Monday, March 24, 2014

What I Look For In A Dog

First and foremost, I think those of you who stick with my dog musing will realize, I like dogs. Period.  All of them. The dogs pictured above are my pack. It's my daughter's fault there are six of them, by May we should be back to four, but for the moment, this is the gang. They are the barking, pooping, shedding testament that I am neither a breed snob or a rabid rescuer.

Most of my dogs have simply shown up. When there is a great big hole in my life only a dog can fill, one appears. I have learned to quit making deposits on the breed I've decided to own, because a stray, the polar opposite of the dog I researched, agonized over and saved up for, will show up within 24 hours after my deposit becomes non-refundable.

I am not a sucker for every dog who floats by, no matter what my dad, sibs, kid or husband tells you. I help them all, they don't all stay. Almost every one of my friends has been graced with at least one of my strays, to the point where if they hear me say, "I found this dog," they start screaming, plug their ears and run home.

Now that we're clear on things, I'll tell you the dogs I look for.

They are not breeds, although I have no problem if I end up with a specific breed, they are types.

There is a certain shape I am drawn to, a physical balance I like and specific man-made features I avoid. There are conformation faults I watch for. None of these (always remember Snocone) are deal breakers, but I make informed, conscious decisions when I say, "Oh well, welcome."

I like pretty, fluffy dogs.

I like terriers and herding dogs.

These are not must haves, but they are where I lean.

This is the SHAPE of dog I look for.

I was going to go to photoshop and make silhouettes out of them, in order to avoid weird arguments, but I figured, shoot, we're all grown-ups here. So I'm taking a huge chance at misinterpretation and showing examples of the dog shape I  look for.

First off, I completely throw away the breed descriptions offered by shelters or owners. I ask after I've chosen.

There are specifics I avoid, for health reasons.

tightly coiled tails can cause all kinds of health issues
Dogs that sit funny. I look for a correct, comfortable sitting position, like on the terrier. The  spaniel's soft, floppy sit warns me there could be hip problems on the way. 

crooked legs of any kind warn me of future vet bills
Smashed in faces. If it snores, wheezes and gasps, I don't want one.
Any dog that can fit a six-year-old child's head in it's mouth is more than I want to handle.
long backed dogs
Extreme sizes - shortened life spans make me sad

Stupid crosses. 

Now I have a list of dogs who visually appeal to me. They are clean limbed, nicely proportioned dogs. Next, I evaluate who the dog is.

I look for polite, friendly dogs. I don't mind wariness or reserve, but I want the dog to be eager to get to know me without knocking me around. I avoid too much shyness or aggression.

This free video series from 3 Lost Dogs gives the easiest to understand insight to quickly evaluating a shelter dog that I've ever seen. Here's the link to the first video, I strongly suggest watching all three and reading the article they came from.

Now I've got a much smaller list and I've done everything in my power to keep my impulses at bay. Until now, this is where I would let emotion take over and choose my favorite.

Now however, I have played with temperament evaluations and become a fan.

I'm sure there are others, but these have worked for me. These evaluations hold pretty much true, no matter what the breed.

The Volhard puppy test

and the B.A.R.C. test for teen and adult dogs.

I did a quick internet cruise through the Colorado Shelter Dog list and then added a few Petfinder faves. If I was dog hunting, here is a smattering of the dogs I would evaluate.

If I was BUYING a dog...which I would do if I had a reason. Even if the reason is only I really want one...
It would be one of these:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hip Dysplasia - Yet Another Man-Made Mess

OK. Get me going.

Tell me you won't own a shelter dog because of the risk of hip dysplasia. Tell me you're going to insist on buying a purebred dog because it's the only way to safeguard against it.

I can handle most reasons to avoid a pound dog, from worrying about vices and behaviors, not knowing exactly what a dog may or may not be, or concerns about temperament, but bad hips? Seriously?

Hip dysplasia is the result of inbreeding dogs for the show ring. Technically, it came from breeding dogs that were too big for their own good. The deal is, up until dog shows became the happening thing, dogs that didn't stay sound wouldn't be bred, because they had no purpose.  It wasn't until the requirement for how a dog looked became more important than how a dog held up, i.e. show dogs, that things like hip dysplasia appeared.

I first began studying hip dysplasia when my first dog as an adult, Rita, a GSD/St. Bernard mix, was diagnosed with it. I watched her shoulders expand and her hind end shrink until she was barely mobile, and she was only eight-years-old.

I learned it was a disease seen in the giant breeds and retrievers. This was back in the late 70's, early 80's and it wasn't all that common. Researchers had found a correlation between a dog's size, their growth rate, and the frequency of orthopedic problems.

I was told it could be avoided by buying a puppy from sound parents.

I stayed with this very basic education for many years. I also started to observe dogs and try to understand soundness in dogs.

It seemed broad, loose limbed, shambling dogs had more issues than tighter, narrower, more graceful dogs.

Keeping this in mind helped me dodge the joint problem issue for many years.

In the last ten years or so, I started paying a lot more attention. I had learned to hate vet bills and in self-defense began to study healthy conformation for all my critters.

If you go to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals  website and look at the percentages for hip dysplasia it will really open your eyes.

Hip dysplasia is not just for the big dogs, boys and girls.  It seems to be associated with extreme body types and rare (small gene pool) breeds.
According to the OFA, the top ten dogs with the highest percentage of hip dysplasia were as follows: Bulldog, Pug, Dogue De Bordeaux, Otterhound, Boerboel, St. Bernard, Neapolitan Mastiff, Clumber Spaniel, . Black Russian Terrier and Sussex Spaniel.

