Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Police horses keep the peace after UK wins.

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 27, 2012

Porter the Mule Makes Strides in Dressage

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Saratoga War Horse Project Provides Healing Hooves

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

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

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