Monday, December 28, 2009

Are NSAIDs the newest form of horse abuse?

According to a recently published article in Practical Horseman, the U.S. Hunter and Jumper Association is challenging recently implemented USEF restrictions on the use of double NSAID medications in show horses. The USEF's intention is to ensure the highest level of sportsmanship within its competitions, especially in the wake of the doping scandals that plagued the Olympics and several other high profile equestrian competitions. Dr. Stephen Schumacer, administrator for the USEF's drugs and medications programs, even likened improper use of such medications (and, presumably any unnecessary medications) to "a form of abuse people don't see." The USHJA, however, argues that NSAIDs are relatively harmless
and necessary for allowing older "achy" horses to compete. Drug use in equine athletes is a contentious consideration across industries, with several new regulatory initiatives implemented even this year by entities such as the AQHA, FEI, USPA and NTRA. Some of the regulations even appear to be contradictory, with the FEI, for instance, permitting multiple NSAIDS while the USEF now prohibits them.

It is clear that the use of performance enhancing drugs such as steroids, or drugs that mask pain and enable unfit horses to compete should be outlawed. But anyone who has owned even a weekend campaigner has likely encountered the need to inject a joint or administer a bit of anti-inflammatory to keep chronic conditions or minor swellings at bay. Where do equestrian competitors draw the line when it comes to substances that help a horse compete at its best and most comfortable, and those that provide an unfair advantage? Should any horse even be allowed to compete if he's not already at his best?

And if new standards are implemented, who is to guarantee the efficacy of the testing procedures? The racing industry's quest to standardize the administering of and testing for medications encountered just this conundrum after a recent veterinary study revealed widespread contamination of drug testing samples due to the variety of medications present in the racing stable environment. I'd assume that the development process for these regulations will be stymied as more groups emerge to push for liberal standards.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Third World Record for Moorlands Totilas

A new equine phenom is sweeping the Grand Prix dressage world. Moorlands Totilas, a nine-year-old black Dutch Warmblood stallion, has broken three world records with rider Edward Gal at this year's most lauded freestyle Grand Prix dressage tests. First in July at the World Dressage Masters at Hickstead, with a score of 89.40% (see video of the stunning horse's test here), next in August at the Alltech FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships at Windsor Castle with a score of 90.70%, and again this week at the Olympia Horse Show World Cup Dressage Qualifier with an unbelievable 92.30%. The gorgeous black stallion displays a rarely before seen lightness combined with raw power and a flashy elegance that have left crowds at these events awestruck.

Detractors have criticized Totilas' showy style, with one message board commenter even going so far as to compare his exaggerated front end movement with that displayed by Big Lick Tennessee Walking Horses. Others have decried Edward Gal's training methodology, arguing that he utilizes the rollkur hyperflexion techniques that got his fellow Netherlands rider Anky van Grunsven into hot water, and that Moorlands flashy front end movement camouflages hind end weakness. I will admit that of the many equestrian disciplines, I am the least experienced with dressage, but I have to say that regardless of the criticism, watching this horse perform is breathtaking. I will leave it to the purists to decide whether what he does is as technically correct as it is artistic.

Three world records in one year, however, would suggest that he's doing something right...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Caveat Emptor

Ahh the joys of horse shopping. Anticipation of finding just that perfect equine "mate;" feelings of joy and exuberance when eyes are laid on "the dream come true;" hope and expectation for a partnership that will take ones riding skills or competitive capacity to the next level.

For horse buyers there are a plethora of caveats that come with purchasing a new mount, and the selection process can be daunting when one considers all the questions that must be satisfactorily answered. Temperament? Ease of handling and ground manners? Suitability for the buyer's level of riding and discipline? Vices or stereotypic behaviors? Sensitivities to medications or supplements? Gaps in training? Spookiness? Competitive history and potential? Price?

Eventually one wades through the answers to these questions, views a group of prospects, narrows the fields and finally takes a couple of test rides on an intended mount. If you feel that "click" within the saddle, and are in love with the horse's looks and temperament, you are probably at this stage feeling pretty good about your long term potential with this new horse. Perhaps you have even begun envisioning the moment when he steps off the trailer and into your life for good, walking down your barn aisle to his freshly bedded stall.

You would be remiss, however, if you did not at this point pause for what is potentially the most important step of the process: the pre-purchase vet exam. At this point you will select a qualified veterinarian, who will run flexion tests, perhaps take x-rays, perform endoscopings or bloodwork, and review the horse's previous health history. As disappointing as it may be to sometimes discover that your chosen horse may not be in the appropriate health you need of him, or may be suffering the lingering effects of an undisclosed injury or illness, the risks associated with purchasing a horse without a vetting are far more grave.

This week Horse& reported such a cautionary tale, about a young women who is now permanently disabled after suffering from a fall that resulted from her horse's undisclosed wobbler's syndrome. The horse collapsed beneath her while out cantering cross country, resulting in her sustaining a fractured skull, and suffering partial deafness, diminished capacity to smell and taste, and frequent migraines. That this woman will have to live with lifelong consequences of her decision to forgo her horse's vetting is a tragic demonstration of the importance of a good prepurchase exam.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Horsekeeping

Temperatures fell into the twenties today in NYC, and with the subarctic chill comes thoughts about my pasture bound Quarter Horse retiree, who, thanks to lots of TLC, a hefty daily feed ration, and a well tailored blue blanket, manages to live outside quite happily during the winter. He's got a barn to come into and a stall nicely bedded down with warm shavings when the weather turns brutally cold, but as long as I've had him he's preferred the open range type of lifestyle to being stalled up. (Though I once owned a paint gelding who was a bit more high maintenance, and LOVED to curl up in his blanket and sleep cold winter nights away in his stall, sheltered from the elements.) With him in mind I thought it fitting to outline some winter care tips for your horses, to keep them safe and healthy when the cold snaps hit.
  1. Horses have at least 7 different mechanisms by which their bodies naturally insulate them from cold weather, and are better adapted to dealing with cold than with heat. That being said, dealing with cold requires a hefty energy expenditure, and it is important to provide extra quantities of free choice hay to facilitate these higher caloric needs.
  2. It is particularly important in the winter to ensure that horses have access to enough water, a feat that can seem daunting when buckets and troughs freeze over. Make sure to break the ice that collects on top of water sources, or invest in heated troughs or portable bucket heaters. Water should be kept somewhere between 45 and 65 degrees to facilitate consumption.
  3. Give cold horses lots of time to get muscles and joints warmed up at the beginning of each workout. This is particularly necessary in older horses who may suffer from arthritis or joint stiffness that can be exacerbated by long stretches of cold weather.
  4. Pay particular attention to cooling your horse out after a workout in the cold. A sweating horse can quickly become chilled, and should have ample time to cool out and then dry, preferably via a good towel rubbing or a long walk underneath a cooler.
  5. If using blankets, check them frequently to make sure they are not rubbing or scratching your horse, and ensure that they fit properly. Make sure to remove the blankets and groom your horses on a regular basis, paying special attention to any changes in weight or coat health.
  6. Special importance should be paid to caring for older horses once the cold sets in, as it can be harder for equine seniors to keep weight on or compete with their pasture mates for an adequate supply of hay and water.
  7. Satisfy hungry horse bellies with the occasional warm bran mash, a favored treat for most equines. Jazz up your recipe with carrots, apples or peppermint, and enjoy watching your horse eagerly lick his bucket clean.
  8. Rub petroleum jelly on the frogs of your horse's feet to prevent snow buildup inside his hooves. If doing lots of outdoor winter riding over snowy or icy terrain, consider investing in horseshoe caulks or rubber horse boots to improve traction.

There are undoubtedly lots more ideas out there for cold weather horsekeeping, so feel free to share yours. Here's hoping you get to enjoy watching your fuzzy pasture bundles frolicking in holiday snowfalls!

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Old Kentucky Chicken Farm

Kentucky runs through my blood more deeply than any other state in the nation.