Not a retriever or GSD in sight. This confused me, because all my other research, and my vet, kept pointing me to the usual suspects, retrievers, mastiffs, and shepherds.

It took me a bit, but I do believe I figured it out. The stats provided by the OFA came from voluntary submissions from dog breeders. Those rare, elusive, responsible breeders who want to eliminate genetic disease and produce healthy dogs that can perform like they are supposed to.

These conscientious breeders are doing a good job of it too. They have dramatically decreased the incidence of hip dysplasia (as well as other genetic problems) in many of the large breeds. Which is why many of the normally crippled breeds didn't even make the top twenty.

"The increase in percentage of dogs classified as having excellent hip joint phenotype was greater for German Shepherd dogs, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Rottweilers than for all dog breeds combined. In addition, the submission screening rate for these four breeds was higher than the screening rate for all dogs. Within these four breeds, the improvement was greatest for Rottweilers, which also had the highest screening rate."

Bravo good breeders, bravo.

The majority of AKC breeders do not belong to this elite group. As a matter of fact, it's estimated that 80% of AKC registered dogs come from puppy mills. I'm going to be generous here and assume we can add BYB's to this statistic. None of these people give a rat's ass if the dogs they are mass marketing are healthy.

Does this mean the other 20% are responsible breeders?

Nope. The average dog breeder quits after five years. Which means, the average dog breeder doesn't have enough experience to breed guppies, much less a quality dog. Most of these people either don't know how or can't afford to raise dogs with healthy joints.

This brings up a very sad fact. If I want the quality, healthy, purebred dog that has been certified, justified, tested and retested, touted by a few fellow bloggers, I had better be ready to write some checks. Serious, great big checks. A semester or three of my kid's college fund size checks.

I'm not saying I disagree either. I think a dog whose breeding I can trust is well worth the expense. But guess what? I can't afford a dog like that and neither can the majority of the dog owning population. I am at the mercy of the lower level AKC dog, and let me tell you, these dogs are not going to put me a single step ahead of a carefully selected mutt.

If you stick with the general population of purebred dogs, you're looking at a 20% to 40% chance of your large breed dog having hip dysplasia. I'm guessing the statistics are close to being the same with a mixed breed dog.

Can hip dysplasia be eliminated? To a point. In a study involving 236 German shepherds, it was proven the way to eliminate canine hip dysplasia was through the establishment of "pedigree depth,"  by the use of ancestral lines of dogs radiographically free of hip dysplasia.

In another account, with 584 progeny in a closed colony of German shepherds, it was shown that the prevalence of hip dysplasia was noticeably reduced by selectively breeding dogs proved radiographically to have normal hips at 1 year of age or older. In 3-1/2 years the incidence of hip dysplasia was lowered from 39% to less than 17%.

The dogs have to be clear of hip displasia for several generations for this to work. From what I understand, two dogs with OFA certified excellent hips can still produce dysplastic pups if the disease showed up in either previous generations or siblings.

I also learned that weight and exercise have an enormous effect and can even create hip dysplasia.

Excessive running and jumping before a dog's bones have matured is as damaging as picking up a sixth generation mill dog. Yes, I'm talking agility, frisbee and long distance running. Pulling your fat 10-month-old  dog out of his crate after a 12 hour day and heading out on a five mile bike ride might make him tired now, but can easily have him crippled by the time he's five.

Fat puppies grow faster. They also blow their joints.

A respected breeder of police and protection dogs has some strict advice when it comes to keeping a dog sound.

"Absolutely no high jumps, no stair climbing and only very little run and stop games (playing ball). NO slick floors. It is OK to walk on the slick floors but no running or playing. No forced walks until your puppy is 12 months old and the bones are stabilized. If you have stairs you will have to carry your puppy. No jumping in and out of the vehicle.

"A puppy should be limited on exercise. No long walks on the leash. It is better to walk eight 10 minute walks than two 2 hour walks. Too much exercise is not good for a developing puppy as the bones are not stabilized.

"No rough playing where the puppy could be injured. Please tell your children to be very careful not to fall on the puppy.

"We know it may be hard to limit your puppy but you will be thankful. The US has the highest rate of German Shepherds with hip dysplasia and it is all because people are not educated. I remember my first German Shepherd in Germany. We had to carry him up and down stairs until he was about 1 year old. He was not allowed to go on very long walks and was not allowed to jump. Free yard exercise (back yard) is OK. That means that the puppy is out in the backyard alone walking around."

This information was backed by a study which involved dogs of different breeds that grew up in large, fenced areas. The dogs lived and played together without human influence when it came to exercise. They were kept on the thin side. At a year old, none of the dogs showed signs of hip dysplasia, even the ones with shallow sockets. That's right, none.

My own trainer won't start a dog on jumps until it is two. He says it's just not worth it. Two young, highly bred dogs out of our group are having hip or ACL surgery. Both were avid frisbee players from 6 months on. Both had OFA certified good hips.

As far as diet goes, it wasn't so much about quality as it was quantity. Walmart kibble or organic B.A.R.F. won't make a difference if you let the dog become fat.

What are us average schmucks going to do to keep the odds in our dogs favor?

Tune in next post and I'll share my approach.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Purebreds and Mixed Breeds, Registered and Grade

"When you are looking to buy a horse," I asked K, "what's your order of importance?"

