, you and me, and my horse and I are partners, too.  Don't bark at my horses.  Geez.

  • Don't badmouth my last horseshoer.  Heck, don't badmouth any other horseshoers.  For crying out loud, don't ever badmouth my vet.  If you want to constructively critique the work of another shoer, that's fine -- that's how we can have open, honest dialogue.  But I've had so many horseshoers whose first question is, "Who was shoeing them before?" and as soon as I mention the name, they start shaking their head and running down the other guy.  It's unprofessional, it's not impressive, and it's totally uncool.  

  • If you say you're going to be here, be here.  I'm not the normal horse owner:  I'm pretty flexible.  I don't get too worked up if you're late.  I don't get worked up if there's an occasional no-show.  Now, there was a time I had to take vacation hours every time my shoer was coming out.  It galled me no end when I lost hundreds of dollars or a wasted rare day off waiting on a shoer who never came out.  Don't do that.  Your client's time matters, folks.  Taking a vacation day every six weeks uses up all the vacation time some people even accrue!  If you SAY you're going to be here, be here.  If something comes up, call.  Don't say it if you're not going to do it.  I always pay the minute the work is done.  I don't ever, ever bounce checks.  Now, how would you feel if I was as bad about paying as you are about showing up?  

  • If you get injured, or are going on vacation, or Old Trusty Blue Pick-Up is going to be at the shop for eighteen weeks, be professional enough to tell me so I can make other arrangements.  Don't get your feelings hurt if I have someone else fill in.  It isn't that I don't care.  I do.  It's not that I'm unsympathetic -- I am.  But I'm not going to neglect my horses because you're taking six months off.  Let's be reasonable:  we can either communicate about this and you can even give me your recommendations for a back-up shoer, or I'll do it on my own, but either way it's going to happen.  I'd rather work with you so you can retain my future business than work against you because your feelings got hurt.

  • Don't make a pass at me.  Granted, this doesn't happen much these days -- I'm married now, and I've had the same shoer for the past five years (with occasional interruptions due to some professional disagreements).  As for the many times it occurred in the past, it never was welcome.  Seriously, your female customers don't want to be alone in the barn with a sexually-aggressive guy wielding a hammer, okay?  Be professional.  Don't try for a hay-roll with your customers -- it'll hurt your bank-roll.  If your professional relationship develops into a friendship that turns into a date, great.  

  • Heck, don't tell me filthy jokes, either.  I don't need that garbage.  Note:  if your customer isn't laughing, that's a clue.  And your language?  I'm a big girl, and I know how to launch a bomb like anyone else -- but the neighbors don't need to hear you yelling profanities.  I don't like it, either.  Be professional.  Professionals don't use the F-bomb in front of their customers.  Ever.

  • Don't criticize my big furry babies.  I don't own them because I hate them, you know.  I love the big kids.  I know they're not perfect.  If there's a behavioral issue I need to know about, I'd appreciate you letting me know so I can work with them on it.  But don't walk along the barn, look at my new baby and announce, "She's long-backed!" or "She's a nasty ol' biatch!"  Say something nice, even if you have to look long and hard to find it.  Just as you won't look at your sister's new baby and loudly burst out, "But that's an ugly baby!" don't do it here.  Keep your inside voice and your outside voice properly separated.

  • If I am not happy with the shoeing job you did, don't get defensive.  It is a good thing that a customer will tell you what the issue is so you can resolve it.  Talk about it.  Listen.  Set ego aside and communicate.  If I'm telling you that you're about to lose my business because the horses' heels are so overrun that they can't walk down a slight slope, don't keep pointing at them and yelling, "Those angles are perfect!  Look at them!"  I did.  Right before I started looking in the phone book under "Farrier Services."

  • Don't tell me that horses "just lose shoes" and there's nothing a shoer can do about it.  I've gone through far too many horseshoers, and I've noticed a pattern:  some shoers can't keep a shoe on a horse.  Others shoe a horse so the shoes just do not come off, not through mud and miles and rocky terrain.  Obviously a horse can get hung up and pull a shoe off.  I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a horse where the shoe just plain falls off a week after the shoer has been out, and the shoer says, "That's not a shoeing issue" -- four times in a row.  Guys?  Listening?  It's a balance issue.  An imbalanced shoeing job will cause the shoes to fly off.  It's worse than winged monkeys!  If your customers are complaining that the shoes just will not stay on, it's time to start self-assessing your work and figuring out what's wrong.  Not everyone has that problem.
Oh yes, I know I'm demanding.  I want competence, patience and professionalism.  And I know how many wonderful, competent, patient and professional shoers there are out there.  If you're all that, I'm the perfect client.  If you're not, I hope you'll see a little bit of the horse owner's viewpoint here and -- forgive the pun -- take it all in good stride.

Copyright (c) 2013 by MJ Miller
All rights reserved.  No part of this page may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.  However, links to this article may be freely shared.  Thank you for pinning, sharing, liking, 1+ing, and otherwise helping to grow my audience.