Saturday, May 31, 2008

Can You Wear Jeans & Muck Boots to Judge a Horse Show?

I just signed a contract to judge another horse show. It's coming up in a few weeks and it's making me a little bit anxious. That's not because it's a high profile hunter and equitation show on the county circuit. And it's not because it was one of my favorite shows to attend when I was competing. It's because I've been told by the show manager to "glam it up a bit." In other words, I've been instructed to wear a dress or a skirt. Yes, that's how hoity-toity this show is, partially because it's held at a private country club. Actually, I'm very honored to have been hired to be one of the judges, but now I have to rush around town looking for a skirt. Why? Because, being a confirmed horsewoman... and a writer by profession who works from home... I do not own a single skirt or dress.

Hey, at least I've been wearing shorts a lot lately to get a tan on my legs so that when I do get all dolled up in that skirt I won't be sporting the typical horsewoman's tan. As most of you are aware, that means tan arms, really tan face (except for the raccoon eyes from wearing sunglasses all day) and pasty-colored legs.

Other than that, I'm excited about this judging job. I've come a long way from the very first show I judged. That was probably 15 or so years ago, and yet I remember portions of it quite well. It was a little, itty bitty show held in a dry plot of land adjacent to a dairy farm and a stockyard. In the back acreage that day, Civil War re-enactors were holding one of their annual soldier-fests and I had to deal with wayward Yankees and Rebels and the occasional "BOOMS!" of cannon fire. Most of the horse show participants were kids on scruffy horses tacked up in colorful nylon headstalls and "saddled" with everything from knock-off show saddles to bareback pads. I think I got paid a whopping $50 for the day, but you know what? It was a learning experience for me. It was my first opportunity to wrangle with the paperwork and decision-making that goes into judging a horse show. Regardless of how unkempt and disheveled the competitors were, someone still had to be declared the first place winner.

You might wonder how I happened into that judging assignment. Well, I asked for it. Literally. I accepted I had to gain experience starting at the bottom of the horse show ranks, so I made unsolicited phone calls to every horse show organizer I could find by consulting fliers and posters and volunteering my services for a very cheap daily rate.

Once I decided I was interested in judging part-time, I also consulted my friends who had obtained their AHSA (now USEF) licenses and they gave me some great impromptu tutoring sessions. I learned how to mark a score sheet. They gave me tips on how to penalize and reward various rounds over fences. I sat with them while they judged ("learning judging"). And, most importantly, I became very familiar with the rule book. After all, someone, somewhere, has to establish rules for competition. Otherwise it's a melee waiting to happen. However, I stopped short of getting my AHSA/USEF license. I just wasn't that interested in pursuing a full judge's card. That requires a certain amount of time, travel and personal expense. All of that is understandable, and I admire those who do complete the requirements. It just wasn't for me.

Yet I'm quite content to judge county-rated and regionally sanctioned shows. Thankfully, I've moved beyond judging the little dustbowl shows. However, there's a trade-off in such a promotion. Occasionally I have to update my wardrobe.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

They Can be Gone so Suddenly

The news that three-day eventing super pony Theodore O'Connor was euthanized following an accident really disturbed me. That's not because I'm a huge follower of eventing, but because he was a small horse-- only 14.1-- that had become larger than life due to his competitive spark and his successful performances in world class competition. Despite having spent much of my life riding warmbloods that towered above me, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the smaller horses that neglected to realize that they were shorter in stature than their peers. Teddy suffered catastrophic injuries to a hind leg after he bolted, slipped and fell. Just like that, his fate was sealed due to a freak accident.

Teddy's fate was on my mind today while I was leading Wally down to the large arena near my house. He'd been idle since his two big trail rides over the holiday weekend and needed a longe before I hopped on. Wally being Wally, he started revving up like Secretariat going postward in the Belmont Stakes. I could hardly control him as I led him down the short path to the arena. Keep in mind that I inherited this behavior problem; I didn't create it. But it takes all of my physical strength and determination not to allow Wally to overpower me and begin whirling around in circles on the bridle path. Even more so today, with the spectre of Teddy's accident fresh in my mind, I realized that if Wally should bolt and get loose, he'd be dragging the longe line as he galloped... where? Into the street? Across my neighbors' lawns? Would he crash into the split-rail wooden fence that lined the bridle path? I held so tightly to that longe line (and the stud chain which, as you can imagine, was being used to its fullest measure) that I strained my bad arm. But it was worth it. I knew that should Wally get loose and run amok, he could also end up mortally wounded. Teddy's tragedy reminded me that even at the best barn, with the most experienced handler, a rambunctious horse can get itself into trouble. And unfortunately in the horse world, there are rarely any "do overs."