He walked to the fridge, grabbed two more Coronas and handed me one before returning to his spot by the stove. It was cold, the day had been long, and we still needed to feed. It was easy to dawdle in  heat emanating from the wood burner.

"Cash, preferably somebody else's."

"That's not what I meant," I said. "When I look at a horse, my first priority is my gut know, the thing that happens when you look at a bunch out in the field, and you think, Oooh, look at that one.

"Next, I look at conformation. I like short cannon bones on straight legs, a level head set with a good natural arch in the neck, long, heavy hip, good angles...

"Then I mess with them some and check out their temperament.

 I guess I look at breeding last, earnings on the parents, that kind of thing."

He thought a minute."Breeding, gut, temperament, conformation."

"Really? How come?"

"Breeding gives me an idea how the horse will be to work and an idea of it's resale value. I need to ride the popular bloodlines, but ones I get along with.

"My gut tells me just about everything I need to know and I don't have to think it through.

"If a horse is going to fight me, then I don't want to waste my time and if the conformation is really bad, why, my gut would have weeded that out right away. The little stuff I can work around."

I wasn't convinced. My first two winning cowhorses were registered, but one was a ranch horse and the other a Foundation horse bred for color. I felt that any horse, as long as it was built for the job at hand, and had a decent mind, could compete and win in the event of choice.

I didn't disregard what K told me, I just filed it away. Good thing too, because I hadn't bought Madonna yet, or earned my way far enough up the trainer ladder to get some decent horses to ride.

When I began to experience the joy of riding a fine horse, bred specifically for the job at hand, I realized I'd been training chihuahuas to be sled dogs, and now I had me some huskies.

 I became very partial to a well bred cowhorse. Because I was privileged to ride a bunch of the best bloodlines, I learned which ones created a horse I got along with, which ones were easy to train, which produced a good non-pro horse, and which ones were going to be a lot of work.

I learned that these horses had been bred for function, and within reason, by studying their bloodlines first, I could count on getting what I wanted.

When it comes to dogs, I'm pretty wide open, I like herding breeds and terriers, but through the years my dogs have been a mixed bag. My biggest priority is for my dog to be my companion, my next is it needs to fit into my lifestyle. This means the dog needs to come when called, not bite guests or their dogs, leave livestock alone, and stay where I can find them, whether I'm paying attention or not.

Most dogs learn these things, some take more work than others, but I commit for life when I get a dog, so we have time.

Most purebred dogs have been bred for form over function for the last 100 plus years. The goal of creating cookie cutter copies of each breed hasn't worked out so well for the dogs. Hip dysplasia, cancer, inability to breathe, we've mucked things up in a lot of ways. We've bred hunting dogs that won't hold a bird, herding dogs that bite the kids but are afraid of sheep, terriers that won't go to ground, the list goes on.

Our mutts share many of the same problems, because Hybrid Vigor is bull-shit if both parents have the same genetic issues.

Here's the thing, even though the majority of purebred dogs have been bred for shape over ability, they still retain the essence of who and what they are. MOST hunting dogs want to play fetch and search out game, MOST terriers want to dig gophers out of dens and eat your kids hamster, MOST herding dogs feel better if everyone stays in a group and MOST guard dogs want to keep the bad guy  away.

So, I will keep these points in mind while looking for a dog, and add it into my basic criteria.
When I choose a dog, there are a few things I look for. Temperament, focus, amiability, and physical soundness. I like them to be pretty. I want to be able to trust my dog.

As crazy in love as I was with Brockle I still assessed his hips, elbows and attitude. I'm not a pro on the hips and elbows, but I'm pretty good at avoiding conformation disasters. He is clearly a mix of herding dogs, with who knows what else thrown in. I like herding dogs because they are less inclined to wander than a hunting bred dog, I enjoy their brain power, and sometimes I get a good stock dog out of them.

If I decide on a purebred, I'm going to fork out the dough to get a good one. I want eyes, hips, etc. etc. checked, verified and guaranteed with a blood oath. I'll still do a temperament test and I will have a specific reason to own one.

Either way, I have always found the dog I needed, without paying much attention to their form. They have all functioned as I needed, loyalty, affection and friendship being my most important requirements.

I haven't needed a specific breed or bloodline to find these things.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bully for You, Bully for Me, Bully for Everyone -- Except of Course, the Bullies.

Today...just today, 18 out of 37 dogs available at our local kill shelter are bully breeds, if I go by the breed list considered "bully" provided by All Dogs Welcome ( I'd need to add a few more.

When I scroll through Craig's List I can pick up 10 bully dogs for free or for a minimal fee ON THE FIRST PAGE. It's interesting to note almost 2/3 of the lost and missing dogs posted on CL are also bully kinda dogs. Sure, there are other puppies on CL, you know, yorkies, chihuahua's, your designer breeds, aussie/heeler/BC mixes and GSD's  But, if you add them all together you have maybe half the amount of the  CL bully breeds. The majority of these bullies are advertised as Pit Bulls or Pit Bull mixes.

Here's what got me amped up and charging this morning. These are all puppies available in Colorado on CL today. They range in price from $50 to $1000. Each and every fricking ad states "Not for fighting."
The ads say things like "Good homes only," or my favorite "looking for forever homes."

Yay! Pit Puppies!

Did you know Pits are the number one dog being bred in America?

More pit puppies!

How about this... Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes average about 33% of shelter intakes nationally, but in large cities the numbers are as high as 40%-65%.

So let's breed some more!

