Category Archives: Horse Care and Management

Grain Mites: Unwelcome Summer Visitors

While most equestrians living in temperate regions of the U.S. look forward to the pleasant weather of late spring and summer, the humidity and warm-but-not-scorching temperatures are also ideal conditions for grain mites. These tiny members of the Acaridae family are only between 100th to 300th of an inch in length and are relatives of spiders and ticks.  When conditions are ideal, these common pests can occur in large numbers in grain, hay and straw, happily eating their way through your horse’s dinner.

“Grain mites eat the germ out of any kind of stored grain products and proteins,” explains Jessica Starcevich, M.S., staff entomologist with Spalding Labs. “They thrive in high humidity. Depending on the species, this means relative humidity over 70%.”

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Grain mite (drawing from Penn State Extension website).

 

But a mite infestation is more than just a nuisance—exposure to grain mites can cause allergic reactions in several species. Grain mites are known human allergens, and ingestion of large quantities has caused lesions in the stomach lining of cattle. While more research is needed, there is increasing evidence that grain mites, which also feed on molds and fungus and spread fungal spores throughout their environment, may play a role in triggering equine respiratory syndromes.

Because mites are so small, managers might not notice their presence—at first. But with a fairly long lifespan (mites can live up to fifty-five days) and prolific reproductive capacity (a female will lay 600-800 eggs during her lifetime), it won’t take long for their numbers to compound. An active mite infestation looks as if the grain bin (or bag) has been coated in a light brown dust. The grain itself may appear dusty, and if you begin moving bags around, the mites’ crushed exoskeletons can give off a “minty” odor.

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Large numbers of grain mites gathered together resemble a yellow-orange dust. Photo Agna Rodrigues/Bugwood.org

“They are most common in regular whole grains, like oats, corn and barely,” says Starcevich. “But they can infest pelleted feed and certainly sweet feed that has oats and things mixed into it.”

When it comes to grain mites, the best defense is a good offense. Many mite-prevention techniques should already be best practices in terms of grain storage. Strategies such as never pouring new grain over old, thoroughly cleaning out and scrubbing bins in between fill ups, storing grain in airtight containers and religiously cleaning up hay chaff, mold and dust, can all help eliminate the conditions that favor grain mites.

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Grain should be stored in airtight containers. Be sure to clean out storage in between bags and never pour new grain on top of old.

Additionally, take steps to reduce the humidity in your grain storage area. Consider installing a fan, using a dehumidifier or even desiccant packets (keep these away from farm pets). Grain moisture meters can be purchased from agricultural supply companies; stored grain should absolutely not read at more than 16%, and ideally will be much lower than that.

“Make sure there is no place hospitable for them,” says Starcevich. “If you can dry them out, they will die very quickly.”

During humid months, consider getting smaller quantities of grain delivered more frequently, so fewer bags are stored. With each delivery, do a careful inspection of each bag before opening it. If there is any evidence of mite activity, get that bag out of your storage area immediately—and contact your supplier.

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Most grain suppliers closely watch for signs of mite activity, and would prefer to be notified as soon as possible if product from their store proves to be infested.

“Suppliers get anxious about mites, but it’s usually not their fault, as mites could have been picked up anywhere along the process,” says Starcevich. “Suppliers actively watch for mites and try to avoid getting them. But if they do, they likely have an action plan for how to take care of it.”

If, despite your best efforts, grain mites appear, don’t panic—but do act efficiently, as it is far easier to control an outbreak when the numbers are small. The most important step is to remove the infested grain from your bin, and if possible, remove the bin itself from your storage area. Contaminated grain should be thrown out, buried in an active compost pile or spread in an extremely thin layer where it will be exposed to the sun. Removable bins should be left in the sun for several days, then treated with an acaricide such as pyrethrin. If possible, do not return grain to the bin for several weeks.

“The biggest thing is to get things dry,” says Starcevich. “And keep food sources away from the mites.”

If removing the bin is not possible, thoroughly clean the entire area, paying close attention to corners, cracks and crevices, then treat it with an acaricide. Wait a week, then treat again, then wait another week before use. While this may seem like overkill (if you will forgive the pun), juvenile grain mites living in high concentrations can morph into a phase called the hypopus, which has a sucker that they attach to animals to help them disperse to new areas. During this stage, they are highly resistant to pesticides.

Finally, reach out to your county extension agent if you have further questions. Usually, consultation and even testings are free, and they will know if there is a specific outbreak of any pests going on in your area.

 

Book Review: The Five Horse Types in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine

The Five Horse Types in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine by Dr. Ina Gösmeier

c 2014 (Appears to be self-published) 68 pages.

