Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Police horses keep the peace after UK wins.

According to TheHorse.com, Lexington, KY’s mounted police have been working hard to maintain order during the past few nights as the UK Wildcats made their bid for the 2012 NCAA Championship in basketball. The Wildcats (my Kentucky family’s most beloved college basketball team) won during Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Louisville, and then went on to clinch last night’s 2012 NCAA Championship. Disappointingly, on Saturday night some Lexington fans expressed their excitement by inciting near riot conditions -- burning furniture, overturning cars, and throwing projectiles for several hours following the game.

Enter the Lexington mounted police, a force comprised of several steady TB/Percheron crosses and their human partners, who work to manage and disperse just such unruly groups. They must deal with all manner of crowd misbehaviors, including the throwing of projectiles. According to Lexington Mounted Police Officer Lisa Rakes, all the animals used for crowd control this past weekend were hit by objects ranging from bottles, to rocks, to cans of beer, but carried on and helped keep the situation under control.

What was interesting to me was not that these animals were able to hold their own while drunk college students flagrantly endangered their safety. It’s that the police people involved recognize that even though these animals are specially trained for such high stress work, the force must still "do additional desensitizing, reassuring, and ground work with the horses after all is said and done.” As Officer Rakes points out in the article, "'We have to remind [the horses] that every time someone raises a hand to throw something, it's not necessarily going to be thrown at them.'"

I find this compelling because many of us who own horses might take for granted that the training we put into our mounts eventually “sticks” and is internalized into their psychology. It is important to remember that horses always maintain the powerful instincts that govern their flight and fear responses, and even the best training can be undone if they encounter threatening or traumatic experiences. For police horses, such experiences are unfortunately just a part of working life. I think the Lexington mounted force deserves kudos, therefore, for remaining sensitive to the psychological impacts that even their most unflappable mounts incur while keeping peace in the horse capitol of the world. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Porter the Mule Makes Strides in Dressage

Alright, I am not a dressage person by any stretch, but how can anyone not love this story?! 

Porter the mule (click to see great pictures!) has made it all the way up to third level dressage competition, thanks to some very diligent work on behalf of owner and professional hunter-jumper Audrey Goldsmith. The rangy half-Thoroughbred still raises eyebrows when he enters the dressage ring, but once he’s doing his thing, the judges can’t touch him! What started out as an intent to cross train him and help him balance during a mild spate of neurological symptoms as a yearling, turned into a full-fledged career as an elegant, dancing mule. As if that weren't enough, he also drives, jumps, does reining, and competes in trail classes.

Interestingly, Goldsmith explains in the article that mules aren’t really so different from horses – except that they have a stronger flight instinct and so you have to be prepared for them to bolt with a little more zest than a normal equine. She also explains that mules actually smell slightly different from horses (who knew?), and so sometimes fellow equines at dressage tests get noticeably unnerved when he enters the warm-up arena.

Regardless, I think he’s gorgeous, and love the adorable floppy ears. His owner likens him to a “rideable border collie,” which sounds like great fun to me. Good luck to both Porter and Audrey as they show those stuck-up horses who’s boss!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Saratoga War Horse Project Provides Healing Hooves

Thanks to the blog Off-Track Thoroughbreds.com for the heads up on a great program just recently implemented in Saratoga. The Saratoga War Horse Project brings retired racehorses and war veterans together for quality time that helps both adjust to life after their high stress careers. As the article points out, many veterans have psychological traumas that can be devastating to their quality of life upon returning home, and are no longer used to an environment where they do not have to be constantly hyper-vigilant. Retired racehorses often come off the track with few equine socialization skills, and can be uncertain about how to function in the less structured environment of a farm. Bringing the two together allows both to ease their transitions, and learn how not to be "'on point all the time.'"

I have worked for a therapeutic riding organization that had a division devoted to providing hippo-therapy to war vets, and have seen firsthand the mental and physical benefits that it can provide. Many of the vets in my program explained that being around the horses allowed them to put their stress aside and indulge in something purely pleasurable. It also allowed them to get back in touch with the more sensitive side of their personalities that they had often suppressed in order to survive in the life-threatening combat environment. 