It is said only 1 in 600 pit bulls that end up in shelters ever find a home, is that true? I don't know, I learned it on the 'net. I'm not talking a "forever home," I'm talking ANY home. Is that true? I don't know, but my source at our local kill shelter said only about 3% of the stray pits brought in are adopted. They adopt out over 70% of their stray dogs, so you do the math.

What the heck, let's breed some more!

Studies estimate that up to 1 million Pits are euthanized per year, or 2,800 per day. Some estimates are up to double that number. In the Los Angeles area alone, 200 per day are put to sleep.

But that's OK! We'll just get another one!

Who the hell is breeding all of these dogs? I have my suspicions, but I'd like to get some input.

Here ya go, a change in color...these were called "Red Nosed Pits.

We can't blame this on dog fight promoters, they don't advertise on CL. We can't blame this on breed bans or prejudice. I am starting to think this is a breed of dog owned by stupid people. People who breed crappy puppies as part of their income, people too young, broke, uneducated or all three to afford to neuter their dogs. You know, idiots.


Friday, March 14, 2014

Would You Do It Again?

Jim didn't talk about the little dog all night.

He didn't mention her in the morning while we got him ready and raced, as usual, to his physical therapy, ten minutes behind schedule.

The pound was on our route home. We were about to drive by and he still hadn't mentioned the dog. I decided I had given him enough room and hung a right, drove the few blocks to the parking lot and parked in front of the adoption office.

"Well?" I asked.

"What?" He asked.

"Are we getting the dog?"

"I'm still thinking."

"We don't have a lot of thinking room."

We had stopped by reception the night before to let them know we were interested, but needed to talk about it. They had warned us not to take more than 24 hours, the little dog was about out of time.

"If I see her again there is no way I'm leaving her. I don't ever want to hear that sound again," Jim said.

"I agree, so...what are we doing?"

Jim didn't answer, but opened his car door and began to fumble with his seat belt. I took that as a yes. We opted to fill out our paperwork and pay first. Jim was serious, he didn't want to see her until she was ours.

"I'm so glad you're adopting Veronica," the beaming adoption counselor said. "She's the last of the group."

Veronica? Seriously?

"What group?" I asked.

"She was one of four Maltese picked up as strays. From what we can tell they had been dumped out on the road. None of them were strong enough to have run from anywhere. They were just huddled together in the middle of the street."

"Were they all in the same shape?"

"Same shape, same age, same mess. Honey, you should have seen them, that little dog has been here three weeks already, she looks great compared to when she came in."

"Her name is not Veronica," Jim said.

The adoption guy looked at Jim politely, but Jim folded his arms and stared into the distance. Apparently, he held the chatty little man responsible for her horrible name.

She was spayed and there had been some dental work done on her, but because she was so weak, they couldn't do everything that was needed. We were looking at a hefty vet bill right out of the chute. Jim didn't react to the projected expenses, he just kept watching the door to the kennels. I sighed and signed our life away.
"Did you have a name in mind?" The clerk asked. He needed a name for her licence and micro-chip.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll come up with something, just put Veronica down for now," I said.

"Her name is NOT Veronica," Jim said, "it's Snocone."

The credit card cleared, and Snocone was carried out, screaming and shrieking, and if possible, even tinier, dirtier and smellier than I remembered.The volunteer thanked us for adopting her. There were tears in her eyes. My guess was from relief, that dog really stunk. Jim handed me his cane and took her in his arms. She wiggled and yelped and I was sure he was going to drop her.

"Wait here, I'll go get the carrier," I said.

"Snocone is never going in a cage again," he said and began his slow, unsteady way towards the exit.

 I hovered, juggling the cane, the paperwork, my pack, and the complimentary bag of dog food. On our way out the door, three more staff stopped us and thanked us for adopting her. Snocone had a fan club.

The second we stepped outside the crying stopped. By the time I had Jim seat belted in Snocone was fast asleep. As I pulled out of the parking lot Jim was sleeping too. They stayed that way until we got home. The sickly dust bunny was all ours, and for the moment, I was sure I would do it again and again, just to see those contented, sleeping faces.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lassie? Where's Timmy?

Best headline EVER

Dogs That Ate Owners Remains Given All Clear For Adoption

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- SPRINGSIDE, Sask. - A famous dog trainer has checked out seven dogs who ate the remains of their dead owners and has proclaimed they pose no danger to anyone.

Brad Patterson hosts "Puppy SOS" and is also a trainer on the Slice TV show "At the End of My Leash."

He spent all Wednesday at the Saskatoon SPCA working with the dogs.

He says the dogs have good dispositions, are compatible with people, and had no trouble being checked out.

The dogs belonged to a devoted couple who lived in a rural home in eastern Saskatchewan.

When the wife died after an illness, her husband then killed himself, leaving the dogs behind to fend for themselves.

Patterson says the dogs did what they had to, and are not dangerous animals.

"You just can't assume just because they've had human flesh, that they're going to become these creatures of the night, like a werewolf," says Patterson.

He believes two of the dogs may be mourning their dead owner.

"The only part of their temperament that has changed is the depression that they've lost something significant in their lives," he says.

Patterson feels the dogs are healthy and could live in any home, even with children.

Margaret-Ann Irving, a dog breeder who knew the couple, has said the dogs should be euthanized because they were poorly socialized and had behavioral issues.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Would You Do It Again?

Stop laughing. I mean it. 

"So, would you do it again?" Snocone's acupuncturist, Jennifer, asked me.