In yet another instance of bolting off, I found a link to this news story on Horse Channel's homepage. According to the report, a bay Arabian gelding named Charlz bolted while on a trail ride and unseated his rider. He galloped off into the forest and hasn't been seen since. Lost in the Forest?

I remain confident that Charlz' story will have a much happier ending than that of dear, heroic Theodore O' Connor. Yet the potential is always there for one of our beloved horses to bolt off into oblivion, despite how hard we hold on to the reins. Or the longe line.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Trust Me, You Don't Ever Want Me to be Your Trail Guide

Here I am, smiling bravely so that Wally won't sense that I have gotten us lost. I'd hate for him to think that sage brush and wild mustard plants were on his dinner menu.

My sister Jill and I spent Memorial Day riding at Lake Perris. I know, it doesn't look much like an area that would be home to a huge lake and a boating marina, but trust me, it's there. Far, far in the distance. Otherwise the scenery is rather wide open and remote, as you can see by these photos. By the way, you'll have to forgive the lop-sided/off-kilter appearance of the pictures. It's not easy to snap a photo from the back of a moving horse... or so I've learned.My sister took this photo of Wally and me when I hopped off to examine the trail marker. More about that later.

Like all of our previous trail rides, this one contained several elements of calamity. To begin, my sense of direction-- or lack thereof-- had us headed up the wrong freeway, which is not a good thing in Southern California traffic. Adding to the silliness? I had just driven the exact same route to the exact same location-- Lake Perris-- with my trail riding buddy, Natalie, on Saturday. You'd think I'd remember how to get there 48 hours later, wouldn't you? My waywardness prevailed throughout our excursion when I blithely pointed at a trail marker and said to Jill, "Oh, let's head off that way." And then, 2 hours later, we had lost sight of our truck and trailer and every other sign of civilization. When we came upon a fresh carcass of a large snake (minus its gnawed-off head) we interpreted that as an omen. Perhaps it was time to start figuring out which trail to take to get back to our starting point. I mean, you know, the serenity and all that was nifty, but after a while we began to wonder if we were headed out of California. Fortunately, we found a trail marker that pointed west-- the direction back to the trailer-- and we gleefully took that path. Hence the smile upon my face!

Oh. And just so you know, even though Jill and I were quite ready to plop into the cab of the truck and head home, neither of our horses seemed particularly winded or tired. My sister's horse, Topper, is an off-the-track Thoroughbred who spends the first 15 minutes of every trail ride thinking that he's headed to the post at Santa Anita. Once he settles down he still out paces Wally at every gait. Wally has to do his western jog to keep up with Topper's long-strided walk. And he has to lope to stay alongside Topper when the big Thoroughbred is trotting. Yet after nearly 3 hours of riding, they both seemed quite willing to explore more territory. But that would have to wait for another day. Hopefully it'll be a day when I have a map of the trail system.

This is Jill and Topper, trying to decide if they're headed in the correct direction or if the Mexican border is just over the next hill.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ice Skating Miniature Horses

Wally needs some shade trees around the outside of his turnout paddock so Ron and I have spent the last couple of days planting trees on the hillside. Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ron and I have been digging holes for some trees on the hillside. Because our house (apparently) sits atop one solid slab of granite, this endeavor requires the use of a jackhammer. And a lot of sweat. Then, to prevent the newly planted trees from slip-sliding down the hillside we have to create terraces of large rocks.

How do we get the rocks? By foraging. It's not hard to find a lot of rocks in my neighborhood. They're just sunbathing along the bridle paths like lizards. I pick them up, toss them in the back of my truck, and transport them to Wally's hillside. Yesterday, in the midst of one of my hunting-and-gathering sessions, a sympathetic city worker pulled up in his official city truck and said, "I hate to see you working so hard. Just go up to the city park and take rocks from there."