My family hails from Central Kentucky (though mom moved just over the border into Cincinnati to marry my dad, and raised my brother and I there), on a farm where my grandma and grandpa raised tobacco and provided endless opportunities for my brother and I to while away long weekends on rolling hillsides every summer. All of us are Wildcats by birth, and UK Blue runs deep in our blood, no matter where we are now dispersed (New York, Florida, Georgia, West Virginia, etc.). Kentucky is the birthplace of my equine obsession, the site of most of my equestrian training and the origin of some of my fondest horsey memories. I rode my first horse ever in Kentucky at the ripe age of 5, at a trail barn near Mammoth Cave. Trips through the Bluegrass region of Lexington and its surrounding territories still invoke powerful sensory recall of all my horse crazy days as a young girl. My retired 29-year-old Quarter Horse still calls the state his home, and will do so until the day when we finally say goodbye to him forever.

Thus, the newest economic figures to come out of Kentucky this week are perhaps some of the most disturbing that I have read in a long time. They aren't concerned with joblessness or real estate, but with agriculture, and they are reflective of the profound impact this country's recession has had on its equine nexus. Apparently Kentucky's horse economy, once the bedrock of its livestock agriculture, has been supplanted in economic potency by its poultry farming, potentially leading to the Bluegrass state being unable to maintain its storied status as the horse capital of the world. The state whose horsey heritage is proudly proclaimed even on its license plate insignia, and which provides a home to the heart of the Thoroughbred breeding industry, the headquarters of the American Saddlebred breed, and the Kentucky Horse Park, now stands in danger of losing its stead as the heart of American horse culture.

It's of course in large part due to the buffeting the state's economy has taken during the recession, with auction prices for Throughbreds and other breeds markedly lower this year, and stud fees scaled back as less breeding takes place. It's also a result of many of the hefty incentive programs being orchestrated for breeding in other states, such as Pennsylvania. But if KY loses its horsey state of mind, it will be an irreplaceable loss not just to the state but to the entire legacy of the equine industry. Kentucky IS horses, it's that simple.

Former Gov. Brereton Jones, now owner of Airdrie Stud, summed it up thusly: "You can go anyplace around the world and tell people you're from Kentucky, and the first thing they want to talk about is the Kentucky Derby and the Thoroughbred industry...We risk losing that if everybody refuses to pay attention."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Show Me The Money

It's no secret the the American Thoroughbred market has been heavily impacted by the past year's recession. Auction numbers decreased across categories at all of this year's major sales, stud fees are down for next year's breedings, and unprecedented numbers of mares will remain uncovered. Much of the big money still being spent at America's auctions is flowing from global markets, with Dubai's Sheik Mohammed often found at the forefront of the purchasing. In a recent Blood Horse article, Case Clay of Three Chimney's farm noted the phenomenon succinctly by commenting that America's Thoroughbred industry is currently "in the export business."

But with Dubai itself arguably headed into the tank, how soon will we see reverberations to its horse economy? And how soon will those reverberations pull the supports out from under America's flagging Thoroughbred market? Those closest to Sheik Mohammed argue that the ruler's horse interests are a private passion, unlikely to be impacted by the economic crises of his nation. But if the country's over extensions into luxury accommodations and playgrounds for the rich are any indication, its horse market is also grossly inflated. And what comes up must come down. America's current sharp correction is proof of the folly of overvaluing luxury markets. The questions then are when will Dubai come down, and from where, without the superpower buying up America's top priced horses, will the next heavy hitter in the horse economy arise?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, horsey style

As we prepare to lock ourselves down at the Thanksgiving table tomorrow, and overindulge in home cooking and the warmth of friends and family, many of us are undoubtedly contemplating the many things that we've been thankful for in this past year. I am thankful that I have a good job, that I have a close group of friends, that I live in a city that affords me unparalleled opportunities, that my mother is happy and doing well, and that I am comfortable when I know that so many others are struggling this holiday season.

In my horselife, I am also thankful:

What elements of horsey living make you thankful for your equine companions?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Riding for The Cure

Apologies for this week's hiatus, I was home in bed nursing myself through a bad sore throat. And I wanted to spend a little time reflecting before I wrote this post, because its subject matter touches me at my most personal level. I hope in writing it I will achieve resonance with others who have shared a similar experience, and welcome your comments and your thoughts.

This year breast cancer descended into my mother's life and single handedly deconstructed all my family's expectations for indefinitely gliding through our days safely cocooned in health and happiness. The day of diagnosis is a traumatic and frightening one, where threats of the unknown and fears of mortality-come-too-quickly overwhelm everyone confronted with the news. I cried that whole day, undone with thoughts of "what if?" and "what now?" and "how do I survive without HER?"

But the day after diagnosis, the journey begins, and the diagnosed and her supporters step forward into the next phase, learning all that needs to be about tests and surgeries, treatments and chemos, and how to tie pretty silk scarves with just the right mix of gravity and panache. Months of treatment commence, with regular updates and check-ins, good days and not so, and a buoy of hope hopefully large enough to push back the fearful thoughts, that creep like wolves to wait with snapping teeth outside even the most optimistic of emotional thresholds.

And then suddenly, voila, for those successful with their treatment an end date finally appears. The last chemo is taken, the radiation is complete, and the person is ostensibly "cured." Having beaten back the disease and its attendant demons the survivor and her family and friends must now turn to "life after," and living it to its fullest without succumbing to doubt about whether remission will remain remissed. Interestingly, life after cancer can be in some ways as frightening as life right after it’s discovered – though the fear becomes diffuse instead of acute, and lingers as the subtext of "what if?" beneath every interaction.

But my mom is doing well, and her infallible optimism and determination to fulfill her future goals and live to the ripe old age she deserves, help us all to be particularly thankful during this holiday season that we've still got many holidays left to share with her. Anyone who's experienced breast cancer, or another cancer, personally or with a loved one, will no doubt also say a concerted thanks around the holiday table next Thursday. We want to appreciate the success of living with joy and hope once disease redefines how much life can mean.

To tie all this back into The Equine Reader, I wanted to highlight the work of an equestrian group called "Riding for a Cure," which raises money for the cause in the best way that I can think of. The group brings horse lovers together for a yearly trail ride during which it collects thousands of dollars in donations for cancer research. Please consider, during this holiday period, of donating to this or any one of the many available non-profits that are seeking a cure for breast cancer. It is a disease that strikes without justification, throwing lives into disarray, but it can be overcome, and we are only hoof beats away from doing so. To all those currently living with or fighting the disease, know that our hearts, and our horses, are behind you in the struggle.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Week of New Equine Welfare Initiatives

A great week for equine health and welfare, as two notable collaborations of horsepeople made strides towards a better future for America's equine population.

In Massachusetts, four racehorses retired from Boston's Suffolk Downs were moved this week to the newly incepted Plymouth County Sherrif's Farm, where inmates of MA corrections facilities will train and care for them and future retired charges. This program, sponsored and initiated by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and Suffolk Downs president Richard Fields, provides a dual benefit to the Plymouth County community. It's positive impact will extend to both the ex-racehorses lucky enough to take up residence there during their rehabilitation, and the program's inmate groom/trainers, who can use the program to gain certification in various backstretch vocations.

And in national news, a National Equine Welfare Code of Practice received endorsement from the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Quarter Horse Association, the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and the U.S. Trotting Association. The American Horse Council (AHC) drafted the Code to "outline in generic terms what it means for an organization to be committed to the responsible breeding, training, care, use, enjoyment, transport, and retirement of horses...and also provide a guide for equine organizations that are formalizing a welfare philosophy and policy for their respective organizations." Jerry Black, DVM, chair of the AHC's Animal Welfare Committee and ex-president of the AAEP, describes the initiative as a "'a standard for the horse industry and equine organizations to evaluate their individual welfare policies and initiatives...[which] clearly states the principles necessary to achieve a level of stewardship for the horse that always puts the welfare of the horse first."

Kudos to everyone involved with the development of these horse friendly initiatives for enacting positive change and development in the equine industry!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cross promotion as a boost to racing's fan base?

As we all know by now, Zenyatta made history this past weekend with her sterling win against the boys in Saturday's Breeder's Cup Classic (gr. 1). It was her 14th consecutive win, and with it Queen Zenyatta earned the honor of being the only female to have bested the males on the Classic stage. Her greatness and legend are now unparalleled, and the only horse with any potential to steal her thunder for 2009 Horse of the Year honors is Princess Rachel Alexandra.