ISBN 978-3-00-0247569-6

One of the fundamental concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that all beings belong largely to one of the five basic elements—fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Knowing which of the elements most influence an individual can help TCM practitioners better determine the health challenges that individual is most likely to face, as well as how to best address them.

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Author Dr. med vet Ina Gösmeier is an accomplished German veterinarian and equestrian. Her vet practice is based on TCM, applied kinesiology and Chinese Herbology, and she has travelled with the German team to international championships, enhancing their performance using naturopathic methods. According to the bio in her book, she also teaches, writes and lectures extensively on the subject of holistic medicine in animals, particularly acupuncture and acupressure.

I am not prepared to give up Western medicine but I admit that TCM, with its whole body approach to healing, has a certain logic to it. Rather than just focusing on specific symptoms or disorders, TCM considers the overall balance of chi (sometimes spelled qi), which is an essential life force in the body. Acupuncture/acupressure, for example, seeks to rebalance the chi and restore its harmonious flow along the body’s meridians.

In this quick read book, Dr. Gösmeier explains that horses can be classified into one of five types—Gan/Liver, Shen/Kidney, Pi/Spleen, Xin/Heart, and Fei/Lung– and that identifying horse type can help vets practicing TCM to better predict the course and duration of a disease. Based on certain symptoms for each type, it is possible for a practitioner to identify when an animal is out of balance and in need of treatment. Sometimes these symptoms are behavioral, and have seemingly nothing to do with the source of the problem. Horses are classified by considering their mind/character, social behavior, rideability and physical characteristics.

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Image borrowed from The Naturally Healthy Horse; link provides a summary of the five horse types which is more clear than anything in this book.  But from the chart you can get a sense of how confusing it is even in English!

Each horse type has some positive and some negative characteristics. Some horses show traits of more than one type.

If you are intrigued by these concepts, and want to learn more—do not seek out this book. Originally written in German, it is possibly one of the poorest quality translations I have ever read. I am sure that trying to explain such unique and abstract concepts to any Westerner takes first, a fair degree of comprehension and understanding of the concepts to begin with, and second, requires the ability to break them down into smaller pieces. I would think that each word is carefully chosen, each phrase crafted to impart better clarity and meaning.

Quite simply, these concepts are lost in the translation. But it isn’t just the concepts—it is basic phrases and expressions too, things which someone who is bilingual enough to do a translation should be able to articulate more clearly. It is almost as though someone fed the document through Google Translate and hoped for the best.

I can only imagine that in the original German, this book would be much more enlightening!

1/5 stars

Jochen Schleese: Understanding Better Saddle Fit

Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance.  Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit.  He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.

Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles.  First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male.  Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider.  However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees.  And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.

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Jochen discusses the sweat marks and muscling of demo horse Santa Fe ISF, after he was warmed up in his usual tack.

Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”.  As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider.  But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down.  Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments.  If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.

Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting.  But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start.  More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.

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Here, Jochen shows how the human pelvis is meant to be centered over the topline musculature.

A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.

It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine.  Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well.  Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.

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Santa at the beginning of the “marking up” process.  You can see the bold “X” of two “no pressure” zones.

Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle.  Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary.  Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area.  Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.

If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.

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These tree points show a design which is common even in modern saddles; they can apply too much pressure to the sensitive region below the withers and near the shoulder cap.

Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:

  • Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing.  In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse.  It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
  • Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical.  An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
  • No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting:  The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind.  The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
  • Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work.  Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers.  There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse.  Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance.  Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
  • Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
  • Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
  • Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length.  Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
  • Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
  • Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers.  Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary.  This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
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Note the angle of the tree points.

There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process.  “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.

Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information.  Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline.  In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine.  How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained.  Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).

“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.

Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward.  When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple.  Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.

While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically.  Often, issues are more subtle.  For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.

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Jochen began his three hour presentation with a Powerpoint supported lecture. I promise the students in the background were more interested than this photo might indicate!  🙂

Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit.  It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.

Keeping Up With the Jones’

I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment.  Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.

For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):

“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps).  She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”

The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring.  But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy.   At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.

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Look, we cross tie like a grown up horse.

It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament.  Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident.  She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.

Izzy is by the Connemara stallion Skyview’s Triton and out of a Thoroughbred mare named Honest Wit.  She was foaled on May 30, 2015, and so by my thinking she is a “young” two year old—when she arrived here in March, she wasn’t even quite two by the calendar.

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Fresh off the trailer on a very cold March morning in NH!

I spent time this spring just getting to know her better.   In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible.  Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills.  Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived.  But even so, certain things were new.  The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it.  She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away.  We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.

One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead.  She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway.  After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand.  But clearly we needed a better system.

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So I began introducing her to the cross ties.  I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming.  She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect.  Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there.  Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie.  And just like that…we crosstied.

While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties.  But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot.  I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.