According to him, excavation work to expand the equestrian park had revealed a mountain of granite boulders. A rock crushing company was stacking the clumps of granite before smooshing them into sand and gravel. "The rocks are ripe for the picking," the city guy told me.

So yesterday evening Ron and I drove our truck up to the city's equestrian park. While we picked our way through a moonscape of granite rocks, several hundred exhibitors were competing in a miniature horse show in the nearby covered arena. Ron and I were examining and evaluating rocks like kids in a pumpkin patch-- this one was too angular, that one was too lopsided-- while some judge in the booth above the grandstand was examining and evaluating miniature horses. We could hear the applause and whoops of elation when the ribbons were announced.

About the time that the fingertips of my riding gloves had worn through, thanks to handling one too many boulders, the liberty class began. Though Ron and I were on the backside of the pile of rocks, we could comprehend that one at a time a miniature horse was turned loose in the arena to prance, dance and run around while accompanied by music. It was kind of surreal: we were buried knee-deep in craggy, dusty granite and 100 yards from us some elfin equine was struttin' his stuff to Van Halen.

At one point Ron paused, listened to the music and then turned to me and asked, "What are they doing in there? Ice skating?"

The visual image of a wiry-maned miniature zipping around a frozen arena on ice skates almost made me drop my twenty-pound boulder.

I hope Wally appreciates the landscaping efforts. It's amazing the foolishness I endure for the sake of a horse.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Yup, that Would be Rain That's Falling

Oh good grief! Here I was, just blathering on about the ungodly heat we've been experiencing... and today the wind came up, the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped and it started raining. Not only that, but the local network news out of LA showed film of an overturned railroad train and a topsy turvy tractor-trailer rig on a nearby freeway due to wind. Uhm, that would be wind from an impromptu tornado.

Needless to say, right now Wally is inside his house. His erstwhile "cabana" has become his Rain Room.

I don't think this storm will last long. But regardless of its duration it ruined my ride today. I rode Wally over to the stable where I give my riding lessons (it's my former coach's private facility) and sat on Wally while instructing Veronica, one of my students. Just as she finished her faux medal class work-off-- I have her practicing a variety of work-off patterns so she's prepared for everything-- I began to smell that distinctive odor of wet earth. The brisk wind was carrying it, along with a herd of dark clouds. Wally seemed rather pleased, however, because I'd also begun fooling around with asking him to perform some western horsemanship and trail class skills. I'd backed him around cones in a figure-8 pattern, loped over the little flower boxes and made him sidepass back and forth over some ground poles. The brewing rainstorm cut that short.

Once Veronica had her horse back in the crossties, I headed for home. Fortunately, the bridle paths are manicured enough that I could pretty much lope Wally all the way home. I made it to my tackroom just as the lightning and thunder started.

Oh well. There's always tomorrow. I can ride Wally then. But don't you know it'll probably be hot and sunny again. *sigh*
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wally Cabana

This is Wally after our ride today. He's still slightly wet from being spritzed off but as you can see he's comfortably sequestered in his fully covered, completely shaded outdoor stall. You see, it's just too hot and sunny for him in his turnout paddock during the day. Or so I suspect, being a horse mom. So when it's horribly hot like it is now I put him in his stall until the late afternoon sun sinks behind the hills. Then he gets turned out again. Keep in mind it's not that he doesn't have shade in his turnout paddock. He has a huge shelter with his feeder and water underneath the overhang. But he chooses to spend most of his waking hours standing in the far corner where he can look out over the panorama that is our neighborhood. And that leaves him standing in the full sun. I guess this is a different spin on, "You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink." But with Wally it's, "You can build a horse a $800 shelter, but in hot, sunny weather you cannot make him stand underneath it." I'm shuttling my fat Paint gelding from one enclosure to another so he doesn't get sunburned or too hot. And all the while I'm sweating like a farm hand and my bare arms have turned the color of a well-done rotisserie chicken. Ah, the things we do for our horses!

