Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Gentle Barn brings animals and humans together to heal.

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

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

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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Considering the Schmersal Scandal

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Your help needed! Stories about horses for my book.

The Equine Reader has been writing far less for this blog because I am now doing research for my first book, an investigation of certain facets of the horse/human bond. I would love to interview any current or past owners/trainers who would be willing to share stories of how lessons learned from connecting with their equines have informed their interactions with people. Some of these stories will eventually be included as anecdotal source material for the book. Please contact me directly at if you would be interested in spending 30 minutes or so chatting with me (via phone, Skype, instant messaging, or even face to face if you are in the NYC area) about those horses with which you have shared a profound connection. I am looking forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One Hoof Forward...

Sometimes I just don't know what to think of the horse industry. We have made so many strides with our equines, in health, safety and welfare practices. We are as a whole committed to the humane husbandry of our animals, and the blogosphere is always alight with stories about the latest new measures intended to bring peace and understanding to our horse lives. Natural horsemanship, barefoot shoeing, gobs of research into horse behavior, a slew of food products and training gear -- all are available to help us keep our horses at their best. Even the flat racing industry, once so intensely the bane of equine activists, has made huge strides in the years since the Eight Belles and Barbaro disasters, to the point that the Kentucky racing commission is currently considering a full race-day ban on drugs so that horses will run free from all medical substances.

But just when a horse lover begins to feel like humans are finally getting it RIGHT, and starting to see that our horses are not disposable relics of a bygone age, but animals with which we can develop profound partnerships, we have the running of the 2011 Grand National Steeplechase. In which two horses died over fences from a broken neck and a broken back. And in which the race continued to be run even as participants had to zig and zag around the horses' prostrate tarp-covered figures. As Erin Gilmore pointed out in her blog On The Line, horse fatalities happen in that same way almost every year at the Grand National. But we just keep running it. And we remain glued to our televisions, dumbfounded as horses go down, full of sadness and anger in the wake of yet another preventable equine tragedy, but seemingly not capable of doing anything to change it.

We can change it, however, if we are willing. If we let our horses carry us there as they have carried us before through wars, and storms, and life's darkest moments. If we listen to our horses, and think about a future that doesn't put them so dramatically in harm's way. Granted most horses aren't asked to race to near exhaustion over treacherous obstacles. But really, none of them should be. And we hold the power to change steeplechasing as we have changed flat racing, western pleasure, gaited pleasure, show jumping, eventing and a host of other events. By putting our horses first.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring Has Sprung!

And with it clouds and clouds of shedding horsehair. I encounter more of it every weekend now that I am back in the saddle and working with a lovely OTTB mare named Willow at a facility on Long Island. Willow is one of only a few mares that I have ridden consistently in my time, and her sensitive, feminine demeanor might just sway me to give up geldings for life! Of course to this point I've only gotten her on her good days...I haven't had any encounters of the mare kind while she's been feeling witchy or cranky, so perhaps that joke will one day be on me. But for now, I'm falling in love in the springtime sunshine with her sweet, giving temperament.

And I give big kudos to her owner for that -- she has painstakingly worked to turn Willow from a racetrack reject, dead lame from a chipped up front knee that required 10 months of tedious rehabilitation, to a well-behaved lady who is learning every week more about how to give and bend and transition with the grace of a show ring hunter. I even (almost successfully, due more to my learning her cues than her ignoring mine) sidepassed her at a trot last Saturday. I'd say she's come a long way.

Her biggest issue right now is her canter. She definitely tends to "rev it up" and get racehorsey when I ask her into that gear. She'll come back down and give and collect and then she'll want to rev up and go, go, go. She's also remarkably stiff and difficult to bend (this might partially be a side effect of lingering stiffness in the now healed knee). Circling her at the canter is sort of like riding a pogo stick. Bounce, bounce, bounce in a straight line and then a big lean to the inside at the corner. We'll keep working on it, but I welcome any suggestions about how to encourage her to soften and bend at this gait.

Willow is definitely a reminder to me of why it's so important for racetracks and the racing industry to continue to support efforts to rehome OTTB horses. They still have so much to give once their baby careers are over. I look forward to continuing my relationship with this big, beautiful grey mare, and know that many others like her can offer the same gifts to other lucky riders just like me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Update on Ireland's Horses of Dunsink

While admittedly I have been a bit remiss keeping up with the Equine Reader (work commitments, social commitments and life’s typical travails grab my attention away from writing all too often these days), the great thing about maintaining a blog even occasionally is that people whom you’ve never met can share in your passion from afar. And can respond to and provide feedback about the very welfare issues that you are seeking to raise awareness of, when they have firsthand knowledge about the cause.

And so it was with my post regarding the Irish horses of Dunsink. When last I blogged, there were reports of herds of horses roaming almost ferally in a small plot outside Dublin, some apparently left there by owners ill-equipped to meet their needs once the axe of the recession fell. Within a few days of my posting, a PR rep from the Irish Horse Welfare Trust (IHWT) alerted me to an impending round-up of horses from the Dunsink area, that would facilitate their receiving veterinary care, identification of owners, and if necessary, adoption out to new forever homes.

In the past two days, I have received two more notifications, that through the efforts of the Fingal County Council and the IHWT, these round-ups did take place and were successful, with a total of 70 animals able to be documented, microchipped, and matched with either their original owners or adoptive care facilities. According to these sources, the original press reports on the Dunsink issue exaggerated the numbers of truly abandoned horses, but there was a need for better education of Dunsink horse owners regarding feeding and care of the animals they had turned out onto the area. Luckily there are now community courses in the works that will be offered to these owners to make sure they have the knowledge necessary to provide proper upkeep for their animals.

I appreciate those who read my little blog and provided these updates, because now I can report back on the encouraging outcome of what seemed like a potentially devastating situation. It’s rare that we get happy endings to these types of stories, and hopefully this is only the first step in positive change for the horses of Dunsink.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Crowning of Queen Z

So it’s official: the mare of the decade has been crowned 2010’s Horse of the Year. At last Monday’s Eclipse Awards in Miami, Zenyatta beat back those who criticized her merit (on account of her narrow Breeder’s Cup loss) to take home a well-deserved title that places her among the ranks of a limited few true “superhorses.”

I narrowly missed being in Miami for the Eclipse Awards (I was actually luxuriating at the Fontainebleau Resort this past weekend on vacation with my boyfriend), but would have loved to watch Zenyatta’s camp accept this greatest of honors for their dominating mare. At least now that the detractors have been laid to rest, Zenyatta’s owners Jerry and Ann Moss can turn their full attention towards selecting the stallion that will sire Zenyatta’s first foal. With any luck, that meeting will result in a “superbaby” that will eventually reach as high acclaim as its storied momma.  

Good luck to Queen Z and her camp as they transition this unstoppable horse into her new broodmare role. I hope she enjoys the greener pastures that lie ahead.