Kudos to all involved with the Saratoga War Horse Project for putting the healing power of horses to such good use.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Gentle Barn brings animals and humans together to heal.

The Equine Reader has long missed the expansive fenced swaths of bluegrass that I left behind when I moved to NYC. While I cannot discount how much I also love the verve and energy of big city life, there's always been a part of me that has dreamed of having a farm where I could "tend the rabbits," and focus in particular on rehabilitating horses that have fallen on hard times. I want to have such a place not just to do good by displaced equines, but also so that young people could come to the farm and reap the mental and emotional benefits that come with caring for and building a partnership with a horse.

Imagine then my surprise and joy when I ran across a New York Times article today about The Gentle Barn. This non-profit organization in California rescues abused farm animals of all species, rehabilitates them physically and mentally, and then pairs them with young people who have also been the victims of trauma or abuse. The kids connect with the animals because they have experienced similarly painful backgrounds, and are often able to share their emotions around the animals in ways that they do not feel safe doing around other humans. The animals in turn learn slowly to trust humans again, and begin to recover from the hard times that befell them before they ended up at the Gentle Barn.

Anyone interested in donating to this amazing program can do so here, or can contact the organization and become a long term sponsor of one of the animals. It just goes to show how therapeutic it can be to connect with other living creatures, whether they whinny, snort, bark, or crow. Perhaps one of these days I will start a Gentle Barn in New York...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Considering the Schmersal Scandal

By now almost everyone following equine news has undoubtedly heard of the Craig Schmersal warm-up scandal at the FEI World Reining Final in Malmo, Sweden. Schmersal was videotaped in the warm-up pen aggressively shanking his mare Miss Lil Addy Tude, the horse on which he would later go to win the CRI 4 portion of the event, and place second in the Open and CRI 5 portions. Having watched the video (and having seen the two perform to a second place finish several weeks previously at the Rolex/Ariat Reining Cup), it's clear that the mare is already very broke, gives to the bridle immediately and doesn't seem to have any problem listening to Schmersal's commands. It appears that he's trying to give her that last "edge" of responsiveness (meaning, she doesn't dare disrespect what he asks her to do at an event of that magnitude). Several other reiners can be seen in the background of the video using similar corrections, though in the moments captured on film, Schmersal's seem the most frequent and aggressive.

Now, it is certainly not for me to decide whether Craig Schmersal, one of the top trainers and most successful horsemen in the reining business, operated outside of appropriate training protocol for that level of reining horse, or perpetrated abuse. The FEI adjudicators have been tasked with that determination, and their ruling will stand as the final one. However, this incident does leave me as a spectator with a real pit in my stomach, and not simply because I get sick watching any horse being mistreated.

The Schmersal scandal is particularly disturbing to me because I grew up in the stock horse traditions, and truthfully turned my back on most of them due to what I frequently saw in warm-up pens at the large shows. Riders spurring or shanking their horses aggressively and repeatedly to "teach them a lesson," or putting forward a win-at-all-costs mentality that often resulted in horses with doctored tails and uneven Western gaits barely managing to bob along around the ring. It all encouraged me to give up showing for the most part, and become a pleasure rider content to train my own horses and perfect my horsemanship.

It was not until I began watching the sport of reining that I found a reason to love the Western sports again. I thrilled to see fit, healthy horses moving fluidly through their maneuvers in a naturally collected frame. Reining looked like one of the only Western sports where a horse could still "be a horse," while showing off the big moves and stops that are almost entirely the stock horse's domain. Unfortunately, once again the backside of showing has given me cause to question whether I can continue to enjoy the sport as I once did. And I am probably not the only one feeling that loss.

I continue to wonder, every time this type of news comes out about another race, show or event, whether competition and a horse's well-being will always be at cross purposes. Especially when, having watched Stacy Westfall, John Lyons, Lynn Palm, and Bob Avila time and again, I know they don't have to be.