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Judge is Melting

I call this snapshot "Still Life of a Sweaty Judge."
Yesterday (Sunday) I judged a hunter schooling show in Pasadena, which is a lovely old town situated at the base of the foothills just outside Los Angeles. There's quite a contingent of dedicated riders in the area. In fact, this particular show ground is a stone's throw from the famous Flintridge Riding Club. That was the home of world-renowned hunter/jumper guru Jimmy Williams, for those of you from my era.
At any rate, making the day extra special was the fact that we're in the midst of a godawful heat wave. I kid you not, it's been over 100 degrees for almost a week. And it doesn't cool off much once the sun goes down. Needless to say, I sweated through much of the day at the horse show, even though I sat beneath a canopy of shade cloth and I was kept well-hydrated by the show staff. There were times when my pen wouldn't write on my scorecard. (Hmmm... Was that due to overspray from the arena sprinklers at lunchtime or due to the sweaty residue I'd inadvertently wiped across my clipboard?) At least it was a pleasant experience otherwise. The competitors were primarily novice riders mounted on good ol' school horses and well-trained packers. Since the participants were so enthusiastic, I made an effort to unstick myself from my chair and saunter out to the line-up to give a few pointers to the riders in the equitation classes. The management encouraged me to do so, and plus, it gave the faint breeze an opportunity to cool me off by evaporating the sweat that had collected at the back of my knees. I lost count of how many times I dashed off to the clubhouse's bathroom to sponge myself off with my dampened washcloth. Yes, it was that bad. Normally we all get used to this heat and live with it. But it came on so quickly that no one--- horse nor human--- had a chance to acclimate. And naturally, it's supposed to cool off and perhaps RAIN on Thursday or Friday. That's so typical of my life with horses.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Apparently It's Not a Good Thing to be a Race Horse in Puerto Rico

Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown buzzed past his rivals in the Preakness today. I didn't see the race myself. I was busy teaching riding lessons. But I got a play-by-play from my sister, Jill, who-- as a young reporter-- covered Santa Anita and Hollywood Park race tracks for the Los Angeles Times. She's very good at adding color commentary and interjecting quotes from jockeys and trainers when necessary.

Perhaps because Big Brown is poised to be a possible Triple Crown champion (the Belmont Stakes is his final test) the Associated Press circulated a very disturbing news article about the fate of Thoroughbred race horses in Puerto Rico. The one major track in that U.S. territory is Hipodromo Camarero, where as many as 400 race horses a year are quietly euthanized by lethal injection at the veterinary clinic tucked behind the track.

These are not badly crippled, mortally wounded Thoroughbreds. In most instances, they have one fatal flaw: they're losers. Once a Thoroughbred falls off its form and begins costing more to keep than it's winning at the track, owners cut their losses and pay a small fee to have their unwanted horse neatly disposed of.

Though the story is widely distributed on the Internet, you can try this direct link to the AP story as carried by an online San Diego newspaper:
Disposable Race Horses

I must admit, in my lifetime there were a couple of horses that I could not wait to see head down the road in someone else's trailer. But to simply euthanize an otherwise sound, lovely Thoroughbred because it hadn't turned out to be another Big Brown is just plain wrong.

Here's an idea: If you don't have any interest in finding an after-market home for your unwanted race horse, how about you don't get involved in the business?

I realize that there are not many options for off-the-track Thoroughbreds in Puerto Rico. According to the article, recreational riders in Puerto Rico prefer a less hot, more manageable breed of horse like the Paso Fino. That's understandable. Not everyone is meant to ride or re-train an ex-race horse. But to summarily kill it just to make it easier to cut one's losses and move on to the next race horse (or future dead ex-race horse) is just deplorable. Some owners, according to the article, have a luckless horse euthanized "for revenge." In other words, they're angry at the horse for not winning money, and in response they pay the $20 or so to the track vet and have the horse put down.

That'll teach those Thoroughbreds to run faster.

The alternative, however, could be worse. In the article the reporter mentions that some emaciated ex-race horses have been found barely subsisting along the rural roadsides, living semi-feral lives of a hellish existence. Rather than euthanize them at the clinic, their owners simply turned them loose.

Now, before you think the AP article was bereft of any good news, I will point out that some owners and trainers-- even the executioner (I mean vet)-- do make some attempt to find homes for the nicer, sound Thoroughbreds. But that's not good enough.