Zenyatta will likely be retired after this year's Classic, but that hasn't stopped the horsey set in Miami from clamoring for a match up between the monstrous mare and her feminine filly counterpart. Ken Dunn, the president of Gulf Stream Park, has thrown down the gauntlet to challenge Zenyatta and Rachel to meet on that field February 6th in the Donn Handicap (gr. 1), held only one day before the Super Bowl goes off at the Dolphins' Landshark Stadium. This brings up an interesting query in light of the fact that this year's Breeder's Cup TV viewership failed to increase its numbers over last year. Should horse racing be cross promoted to reach a more sizeable audience?

For many sports fans, horse racing only enters the viewing consciousness during the Triple Crown, while most of the year's other races are populated by the "die hards." Several people I talked to after the Breeder's Cup had no knowledge of either Zenyatta's previous acclaim or the fact that she had done the impossible by beating a field of seasoned, champion males at the sport's highest level. Would horse racing's competitions be helped or hindered if they were timed to pair up with other notable sports events? Would their audience be diversified or poached by the partner sport with the double billing? From a marketing and sponsorship perspective, having the year's two greatest female Thoroughbreds go head to head on the same weekend as the year's two greatest football teams seems like a winning proposition. Which other of the year's notable races could have been cross promoted to improve fanship and awareness?

Friday, November 6, 2009

World Champions' Weekend

A Breeder's Cup weekend edition of the The Equine Reader today as the ponies gear up in Santa Anita for two days of World Championship competition. While Careless Jewel hopes to sew it up in today's Lady's Classic (gr. 1), Zenyatta will seek to outclass ten Grade 1 or Group 1 champion male horses in tomorrow's Breeder's Cup Classic (gr. 1), and add a heroic 14th feather into her winner's cap (winner's bridle?). Her competitors include Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, Travers Winner Colonel John, Travers and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, and the Irish bred Rip Van Winkle, who is one of the horses currently predicted to give Zenyatta a real run for the money. The fillies will be lining up to the post in Santa Anita in just a few hours, so here's wishing a safe trip to all of this weekend's competitors!

And for any racing fans out there looking for a truly creative way to promote and support racehorse rehabilitation efforts, ReRun a 501 (c) (3) racehorse adoption organization, will be holding its annual E-Bay auction of horse created "Moneigh" paintings starting on November 29th. Several celebrity horse artistes have been featured as past Moneigh creators, including Smarty Jones and A.P. Indy. All proceeds from the purchase of these paint(ing) horse prints will benefit ReRun's adoption centers.

On a related note, I would be remiss as a stock horse stalwart if I didn't mention that the Thoroughbred folks are not the only equine contingent poised to crown new World Champions over the coming days. Today also kicks off the first day of competition at the American Quarter Horse Association's World Show in Oklahoma City. Good luck to all those competitors looking to ride, slide, jump and jog their way into QH history!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Horse People with Heart

With the news so regularly peppered by stories of humans and equines in conflict due to abuse, neglect or ethical shortcuts, it can be helpful to remember all those out there that are doing good for, or with, the equines in their life.

During this, the week leading up to the year's biggest showdown in horse racing, I'd like first to applaud the seven racing contingents that have pledged a portion of their earnings during the Breeder's Cup to assisting the New Vocations racehorse rehabilitation organization. Were every owner or breeder to donate just a small portion of yearly winnings in such a manner, organizations like New Vocations and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, that ensure that racehorses continue to have productive lives off track, would be able to operate in much better stead.

On their Twitter feed today, linked to a story that deserves attention, about an organization that is using horses to do real good via their Equine Assisted Therapy program. By taking their horses into the community and introducing them to autistic children, adults with eating disorders, nursing home patients and now hospice patients, the folks at Reins of Change are sharing the magic of their horses with those who could most benefit from their inspiring and hopeful presence. I have witnessed first hand the joy, independence and dignity that these gentle, patient creatures can imbue in anyone struggling to overcome life's hurdles, and truly appreciate the gift that Reins of Change is providing. Sick or well, able-bodied or not, I'd assume that many of us horse lovers can relate to the need to have our horses as support during emotional and physical challenges.

Does anyone out there have more examples of humans doing good with their horses? Feel free to leave comments and share your stories!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Super Stud

Before we jump into today's post, let's all take a minute and admire one of racing's handsomest celebrities: Medaglia d'Oro.

That gorgeous face is responsible for Rachel's stunning looks, and some of this year's top prices in the yearling market. It's no surprise that the king among sires is now standing at Darley stud along with a host of other recent shedrow legends, including Bernardini, Street Cry, Street Sense, Discreet Cat and Hard Spun. That Darley America has raised Medaglia d'Oro's 2010 fee to a "reasonable" $100,000, thereby, in Darley's own words, ensuring "exceptional value" to potential breeders, is testament to the stallion's capacity for throwing gorgeous babies that also happen to be blazing fast. Considering the values some of those babies have already captured at auction, $100,000 for a Medaglia foal seems almost a bargain.

And the Blood Horse reported today, that, just as I mentioned yesterday, a big race to watch in this year's Breeder's Cup will be the BC Dirt Mile. The field is ripe with heavy contenders from Godolphin Stables, and several entries have the year's most prestigious competitions already under their girths. Several of the Dirt Mile contenders are cross entered with a first preference in the Classic itself, which highlights the strong potential that almost every one of these horses has to wind up in the winner's circle. It will be a great race to watch, and the first place finisher is anybody's guess at this point.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Breeder's Cup Pre-Entries Announced

Big news in Thoroughbred racing today as the pre-entries have been announced for the Breeder's Cup races next weekend in Santa Anita. A wide smattering of horses are cross-entered in two races, including Zenyatta, the famous track swallowing mare whose contingent has yet to definitively decide whether she will be a Classic race contender or a Ladies Classic contender. The buzz seems to suggest that she will vie for the Classic itself, and there's no doubt she'd be a formidable presence there. Another potentially challenging race will be the Breeder's Cup Dirt Mile, which has several past Triple Crown contenders in it's field of pre-entries, including Chocolate Candy, Cowboy Cal, Pyro, and Quality Road. It will be interesting to see how the races shape up by next weekend.

And in case you were looking to enter into a racing partnership in the upcoming future, John Smith's bitters ale in England has come up with a unique way to let laypeople in on the action. All one has to do is purchase a pint of John Smith's to register for one of 250,000 shares being sold through the promotion for "Smithy, The People's Racehorse." The promotion is part of John Smith's renewed sponsorship of the Grand National steeplechase. That could become one crowded winner's circle, should Smithy's career prove successful!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thoroughbred Breeding Updates

Thoroughbred breeding updates for today’s horse bites, featuring recently released Jockey Club numbers, and a horse of a different color...

  • The Jockey Club’s Oct. 22nd “Report of Mares Bred” reflects the general contraction underway in the breeding industry, as total numbers of Thoroughbred mares bred nationwide fell 13.5%, to 45,317 coverings in 2009. Pennsylvania was the only state that showed an uptick in breeding rates, and a significant one, with 1,603 mares bred, and an increase of 29.6% over 2008 numbers. As the Blood Horse magazine reports, this is “directly related to the growth in purses at the state’s racetracks, which generate revenues for racing from their popular racetrack casino operations.” Kentucky’s numbers were down 10.6% from 2008 levels, but the state still accounted for 42.2% of all mares covered during 2009, maintaining its historic leadership as the industry’s breeding nexus.
  • And, just for fun, a rare “painted” Thoroughbred filly named Painted Angel was recently sold at the Tattersalls auction in England. The chestnut and white pinto is out of the parti-colored Thoroughbred stallion I Was Framed, an American bred horse now standing at Rectory Farm in England. The beautiful filly would certainly make a unique addition to the solid colored racing scene, but her new owners have as of yet, not decided what her career ambitions will entail.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thou Shalt Fly Without Wings

"...a horse is a thing of such beauty...none will tire of looking at him as long as he displays himself in his splendor." -- Xenophon

"The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and fire." -- Sharon Ralls Lemon

"A horse gallops with his lungs, preserveres with his heart, and wins with his character." -- Tesio

"Horse thou are truly a creature without equal, for thou fliest without wings and conquerest without sword." -- The Koran

For thousands of years humans have existed in awe of our equine counterparts, filling our poetry and prose with laudations for the heart, grace and spirit that flows so freely from them. Horses are both wild at heart and gentled in hand, and anyone who has wiled away hours aboard an equine companion, trekked with them through the countryside and enjoyed the synergy they provide us with the natural world, or watched them gallop unfettered across a springtime pasture, has likely shared the recognition that these creatures provide us glimpses into what it means to be truly free.

