Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Still Thinking, Still Confused

In light of some of our recent Mouthy Monday's, I've been doing some deep thinking about what constitutes good care, bad care, who deserves to own a horse and who doesn't.

There is an awful lot of black and white thinking in the horse world and some of it is spot on.

This is bad.

This is bad too.

So is this.

...and this

We see these things happen and are justifiably horrified. There are more, but you get my point.

Then we get into aspects of horse ownership that I am beginning to see as a gray area.

Is this bad?

What about this?

and last, but definitely, not least, how about this?

I have had a couple of experiences in my life that really make me look at both sides of issues, especially when it comes to horses, so grab a cuppa joe and pull up a chair, Mugs is gonna expound a bit.

There was a dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse, that fascinated me in the 80's. She got her mannerly dogs to do anything she wanted and rehabbed dogs from the pound in order to find them good homes. Not only did she have quite the way with dogs, but listening to her shrill, "Walkies!" just cracked me up.

There was one point she made that stuck with me forever. She said (rough translation), "The only time a dog is poorly trained is if the owner isn't happy with it's behavior."

So, if a St. Bernard sits on the couch and shares a bowl of ice cream with her owner every night and said owner welcomes the interaction, in Woodhouse's view, this is a well trained dog.

It didn't matter what your mother thought, or the local dog expert, or anybody else, as long as you and your dog had a peaceful coexistence, everything else was fluff.

Of course then she went on to share her opinion of a well-trained dog and how to get there with our own dogs.

This hit home with me. Hit hard. It's why I try so hard to tell people who ask my advice and input, this is what I would do.

Not, this is what you should do.

Several years ago I went to our local humane society to adopt a kitten. I was quite taken with a little tortoise shell, but she had a snotty nose and runny eyes.

I was talking to a shelter staff member about it.

"I feel like I should adopt her to give her a chance," I said, "but I'm afraid of the vet bills, and I'd be heart broken if she died."

"Can I be blunt? The staff member asked me.


"Take a look around you. There's at least 30 kittens here. By the end of the week, maybe, if we're lucky, 10% of them will have been adopted. Two thirds of the rest will be euthanized. Then we'll get in 30 more.

Adopt the animal you want. Pick the one that you will care for until it dies of old age. These kittens all need homes and love, doesn't matter if it lives in a house, a barn, a car, or if their owner is rich, poor, smart, dumb, whatever. Only 10% of them are going to get out of here. The healthy ones need a chance as much as the sick ones.

I picked out a sturdy gray Tabby kitten with a white bib and four white paws. Butch and I had 16 good years together.

The Big K and I were talking about horses from our past and the dumb things we did on and to them. As usual, my first horse, Mort, came up.

"I wish I owned him now, at this point in time. He had so much potential and I know how to fix him. It makes me sad."

"If anything had been different between you and Mort you wouldn't be sitting here," K said.

"What do you mean?"

"He gave you the desire to do it right."

I have been on the path of "doing it right" my entire life. It's been a long and winding three steps forward, two steps back ind of deal, but I keep moving forward.

It's the steps back that teach me the most.

If somebody buys a horse and sticks it in the back yard, teaches it to touch a spot with it's nose, or hop over a barrel, and never gets on it, well, if they're happy and the horse is happy, I don't care. Just because I need to ride doesn't mean everybody else has to.

If they teach their horse to bring his nose to their boot and follow them around the pen, but end up with a floppy necked thing that runs them into fences and runs them over to get to the feed bucket, it doesn't bother me, unless it bothers them. Then, if they want my help, I can show them how to fix it.

Because it is easy to fix. If you want to.

When I see a herd of fat and happy horses out on pasture and it's surrounded by barb wire, I'm sorry, I just can't bring myself to call PETA. It's a group of FAT HEALTHY HORSES. I consider them lucky and cared for.

If I come across a horse in a makeshift stall, stuck in somebody's backyard and completely left in the care of a bunch of barefoot kids am I going to demand the horse be removed? Nope. I might get to know the kids and show them, by example, what works best for them and the horse. I will definitely admire the horse for his patience and bomb proof outlook.

When I see a horse being ridden by the snotty little dressage kid, trying to emulate the winners by using her version of rollkur, or the pleasure queen, jogging around endlessly banging on her confused horses mouth and sides, am I going to hate the kid? No. Because these kids are riding and treating their horses as they've been taught. Plus, for the most part, their patient horse may have to tolerate that crap for two to three hours a week, but the rest of the time, they are fed, cared for and left alone.

