Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Reining with the Best

I have always respected Bob Avila.

His competency as a horseman has never been in question. He is a renowned reining and cow horse trainer who holds over 37 World Championship and Reserve Championship titles in Quarter Horse competition, spanning a variety of Western and cow sports. He has won the "Magnificent 7" competition three years in a row, and the "World's Greatest Horseman" competition twice. His excellence needs no introduction and he knows his craft possibly better than anyone in the business.

What makes him, however, in my opinion, truly a cut above, is that he is an open advocate for the equine partners that he raises, trains and shows. I watched a clinic with Bob Avila and Al Dunning at this year's Equine Affaire, and while Dunning suggested tying horses out to a "thinking post" for hours on end to encourage them to somehow contemplate their bad behavior, Avila stressed engaging a horse's mind and feet at every phase of training, and giving him a break when he's lost his focus. Horses "go" for him because he puts their needs first, and he understands implicitly that if his horses are to show their hearts out and put food on his table and trophies in his case, he needs to be on the forefront of promoting their welfare and well-being.

And he certainly is.

Horse and Rider magazine contracted Bob several issues back to begin writing a series of monthly articles pertaining to training and showing techniques in the reining pen. Articles have always featured very useful content and have covered such topics as properly bitting a reiner, best methods for selecting one, and an interesting article about those little extra bits of effort that separate good horse people from great ones (all had to do with horse welfare, by the way).

But it is Bob's most recent article in H&R that has truly earned him my profound admiration. He addresses the current "trend" of low-headed reining horses, and the "fad" of horses dropping their noses as low as they can after each maneuver. He discusses the dangers of forcing horses to lower their heads unnaturally, and calls out to fellow reining competitors to focus on buying and exhibiting horses built properly (with a level topline, and low set neck) for traveling low. He also cautions the reining industry not to earn itself the same bad reputation that the Pleasure horse industry suffered for forcing unsuitably conformed horses to carry themselves in the "peanut roller" position. Bob stresses the need for proper conformation, proper collection, and proper engagement to ensure that reiners travel naturally and comfortably. The article was a pleasure to read, and in an era when horse abuses seem prevalent in every show pen, a breath of fresh air delivered from the top level of professional competition.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Most Difficult Decisions

I have always had a bleeding heart for animals and children. Seeing abuse or mistreatment of either gets my hackles up immediately. So it was, of course, with consternation that I read a recent conversation on MSN.com regarding a reader who had opted to turn the family horse (and dog) loose rather than continue to pay its bills or deliver it to an adoption facility. Many readers wrote in responding that it was downright dangerous to do such a thing, both for the animal's welfare (as it would surely starve) and for human welfare in the vicinity, because the occupants of a car colliding with a loose, scared horse would likely suffer significant injuries. Many others, however, argued very reasonably that if it came down to a choice between feeding the horse and feeding the children, it would not be so difficult to make such a decision.

This got me to thinking about our current economic crisis and how it is affecting those who own, train, breed and sell horses. Numerous articles have been written about the difficulties of supporting an equine passion during a bear market, but I think it's nearly impossible to investigate the myriad angles from which this situation is squeezing the horse owner (both middle income and wealthy). There is already horse overpopulation and economic fallout wrought on America's equine economy by the current ban on equine slaughter. The price of hay, fuel, feed and bedding have all risen meteorically in the last year, making boarding and caring for a horse suddenly out of the economic reach of many American families. Horse purchases are down across industries for horses that lack top conformation and pedigrees, as evidenced by less than stunning figures brought recently at the Kentucky Fasig-Tipton sale and the Ocala Breeder's Sale (thoroughbreds). This confluence of elements is creating a horse industry that is strapped for cash but flush with horses. When top level professionals who make lucrative livings with equines are opting to show less, breed less, and buy less, how is the middle-income horse owner expected to curb the effects of the dampening?

As evidenced by the discussion above, the answer can be quite difficult. I am incredibly lucky to have my retired QH gelding tucked safely away on a friend's farm, but the farm's owner has been gracious enough to keep him basically at cost for his board. Many who own horses aren't afforded the same luxury, and are now being faced with difficult decisions. It is a good time to keep in mind that there are options for your horse if he or she has become too much of a financial burden. Turning a horse out onto the back nine to fend for itself is likely only a death sentence. At least inquire with adoption, rescue and rehab facilities as to whether your horse is a possible candidate for their programs.