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Intern Kelly, with her canine assistant Fox, take Izzy for a walk about.

As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat.  Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.

In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad.  I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides.  “No drama”.  From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.

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First time wearing a saddle pad. 

I set a few further goals for her for the summer.  When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that.  I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides.  And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.

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First day in a bridle.  Still sorting out the bit.

I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more.  On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient.  Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task.  Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe.  She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own.  And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm.  Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!

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Learning to “pony”– all three of us together!

It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare.  Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway?  Should I be using some contraption?  I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings.  She has yet to wear a saddle.  Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here].  Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?

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When learning, it is important to have good role models.

But then I remind myself to take a step back.  Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing.  The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours.  Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer.  In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit.  But there is no hurry, no rush.  If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.

Horses do not progress on our schedule.  My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go.  There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what.  So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.

She is pretty darn persuasive.

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The “golden girl”.

Book Review: Suffering in Silence

Suffering in Silence by Jochen Schleese

c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages

ISBN 978-1570766534

I first read an excerpt of Jochen Schleese’s book, Suffering in Silence: the Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, in an old issue of Dressage Today magazine.  The segment provided there included information regarding the natural asymmetry of the horse, detailing how this condition develops, and how this asymmetry impacts saddle fit.  I was struck by the technical precision in the writing and the clear passion which Schleese had for the subject.  I immediately ordered a copy of the book to review in more depth.

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Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist, and Schleese Saddles are known as being “ergonomically correct” for female riders.  In this book, Schleese goes into a great deal of detailed explanation regarding the how’s and why’s of his theory of saddle fitting.  In particular, he highlights the personal research he has done into the differences between male and female pelvic anatomy, and how this can impact each gender’s relative position in the saddle. What was even more interesting to me, though, were his thoughts on the ideal fit of the saddle to the horse.

Jochen Schleese discusses the importance of saddle fit

I have struggled to find the ideal saddle fit for two of my own horses; one is a distance horse who has completed two 100 mile competitive trail rides, and the other is a Connemara cross who does mostly dressage (each has their own tack).  In the past, I have had certified saddle fitters adding pads, shims and all manner of other manipulations to make saddles fit.  After experiencing years of frustration, I began working with someone new, who identified some basic issues, such as an inappropriate tree width, as being part of my problem.  Still, the process of finding a correctly fitting saddle can make someone feel like the princess and the pea.

Schleese emphasizes that a well fitting saddle for the horse must be a priority, as this variable, more than many others, can influence a horse’s long term soundness.  In this book, he describes the horse’s saddle support area, with detailed discussion of the muscles, ligaments and tendons involved.  Schleese uses clear descriptions as well as outstanding illustrations and diagrams to help the reader to see and understand where the saddle should be placed, the interaction of the saddle, girth and the biomechanics of the horse, and the importance of clearing the equine scapula.  I can’t say enough about the quality of this discussion, and I think it is something which every horseman should read and absorb.  I simply haven’t seen it done better, anywhere.

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Schleese draws areas important for saddle fit consideration on this horse; this image is used both in their text and on Saddlefit 4 Life’s website.  Unable to find an official credit but go to Saddlefit 4 Life for more!

I have since learned that Schleese is somewhat of a controversial figure in the saddle fitting/making community.  There are some who feel that his “saddles for women” theme is just a gimmick to sell saddles; one saddler I spoke with said that if you want to sell saddles in the modern market, they “all better fit women”.  Schleese also is a proponent of rear-facing gullet plates, a design which is counter to the principles espoused by the Society of Master Saddlers, a large certifying organization based in the U.K.  However, there are many other saddlers who consider Schleese’s work to be inspirational; one local saddler says that his work is in fact what inspired her to become a certified saddle fitter.

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My mare Lee demonstrates how poorly her old saddle really fit her…and she did a 100 mile ride in this!

With all that being said, I don’t consider this book to be a sales pitch, but rather the outcome of one man’s passion for promoting greater awareness of the critical importance of saddle fit for horse and rider.  The text is clear and accessible to any conscientious horseman, the book is incredibly well illustrated through diagram and photograph, and many additional resources are provided where readers can learn more.

I was so inspired by reading this book that I have actually reached out to Schleese’s company, Saddlefit 4 Life, and we will be hosting a seminar with him at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on September 20, 2017. Visit www.equine.unh.edu fore more information.

5/5 stars

Metabolic Management of your Endurance Athlete

Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017

For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority.  For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”.  Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.

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Dr. Susan Garlinghouse (photo from AERC)

Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.

Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times.  She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles.  Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition.  She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.

Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing:  hydration, gut motility and energy balance.  They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.

Hydration

Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss.  The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow.  Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride.  During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.

Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates.   Health concerns escalate rapidly from there.  At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated.  At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output.  At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble.  At 12%, the horse is close to death.