As a horse lover, it was an upsetting article to read. I'll try to make myself feel better by stepping outside and feeding a handful of carrots to Wally.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

And Then There Was One

I spent yesterday at the hospital. No, don't worry. I wasn't injured again. Instead I went for a couple of CT scans of my arm, shoulder and scapula just to see who wins the bet: the orthopedic surgeon, the neurologist or the pain management specialist. None of them agree on why I never regained full use of my right arm after my riding accident and why I continue to have bouts of severe pain, despite the spinal implant. Is it due to residual nerve damage? Is it because my scapula-- which was badly fractured-- now sits at a funny angle and therefore rubs bone against bone each time I try to use my arm?

Regardless of what the CT films show, I seem to be headed toward another surgery in the near future. I'm just not sure which doctor I'll meet in the operating room.

Oh. And you'll love this. So after my CT scans, I get up from the exam table and say to the radiology tech, "Lying on my back like that is the most painful position for me." And he says, "Sorry about that. I know that a fractured scapula can really change your life."

Turns out he had suffered a fractured scapula not long ago. He'd been tossed off his motorcycle. "But I'm not as bad off as you," he said.

Gee, that made me feel better.

I said, "Yeah, well, I still ride horses."

He started laughing. "And I still ride motorcycles."

Almost together we said, "Maybe it's some sort of mental illness."

When you truly love something, you just can't stay away... even if you're partly broken.

I've learned that what causes my physical pain is not necessarily riding, but all the extra chores and work involved. Tacking up is difficult. So is blanketing a horse at night or putting on a fly sheet during the day. Even haltering a horse is hard. Anything that might cause my right arm to accidentally be stretched-- or yanked, as the case may be-- beyond its limits results in about 24 hours of unrelenting pain. And oddly, it's not while I'm doing the activity that makes me hurt. It's later, often hours later, that the pain starts. Sometimes it's so bad that I cry. Then I have to resort to taking pain meds, which knock me for a loop and give me insomnia. It's a vicious cycle that has to come to an end.

While awaiting a surgery that may alleviate some of the pain, I had to make a tough decision. I sold Wyatt.

It wasn't because he was a three-year-old, it was because he was a second horse that doubled the amount of physically taxing activity I had to do each day. Okay, part of it was because he was a three-year-old. That meant he needed longeing (which pulled on my arm) and long rides in a snaffle (which also pulled on my arm). And of course we had some rides that were generally a bit more "involved" than I had anticipated. In other words, to borrow an old saying, my spirit was willing but my flesh was very, very weak.

I'm sure there are lots of people who are reading this saying, "I told her so." Yeah, I guess those people were right. I had no business getting another horse right now, especially not one that was green and still required significant training. But in my defense I suppose I really wasn't ready to accept that I'm not the person I was before my accident. Can you blame me for avoiding that reality?

When I called my sister Jill on the phone, sobbing, telling her that I had decided I needed to sell Wyatt, she said calmly, "I was waiting for this day to come. You've finally realized that you have physical limitations."

Wyatt has gone to a good home. I sold him to a family that has 3 other horses and is well versed in caring for and riding a young horse. To be honest, Wally seems to be quite content that he is back to being King of My Heart. Once again he nickers almost seductively every time I come out the back door of my house. I really think he relishes all the attention. Despite some of his famous idiosyncracies and his funky personality, he is a relatively simple horse for me to care for. Plus, he neck reins beautifully on a loose rein, so when I ride him I can hold the reins in my left hand. Someday he'll have another horse as a barn mate, but first I have to see what lies ahead for me on the trail, medically speaking.
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Monday, May 12, 2008

This 'n That

Yesterday was a mixed kettle of fish. Or, to use a horsey metaphor, a mixed herd of ponies.

The horse show I judged turned out to be small which didn't surprise me because it was, after all, Mother's Day. But the show staff was shocked because last year's event was huge. The dearth of competitors was ultimately blamed on a trio of other shows being held at nearby equestrian centers. A limited supply of riders and horses can only be stretched so far. But the small turnout allowed me to enjoy a relaxing half-a-day judging some nice horses and enthusiastic riders. One barn brought a string of beautiful Appaloosas that were being prepped to eventually compete at the Appy World Show. It's been a while since I got to drool over some nice Appaloosas, and these were really fancy! There was one wildly colored Appy-- a leggy 2-year-old-- in several of the halter classes. He had a very refined head and a long, swanlike neck; he was simply stunning. Even better? When he trotted he moved as well as some the Trakehners we raised. He just floated across the ground with big, sweeping strides.