It is hard to encapsulate this feeling into words, what it means to thrill and wonder at the complexity and spirit of the horse, and yet I have run across an article that just might have done it. It is written by Klaus Ferdinand von Hempling, a widely known practicioner of balanced and synchronistic horse training (his book Dancing With Horses explains natural horsemanship at its most elemental level). The article asks what exactly differentiates our bond with the horse from that we share with all manner of other animals that humans have domesticated into their service. His answers are concise and lyrical at the same time.

He explains that it is the horse's inherent wildness, existing within it regardless of its level of domestication, that keeps us in awe and in respect. Unlike elephants, or camels, or other beasts of burden that we have taught to carry us humans around, with horses " we have wildness under us, with us, beside us, forever untameable...Being with a horse means that you are 100% with nature, 100% wildness, timeless wildness beside you . And then you have the chance to cope with these ever-wild animals: this is the fascination of the horse. It is fascinating to train this kind of animal because you are with these timeless, ancient principles. Sitting on top of the animal, you are absolutely depending, like a storm on the ocean, like it's minus 40┬║ in Greenland or Antarctica. So this means I have to cope with 100% wildness, 100% nature."

"Wildness under us, with us, beside us, forever untameable." Our horses allow our spirits to return to freedom and disinhibition, and for this we remain forever in their stead.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stallions will be stallions

With modern horse training's widespread commitment to the natural horsemanship movement, horse owners have gotten the benefit of learning to understand how to utilize their horses' natural instincts and psychology when training and handling them. But how do you apply that methodology when the horse is a stallion? These lusty creatures are often assumed to be aggressive, pushy and domineering, requiring a strong hand and lots of discipline. Their testosterone laden behaviors would seem to require "horse shouting" as opposed to "horse whispering" to keep in check, and I have certainly seen them handled that way, with varying results.

It was, therefore, with great interest that I read a recent article in America's Horse Daily on natural horse keeping techniques that keep stallions happy and manageable. The article's suggestions are thoughtful and empathic, providing good solutions that keep the horse's mental and physical health in mind. Some of them are fairly common sense, including making sure that your stallion has enough work to do to keep him out of trouble (use cow work as a way to get him to focus his natural aggressive tendencies, for instance), and being clear to firmly and patiently assert your personal space when feeding or leading the horse.

Other suggestions might be less readily practiced in the equine industry, but depending on the circumstances, still quite viable. The article's authors, for instance, recommended keeping ones stallion in the mix with other horses as much as possible, because isolation and separation are more agitating for stallions than for mares or geldings due to their deeply ingrained herd instincts. Though the tendency might be to keep stallions separate and out of harm's way, this article's authors argue that the opposite strategy actually proves more effective. This extends to the way stallions are stalled, as bigger is always better when planning housing for stallions. They need room to move, and ideally, the capacity to see out of their space and survey their horizons, much as nature intended them to do. Letting stallions be stallions, therefore (within limits acceptable to their human counterparts), appears to be the key.

Do any of you readers have other tips and tricks for stallion keeping?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are there benefits to being able to select your foal's gender?

The 21st Century has seen the advent of a wide variety of reproductive technologies for the human population, and veterinary technology is not lagging too far behind. Artificial insemination and embryonic surrogacy have been widely available to horse breeders for the last decade, and the cloning of several carefully chosen equines, including the legendary jumper Gem Twist, have proved successful. As a society we continue to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished by tweaking or manipulating fertility and reproduction, and as we continue to renegotiate our normal assumptions about how and when horses can be bred, unique ethical queries will undoubtedly arise.

Case in point, the AQHA Journal's recent article detailing the sexual selection efforts underway at Moondrift Farm in Ft. Collins, CO. Here horses are being bred selectively for gender, through a technique that allows X-and-Y-bearing sperm to be separated and utilized on demand. The operation estimates that it can guarantee gender in its program's foals with a %93 percent degree of accuracy, making this technology seem a relatively sure bet in terms of veterinary efficacy.

What are the ramifications of breeding for one gender or another? I can see this question coming into play acutely in industries where show horses are the main focal point, as winning stallions can go on to have more lucrative breeding careers than mares. Should that mentality result in an overselection for male foals, the consequent flooding of the market with stallions of the same bloodline could lead to those same stallions becoming devalued. Along those lines comes the risk, also addressed by the article, of overconcentrating one breed's genetic pool, and perpetuating genetic weaknesses. There is also the potential, as the article points out, of furthering the transmission of genetic diseases that are passed down via an X or Y chromosome. Perhaps this risk could be negated through standardized genetic testing, but that testing assumes that we know which diseases to test for.

What other pros and cons might exist for a breeder who opts to select their numbers of fillies and colts? How might this change breeding strategy, and the dynamics of the breeding industries at large?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Introducing "The Equine Reader" !

As my visitors may have noticed, Jumping Back In has been rebranded!

It has been a long while since my first post about “jumping back in” to the equestrian community after my move to NYC, so I wanted this site’s title to reflect its commitment to delivering current news stories and contemplations on the state of modern horse life. The Equine Reader is the end result. Enjoy!

As for today’s contemplation, it centers on NTRA President and CEO Alex Waldrop’s
recent announcement concerning the potential for developing a governing committee for the entire Thoroughbred industry, thereby changing its structure to reflect a “league” strategy akin to the NFL. While Waldrop supports the idea in theory, his main argument concerns the impossibility of collaborating the divergent arms of the industry under one main umbrella, and gaining acceptance for centralization of an industry in which individual decisions and profit motive drive most current business operations. The NTRA believes that participants in horse racing prefer to continue improving standards for safety and integrity (via the NTRA Alliance) than to turn operations decisions over to one commissioner or approval board.

I do agree that the task of centralizing something as variegated as the Thoroughbred industry might be a mightier challenge than would ever prove logistically possible. Deliberations about how and why to institute a top down structure would be likely be continuously stymied by conflicting interests. On the other hand, it’s worked for the FEI, even though that group controls a wider range of interests from across the globe, and represents
multiple breeds and disciplines. Every substantial move made by horses competing through the FEI is logged and tracked, and while competitive decisions are left in the hands of owners and trainers, they have the support of FEI regulation. It occurs to me that having centralized control somewhere in the Thoroughbred industry could help to unify its messaging to horse racing fans, and also cut down on the red tape required to construct reform legislation.

How about you faithful readers? What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Girls for the Ages

This past weekend was a momentous one for the leading fillies in Thoroughbred racing, with Rachel Alexandra's cohort announcing that her 2009 campaign had officially come to a close, and Zenyatta powering past the field of Santa Anita's Lady's Stakes (gr. 1) to secure her 13th straight win, and match the record previously set by filly Personal Ensign. Her contingent has yet to choose whether Zenyatta will take on female competitors in the Breeder's Cup Ladies Classic (gr. 1) on Nov 6th, or attempt to beat the boys in the Breeder's Cup Classic (gr. 1) on November 7th. It would not be in the least surprising if she did race on the 7th and flew past Mine That Bird and the BC's other contenders to attain an unprecendented place among horse racing's greatest.

While I didn't spend this past weekend happily munching hay at Churchill Downs, or blasting by legions of competitors to clench my place in athletic history, I did get to spend a highly enjoyable Friday night watching the QH Congress's Freestyle Reining competition, and thrilling to the spectacle of brightly costumed Quarterhorses (several of whom put on stellar bridleless performances) vie concurrently for the Open Pro and Open Non-Pro titles. In the Pro Division, Pete Kyle of Whitesboro, TX rode Whizs Bronze Star to a 230.0 point score to win the title, and in non-pro, Kimberly Crupper rode Quick Enterprise (whose uniquely crafted Angel/Devil/wings costume made him look capable of taking off) to a 224.0 point score for the win.