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The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.

Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth.  According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking.  For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons.  Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride.  Another 20% were at the high end of normal.  Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.

Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.

Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this.  Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition.  First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.

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Roughage should always be at least 50% of your horse’s ration, and for a distance horse, more is better.

Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride.  These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.

The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider.  Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals.  When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume.  The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.

If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal.  But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.

To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours.  Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.

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Soaked beet pulp.  Photo credit:  www.equinenutritionnerd.com

On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food.  The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking.  So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses.  Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.

Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein.  Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate.  Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.

Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:

  • Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
  • Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
  • Minimize the amount of protein in the diet

Gut Motility

While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress.  Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else.  This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract.  This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.

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Equine digestive system.  Photo credit: http://www.threeoaksequine.com

For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride.  Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants.  Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility.  Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat.   The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased.  Slowing down will reverse this effect.

Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process.  Instead, feed soaked products, including hay.  The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.

Energy Balance

A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance.  There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride.  Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.

There are two primary sources of energy for exercise:  fats and glucose (from carbohydrates).  Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities.  Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue.  Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.

Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it.  Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight.  They also have a glycogen sparing effect.  Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride.  Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly.  A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements.  Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.

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My distance horse, Lee, has been running on ProForce Fuel for the past three seasons.  It is 12% protein/13% fat.

One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride.  Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat.   In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’.  Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested.  The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.

Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride.  On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.

Final Thoughts

There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride.   Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.

 

 

The Four Seasons of Cold Moon Farm

This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!).  Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work.  Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.

Winter is here in New England.  A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing.  Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep.  This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.horsesfed

Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping.  All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know.  If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots.  But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter.  The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year.  Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor.  One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing.  No athlete can maintain peak performance year round.  Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge.  After all, nature is doing it, right?

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Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty.  As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me!  With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.

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A February sunset (2016).

In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned.  I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky.  I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil.  Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.

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Getting legged up April 2016.

Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers.  We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends.  Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.

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Marquesa and Lee enjoying spring grass in May 2016.

Songbirds return.  At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy.  The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.

But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups.  Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs.  Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area).  Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies.  And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.

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The hazy days of early summer.  June 2016.

Summers in New England are short and intense.  There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it.  I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible.  I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day.  My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.

This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought.  I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.

The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual.  I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated.  On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back.  But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll.  Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil.  I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.

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Lime being spread August 2016.

Fall here is simply stunning.  There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten.  Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color.  Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed.  The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction.  The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer.  Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.

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The view from between Anna’s ears.  October 2016.
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These two things don’t seem to belong together (October 2016).

Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter.  The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300).  Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water.  And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves.  I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!

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Yes, I mowed over these, or at least the ones that didn’t blow away.   October 2016.

As fall winds down, winter begins again.  And the cycle continues.

Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change.  Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.

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Marquesa shows off her “frosticles”. Winter Solstice, 2016.

So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.

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“You are so lucky to work outside,” they said.

Happy New Year.

Adelinde Cornelissen and the Arm Chair Quarterback

During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug.  Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete.  However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.

Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations.  But quickly the backlash began.  Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.

Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years.  They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver.  They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows.  The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue.  The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.

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Parzival was disqualified from the 2010 World Equestrian Games after blood appeared in his mouth. 

I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events.  Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system.  Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours.  For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry.  The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure.  Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.

From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival.  Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods.  I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles.  But yet, the impression is there.

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Photos like this one, easy to find on the internet, do not do much to ease Cornelissen’s public image. 

So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again.  But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details.  And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero.  She has been abusing that horse for years.”

Wait a minute here.  Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right.  She stopped performing her test.  It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well.  She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports.  In spite of all of this…she stopped.   How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival FEI World Cup 2009

The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet.  It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw:  “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What?  He looked sound to me.)  “He is obviously unhappy.  Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was  a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable.  I feel so bad for him.”

I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks.  Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched.  The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone.  He appears healthy and willing.  He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance.  I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse.  However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched.  I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.

I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.

I must really not know much about horses or dressage.  But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair.  I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing.  One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival.  I wish I was making this up.

There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor.  “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks.  “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”

This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”.  The stuff that no one talks about but people know about.  It happens in all equine sports, at all levels.  And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok.  This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another.  This is about good, basic, horsemanship.

Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival?  Sure.  I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility.  But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them.  So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.

If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak?   Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?

Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”.  She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag.  This lesson has really stuck with me.  The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners.   And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?

The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and  IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself.  Educate yourself.  Learn from the best that you can afford.  Practice.  Eat healthy.  Stay fit.  Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.

There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse.  But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.

I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.

 

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

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Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

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Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

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Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

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Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.

 

 

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.