Needless to say, he won a couple of blue ribbons from me.

Then I came home and found my husband laboring away in front of our house with a jack hammer. He is insanely possessed about planting MORE TREES on our property. Who knew I was married to a New Age Johnny Appleseed? Unfortunately, the native soil around here is like cement, thus the necessity of the jack hammer. And that, my friends, did not go over well with the trail riders who were trying to mosey past our house on the bridle path. It's amazing how loud I had to scream, "Honey! Turn it off, a horse is coming. HONEY! TURN IT OFF, A HORSE IS COMING! HONEY!!!"

Then again, being a man maybe he was just ignoring me.

Finally, last night I decided to wrap Wally's legs. He's been on several long trail rides recently, and his legs are mildly stocked up. Plus I guess while I was gone he started playing in his turnout paddock (thanks to the jack hammer) and he gave himself a bump on one front leg. Nothing serious, but I am nothing if not neurotic. So before I went to bed I dutifully swaddled Wally's legs in cotton quilts and bundled them up with nice, clean blue polo wraps.

But what did I find this morning? He had somehow managed to keep the polo wraps in place-- still neat and tidy, snug around his legs-- but he'd yanked the cotton quilts out. They were lying on the ground. Now, that equine expertise requires some amount of talent and a great amount of time and dedication. Maybe Wally's real calling is as a trick horse. Or as a magician.

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Friday, May 9, 2008

A Mother's Nature

Mother's Day is this Sunday. Guess how I'll be spending it? No, I won't be at a family picnic honoring my mom. Nor will I be sitting around a table in a crowded restaurant, sipping champagne while watching my mother unwrap a bundle of gifts. And since I haven't foaled any children myself (just in case you were wondering) I won't be the center of anyone's attention. Instead, while most of you are celebrating Mother's Day in some traditional manner, I'll be judging a horse show. Somehow, that's fitting, is it not? I mean, why start now to cancel horse-related activities in lieu of family obligations? Besides, trust me: My mother understands.

My mother is the great enabler who not only encouraged my sister Jill and me to fully embrace our horse craziness, but she rode into the madness right along with us. When Jill and I traveled the horse show circuit our mom came, too. I can still remember the years spent at the Santa Barbara "turkey" show. It was called that because it was held over Thanksgiving. Rather than staying home and hostessing a typical feast, our mother could be found sitting in the chilly grandstand at Santa Barbara until well past dark, cheering on Jill and me in whichever class we were silly enough to be riding in. The wind would be blowing, the cold ocean air would be biting through our huntcoats and more often than not it'd be raining. But our mom would be sitting near the front row of the bleachers, wrapped in her red parka, with one of our barn dogs (Sugar the Samoyed or Nancy the Old English Sheepdog) lying across her feet like a shaggy rug.

When we weren't competing, our mom would offer up encouragement as only a mother can. Sometimes she'd toss out unsolicited observations that ignored reality. For example, I'd be on a 17-some-hand 3-year-old that was just one hop, skip and leap away from bolting into a bucking frenzy and she'd say, "He looks perfectly well behaved to me. Are you going to try cantering?"

She also had a knack for pointing out things that really were better left unsaid. There was the time when I was schooling my equitation horse in the warm-up ring at a show, just before a medal class. My trainer had set up a large oxer to sharpen up my horse and I was really focusing on nailing it just right. Half of a stride off and I'd land in the middle of the jump or catch the back rail. I came cantering around the corner, my brow furrowed in concentration. My mom was standing on the rail and just as my horse was about to leave the ground I distinctly heard her say, "You know, Cindy, that oxer is really big."

Over the years Jill and I were pleased to notice that our mom developed a certain level of horse knowledge. She was a decent judge of conformation and she could tell a good mover from a poor one. And she could ride quite well. Though she always rode in a western saddle, our mom learned how to post the trot and she was quite adept at trail riding. She personally owned three riding horses: Mary (a gaited something-or-other), Mouse (a sweet, gray Polish Arab) and Tudor (a silvery AQHA gelding that had been a former show hunter). And she was officially the owner and breeder of countless Thoroughbreds and warmbloods that she never rode and mostly pet and fed. Her favorite horse in this group-- in fact, her favorite horse of all time-- was Las Vegas, a gorgeous Trakehner mare she bred and raised. The dappled mahogany bay mare with the dished, Araby face was her pride and joy until she died an untimely death. My sister and I used to joke that Las Vegas was the daughter our mother always wanted to have.