And as a final and related note, I recently watched (part of) a documentary on HBO called "Running for Their Lives" about the pipeline that exists in this country to funnel to area auction houses racehorses that get injured or never find success . Here they are kept, traumatized and frightened in small pens with little food or water, and either die or are eventually sold to Mexican slaughter plants. I could only watch about 3 minutes of the video before I began crying and demanded it be turned off. Luckily it appears I am not the only one appalled, and that the racing industry is stepping up to investigate.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Oxers, and combos, and water, OH MY!

This weekend I finally caught a show jumping segment of the 2008 Summer Olympic Equestrian Games, and felt myself suddenly inspired to learn to jump. Watching those scopey horses bravely charging over everything in their path created a significant interest in learning just how they do it. This is a brand new discipline for this dyed-in-the-wool Paint horse princess, but here on the East coast, and especially in the NYC metro area, good Western barns are in short supply. I think, anyway, that it's time to switch things up and reenter the equestrian training scene from a different angle. There is so much to be learned from every discipline, and new training can only diversify my riding resume.

What better way, I argue, to "jump" onto the scene after my recent burst of televised inspiration than at a high-class equestrian facility owned by two former Olympians? Such a venue exists just north of me in Van Cortlandt Park, a place called Riverdale, run by Ashley Nicoll-Holzer and her husband Rusty Holzer. Both Ashley and Rusty are active competitors at the highest levels of the world dressage scene and have ridden for the US Olympic team.

I still have to investigate whether jumping lessons are even available at the facility, as I seem to be getting conflicting reports on the matter. The website shows that jumping training happens at Riverdale, but the office manager with whom I inquired today very strictly informed me that this was a DRESSAGE ONLY barn. Of course, being from the cowgirl set and hearing horror stories about the draconian attitudes of dressage riders, this conversation immediately worried me that Riverdale might exhibit some of the stereotypical snootiness associated with dressage folks. I am still going up with an open mind, and hope that "their" way of doing things will only improve my way.

Unfortunately, my choice of barn certainly has to do with my car-free lifestyle as a Manhattan dweller. I am faced here with commuting issues that do not plague a "regular" horse person. Finding a barn one can go to by train or by bus from the isle of Manhattan is no small feat, but there are a few available locally that I might investigate. Besides Riverdale, I'm also considering Kensington Stables, which rides their horses in true NYC style by utilizing a riding arena apparently located within Brooklyn's Prospect Park. It is a testament to the creative ways that New Yorkers learn to use their limited space when a riding stable works out of a local park.

If anyone has any suggestions for ways to ease my transition into the English equestrian scene I'd be happy to hear. I'm proficient on the flat in an English saddle, and used to do hunter under saddle work with my young Paint gelding after he decided to grow way too big to be comfortable practicing the proper little steps required of a Pleasure horse. Unfortunately this may be of little usefulness, as stock horses in English tack are often barely recognizable as being part of the same discipline as circuit hunters and equitation horses. Before, therefore, I begin jumping, I'm sure I'll have lessons on the flat to ensure that I've got the independent English seat required to make it over those pretty fences in one piece and land on the same side that my horse does. All important considerations.

And yes mom, I will wear my helmet. That's one thing I've always done, regardless of how much leather separates me from my horse. Cowboy hats, after all, aren't the best protection when a fussy baby decides he no longer wants you aboard...

Long Strides in Saratoga

So it looks like the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committee is paving the way for a safer world for racing thoroughbreds. Yesterday in Saratoga Springs, prominent members of the thoroughbred world met for a round table discussion about ways to enhance training and racing practices to ensure that horse welfare returns to the forefront of racing industry standards and legislation. At issue during the conference were the implementation of a national ban on the use of steroids, a ban on "toe grabs" (pieces of metal that act as grips on the front of racing horseshoes), enhanced regulation on drug testing, reforms on whip use and weight, and more uniform guidelines for medication rule infractions. The New York Racing Association has already moved quickly forward to implement this weekend's recommendations, issuing an official ban on toe grabs for all New York State tracks beginning on Oct 29th of this year, at the Aqueduct fall meet. This conference follows June meetings by the Jockey Club Thoroughbred Safety Committe, and prominent equine practitioners, which outlined the key issues affecting racing thoroughbred safety.

According to the Blood Horse, several prominent equine industry leaders were in attendance at the round table, including "Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board; Dr. Larry Bramlage, co-owner of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and a member of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee; Bill Casner, president and co-owner of WinStar Farm; Alan Foreman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Associations Inc.; Jim Gagliano, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for The Jockey Club; David Haydon, president of InCompass Solutions; Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council; Matt Iuliano, vice president of registration services for The Jockey Club; and Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission."