Unfortunately, aside from the reining, there was no other competition taking place on Friday, so I had to satisfy myself with some hearty shopping instead. Oh the sacrifices we make for our horses! :)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peaceful Thinking on the Thoroughbreds

With the announcement of our President's win of the Nobel Peace prize for diplomacy and global vision during the first year of his presidency, the pundits have already begun to question the efficacy of awarding the prize when much of Obama's enactment of global change is still in the formative process. He has set the stage for sweeping diplomatic revisions, but has yet to bring many of them to fruition, both because of the relative recency of his move to the White House and because of the depth and complexity of the problems that threaten global peace. It's not surprising that there would be criticism of awarding such a tremendous prize for a lot peaceful thinking, instead of a lot of peaceful doing.

Though these concerns are playing out on the political stage, it leads me to question how much has changed since the inception of the reforms instituted by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance and those supporting their efforts within the Thoroughbred industry. The NTRA has put many changes forward since the years of Eight Belles and Barbaro; they have instituted revisions in whips, and toe clips, steroids and racing surfaces, but the fact remains that horses are still breaking down from their participation in Thoroughbred racing. Many of their injuries are sustained during normal training and racing activities, and don't result in the reverberations to the industry seen during the Eight Belles trauma, but they keep happening nonetheless. Calder Racetrack was just accredited by the NTRA, in part because it has the most highly detailed system of any track for logging and reporting racehorse injuries and fatalities. But is it enough to implement standards for peaceful thinking, if those standards aren't necessarily changing the fundamental problem? I am by no means suggesting that these new standards aren't heralds of change for the industry, long overdue but tangible steps forward in the attempt to improve racehorse welfare and safety. Can we, however, challenge Obama's win on the global stage, when many of our domestic policies (for racehorses and otherwise) haven't yet brought about the sweeping reforms that they set out to accomplish?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

A "good, bad, and downright ugly" edition of Jumping Back In for readers today, to highlight the highs and lows of this week's equine industry news.

  • I'll start off with some good news. reported yesterday that the Humane Society of the United States has awarded natural horseman Pat Parelli "Humane Horseman of the Year" for his work in retraining rescued horses to enhance their adoptability and ensure that they get second chances after recovering from abusive or neglectful circumstances. Parelli is well known across the globe for his work teaching owners how to communicate better with their equine friends and overcome behavioral issues with natural horsemanship techniques. Bravo to him for extending his skills to the service of rescued horses.
  • As for the bad news, at least it has a happy ending. Horse & Hound magazine reported that a Fat Face advertising campaign featuring a macho male model forcibly reining his horse in some misguided attempt to express his brand's marketing dominance has been withdrawn from circulation, after equestrian community outcry over the campaign. That an advertising campaign showcasing such blatant disrespect for horse well-being would get past that company's editing room is surprising in itself, but at least they had the decency to pull the campaign.
  • The ugly news, and it really is downright ugly, comes to us from England, where a man pulling a trailer on the back of his vehicle purposefully sideswiped a woman riding a Westphalen gelding. The horse suffered severe lacerations down the entire length of his body and unknown amounts of psychological trauma. I am not entirely surprised, knowing the other types of abusive situations that have plagued the equine industry this year, but it is almost unfathomable to me as to what type of person could inflict that type of harm and trauma to both horse and rider.
  • And to wrap up, we'll go back to the good news and wish Zenyatta a very, very lucky #13! The super mare is vying to win her 13th straight victory when she competes at Santa Anita in this Saturday's $300,000 Lady's Secret Stakes (gr. 1). This year has seen the ladies of Thoroughbred racing reach unparalleled success in terms of speed and endurance, and I salute their efforts. Ladies first!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pony Pilates!

New Yorkers are religious about their workout habits. It's a very fitness conscious atmosphere up here, and many of our urban residents are committed to some type of regimen to ensure they stay svelte and healthy. Yoga and Pilates are favorites of the workout minded in the area, with private studios available in every neighborhood, and classes offered at every major gym. I myself am a fan of modified Pilates workouts, as I tender a strong core section to be a major requirement for maintaining strength, good posture, and endurance both on the ground and in the saddle. Building one's ab and back muscles provides support for your spine and lends strength to the other muscle systems of the body.

It was not, however, without skepticism that I read a recent article touting the benefits of Pilates for horses. I mean, just how does one get a horse to strengthen its core independent of the rest of its body? The good news is, the article makes a compelling argument for a Pilates inspired practice with horses, providing a series of exercises, done from the ground, that require a horse to stretch and flex the muscles surrounding his midsection. The concept was developed by equine physiologist Hilary Clayton, DVM, from Michigan State University (and her colleague Narelle Stubbs) who competes with her Pilates strengthened Arabians in dressage.

Pilates based exercises for horses are organized into three categories, that increase with difficulty as you cycle through them. The first set is the "mobilization exercises flex," which is targeted to improve flexibility through the spine and midsection. The next group of exercises are "core strengthening," and both improve the horse's posture and help stabilize the major muscle groups that hold his rib carriage and hips in proper alignment. As Dr. Clayton points out, these exercises "'are particularly good for horses with a sagging top line or hollow belly.'" The final set of exercises are "balancing exercises" that "improve balance and stability for athletic performance by teaching the horse to control manually induced shifts of his weight." Because some of these movements require the horse to be positioned on only three legs, they are contraindicated for horses with nervous system or other similar disorders.

To learn about the unique exercises involved with the process, read more here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Down to the Wire

It's Thursday and the weekend will be upon us before we know it. No horses in sight for me this weekend, but next Thursday I hit out for the Midwest to attend the All American Quarter Horse Congress. I can't wait to escape to its indulgent atmosphere of county fair food, jingling spurs, and horses, horses, horses! Until then, I can tide myself over with a couple of notable horsebites:

  • A follow-up audit report was issued this week by the NYC Comptroller William C. Thompson, to detail whether recommendations set forth after a state-sponsored 2007 investigation into the health, safety and welfare of the city's 203 working carriage horses had been implemented. The report found that of the 11 recommendations laid out by the 2007 audit, 7 had been implemented, 1 had been partially implemented, 2 had not been implemented, and 1 was no longer relevant. In the release, the comptroller pushed for further action to be taken to ensure the enactment of the outstanding recommendations, and further protect the safety and health of NYC's working horses. The carriage horse industry here in NYC has long found itself at the center of ethical debates because many argue (myself included) that mixing horses with one of this country's busiest, most traffic laden urban environments is a recipe for disaster. While the ASPCA has firm guidelines in place concerning the working conditions for carriage horses, one can always find horses in varying degrees of fitness and health working the streets.
  • The year's September Keeneland thoroughbred yearling sale met with a some of the most precipitous declines in sales and prices in recent history, and an increase in buyback rates from 2008. Confidence in the strength of the thoroughbred breeding industry was buoyed by the positive trends in August at the Saratoga Select Yearling Sale, but Keeneland's 42% drop in gross income from 2008 provided serious temper to that optimism. Only six horses at the sale garnered seven digit figures, including the second priciest horse at the sale, a $1.3M half sister to the famous Rachel Alexandra, out of Medaglia d'Oro, purchased by Charlotte Weber of Live Oak Plantation.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Equine Photographer's Network Advocacy Project

Back to the blogging, after last week's whirlwind of reaquainting myself with all the relevant responsibilities that I had so happily shirked in favor of riding across the backcountry of Southern Spain.

With all of the emphasis that this blog puts on welfare issues in the equine industry, I wanted to highlight an unique initiative underway through the Equine Photographer's Network. I have often thrilled to find delivered to my inbox the latest installment of EPN's Image of the Week, as their photographers regularly create compelling, emotional and evocative images that truly capture our equine companions at their stunning best.

The EPN's most recent call to action however, was the 2009 Horses in Need Documentary Project. For this image assignment, the photographers "found beauty in places most people would avoid looking. They found beauty in places where it was difficult to hope. The circumstances that brought each horse to a point of needing rescue varied...These are stories born of sorrow, however many of these horses now have hope due to kind intervention...The photographers who participated in this project helped raise awareness of suffering and neglect."