Though our mom hasn't ridden in years due to her arthritis, her heart is still wrapped around horses. It's an abiding love that is no less than the passion my sister and I feel for our horses.

If you'd like to share your thoughts about your own mom, and how she influenced or supported your love of horses, click this link to a special article on Horse Channel. It's our latest installment of HI Spy:

Tell All About Your Mom

And, whether you're celebrating Mother's Day with your own mother this Sunday-- or if you're "the Mom" and you're Queen for a Day-- have a nice time. Just think of me. I'll be holding a clipboard and deciding who gets which ribbon, hoping not to incur the wrath of any Horse Show Moms.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cowboy Moves Outside

First of all, can I just say that when I look at this photo my first thought is, "Wow, did I need a haircut!" I have a head of hair like the mane of a Norwegian Fjord. Or a Shetland pony. It's thick and unruly with odd waves coursing through it. But enough about me. Cowboy got the OK from our vet to move outside to a corral. Just to recap, the tendons in his front legs were quite tight when he was born-- not so bad as to be termed "contracted" but tight enough to require an infusion of Tetracycline to help them relax-- and so he was confined to the foaling stall with his dam for two weeks. Now that his tendons are stretched and strong, he was allowed to move into one of the corrals. In two more weeks he can be moved to the big paddock, where he can really run around like an antelope on a sugar high. Fortunately, my sister has done a good job of halter breaking him. Cowboy leads quite well, plus he lets us pick up his feet and rub his ears. It's when you turn him loose after you're done working with him that you must be careful. He has a tendency (like most foals) to whirl, paw or kick in an effort to play, which brings to mind something a vet once told us many years ago when we were dealing with one of our first foals. Dr. Carnine smiled wryly and then said, matter-of-factly, "You have to be careful with foals. They'd just as soon kill you as not."
Ah yes, words to live by. Other words to live by? "Men don't 'get' why lots of horsewomen enjoy having short hair." And I count myself among that group. I'm finished with having long hair. Does my husband not understand how hard it is to cram a headful of mane underneath a ball cap? I can't finish mucking a stall before the cap pops off my head like bread out of a toaster. And then there's Helmet Hair. It looks so much worse when my hair is long. Short hair allows me to just dunk my head under the nearest garden hose, run my fingers across my scalp and voila! Instant coiffure. Or at least I have ruffled Helmet Hair.
Which is my way of revealing that I now have a short, layered hair cut. And see? I'm back to talking about me again!
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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Final Word on the Derby Disaster

I really appreciated all of the comments I got from my last post, where I lamented how many of our great equine athletes are suffering fatal injuries during competition. The big filly Eight Belles was the latest, who finished an awe-inspiring second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby, only to break down (now there's a polite euphemism) past the finish line, requiring her to be euthanized on the track.

Just to be clear, I am not anti-horse racing. Nor am I anti-Three Day Eventing. Both require an artistic approach to management of bloodlines, training and preparation, not to mention an entourage of knowledgeable assistants behind the barn.

As others have said, you cannot force a horse to race; indeed, the typical healthy Thoroughbred seems possessed of a need for speed. However, while Thoroughbreds seem to instinctively want to run, I would counter that's because "we" have bred them for centuries to do just that. It's sort of the same reason why Border Collies want to herd other animals and Jack Russell terriers want to tunnel their way into burrows: they've been genetically programmed to do that.

What we have to do as our horses' caretakers is make certain that they are physically up to the challenge of high stakes competition, whether that's on the track or on the cross country course. Steps are certainly being taken by the USEF to examine-- and improve-- the problems recently encountered in Three Day Eventing.

Horse racing, on the other hand, is seemingly caught in a quandary. The fastest, most prolific bloodlines (Native Dancer being one of them) also happen to be bloodlines that produce large, lanky, slow to mature youngsters. But our classic races are conducted when these Baby Hueys are barely 3 years old. And then there is the whole controversy over the actual racing surfaces. Churchill Downs-- home of the Kentucky Derby-- still has the traditional loamy dirt track while Santa Anita and several other upper echelon tracks have switched to a synthetic surface which is believed to be safer for the horses' legs.