Maybe the people following these paths want more, or could want more if they were shown a different way. The best way I've found to get people to look at their horses and themselves is by example, not by shaking a righteous finger from a soap box.

By trying to keep this approach I've had to learn to compromise. The approach might be wrong in my book, but there is still a horse with a home, a horse with feed in front of it, a horse who has made it another day.

Don't get me wrong, I still get my back up. Starvation and abuse will send me to the phone. Strident behavior, finger pointing and bullying will still get you kicked out of my barn, but for the most part, I try to accept a lot more than I used to as part of the journey.

Check out these videos. They say a lot about learning to hold back on judgement.


  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing the Philly Polo Team story. I live near Philly and did not know of this amazing at-risk program. I am reminded, again and again, how amazing horses are and the people who are willing to dedicate their own blood, sweat, and tears to bring them to those less fortunate.

    I think the horses looked happy galloping around with a clear job and shared focus.

  2. I cringe when I think of all the times I said "you should" or judged something as bad because it didn't fit the ideal I had in my mind.

    I've learned...well, still learning to say "I would", "it could be better" and "no harm done".

    As you point out - is the critter happy? is it reasonably healthy? is any direct harm being done? If the answers are yes, yes, and no, then back off unless invited.

  3. Amen, Mugs. Amen. One thing that drives me nuts about a significant portion of the horse world (especially the online horse world) is how self-righteously nasty so many people can be about, well, the grey areas. I grew up in one of the plains states, where every fence in the county was barbed wire, and most horses got their hooves done twice a year, if that. Granted, the nags I own now have things better, but barbed wire and haphazard hoof care are still pretty much the standard around here. And my history of big pastures meant that my hackles rose when the owner of a fancy dressage barn where I rode while in the city stuffed her two year old back in the stall when he was being "too exuberant" during turnout. But my badly-fenced, badly trimmed horses were well fed and healthy, as was that bored, confined baby at the barn.

    To my mind, what people need to remember when dealing with the grey areas is that you shouldn't feel superior to someone because you've had a chance to learn something that person hasn't. You're not a better person just because you had a better mentor or grew up in a place where good fencing or proper turnout was the norm. And you're a LOT more likely to get your message across if you approach the person as an equal. After all, we're supposed to care more about the horses than feeling speshul, right?

  4. I'm pretty hard on myself. Sometimes I get a little ridiculous, like, none of my horses should ever have to spend a night in a stall with a wet spot or pile of poop. None of them should ever spend the day in a stall, unless ordered by the vet. Yada, yada, yada, none of those things is going to kill any of them. I guess I'm afraid of the slippery slope, if one day of less than perfect care doesn't kill them, will 2, or 10?

    But I try to not be as critical of other people as I am of myself. If I see a big pasture with barbed wire and fat horses and lots of food and water, I don't get too worried. Wouldn't do it myself, but I also won't say anything. Likewise, I think Parelli's horses have a good life, the horses I worry about belong to his novice followers who kind of get the concept, but make huge glaring errors and end up with dangerous horses, or horses that have had complete mental or physical breakdowns through excessive round penning. One of the biggest laughs I ever had was after talking to a woman who was trying to sell a horse she couldn't control. She was a Parelli disciple. She refused to sell it to anyone who didn't follow Parelli methods. Cause, that worked so well?

  5. This is something I have struggled with on both sides... I find myself judging when I shouldn't, and being judged when people don't know the whole story. Or being judged because my horses are out on 6 acres of grass with barbed wire (which will be replaced), blanked with trees for cover. My POOR ponies aren't locked in a 12x12 stall at night to stay warm, im a horrible owner.

    I think all of us in the horse community need to take a step back and ask "is the horse happy and healthy? is the owner happy?" if both answers are yes you walk away.

  6. redhorse, I have two things for you.
    1 is, don't go for perfect, go for best at the time, which may mean leaving them in stalls on occasions. You really are doing your best, always and the horses appreciate that and not the voice in your head saying I didn't do it right. That voice is the only way you damage them.
    2 is I agree with you about novice Parelli (or any )students who miss the point and ruin the horses. Parelli is dead set agains 'excessive round penning'. Pat has often said that rounde penning has ruined more horses than you can count. These students are trying their best and looking for the best for their horses, which they figured out they can't provide.

  7. Well since the barbed wire issue has been brought up... I believe it is like anything else in life and it has a time and place. It isn't ideal fencing for a small confined area with multiple horses. It is acceptable for a large (acres) pasture. Yes it runs a risk, but I have seen horses get some pretty nasty injuries in primo fenced areas. I would sure rather see a fat shiny horse behind barbed wire than a skinny uncared for one behind a pretty fence.