I applaud all of the photographers who took part in this unique and heartfelt project to support the horses who needed their advocation the most.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dios cinco y il finito!

Day five!

Our last day on the trail, and one of our most adventurous. We headed out this morning at an almost leisurely nine AM, and spent our first two hours trekking deep into dense, cool Spanish forests, whose thick foliage and proliferation of hanging vines reminded one of being in the heart of Brazil or Costa Rica. No monkeys to be seen unfortunately, but we did pass by several stone ruins, including that of an eighteenth century mill, which fueled our sense that the area had been untouched by humans for quite some time. When lunchtime came we tied and fed our horses, and then picked up our saddlebags (packed ahead of time with our picnic goodies) and hiked down a thickly wooded hillside into a hidden grotto. The grotto held a cool, green pool and behind it existed several caves and rock formations. Us humans got a taste of our own medicine as we climbed down to picnic next to the pool, as the slippery terrain and dense undergrowth made for somewhat treacherous going. I had a new appreciation for our sure-footed steeds as I picked my way slowly down the hillside, dodging brambles and trying to avoid strangulation by vine. Our lunch at the bottom was well worth the effort however, and we munched fresh bread, cheese and olives to the sound of a small waterfall trickling into the pool.

After lunch, we climbed back out, resaddled the horses, and continued our climb through the forest. Some stunning scenery awaited us, from ivy-covered rock walls, to archways formed out of vines and hanging moss. A wide river flowed alongside us for much of the trip, its sound immense and yet soothing, its sight obscured in most places by a tall canopy of trees.

Our horses have been a steady lot for the most part, with relatively few spooks, and only a snort or two upon encountering most potentially horse-eating objects. Their mettle was tested today, however, as three dirt bikes began zooming their way up the very same path we were coming down. That noise coming through the trees must have sounded like a Tyrannosarus to our poor horses, and had our guide Niki not flagged the bikers to stop in time, they would very likely have jumped for the trees. Even my generally unflappable pony became tense enough that I got off and held him to reassure him and be out of harm's way in the event of a bike induced stampede.

After we passed the bikers we got another taste of adventure on the climb up a nearly vertical hill. Niki advised us to "just grab their manes and let them go" and when we did, our horses charged up the steeply angled incline with their hapless humans clinging for dear life. Much of the afternoon passed in climbs throughout the wooded hills, and we came upon several places where the endless rolling greenery was reminiscent of the mountain forests of Kentucky, West Virginia, or Canada.

Today was also one of our most pastoral, and as we neared the trip's end we crested out on top of a hillside that was home to one of the most beautiful farms we had yet seen. Tall pines lining the entry road, cows mooing peacefully in the back, and a view out the front window of wide open fields planted with early corn, rimmed in the distance by the blue haze of the great Pyrenees. A garden lay alongside the farm house, but it was unlike any I had ever seen back home. It may come as no surprise, but fruits and vegetables appear to love the temperate, sunny expanses of southern Spain, and I saw bean plants taller than I was, pears hanging ripe and heavy, large as two human fists, huge red tomatoes, and golden melons growing freely along a small hill. The rolling farmland was a lovely surprise after our day spent deep in the forest, as refreshing for its settledness as the jungle had been for its wild.

Such is the magic of this region of Spain; jungle abuts field, abuts orchard, mountain, beach. One can never become too accustomed to one's surroundings, because they tend to change in a heartbeat, revealing a new breathtaking vista around nearly every turn. And even for all of my bruises, stings, scratches and saddle sores, I can't think of any better way to have taken it in than from the back of my big Spanish horse. There was something freeing and organic about our trip, and it invoked a carefree disinhibition amongst all of us that we humans usually have to work for. We are rarely so free, and open, and vulnerable, while at once also full of heart and try and strength of will. Spend a week in the company of horses however, and such things can all be learned.

But all good things do come to an end, and so, finally, with the sun moving lower behind our backs we crossed one final hillside to return to Mas Alba. We fed and brushed our horses, led them out to their field, and then watched them return to their natural selves after carrying us so far. We imagined what they must be saying amongst one another, and whether they were comparing notes about their humans' respective antics. I would not blame them one bit were they to do so, because we aren't always the most comprehensible of species.

Tomorrow, then, it's back to Barcelona to rejoin civilization and see Gaudi's legendary Sagrada Familia, and the Picasso Museum. Until then, adios and buenos noches!!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Les caballos de rosas


A long day on the trail. It started gloriously however, well before sunrise and as we packed our saddle bags and headed out for the pastures to catch our horses, a sliver of moon still hung low in the sky. The first pinks of dawn were just cracking through as we brushed, fed and tacked up. The reason for our early rising? A vamos a playa por favor! And vamos we did, to la playa de rosas, the Beach of the Roses, located on Catalonia's Gulf of Roses.The horses swished and froliced as we marched to the water's edge, and then, with waves lapping the shore and the sun just cresting the horizon, it was "Vamos gallope!" once again! And gallope we did, along several miles of clean, white beaches. The horses enjoyed the race, blowing and tossing their heads as the surf sprayed up into their long grey manes.

After our invigorating ride we felt electrified and ready for our day. The neach ride was a perfect beginning to day four, and an equestrian dream come true for more than one of us. We left the beach and headed for the quaint town of la Sant Pere Pescador, a resort village turned sleepy hamlet for the off-season. After a stop for coffee in a quaint Viennese cafe it was back to the ponies, and we trekked the rest of the morning alongside a large nature preserve and up several dry river beds. A blue heron sighting was one of the many treats of the day.

Lunch came just in time, as the sun was beginning to bake, and the terrain was relatively unforgiving between the banks of the dry river. We tied our horses near a secluded lake, and picniced happily on salad with pine nuts, and a delicious pesto pasta with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. Not entirely Spanish perhaps, but with the addition of a couple of bottles of cava, no one seemed to mind.

After lunch a short dip in the cool, clear green lake, and then, ahh, an afternoon siesta beneath a pine tree. Once we all finally roused ourselves it was back up and back on, and we headed out for the afternoon.

The afternoon's ride was admittedly tiring, and seemed to wind endlessly up hills, through very dense forests that required much ducking beneath low trees, and then trots and canters over long, hot expanses of land. It was arduous, I am not going to lie, but luckily by this day I had gotten into a rhythm with the faster work, and learned to really wrap my lower body deeply around the horse so as to avoid too much strain on my knees. I used a great deal of core strength and lower body muscle to stay balanced without taxing my joints. The knee pain on the trip has been pretty difficult to bear at times, and wasn't a side effect I expected to be so acute.

The afternoon moved on slowly, and I realized what a true test of stamina, fitness and riding skill this trip has been. There have been points, especially near the ends of the days, or when encountering unpleasant surprises such as the wasp that stung both me and my horse today, that it has been a bit of mind over matter. I have to remind myself that I am here as much to conquer the challenge of doing something this adventurous as I am to see Spain and experience all of the life and vibrancy of its towns and countryside. There have, of course, been many great and exhilarating moments, when my breath has been taken away by the sheer beauty or excitement of the places we've been. But it has been a challenge too, and one I will be happy to say that I met.

A final observation about the trip thus far is that it has really given me an up close and personal view of the horse herd mentality. All throughout our trip, our horses, who are very used to living amongst one another, continue to both assert their independance and hierarchical positioning on the trail (my horse Senega has been one of the most defensive in terms of keeping other group members from usurping his position in line), and act, when necessary, as a tighly knit unit. We've had a couple of gallops that turned into mass chaos as one or two horses got too spirited and others decided to follow suit. We also had a group spook on the trail today, that sent a previously dead calm group of ponies into a simultaneous flight. I am happy to report that my well mannered mount wheeled to spook with them, but parked himself when I asked him to ease down and relax.

But now we are here at the Las Palma manor house, about to enjoy an outdoor candlelit dinner. So until tomorrow, buenos noches!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buenos soleil!!

I am happy to report that we survived days Two and Three of our equestrian trek without a single droplet of rain. Tuesday was a shorter day of riding, and though the weather was a bit cooler and moody, we had ample sunshine to light our way as we wound our horses through acres of golden apple orchards and dense olive groves. We passed a delightful assortment of wild fruit trees on the journey, and saw both pomegranates and figs hanging ripe and ready for picking. Our day ended out with a long stretch of canter alongside a magnificent wheat field, with the wind whipping our faces and bending the amber waves.