Horse racing is an industry that brings millions of dollars into the coffers of states that sanction meets thanks to income from wagering and all the related businesses. Horse racing is not going to end, but the general public-- the fan base-- is falling out of love with a sport that brought North America some of the most memorable horses to life. Man O' War, Citation, Seabiscuit, Kelso, Native Diver, John Henry, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Smarty Jones... The lives of horse lovers have been enriched by the courage and heart and class of such grand horses. At its best, horse racing is a celebration of the spirit of the Thoroughbred. But at its most tragic moments, we mourn the loss of Go for Wand, Ruffian, Barbaro, Eight Belles and others who ran their hearts out until their fragile legs could not bear the stress.

Some of the suggestions you offered in comments and emails have been echoed by other horse lovers across the continent. One idea that continues to crop up is to schedule our classic races, like the Triple Crown, for four-year-olds, when the horses are more physically mature. I'm afraid that a sport so steeped in tradition will be loathe to make such a drastic alteration. But something needs to be done because the Sport of Kings is quickly losing its regal luster.
Next blog post will be something happy, I promise.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why Do Our Great Horses Keep Dying?

As if it wasn't enough that several top-level event horses have suffered mortal injuries during competition in recent months. Now the Kentucky Derby, perhaps the most hallowed horse race in America, has been marred by a death on the track. You might have missed the whole thing, because it occurred about a quarter of a mile past the finish line. The highly-regarded filly in the race, Eight Belles, finished a game second to the brawny Big Brown. But once the field galloped out-- sort of an opportunity for the jockeys to rein in and slow down the speedsters before turning around and trotting back to the barn-- Eight Belles stumbled and fell. She'd fractured both front ankles, to the point that the bones were protruding from the skin. And there, in the midst of the curve of the far turn of Churchill Downs, while crowds were cheering the return of the victor to the winner's circle, Eight Belles was quietly euthanized.

Why are we killing so many of our horses?

I know, "things happen" in intense, athletic competitions. Heck, human athletes get hurt all the time. Careers are ended when a ball player twists his arm wrong or takes a bad step and rips his knee. But you know what? Humans can make the conscious choice to step onto that playing field. They can verbally say to someone, "Hey, my ankle just isn't feeling right today. Can I see the doc'? Or perhaps I could sit this one out." And if a human athlete does get injured, it's for sure he doesn't undergo some x-rays or an MRI and then have a surgeon look at him solemnly and say, "I'm sorry, Joe, but there's nothing modern medicine can do for that broken bone or those torn tendons. Say your good-byes because we're going to have to euthanize you. I promise. It won't hurt a bit."

My little rant isn't meant to put any outright blame on the competitors who were riding horses that got mortally injured or the trainers who saddled them up and sent them into battle. I'm quite certain they're grieving beyond measure. However, I'll share a little analogy.

Several years ago I had a fairly common surgery. My doctor was just a big ol' sweetie pie fellow, the kind of guy who epitomized everyone's big brother. I liked him a lot. I ended up hemorrhaging during the operation, requiring a blood transfusion and ending up in ICU. He was absolutely distraught and I felt sorry for him. Once I was stabilized and coherent, I told him, "Look, things go wrong sometimes. It wasn't your fault."

He replied, "Cindy, you weren't bleeding to death when you went in to the operating room, so of course what happened was my fault."

Eight Belles wasn't dead when she started the Kentucky Derby, so...

While we'll never prevent every injury that happens to horses used in performance events, we should-- we must-- be able to minimize their occurrence. Instead, sadly, it seems that they're happening more frequently. Though there are few things more glorious than horse and human competing together as a team, whether it's in barrel racing, showjumping, western pleasure, endurance riding or horse racing, we as a horse loving society must do more to ensure that the risks are not too high simply so that our rewards are greater. So what if the time to finish the course (or the race) is not a record breaker, or if the jumps are a little lower or less demanding? At least our horses might be safer. And the unavoidable sports injuries that do occur will likely be less fatal in their prognosis. The blue ribbons and gleaming trophies will be so much more treasured if they aren't marred by tragedy.

Of course, this is only my opinion.

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