    I was a 7 year old that was given a horse and told..."here ya go, enjoy" No direction. Thank goodness for 4-H and a kind farrier.

    There isn't one person out there that doesn't have some regrets, if you don't, then you must have not doing anything at all.

  8. I have one possible exception, but even this I can debate. I would argue that, if you choose to board your horse, you horse should be able to be easily caught by anyone and safely handled in case there is an emergency and you are not at the barn. Of course, the counter argument is that as long as the horse is happy and fed, and the owner understands the risk of having a horse only he/she can catch, than maybe it is OK, frustrating to barn employees, but OK.

  9. I like the kinder gentler approach, the nonjudgemental approach. We all have learned as we went. No one was born knowing it all. I do not know why, but women/girls tend to be very harsh with one another over not very important stuff. And there is something about horses that stirs up this "crush any different view point" rage in some. I think we have too many horses going to slaughter to rip some one a new one over having different standards of horse care. My own standards have changed immensely in my life time.

  10. I must say that growing up in South Australia, then in Victoria (SE Australia), barbed wire was always the norm for every rural property and used for every paddock whether cow, sheep or horse.This is only changing slowly. I did take the anti-barb-wire stuff to heart when I read it on the fugly blog, only because my horse was a rare casualty. the farmer who agisted him found him lying on the ground with his foot caught between two barb wire strands and a deep gash where the wire had cut him. He spent a month living in the hay shed (farmer didn't have loose boxes) with bandages and antibiotic powder. Thank the great Flying Spaghetti monster he made a full recovery, although there was raised scar tissue around the fetlock. Thank FSM a second time that didn't affect his chances after me, he retired to a friend's farm forever. (The great FSM protects fools like me, it seems!) So I fully agree that barb wire is capable of great harm and if you have the money, you should get rid of it. But then again, that said, no one suggested it at the time, and none of the 8 horses and 30-odd dairy cows on the property ever had an incident.

  11. Helen, FSM... Ha ha ha ha ha!

    Thank the FSM indeed!

    Agreed Mugs. I find that a good way to go is to be friendly to all and try whenever possible to lead by example. If only all of my examples were leaderly... Still trying =)

  12. I am amazed at the dedication and perseverance of the polo kids. Well done to them. Muddy paddock and old tack have made healthy, fit children and horses. Watching my friends child riding around in the paddock bareback with halter on makes me smile. At least she has a helmet and boots. I had flip flops and sunburn. I rode bare back for two years before somebody showed me how to put the saddle on so it wouldn't hurt his back. To all those mentors and non judgmental people - THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

  13. Yes, Yes, And YES!!!

    There is room for everyone at the table. Even when we would prefer to sit at the kid's table to avoid the crack heads at the adult table, there is still room.

  14. Oh, Lord! I LOVED Barbara Woodhouse! I still use her method of clear, concise, one word commands. She was a hoot!
    As for horses, the only difference I can see is that my horses have a stronger chance to outlive me, and they would fare better with more commonly sought abilities. That being said, I cannot in good conscience judge anyone who cares for their animals and strives to keep them healthy and happy.

  15. Thanks Mugs.... I saved the previous video you posted of the Philly kids that rode in the park from their in town "raggedy" barn and I just sat and watched the polo video with my husband. My own set up is not a top of the line barn, but some covered stalls and a run in shed. My horses are vetted, fed, loved and ridden on the weekends. They live in my back yard and interact with my dogs, cats and couple of yard chickens. Life is good for my animals and especially for me.

  16. Thank you for saying this, Mugs! It needs to be said, over and over and over. Just today I commented on a group of pics taken at a small local gymkhana, it was an utter mess of what is sadly too-often-seen at amateur 'speed game' events - big bits, tie-downs, the worst equitation I've ever seen, and yet?

    And yet?

    Handsome is that handsome does, I said. Plenty of backyard horses that are ridden kindly if not beautifully. Plenty of high-octane showhorses that are ridden cruelly.

    The person who'd posted the pics initially added one more - a large man on a butter-fat appaloosa mare. He's riding in a truly ugly chair seat, she's cross-cantering big as daylight, and yet he's relaxed and so is the mare. His posture, though horrible, manages to look soft enough to give the impression that he's following the horse's motion instead of bouncing all over her back. She's wearing a mechanical hack, but the chin chain is so loose that it's hardly even touching. She's got a level working headset, a calm eye and her ear on him.. who cares how it looks. It obviously worked for them. They had fun all day, said the woman who posted the pics. It showed. That matters.