Day Three, today, was an aggressive day of riding and I anticipate feeling the effects in my hindquarters well into the weekend. We were richly rewarded, however, for our perseverance through Monday's wind and rain, as today's trek took us from the base of Mont Gris and up through glimmering pine forests, with views of the ocean below us and glimpses of the coastal town of L'Estratit, whose brightly colored and richly appointed summer homes overlook a huge swath of Mediterranean Sea.

Our horses climbed for a good hour, and once atop the mountain we rode through a nature preserve and out into very arid, rocky flatland, dotted with cacti and olive bushes. The sun blazed overhead but the breezes off the Mediterranean below were plentiful and kept the region perfectly temperate. It was here that we experienced one of the true highlights of the trip, a picnic lunch on top of a hidden rock outcropping, that revealed an almost unbelievable vista of the Mediterranean Sea. The water, almost too blue to be real, shined and shimmered as we munched on tuna and cheese sandwiches, dried nuts, and of course loads of Spanish olives. We paused after lunch to take brief siestas beneath the olive bushes shading the cliff, and I found it almost painful to think of leaving such a pristinely beautiful place to head back to the crush of New York City.

But leave we did, and wound our way back down the mountain until we hit a beautiful open ridge. We galloped almost the full length of the ridge, delighting in the sheer exhilarating speed and strength of our Spanish steeds. I couldn't help the smile that spread over my face as we truly felt as wild and free as our horses. "Though shalt fly without wings," was God's legendary command to the horse, and on top of Mont Gris we all did just that.That experience, of riding my horse with the wind in my face, the sun at my back, and the mountain dropping away on both sides into wide, tree covered ravines, was one of the high points of my entire life.

After our ridge gallop we entered into dense forests of both pine and deciduous trees, and I took deep breaths of the open mountain air and watched the Spanish sun sparkle through the canopy. Amongst those trees I felt completely at one with the natural world, a feeling I am kept almost entirely away from by my city bound existence. That my spirit sang as we stamped down those trails, and bent low beneath pine branches, forced me to philosophize on whether I am truly meant to be a city dweller.

We spent the rest of our day mostly on the flat as we approached the town of l'Escala. L'Escala's charming coastal houses were all painted bright colors, from pink and peach, to yellow, gold, and even royal blue. After quite literally riding through the center of town, and eliciting some wide eyed stares from attendant children, we finished our day by crossing wide fields at a canter and climbing several rolling hills.

At the trail's end we found waiting a beautiful Spanish manor house, to which we happily retired after bedding down our hardworking ponies for the night. Today's ride required a lot of muscle power and energy to keep up over the long distances, and both me and my horse Senega will likely sleep well. Assuming I can peel out of bed for tomorrow's six am wake up call, a beach gallop awaits, and I will finally get to realize a life long dream.

But more on that tomorrow. Buenos noches!!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vamos Gallope!

The rain in Spain falls mainly birthday? Our first day on the trail Monday started out gloriously, Spanish sun high and bright. It welcomed us as we saddled up at Mas Alba, a ranch located about an hour outside of Girona, Spain. We arrived the night before, and after our riding group had assembled from five different countries, we enjoyed a hearty meal at Mas Alba of rural Catalonian cuisine and rich Spanish wine. The accommodations there were delightful and quintessentially Spanish, with blue tiled bathrooms and bright striped bedding. The arched ceilings reminded one of living within a winery, or perhaps even a quaint hobbit swelling in middle earth.

Monday morning we awoke to find a string of fine Spanish horses tied and waiting for our acquaintance. Our guide matched me with a cute rose grey Andalusian, whose unique color came by virtue of his adolescent age, as he had yet to mature enough for his true silvery grey color to come in. We tacked up and headed out over waves of Spanish hills and past quaint haciendas, all brightly yellow golden in true Spanish style. Our horses were all Spanish speaking, and with a hearty shout of "Vamos gallope!" we would take off for long hand gallops through the open countryside. As midday approached we found ourselves winding through a quiet forest of white ash trees, all of them hand planted years before in neat symmetrical rows. The effect was almost Alice in Wonderland-ish, the trees almost too perfect to seem real.

It was here that our group felt what were to be the first drops of a long and unseasonable rain. We donned our rain gear but our small jackets were little match for the ensuing two hour torrent. The rain broke just in time to stop for a lunch time picnic deep in the woods, and we unsaddled wet horses and peeled off wet boots, before settling in for wine, cheese, olive spread on rich bread, and, best of all, some sunshine. Our group, knowing it was my birthday, produced two bottles of Spanish sparkling Cava, and when we finally returned to tack up our horses, we were all a bit giddy in spite of the wet.

We thought that would be the end of the rain but no such luck; as we approached a small Spanish town and walked through its narrow cobblestone streets, the first drops of a second storm fell our way. We made the best of things however, enjoying a couple of long gallops through the storm, which was an invigorating experience the likes of which I had never before enjoyed. The rain slowed our pace, however, and so night fell as we finished our trek to "the city in the rocks" a Spanish walled town carved out a large hillside, and built entirely out of stones.

After putting our horses up for the night, we showed up to our hotel soaked, chilled, and ready for a warm meal. We were richly rewarded with piping hot Spanish soup, full of vegetables, plates of bread and cheese, meats, and of course that wonderful rich red wine. As I tucked into bed, safe and warm and well fed, I knew that sleep would come easily and well. I also knew I had gotten a true taste of what life would have been like when horses were the only mode of travel, and rain or shine, one had to get from place to place with only their sturdy caballo to rely on. Hopefully, however, better rain gear as well.

I did learn that lesson well on this first day: always bring a change of clothes on the trail, if you are not smart enough to bring full emergency rain gear. It did occur to me as well how irritating it can be to get rained on in new York, when the press of business demands you not encounter untoward inconveniences to slow to down your day, but out in the Spanish countryside, it somehow felt like a grand adventure.

Day two to follow tomorrow. Dinner time calls! Buenos noches!!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mis deseos han sido siempre caballos

A final post before I head off for my Andalucian adventure traveling up Catalonia's Costa Brava on Spanish horseback. I will be spending a week stopping over in coastal haciendas, sampling local wine and cuisine, and galloping verdant hillsides atop los caballos espa├▒oles. I anticipate dreaming tonight of big-hipped white horses with lush silver manes cantering across the sunny southern Spanish coasts.

But first, a check into this week's goings on in the rest of the horseworld.

  • Good news for the racing industry this week, as the Associated Press reported that the number of equine deaths on tracks in 2008 diminished by an (albeit slight) 3% since 2007. This news comes as a positive indicator that the wide swath of reforms instituted by Thoroughbred track and racing authorities over this past year is starting to prove effective in saving equine lives. Unfortunately an astonishing 1247 horses were still lost to track related deaths during 2008. It's clear that work on the issue needs to continue.
  • The FEI issued a report last week recommending reforms necessary to curb the now widespread problem of medication and performance enhancing drug abuse in equine athletes competing under the governing body. As this article from Practical Horseman's Nancy Jaffer reports, among the recommendations suggested by the commission: "better stable security; an “integrity unit” geared to keeping things corruption-free; review [of] anti-doping protocols" and paying judges and stewards for their effort to promote professionalism in those ranks.
  • The National Reining Horse Association has signed a deal to sponsor next year's World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY. As a sponsor of the competition, the NRHA will promote reining's continuing expansion into the realm of accepted international horse sports, and will showcase it's unique set of talented competitors by hosting the WEG's first freestyle reining exhibition.
And with that, it's off to Barcelona to bask in the richness of Spain's legendary equine heritage.

¡Rastros felices!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Galloping With the Great

The day's biggest horse sporting news comes to us courtesy of the famed Rachel Alexandra, who took Saratoga's Woodward Stakes (G. 1) by a nose at the wire in front of Macho Again. The beautiful filly grabbed the lead early on and kept hold of it with her characteristic tenacity. While the rest of the field turned up to the finish covered in mud slung from hooves of those in the lead, Rachel came in clean and clear, never having had to suffer anyone's rear view. Jockey Calvin Borel piloted the super filly with his characteristic style, giving the crowd a nod and a wave as he pulled her up past the finish. Though the track was deep and a bit muddy, seeing Rachel come in safely across the finish line on a beautiful, clear summer day in Saratoga, made her conspicuous absence from the Travers an obviously good choice. She has proved her Alexandra the Greatness once again.