"Do what?"

"Adopt another mill dog."

"Oh, I see. To be fair, we didn't know she was a mill dog until later," I said.

"Right, but would you do it again?"

I had to think on that for a while. In the almost three years since Snocone came to live with us, she has been a challenge to everything dog and a very pricey adventure.

Snocone was a two-way rescue mission. When my husband had his stroke, he came very close to letting go and leaving the planet. His doctor told us he lived because we (me and his four kids) are nuts. From the minute the kids met me at the hospital post-stroke, until, well, I guess it's still going on, we never left him. Not for a minute. Not if we were pissing off the nurses, not if we were in the way of the technicians, not...for...a...single...second.

We fought a good fight and got him back. He came back wanting one thing, to pet our dog Dinah. Jim and Dinah sat together in the evenings just about every night for 12 years. His first clear movement was his hand making petting motions. We gave him a stuffed dog about the same size as Dinah and he petted his poor substitute for several weeks as his awareness crept back.

There was a small problem. Old age had caught Dinah and she was no longer comfortable sitting in his lap. His stroke had made him forget  she had retired as a lap dog almost two years earlier.

When Jim finally was able to come home he was obsessed with the idea of getting Dinah in his lap. He understood when I explained she couldn't hoist her 20 pound frame up there anymore, but would soon forget.

I decided Jim needed something to pet. We needed another dog like we needed a hole in our heads, but...he needed something to pet.

I convinced him to come with me to our local pound, and look for a dog he thought might work for him.

He looked at every single dog. Between his altered walk and rests we were there for almost four hours. Jim was still hard to read at that point. He seldom spoke and often his thoughts were muddled. I wasn't sure he remembered why we were there, but it had been a good way to kill an afternoon. He was sitting at a bench across from a stack of  small cages which held a few dogs too tiny to live with the general population.

He nodded towards a cage at the bottom of the stack. I looked. All I could see was a pile of wet gray toilet paper dumped on a blanket in the corner. Then the pile breathed. It was a dog. Well, kind of.

I read the card out loud for Jim.

"Maltese, female, 8-years-old, no history."

He came over to the glass and watched the lump of lint breathe. It had it's back to us, and offered no response to gentle taps on the glass.

"Do you want to meet her?" I asked.

"I think she needs some company," Jim said.

As the volunteer headed  with her to the Meet N' Greet room, I was sure she had brought the wrong dog. A leaping, lunging, bouncing wad of Rastafarian hair. the size of a  dandy brush came ping ponging towards us. A horrible sound, not a bark, not a  howl, but a kind of prehistoric screech was coming out of it.

"Good God," I said.

"She really hates that leash," Jim said.

Once the embarrassed volunteer finally wrestled it into the room the bellowing mishmash of filth  picked up both the tempo and the volume.

"She really hates that leash," Jim repeated.

"Can you let her go?" I asked.

"I'll try," the poor volunteer said. She couldn't have been more than 14 years old or so, and even though she had her game face on I could tell this might be her last day. The tiny mutant was kicking her ass.

We were all shouting to be heard over the weird clamor, so matted and dirty it was hard to tell which side was head and which was butt. It bucked, convulsed and snapped when the volunteer's hand touched her neck. I was horrified. Jim sat there doing his Buddha impersonation.

When silence fell over the room I was sure the teenage dog wrangler had given up and snapped the mini-Tasmanian devil's neck, but she had simply gotten the leash off and set it down. The little mess was tottering around, looking at our feet, bumping into walls, seemingly content.

"She walks funny," I said.

"It's probably the mats," the volunteer said.

"Why hasn't anybody cut them out?"

"She's on the list."

"I want to hold her," Jim said.

"OK, hang on," I told him.

I got down on the floor and waited. The decidedly smelly wreckage staggered past and paused. Then, it either sat on me or sniffed me, I couldn't tell which, but it let me scratch it's back, slide my hand under the rib cage and pick it up. Holding her was such a shock I almost dropped her. There was nothing there. I could feel the mats, the hair and a pile of bones, but it was like holding a bag of cotton balls,there was no weight.

She was quiet and still, I could feel her heart pounding through her birdy bones and against the meat of my palm. I felt no malice or terror, just a wary acceptance.

"I think she'll be okay," I said. "Be careful, she seems very fragile."

Jim stared at me, not finding the words, letting his eyes say, 'I'm not three, I had a stroke, dumbass."

I handed him the little dog and she melted into him. He held her with his good hand and stroked her with a single finger of the not-so-good one. She was limp. I heard a gentle snore and stared at the volunteer in amazement. She was asleep.

They sat together, my broken husband and the shattered dog, for another 15 minutes.

"Well?" I finally asked.

"Let's go home," Jim said.

"Are we taking the dog?" I asked.

"Not yet, I want to go home."


Jim was as exhausted as the poor little dog. He moved so slow we had to pass her, back in her cage, on the way out. She threw back her head and cried. Not the frantic calls we had first heard, but a sad, lost wail. I looked over at Jim and tears were streaming down his face.

"I want to go home."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cross Training - With Our Minds Wide Open

I almost, almost, got in a pissing contest with a reader from my last post. Her comments were just enough to put me on the defense. Instead, I thought them through, the same way I would a tough training problem.

Sometimes, a horse will come across as sour, aggressive, or belligerent, simply because it doesn't understand what it is being asked to do. This usually stems from the horse having learned a negative response will help it avoid thinking a problem through.