  17. WOW one of your best posts EVER. If you do not mind I am going to share it on FB. You wrote really profound reflections. Thanks so much. I agree with you. I believe that if people had this mind set, the horse world would be a better place less full of dogma and bigots!

  18. I loved this post and agree its one of your best. How awesome would the world in general be if we all had a similar approach? When it comes to peoples choices from how to care for their animals or just live their lives, I always ask myself if they are intentionally hurting anyone in the process. If not, my response is to always be supportive and try to educate or guide them if they ask and I know a different way.

    One of my boarders is a bit difficult to deal with. One of those people who asks me a million questions and does the exact opposite of what I'd advise every time. I always wonder why she bothers to ask when she clearly doesn't value my opinion. I'm at the point now where I just tell her maybe she should ask her trainer. Anyway, she was fretting over one of the horses in the barn the other day because his owner wants to keep him in the stall instead of opening the back to the paddock and she thinks its cruel. This cracks me up since this woman comes from h/j barns where they typically look down on anyone who keeps their horses outside. The horse in question is 22, as sweet as the day is long, fat, healthy and seems to be happy. He gets turned out into a grass pasture for a couple hours a day and is still healthy enough for his owner's kids to hack around on the trails with him at 22. Yeah, horrible life! I told her to look at the big picture in hopes it will calm her down, but she gets so caught up in how the horse "must feel" that she isn't very reasonable. I'm sure she's thinks I'm horrible because I keep my horses in stalls and simply because I don't like the hassel. My horse is gray and he likes the mud so his owner likes him in a stall. He also gets turn out every day and in season also gets worked 4-6 days a week. I think he'll probably be okay. :)

  19. Thank you for this post. It hit home in many ways. As a fairly recent "newbie" (well, it's been 10 years now) I remember so well the many times I felt judged and ridiculed for doing something against some horseman's grain. That attitude did not help me. What DID help me were the many kind and friendly horsemen who happily rode alongside, eager to share their passion for the horse craze, who took their time and only offered advice as I asked. And once I knew they were accepting of me where I was, I was ready to hear their advice and asked. And asked and asked and asked. lol

    As for Parelli,-- I have to give that program kudos for saving my horse life at a time I was scared and over my head. I followed it for a couple of years, then moved on. As a result I have a very nicely trained (by most trail riders' standards) riding horse who everyone refers to as the steady-eddy of the group. I think they are surprised when they find out I had a Parelli background. I am aware of those people who have gotten "stuck" on circus tricks through the Parelli program, so I understand the complaints, but that's so unfortunate, as I know of several people who have excelled with their horses through it. By that I mean they are riding well-behaved, responsive horses, at events and on the trail. So I still respect the program. It's too bad the confused students are the ones who seem to be representing the program to the world these days! Very unfortunate.

  20. Well thought post, on a good topic- one of the grey areas of horsemanship.

    For me, when I see something happening with horses right in front of me, that I don't like- it doesn't mean I'll do anything about it. If it's not my horse, I probably won't. But in my mind, I may think "that isn't good for that horse." I may feel very sorry for the horse, and wish very hard that I could send it some ESP-sympathy, but I probably won't say anything.

    Even as I write that, I realize there is a line that when someone around me crosses it, I do say something, and shoot them daggers with my eyes. One day a fellow boarder was getting one of the farm's school horses out of a pasture, and was roughly handling a horse in the way. I watched her terrible actions for a moment, and then yelled at her, "That's enough, susan- you've made your point with him." And I meant, if you touch/hit that horse one more time, I'm coming in that pasture and moving that horse away from you. I was really really angry. And it wasn't my horse. So, yes, sometimes, I will step in. Good post, Mugs.

  21. I had to do a double take when I checked the blog this morning... I thought I had clicked on the fugly blog instead....
    I agree with you though, many people have lost touch with what neglect and abuse really mean. Considering the alternatives an ok home is better than no home at all.

  22. I wish more humane societies had the attitude yours did, about the kittens. Ours won't even let you adopt them if you aren't planning to keep them in the house, so no barn cats coming from them. My barn cats are such happy (healthy, well-fed, and neutered) cats, it seems a shame the H.S. acts like we are being negligent housing them in a barn...

  23. Gotta admit - I love it when people who have horses for 10 years call themselves "newbies."

  24. anon - that was one worker at the humane society, privately giving me her opinion. I can't say it's the opinion of the organization.I'm so glad she did though.

  25. Barbed wire or PETA? Barbed wire causes a few cuts now and then, maybe even worse. PETA kills 95 percent of the animals they "rescue" - I choose barbed wire!