Kudos to the racing industry for stepping up to the plate this time around and realizing that its patrons, trainers, owners and breeders all have a stake in making sure its equines are put first.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Smokin' Chimneys

My ideal life, as I see it now, will be spent within stone's throwing distance of a big city, tucked away some place on the outskirts where the availability of open land will facilitate my horsey passions. Professionally, this will hopefully lend itself to a career marketing equestrian sports events, products, and players - that is, selling the attributes of prime bloodstock to potential breeders. It is toward this end that I am busy building my career in marketing, working on my graduate degree, and blogging here about relevant industry issues.

The idea of equine sports marketing is unique because you are often selling a product for which there is no acute need. As I peruse horse magazines and contemplate the efficacy of the various ads, I consider the challenge of marketing such a luxury type product as equine sports/ownership, while also differentiating one's brand from the vast realm of competitors. What then are the key components in building an equine marketing campaign? What is it about our connection with and use of horses within our respective industries that gets our advertising attention?

Horses invoke an array of feelings in the owner/breeder/horse person. Some people are plugged in to the therapeutic aspects of horse ownership, the joy and love that can arise bountifully from the bond that develops between horse and human. Others are business oriented, and appreciate not just the passion and majesty of the horse, but the possibility of it providing a lucrative living. And yet a third group of horse person derives status and esteem from their connections with and within the horse industry, and from competing successfully in the upper horse show or racing echelons. There are of course a myriad different ways these types can be combined, and some horse owners are likely all three, while others are none at all, but I see these groups as being core target markets.

Many of the ads that I see as I flip around through my magazines are compelling, but only on one of the above levels. There might be an ad that showcases the bond between horse and human, impressing on its audience the importance of good horse care (utilizing the featured product) as a way to express love and kindness to your animal. Another type of ad might feature a prominent sports horse, and highlight his power and grace to help promote the product, in much the same way that human models are used to market clothes.

But rarely does a campaign market successfully to a collective gut level love of the equine. Rarely does a campaign flawlessly convey the beauty and perfection of the equine form, while also creating an intense desire to be a part of that horse's world and join the esteemed few who posses vital connections with it. when I opened up this week's issue of The Blood Horse, and saw Three Chimney Farm's most recent campaign featuring Big Brown, therefore, I had to gasp at the advertising genius implemented by the farm's marketing team.

I had already intended to explore Three Chimney's inspiring and beautiful ads (overseen by marketing and communications director Jen Roytz) via my marketing blog, but its inception has been delayed and thus I stowed my ideas for later retrieval. With this new campaign however, I have no choice but to begin writing in professional praise of the creative team that developed this whole group of ads. In all of Three Chimneys previous ads, I have been struck by two significant elements: first their simplicity in layout, color scheme and design, and second their effectiveness in showcasing the exact elements of the breeding stock that would best bring their target customer to their front barn door.

The Three Chimneys ads have always featured the same general idea: blue and tan block color scheme, sepia toned print of the featured horse displaying him in some moment of glory or grandeur, and a short, often ironic paragraph that explains the horse's significant achievement.
But in this week's Blood Horse there is a brand new Big Brown/ Three Chimneys campaign that really struck me. I wonder if they have enlisted a new ad manager, as these ads have done away in part with the traditional neutral color scheme and make use of full vibrant colors. There is a fantastic meld with Big Brown and the misty background from which he's charging, and the power and dominance of that horse are showcased to the hilt. Additionally, there is a great play across the page, as you follow the word BIG with your eyes, to land inimitably on the horse BROWN in the flesh. Overall, you can really feel the excitement of owning a stake in this horse, or of owning one of his first babies.
This is what successful equine sports marketing looks like. And what a horse who is now in many respects his own brand can provide in terms of marketing potential. Three Chimneys, if you are looking, I'm available! :)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Let the Games Begin!

Sunday marked the start of my favorite season in sports - the Equestrian competitions at the Summer Olympic Games. The Olympic Games aren't going so well thus far for the Americans, but there are many competitions yet to come. Results have been posted for

  • Individual Eventing - Dressage: Gold to Germany, US took fifth
  • Individual Eventing - Cross Country: Gold to Germany, US took fifth
  • Individual Eventing - Stadium Jumping: Gold to Germany, US took Silver
  • Team Eventing: Gold to Germany, US took seventh

Today will feature both individual and team competition in Grand Prix level dressage.

Looks like the US push for multiple gold will have to remain confined to the aquatic center this year. Go Michael Phelps!

Friday, August 8, 2008


So this week it arrived in my mailbox. The 2008 Schedule and Entry booklet for the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the largest single-breed horse show in the world, and a "who's who" of both amateur and professional QH competitors. All of our past and modern day QH greats have passed through the ranks at the Congress, and for those of us with a bleeding heart for stock horses, the event is unsurpassed in its potential for heady levels of equine exposure.