In a nut shell, by being an asshole, it can stay in it's comfort zone.

While I was training, I learned I could fight with a horse like this, and because I knew more tricks than most horses, could force it to do what I wanted. This worked, but did nothing to improve the horse's outlook, and often ended up with me and my trainee being at odds for the time we were involved with each other.

The other option, which eventually became my standard approach, would be to abandon the specific maneuvers and straighten out the attitude. Once the horse and I were on the same page, we usually got back to training the stuff it was there for, and we would progress rapidly enough to make up for lost time. The bonus was giving the owner a trained horse with a much improved attitude.

The trick was to get the horse to think.

So, that's my goal today, to get some actual thinking going.

I'm a big believer in cross training my horses. It comes from my years with Mort. I had one horse, but I also had a lot of interests.

I started with gymkhanas and speed events. Then, I decided we needed to compete in the "morning events," halter, pleasure, horsemanship, trail and reining. You know, the events with the broke horses.
We dabbled in endurance, dressage and cross country jumping as the years went by.

Mort and I had various levels of success over the years, and in the end, I had a pretty awesome all around horse. He was hot as a pistol until his dying day, but I was extremely aware it was my lack of knowledge that made him that way. He inspired me to keep learning and to really dig deep and train my horses.

The most important thing I did in my quest for learning new things, was to search out an expert in each new endeavor. That wasn't too hard, since I was a broke kid without a trailer, who had trained her horse pretty much on her own. Just about everybody was an expert compared to me.

I was raised in a home where children shut up and listened. Questions needed to be thoroughly thought out and well timed. This approach opened (and still does) all kind of doors. In order to learn by observation instead of conversation, I had to be willing to suspend everything I thought I knew and just absorb the new information without comparison to my past experience.

I would suck up as much information as I could, then do my comparing on my own time. When I came to a dead halt, and couldn't get past a difference between what I knew and what I had just learned, why, there was my question.

My first introduction to dressage was from a young woman who rode and lived in the same neighborhood as my friend Karen. She was in college, I was in high school, her horse looked calm and amazing, my horse was wild and scattered, so she was obviously my next expert.

I rode with her three or four times before I had my first question.

"Why do you keep telling me to keep contact with my legs? When I put my legs on Mort he wants to run, so I ride with them off him."

My expert said, "You want balance between your leg contact and your mouth contact. You should be able to hold him between your legs and your bit. So a little squeeze from your legs and a light hold from your bit would tell him to walk."

I chewed on that one for....oh, I guess I still do. To this day, the word balance is in my head, and hopefully in my seat, hands, and legs -- every ride, every horse, every time.

Her advice wasn't perfect. But it was enough. It gave me a wonderful concept. Balance.

When I started riding endurance, I was too busy fighting with my friend Karen to learn much on my first several NATRC rides. It wasn't until my first 50 miler that I opened my mind instead of my mouth and started learning.

I found out that Mort's energy and trail-eating attitude were not considered hot. It was called forward, and, with some work, even a positive. His long legs, narrow chest, deep girth and slow heartbeat said he was born for endurance, in this case, he was more than a crappy quarter horse.

My rangy horse was an asset in this sport, not an embarrassment, it was wonderful.

He needed to be calmer. My endurance expert talked me into letting him go. I learned the concept of getting off his face.

As a kid, who wanted to do lots of things on the only horse she had, I was gaining lots of ground.

I had a decent background in Monte Foreman's Balanced Ride training. It had given me a guaranteed stop with a touch on Mort's neck.

My bare bones dressage had given me the concept of contact and balance.

Now, I was letting my horse go.

Three seemingly contradicting concepts.

Three thought processes that began to meld into a solid training approach I could call my own.

I didn't question the validity of any of these ideas. Each one had a purpose in each discipline. I didn't know it, but I was morphing into a horse trainer.

I also learned there are different horses that excel in different things.

Becky, my room-mate, freshman year at CSU, owned Arabs. She spent the summer working for a trainer and instead of pay, had received a well-bred yearling. She kept him at a barn in town in exchange for training colts. I had spent the summer working at a gas station and had leased Mort out so I could keep him while I was in school. Being an insecure, bratty and very jealous kid, I teased her unmercifully about her hot A-rabs.

On weekends, she often came home with me to ride. One afternoon we were leading the horses to our tack room (garage). Mort was snorting and playing and banging around as we walked.

"You know," Becky said, "for somebody who hates Arabs, you have the most Arab-y Quarter horse I've ever known."

Mort pulled at my shirt, then charged past, eyes wide, nostrils flared and his tail straight in the air.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Mort hit the end of his lead-rope, flipped around to face me and squealed at my mom's horse, Murray.

Having Mort taught me I could learn anything I wanted. He could excel at some things, and his attitude and build would limit him in others.

Mort was not fast. He was an adequate barrel horse, but never one of the best.

Mort was wicked agile. He could scramble up anything I pointed him at and knock out a reliable 21 second pole pattern, with a few 20 second runs if I stayed the hell out of his way.

Mort was tough. He had strong legs, great feet, unending wind and an amazing extended trot he could hold all day.

Mort was high headed. His neck was long, thin and set too high to ever develop the level head set becoming popular in the show ring. Yes folks, I'm so old I remember when a Quarter Horse could work with his head higher than his withers.

He was built funny, if you were looking for a bull dog Quarter Horse.

He had a beautiful build if you wanted to cover fifty miles in under 8 hours, develop a rudimentary canter pirouette or find out his giant extend trot was considered "floaty" in the right arena.