As for me, it's one week and counting until I take off for a six day horseback trek through the Catalan region of Spain. I haven't made the final assessment yet of what I'll bring, beyond riding tights, boots, a raincoat, my helmet, half chaps, and foam saddle cushion. Yes buying the cushion felt like cheating, but if it saves my own rear view from the bumps and lumps it will have to endure for five hours a day cross country, it will be well worth the investment. I'll post details of the trip after I get back, along with tips for enjoying such an adventure in the future.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Of Rain and Horses

I spent a wonderful, albeit soggy weekend in Saratoga Springs these past three days. Turnout for the 140th running of the Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. 1) was great even given the weather, and the horse fans in Saratoga didn't let the downpour dampen their enthusiasm. Summer Bird put in an impressive show under jockey Kent Desormeaux in the Travers, winning over a soppy, sloppy track by 3 1/2 lengths, and besting the Travers Day favorite, Quality Road. With his victory he also strode in the hoofsteps of his sire Birdstone, who accomplished the Belmont/Travers winning combination in 2004.

Thanks to several gracious connections I spent part of Sunday morning in the Saratoga Stakes barn chatting with several trainers, most notably Tim Ice (Summer Bird) and Chip Wooley (Mine That Bird). I also got to peek in and visit with thier celebrity charges, and was pleased to see that Summer Bird looked remarkably fit and happy the day after his big win. He displayed none of the penchant for haughty self-promotion one might expect from a multiple champion, happily munching the carrots that we brought for him and giving me affectionate muzzle rubs while we took his picture. Sunday's weather proved superb, a classic cool, clear Saratoga day, capped off by the afternoon's $400,000 Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. 1) for the ladies. The 4 year old filly Icon Project won the race by a stunning 13 1/4 lengths to send Travers weekend out on a thrilling note.

And with that another Saratoga summer is officially behind me. Luckily the Quarter Horses will be waiting at the in-gate before too long, and I will get to indulge my favorite period of the horse showing season.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Heading Down the Work Week Homestretch

It's Travers weekend in Saratoga tomorrow, so let's hope that a little sun peeks through and keeps things dry. A quick rundown of the end of the week's Horsebites:

  • Racing fans in Saratoga emitted a collective groan on Tuesday over news that Derby winner Mine That Bird is still on the mend from his epigilottal surgery and won't be contending Saturday's Shadwell Travers Stakes. What began as a Travers match-up sent straight from equine sports marketing heaven (all three Triple Crown Stakes winners in the same race) has now dwindled down to a field of 7 less press-centric horses, of which Quality Road is currently favored to win. While NYRA originally predicted a Travers Day customer population of around 50,000, it is likely that the diminished card, along with Saturday's rainy, chilly forecast, will turn away a number of casual Travers fans.
  • A great opportunity has just been announced for young people looking to break into the professional side of the equine industry. The Kentucky Horse Council will be holding a seminar in Georgetown, KY entitled "Your Future With Horses" on November 14th, 2009. The event will feature industry professionals discussing their chosen fields and career paths, and provide college students the opportunity to make decisions about equine related majors, internships and career goals.
  • What recession? The National Reining Horse Association just announced that entries for its 2009 NRHA Futurity have totaled 799 thus far, the second highest number of horses entered in the competition's history. While this means competition will be stiff, it is a good sign that people are going ahead and showing their horses and investing in their industry even with the economy in its current suffering state.
  • And a timely update to the Thoroughbred retirement story from my last post: The recently incepted NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance has formed a Subcommittee on Aftercare to bring leaders in the Thoroughbred world together in pursuit of a better solution to the retirement/aftercare problem. Mike Ziegler, executive director of the Safety and Integrity Alliance had this to say about the process: "Through cohesiveness and cooperation among all parties, we think we can create a model that can make it easier for racetracks, owners, and others to provide retired Thoroughbreds with a happy and productive life after their racetrack days are over." This is an excellent step in the right direction for the industry, and I hope it will bring about real and committed change.

      Wednesday, August 26, 2009

      Gone But Not Forgotten

      An interesting article in the New York Times Monday about the state of the country's racehorse retirement system. The article details the dramatic legal battle required to, in essence, rescue 11-year-old thoroughbred Tour of the Cat from the track after he became unfit for racing. The horse's owner at the time, David Jacobson, claimed him at age 10 and campaigned him well past his prime, entering him in progressively less competitive races until animal welfare authorities took note and forced his retirement. While this case ultimately ended on a positive note for Tour of the Cat, it underscores the shallowness of the resources allocated in New York state and across the country for the retirement of racehorses who have fullfilled their duty on the track, and the resistance by some in the industry to deciding when enough is enough for their older charges.

      My theory on the matter is that every horse is built physically and mentally to do a certain job, and if the horse has the spirit and aptitude he can excel at that job for many years. Every breed register and show roster and racing season can attest to the fact that there are horses who continue to love their work and compete injury free well into the golden years of their career. 10-year-old racehorse Evening Attire, 25-year-old endurance horse Tala, and 16-year-old Quarter Horse racehorse Silent Cash Dasher all prove that older horses can and do remain competitive if they are properly maintained.

      The question though is how to determine when a horse is past its competitive prime and would best be served by either retirement or a switch to a less demanding discipline, and how to ensure that resources are allocated to allow that transition. As the NYT article points out, 3000 horses need after-track placement every year, but the racing industry is ill-equipped to process more than a third of those horses into retirement or rehabilitation. Many end up euthanized or slaughtered due to a profound lack of any good exit strategy. Entities like NYRA have recently stepped up their commitment to ensuring the health and safety of the retirees upon which its livelihood once depended, but even those efforts (as the NYT article points out, NYRA recently raised $125,000 to go towards helping the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation retire New York bred horses) seem paltry given the millions of dollars often won and traded when those same horses are in their prime. Perhaps legislation should be introduced on behalf of these animals to guarantee that a certain percentage of racetrack/farm/breeder income be earmarked every year for the appropriate retirement of their animals. This would require a stronger chain of responsibility from breeder to owner to retirement, but could ultimately result in lessening the sense that certain sectors of the equine industry are concerned more with return on investment than with welfare.

      Tuesday, August 25, 2009

      Looking Past the Travers

      Big news in the horse racing world this week as Rachel Alexandra's contingent has decided not to run the filly in this weekend's Shadwell Travers Stakes (gr. 1) at Saratoga, saving her instead for the Woodward Stakes (gr. 1) next weekend. The New York Racing Association has sweetened the Woodward considerably to draw top level contenders to compete with Rachel, by increasing the race's purse from $500,000 to a sizable $750,000. Should she add the Woodward to her impressive list of wins, "Alexandra the Great" would be a prime 2009 Horse of the Year possibility by year's end. No need to fear that the Travers will go uncontested by the big guns however - Derby winner Mine That Bird (slated to run, though currently recovering from throat surgery) and Belmont winner Summer Bird will be among the top class draw set to compete for the 140th running of Saturday's historic stakes race.

      Other notable Horsebites:

      • To mark its long association with, and high population in the State of Texas, officials there have declared the American Quarter Horse to be the Texas state horse. The legendary stock horse has a long history of breeding in the state. This commemoration gives the breed recognition for the indelible stamp it has laid on Texas cow culture. Will the Thoroughbred now be commemorated as the official state horse of Kentucky?
      • As an almost inevitable result of the constricted economic climate, the Jockey Club has predicted that next spring's Thoroughbred foal crop will total about 30,000 babies, the smallest crop on record since 1977. The number of mares bred has declined yearly since 2006, to meet the tight economy's lessening demand for new bloodstock.
      • One of the summer circuit's biggest competitions got underway this weekend in Bridgehampton, NY, with the beginning of the 2009 Hampton Classic. The 34th Classic, home to the NY region's most distinguished show jumping and hunter horse competitions, will continue through this Sunday, August 30th.