The Congress used to be a "must see" event for my mother and I, back in the days when I rode and showed my own Quarterhorse in southwestern Ohio. Every year we would make the two hour trek to the Ohio Exposition Center in Columbus and eat indulgent fair foods while watching all the glistening ponies circulating within the ring. Seeing the riders decked in their sparkly show ring finest filled me with dreams of competing among them.

As years passed, however, I began to spend more time on the rail watching warm-ups at Congress than in the stands watching competition. During these periods I became acutely aware that competing at this level motivated many riders to rely on unsavory and even abusive "training" techniques to develop the tractable show ring personalities required in just about every Western sport. I saw horses' heads dragged to the ground with draw reins, rein jerking, bit bumping, aggressive spurring, and riders gabbing on cell phones while lunging or riding their horses into semi-exhausted compliance.

At one Congress, I watched a woman take her young horse in the face by the bridle and then spur him deeply to punish him for some infraction likely induced by his age and lack of understanding. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched the abuse, and when she finally relented in her attack and maneuvered him towards the ring's exit, I waited for the pair at the gate. As she passed I commented to her on what a fit, good looking youngster her gelding was. She agreed, and was poised to enter into a discussion of all of his merits when I cut her off with the simple request that she realize how hard he was trying for her, and to give him a break. She huffed off with the downtrodden horse in hand, and I left that year's Congress feeling the uneasy weight of knowing I could never look forward again to watching the competition.

It was about this period of my life that I had my first meeting with a man with whom I would go on to have a long relationship. It being our first date, he attempted to connect with what he already knew to be my greatest life passion by detailing his family's close ties to the racing industry, and commenting on their ownership of several racehorses. He was unprepared for my rankle when I responded by launching several tidbits at him about the often uncomfortable ways that racehorses are prepped for their vocation, the unnaturalness of the physical demands placed on horses trained only to gallop, and the anger and fear I had seen in the Thoroughbreds that I worked with as a hotwalker at Turfway Park in KY. Though I would later go with him to visit his family's horses, and modify my opinion of the racing industry to some degree from experiencing it with people who truly cared about the horses that they owned, he and I would often return to discussing racing's seemingly negligible commitment to horse welfare.

The main debate between us though was not always WHETHER racing was unsafe for its Thoroughbreds. The recent spate of deaths and injuries on prominent tracks throughout the country, involving most notably Barbaro and Eight Belles, has swiftly brought the unequivocal certainty of that issue to the forefront of the public consciousness. Reports of steroid and painkiller abuse also abound, and a few weeks back champion jockey Jeremy Rose was suspended for aggressively whipping his horse in her eye, causing damage so severe that she had to have surgery. There has been so much controversy in recent months, in fact, that the U.S. Government itself has finally decided to become involved. According to The Blood Horse, demand for investigations into "grisly catastrophic breakdowns, drugged equines, greedy breeders, [and] damaged racehorses with nowhere to go" motivated recent Congressional hearings into the racing industry. On the civilian front, the Jockey Club's "Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit" and several "equine health and safety initiatives" instituted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association are also probing how the sport can be made safer for its equine competitors.

The question presented to me, therefore, was not whether racing was abusive, but whether I could take ethical issue with the racing world in particular when in most equine sports competition, one can find moderately to severely abusive training and exhibition practices. My industry, for instance, Western stock horse competition, has its own issues where horse welfare is concerned. Over the last 15-20 years, the AQHA, the APHA and other stock breeds have worked to change Western Pleasure from it's "peanut roller" past to an event that actually facilitates horses moving in natural, cadenced ways. Until recent rule changes took effect, competitors were often winning by exhibiting zombie-like horses moving at turtle-like speeds. Another practice, of physically or chemically altering a Western horse's tail so that it remains flat and unmoving during a class, has also landed stock breed competition into hot water. In Reining, a Western sport known for its fast stops, spins and slides, horses often breakdown in their hocks and other joints at early ages due to the stress of repeatedly completing complex movements at high speeds. Knowing of these issues, and witnessing shortcut practices in the training ring at Congress, have both tainted my enjoyment of the industry that I otherwise embrace as my favorite.