The canter pirouette? I spent so many years hanging on his face while his hind end tried to run off with me, by the time I understood collection and started to get balance, it was amazing what he could do. Talk about your reverse training.


Here is what I know now. If I ride a certain discipline on a specific breed and I decide to learn something completely new and foreign to my way of thinking, I have learned how to get the most out of the experience. Most of the time I'll end up with some new information I can absorb into that junk closet in my head I call horse knowledge.

I study the new discipline as much as I can before my first lesson. The Internet has made this soooo easy. I can study the build and breed of the horses used in the sport. I can study the riding style and method, at least within my understanding.

Then, I can compare notes. If the horses I'm seeing are more of a rectangle than a square, if their legs are shorter than I'm used to, the heads lower and seem to be built downhill, then obviously there is a reason. That particular build must suit the sport it is used for.

I'll watch videos until my eyes bleed, trying to figure out how that particular form fits the function. Then I'll compare the form to my horse. Will his long legs make it hard to turn like those other horses? How about his headset? Will it slow down his movement? Is my horse agile like these horses are?

It doesn't matter to me if he is as good, I'm learning, not competing. But, seeing conformation differences gives me some intelligent questions to ask my new expert. In order to avoid being an insulting moron and hopefully be invited back, I'll phrase my questions in regards to my own horse.

"Are my horse's long skinny legs going to stop him from getting down in the dirt?"

"Could you explain why I can't get through my turn?"

After I have at least a vague idea of the conformation of the better horses in my sport, I move on to riding style.

Does the rider sit different? I'll watch and try to see why.
I'll do the same things with their hands, use of leg and method of impulsion.
I note the difference and try to figure out why.
If I just don't get it, then I've got another good question.
Again, I usually want to get invited back, so I try to phrase my question without a hidden opinion or judgement.

"When I ride, my horse just follows the trail without me doing anything, so this is hard for me to understand. How come you use your legs to move your horse in the herd?"

(The difference BTW, is the trail pulls the horse along, cutting horses push against the airspace of the cattle)

I already ran through most of the disciplines I played with as a kid. Once I was a pro, I still dabbled in other disciplines. I rode with three different dressage trainers, a reining trainer, a western riding trainer, two western pleasure trainers, a hunt seat trainer, two cutting horse trainers and as many reined cow horse trainers as I could. Each discipline uses different methods, types of horse and philosophies.

While I settled in with the Big K, it didn't stop me from learning from others, applying parts of what I learned to my program and thinking lots of deep thoughts. They all invited me back.

I am also, 100% willing to walk away from a trainer I think is full of shit. I have yet to condemn an entire breed or discipline from a bad experience with one trainer.

OK. I'm done.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why Do You....?

I'm putting out answers to many of the questions and statements I receive about western riding. There is a slight difference order to pretend the questions were just that, and the statements were made to encourage conversation, not attack the discipline itself, I rewrote, combined and improvised to keep things polite.

1. Why do you ride in those big clunky saddles?

Because we do stuff like this.

We need a saddle horn in order rope and drag stuff. It is not intended to be used as a handle, but it can be used that way.

English saddles don't have a horn, so it's much harder to rope a bear in one. They can however be fitted with a thing called a grab or cheater strap. I don't think it helps drag a cow to the fire.

2. I can't feel my horse with a western saddle. I want the close contact I get with my English saddle.

English boots encase the leg up to the knee. Western boots stop right below the calf muscle.
Western riders have different contact than English riders do. Our legs are relaxed in the stirrup and leg contact is made with our calf muscles as needed. The leather fender is rarely any thicker than the leather of a knee high boot.
Also, different western saddles are used for different things and the contact differs. Roping saddles are stiff and the fenders are thick, to allow the roper to stand up and rope. These saddles are not meant to have much feel.
A cutting saddle is all about feel. The stirrups are free swinging and the fenders are flexible.
I find feel is more about learning to ride than the amount of leather on the horse's back.

3.Why are your reins so long?

Well, duh.

Western horses in split reins are meant to ride long and low, on a loose rein. Long reins allow the rider to give the horse his head or gather up for contact, as needed.
Long reins provide extra leather for emergencies. One split rein is long enough to use as a single rein. The other can be used as a lead rope or for quick repairs out on the range. It's why the tie strings are so long too. Our saddles aren't Barcaloungers, they're tool trucks.
Neck reining is all about a signal from a long loose rein.

4. Why do you ride in those huge bits?

They aren't all huge, although the one I ride Madonna in is a beast.

We don't ride with continual contact. Our reins are loose and our legs relaxed. Western horses are ridden one handed. A solid mouthed bit with a port, shanks and curb strap, (curb) is designed to tell the horse which way to go while being ridden one handed on a loose rein. The point is to signal rather than tell.

Plus, we can whack a pluggy sour monster on the butt with them.

5. Why is your horse so hard mouthed she has to be in a spade bit?

It takes 5 - 7 years to create a horse, so soft, so broke, so hair trigger responsive they can graduate to a spade bit. It is about communication, riding with a touch and a sigh. If the horse is afraid of the bit or the rider, it isn't a bridle horse. If my bridle horse can't be ridden in an O-ring snaffle at any time, then she isn't a bridle horse.

6.Why do you always wear spurs? Why are your spurs so big?