  26. Ah, the seldom talked about skill called "keep your damned mouth shut."

    I'm a barefoot trimmer, I believe strongly that horses should not wear shoes, but I do not condemn horse owners who put shoes on their horses. That would just make me look like an a-hole and alienate people. If people want to learn about what I know I'm happy to tell them, but I do not give unsolicited advice.

    Most of the time people are just doing the best with what they know.

  27. I cracked up when I saw the final picture was of Pat Parelli. Good one Mugs, you made your point.

  28. A NZ acquaintance once claimed to me that over there, they *jump* barbed wire. she said there was nothing unusual about it. I did keep my mouth shut at the time, but only because I was rendered incapable of speech :-P

  29. I agree with much of this, with the caveat that horses are large, expensive, and with relatively good longevity.

    I think an animal should be given the best chance we can afford to give them for a happy and productive life. If "productive" means simply making the owner happy, that is still a purpose.

    If you are able to care for the horse its entire life, then it can behave in whatever manner the owner and the horse find suitable. However, if the horse will ever have to live elsewhere (and who can guarantee what the future holds), it does behoove the horse to have certain skills.

    So... 1) you can train your horse to be adaptable and rehome-able. 2) You can get a life insurance policy that pays to a reliable friend to whom you will bequeath your animals, or 3)you can plan to euth them if you cannot take care of them and their behavior or physical condition renders them unfit for rehoming.

    Oh, or 4) know that you have set the horse up to fail and probably a long, crowded trailer trip.

  30. Bif - One of the best things I was ever told was - if you get the horse out, lead him around the barn and put him away he's still ahead of where he was the day before.
    I cannot condemn anyone for doing the best they can with their horse. If we are required to ensure every new owner in the horse's life will be happy with the level of training we put on it those trucks will be packed a lot tighter than they are now.

  31. Mugs,
    Agreed wholeheartedly. But there is something sad about an otherwise OK horse that has been allowed to become a complete heathen simply because the owners think it is "cute" and doesn't hurt anything.

    Like the tortie cat and your Butch... add in horse sized expense, and the horse that at least has manners has got a better shot.

    I agree people should have their animals behavior and relationships what works best for them. But I think there ends up being a difference between a dog that can run amok and a horse.

    Horses that don't know something (but have had fair treatment and understand basic handling and thus can be trained) are different from ones who have lost respect for humans~ it can be a real challenge to try to teach them anything, and more often than not not worth the time when there is a Butch waiting to try for them.

  32. Bif - maybe that's the difference. Much of my income came from knocking manners into spoiled horses. 80% of the time it was no big thing.
    It wouldn't deter me as a selling point, it would just help me bring the price down.
    I consider bad manners an easy fix.
    I chose Butch because he was healthy,not because of his behavior.

  33. How many next owners are as capable as you? How many people are going to skip the poor mannered one if there is something equal but well mannered? This economy is crap for good, well behaved, "backyard fun" level horses. One with poor handling has so much less of a shot.

  34. recently I had a little discussion on a Italian breed forum about the keep your mouth shut theory. It came about due the persons theory that it was horrendous to see a classical horse breed (in this case a Murgese horse) in western gear ridden by what he considered a clownboy (Italy is big on western riding, and western riders often buy all the gear to look the part). I am of the opinion it is none of this persons business how the horse owner rides his horse, but rather that the horse is healthy and has a good home. In this case, the breeders of this type of horse are in crisis, and sending foals to be butchered for human it really such a crime to see a baroque horse ridden in western tack if the owner prefers this?

    Agree with the above comment about the online opinions too... always the worst on how horses should live/should be trained.

  35. New to your blog. Thank you so much for the words "He gave you the desire to do it right." I attempt to live in the now but as with most things, I find I need to frequently start again. "He gave you the desire to do it right." makes all my past bullsh!t okay. I am attempting to do it right with everything I do.

    Most excellent! Thanks again.

  36. Sometimes in life you are looking for something and then there it is, as if my magic. In this post you wrote what I needed to hear, not so much for the horse world, but for my sanity. Thank you.

    I to try to speak from my experience rather than with a pointed finger when asked for advice. There are too many times in life when we try to make the glass full for someone, when the horse (or human) and the situation is quite okay with half empty. Needed a reminder of that today.....

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  38. This was a wonderful post! No wonder you didn't go over with the Fugly crowd. You are way too open and not prejudice enought to rip people for every little thing. If more people in the horse world felt like this there would be more harmony and free exchange of knowledge between people. Benefitting everyone, people and horses.

  39. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this. I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me. Thanks!

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