Nowadays, it seems that every time I open up one of my multitude of monthly horse magazines, I am confronted with yet another tale of another practice in another industry that negatively impacts the health or safety of the very equine competitors upon which that industry relies. For years soring and uncomfortable shoeing techniques have been standard practice in many gaited horse breed shows, and despite aggressive detection methods, the issue persists. The eventing world has recently come under fire for a rash of deaths and injuries in both horses and riders, due mostly to amateur level riders entering overchallenging competitions. Use of the rollkur, a dressage technique that overbends a dressage horse in the neck, to achieve an unnatural frame while riding, was the subject of a 2006 FEI investigation. The FEI is also now instituting new thermographic testing units to test whether high-level show jumpers have been "intentionally sensitized to pain in order to provide a competitive advantage," through the application of "agents [on] the skin on the legs" that would make them "hypersensitive to touch." Even the basic stresses of competition, such as being stabled in unfamiliar environments, and hauled to and from shows can induce conditions such as sleep deprivation and stomach ulcers.

What, therefore, are we doing as horse owners if our horses do not come first? Why keep these magisterial creatures in our lives if we are not constantly working to promote their well-being? A recent editorial in Horse and Rider magazine implores, "Don't Give Ammo to Animal Rights Activists," and suggests that the PETA crowd that descended upon Eight Belles' jockey, was unfounded in their actions. Perhaps they pushed the envelope, but shouldn't we all be animal rights activists already if we own and train these animals? If we aren't our horses' first line of defense, then how can we condemn the people who step up to be so? When will we acknowledge without exception that our horses, with their infinite mystery, beauty, and heart, should not be considered purely as vehicles that facilitate the winning of economic or sociological gain?

My hope is that we are now on our way. Over the course of my next few posts, I will detail some of the advances in modern horse care, new showing regulations, new training practices and new industry legislation that pave the way for the maintenance of happier, healthier equines. Here's to the next wave of horse husbandry.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Call to the Post

Even though I am firmly committed to detailing the valuable contributions that Seaside therapeutic riding makes to the Metro NYC community, my experience with them provides only limited fodder for the pages of this blog. I want to post regularly, and often, and have therefore decided to expand this blog towards another end - that of providing breaking equine industry news and investigations into issues affecting our horselives.

  • In the spirit of the summer racing season, I have first to report on Big Brown's recent return to the winner's circle at last weekend's Haskell Invitational (gr. 1) at Monmouth Park, in NJ. After his abysmal failure in this year's Belmont Stakes (gr. 1), Brownie took a little time off to rest and regroup and has apparently rebounded in his same old style. Though there was some grousing that he didn't dominate the race in his traditional way, Brownie still came back to the scene on top. The racing pundits spent the week debating when and where his next great test might be, with suggestions ranging from a duel with racing's Horse of the Year, Curlin, at Saratoga's Woodward Stakes (gr. 1), to an as of yet undecided turf experience, to a showdown in this year's Breeder's Cup Classic (gr. 1). As of today it was officially reported that Brownie will not go head to head with Curlin in the Woodward, leaving the "who's this year's greatest?" question unanswered, at least until fall.

  • Another noteworthy racing event occurred on opening weekend at New York's famed Saratoga Racecourse, with the 7-year old gelding Commentator winning the Whitney Handicap (gr. 1) for his second, non-consecutive time. (He also accomplished the feat in 2005.) This gelding's win is unique on three accounts: his age (7 years is relatively old for a racehorse to remain competitive), his sex (geldings are not usually considered to have the stamina and strength required to compete effectively against their "intact" male counterparts, as they lack the high levels of muscle building testosterone naturally present in a stallion), and the fact that he's running with pins stabilizing his left front shin. Commentator was laid up twice for as long as 10 months after winning his first Whitney due to fractures in his cannon bone. This last item has not received a great deal of news coverage, and yet stands out to me as compelling proof that the horseracing industry is very often about putting fame and glory before the welfare of the horse. I'm not sure I know of another event where a horse with his leg pinned together would be considered fit for high-impact competition, but perhaps such considerations aren't warranted by the racing world. At any rate, in winning this race with such aplomb, Commentator joins the ranks of Forego and Kelso, two racing legends whose careers also included double (or triple!) Whitney wins. He also secures himself a berth in the upcoming Breeder's Cup Classic (gr. 1) , thanks to the Whitney Handicap's "Win and You're In" association.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Lights, Horses, Action!

Last Tuesday, Seaside Riding enjoyed top level media exposure thanks to the confluence of news teams and photographers who came down to watch the "Horses for Heroes" riding program in action. New York's Channel 4/ NBC local news, Getty Images, and an independent photographer were all in attendance. Later that evening Seaside received two minutes of coverage in an informational television segment aired on NBC's 7 PM NY News broadcast. It was a successful day of fun and equestrian camaraderie, and we appreciated these media teams coming down to be a part of it.