Not all western riders wear spurs. Not all western spurs are big.
Most of them look like this:

It has to do with the relaxed leg. Our leg is off, in order to cue, we make contact with our calf, then, if needed, turn our foot out  to make contact with the spur. Long legged riders will wear a spur with a longer shank. This allows contact with less leg movement. The spur is used for turns and to lift the back, not to increase speed. If you watch a good rider, you will very rarely see a spur actually touch
the horse. 

7.Why do you always have your spurs on? 

We leave them on our boots, so we never lose them, and they sound cool when we walk.

8.Why do all your horses go downhill?

Cowboys need bursts speed, turns and stops from their horses. Quarter horses can run a quarter mile from a flat-footed stand still in less than 21 seconds. They reach speeds up to 55 MPH. Some of them do, indeed, stand higher at the croup than at the wither.

We don't need this.

Horses that can do this...

and this....

are built like this.
This particular horse earned well over $100,000 dollars during his career.
He is now enjoying life as a ranch horse, a leading cow horse sire and a beloved family member.
He is sound, sane and famous for his sweet nature.
We should be so lucky as to ride a horse built like him.

Why don't cowboys wear a helmet?

Because cowboy hats keep rain off our backs and face, stop us from getting sunburned, keep wind and dust out of our eyes, and make us look fricking amazing.

Cowboy hat awesomeness.

Western helmets do not.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Do You....? Part One, because I went all ADD on you.

During the years I've been writing this blog, I have had a lot of questions thrown at me. OK, maybe some were asked, but the "Why do you...?" questions are usually thrown with a javelin. At my face.

 I'm not a fan or engager of trolls, and those of you who check in regularly know I can get pretty pissy with those who want to pick a fight, broadcast their disdain  or correct my spelling, especially when disguised as a seemingly innocent question. 

At the same time, getting my back up because somebody is rude, thick, or not actually reading what's been written, just trying to clear a platform for themselves, means I often miss, ignore or walk away from some legitimate questions.

The ones I get the most come from riders of other disciplines. Mainly, I'm just being honest here, from people who ride dressage.

Wait, let me get a little more specific, from people who introduce themselves by saying, "I ride dressaaaage." Then, wait a beat, or two, or six, for their standing ovation, or for me to jump off my high horse and bow to their superiority. 

I've gotta be straight here. My reaction is identical to the one I have when I hear "I use Parelli, have you heard of it?"  


  1. 1.
    the art of riding and training a horse in a manner that develops obedience, flexibility, and balance.

par·ell·i nat·ur·al horse·man·ship
pyramid scheme

1. a program that uses an approach to communicating with horses based on natural equine behaviors, to achieve trust and respect in the horse/human relationship. PNH methods are similar to the ways that horses act with one another within a herd

The first definition encompasses what every single horse person on the planet wants to achieve, no matter what their education, experience or piece of equipment they slap on their horses backs or heads. I ride dressage, you ride dressage, even this woman, somewhere, somehow, thinks she is riding dressage.

Because we ALL want an obedient mount, we ALL want our horse and ourselves to be flexible and in balance, correct?

Then, there's the Parelli deal. The concept is legit. I spent a long time watching horses interact with each other in order to understand them better. I still do. Much of my training approach is based on the pressure points horses use with each other, how they drive, turn and stop each other, their hierarchy and body language. I got the concept from western trainers, although the better ones don't consider it a cowboy approach, just a good one, you know, riding dressage.

The thing is, one day I read a training tip, on the Parelli website. A devotee had written in, asking how to cope with a horse  that bit her every time she tightened her cinch. The answer was, I kid you not, to shove a carrot in the horse's mouth every time she swung around to bite her. That way, the owner could turn saddling into a positive experience. 

"Sometimes when students have problems with horses biting at them when they tighten the cinch, I tell them to give their horse a carrot when he puts his ears back and starts to swing his head around."

"Give me a carrot bee-atch."

OK. I was done with Parelli.  

Back pain? That would be a natural reaction. Bitchy mare? That would be a natural reaction. Personally, I would not respond to either reaction with a carrot.

Because nobody, but nobody created that training tip by watching the interaction of horses in a herd.

To tell the truth, from the horse's viewpoint there is absolutely nothing natural about a person riding them. Nothing. 

Anyway, I digress, a bunch. My point is, there is an identical gleam in the eye of the person who declares their status in the world with, "I ride dressage," and the one who says, "I am a Natural Horse Man Ship."

Both statements tell me the rider would rather hide their ignorance behind a label, and a misunderstood one at that, than actually travel the road to everything horsaii. 

"I ride horses." 

That statement perks my interest, brings a smile, and gets me looking for conversation. It leads to all kinds of fun.

"I study dressage."

"Me too!"

"I study Parelli."

"Is it working for you?"

See the difference? We can go riding together! We might even have a beer at the end of the day, who knows? 

If your riding experience consists of the three lessons you took  with an instructor who specializes in dressage, you are not the same caliber of rider as I am. Nor is your understanding of horses deeper.

When I was on my third lesson on the dudes at Mark Reynor Stables, I was not the same caliber of rider as um, well, help me here, because I don't personally know a dressage trainer who is the equivalent of my not-quite-successful-middle-of-the-road trainer status. But I'm guessing you get my drift.

Good grief, this post has wandered way off the trail. I mean, I ended up following a deer trail, fell down a gulch and am currently picking my way through it's rocky bottom, hoping somebody will show me the way out.

Next post, I'll try to get back to my original plan, which is explaining why we western riders do and say some of the stuff we do. In the mean time, let's face it, we all ride dressage -- even Parelli.