Wednesday, April 29, 2009

downhill from here

Today, scarce readers of my blog, is going to be a conformation critiquin' kinda day.

Now, I'm not going to rip apart some poor horse for being poorly built, but I want to point out why some western pleasure horses move the way they do. It seems that breeding has been following a certain model, because the pleasure horses nowadays can so effortlessly four-beat and do all sorts of funny things with their legs. Their "bobblehead" necks are another odd pleasure horse thing as well. Have you ever watched a row of them going down the rail? It's hilarious. Unintentionally, of course, but I can't help but snicker a little as I watch a line of horses making some sort of soundwave with their necks.

Fast forward the above video to 3:12ish if you don't know what I mean. LOL!

Anyway, back on topic. I'm going to do an excellent, mediocre, poor, and extremely poor example (i.e., good, the bad, and the ugly, pretty much). Below is a very, very hard to find picture of a well-balanced western pleasure horse. In short, if this horse is a four-beater, his trainers met a lot of resistance to make that happen.

The horse above is a two year old, so he may be a hair downhill but I won't count that. He is compact, especially for a pleasure horse, because most of them resemble eighteen wheelers. His neck is turned toward the camera, but it is a nice width and length. His hindquarters are round and he isn't goose-rumped, a testament to both good breeding and training. He has nice, low set hocks, clean, proportionate legs, and although it's hard to tell, seems to have a decent shoulder angle. His head is proportionate to his body, and he has a kind, intelligent expression. My only bone to pick with this lovely young gelding are his hind legs--they seem a little camped under to my eye, but it might be the way he's posed. Not to mention the horse is in superb condition! He's not spectacular by far, but he is a huge improvement on most pleasure horses out there.

This is my "decent" pick. He, too, is compact, and is pretty darn proportionate. He has all of the attributes of the above horse, but he is goose-rumped and has wonky front legs. His hocks are set a bit high as well, and that might affect his performance a little. He's also a tad fine-boned in the front legs for my taste. I really like this horse in any case, and he would hold up very well for some un-intense pleasure. I like his head, expression, and nice clean throatlatch, too.

Above is his video, and I really like him. I dislike his lope (it's very jerky and does not "flow"), but he has the ability to have a slow-rollin', collected, comfortable rhythm to his gait. All in all, a decent horse, and still an improvement on most out there.

This is where things start to go downhill. (Get it??) This mare, although she looks very sweet, is just short of a conformational trainwreck--sadly, this is strangely ideal in the pleasure world. While she has a beautiful head and clean throatlatch, there are far more faults to outweigh these positive ones. Her neck is extremely long, and she has a telltale "dent" in front of her withers, which is a sign of her head being snatched up by force. It also appears to be upside-down, another sign of this same training method--basically instead of being encouraged to lift and arch her neck of her own accord, it is being held down in place. She is goose-rumped and far too fine-boned for my tastes. Her hocks are obscured by her tail, but they seem okay in placement. Basically this (very sweet-looking) mare will not be able to move faster than a slow crawl, but again, this is ideal in the industry.

On a side note, HOLY downhill, batman! This gelding is two, so technically he could catch up, but this particular farm has many mature horses who are built downhill. This is just an extreme case, but he is, of course, started under saddle and advertised as "an early futurity candidate for next year." Riiiight.

This horse is from the same farm as both of the preceding horses. He, too, is built downhill, and is as long as an eighteen wheeler. He probably has all of the agility of one, too. His neck IS actually shorter than his body, but it was a close call. He's got short, stumpy legs, high-set hocks, a goose rump, and a huge shoulder to drag the rest of his body around with. To his advantage, his color is pretty, and he might make some little girl the walk-jogger of her dreams, but he will probably end up winning the big classes. Why? Because four-beating, a low headset, and a slow, slow crawl will be second nature to him.

It's all discouraging, but the top two horses show a marked improvement on the last three--and most of the industry. Although, if someone wants to go beat the breeder of the last three with a clue-by-four, feel free. I'll be next in line.

Friday, April 3, 2009

"she threw me! we need to sell her!"

Now, I haven't shown on the big circuits by far, although I did take a trip to the Gold N Grand a few years ago and cleaned up nicely there. However, even on the small-scale circuits, there are some majorly snobbish attitudes going around. I know of one in particular--it was one of those mother-daughter teams, who were IT and no one else could even compare. To them, everyone at the show should just go home and not bother, because Miss 'Tood Junior was going to whoop everyone to shame and clean house. This was on the 4-H circuit, by the way.

When I first met 'Tood Junior, she had two rather homely horses, a palomino and a roan. The palomino was her pleasure and equitation horse, and the roan was for trail, horsemanship, and showmanship. They were nothing spectacular, but they were good babysitters and they got the job done. The first time I came across the mother-daughter duo was at one of my first 4-H shows with my mustang mare, Lilly. We were showing walk-jog for fun, not expecting much but hoping for the red or even blue ribbon. She was a darn cute mover and often was mistaken for a Quarter Horse, and she took great care of me. My first meeting with the duo consisted of me witnessing their lunging process.

I was far from an expert at that point, and I naively though that lunging consisted of a horse moving on an established but good-sized circle, with a person on the inside tracking the horse's hip. It was not so with these two: Mommy Dearest would hold one horse off to the side, barking instructions at her daughter, who stood still in the middle, lunging the other horse. In fact, Junior wouldn't even turn to follow her horses. She would raise her arm holding the line OVER her head while her horse circled around her, in varying shapes and sizes of circle.

I showed against Junior for years after that. She went through horses like last week's laundry, in varying degrees of good-natured-yet-homely. She was the stereotypical western rider; she spurred, she yanked, and she rode her horses into the ground. I had to wonder if her going through horses so quickly was attributed to one of the plods finally having ENOUGH and drawing the line; soon enough, I was proven correctly.

After I had beat Junior out for the High Point End-of-Year award in western (on my non-pedigree mustang), she came back the next show season with a stunning gray mare. The mare did it all, and she no longer needed two horses. She was beautiful, dappled gray and a fluid, natural mover with a kind eye and a big heart. I was sick with envy that show, watching and glowering as her show machine beat me in every class but one; equitation. I remember nearly busting my buttons as I rode up to get my blue ribbon, though the feeling quickly faded when I took a bathroom trip after my congratulations. Junior and Mommy Dearest were in the bathroom, and Mommy Dearest was not happy.

"How can you let that girl and her mustang beat you?" Mommy Dearest was hissing furiously. "I want you to get on that horse and work her until she can't lose anymore."

And work her she did. The show was over, and the officials had gone home, but Junior obediently climbed up onto her gorgeous gray. The mare was startled at first, but quickly settled into her job. You could tell she loved to work, and did everything Junior asked for, despite the rough way she demanded from her mare. I watched with horror as Mommy Dearest stood on the sidelines, barking at her daughter to "jerk harder" and "spur more" until the mare was heaving and sweating. There were no breaks in their after-show ride, and around and around they loped, swapping leads in the center of their figure eight. The gray, amazingly, did everything Junior asked, despite being ripped into on both her sides and her mouth.

Until I saw that flash in her normally kind eyes, and knew that the gray mare had reached her limit. At the center of their figure eight, as Junior jabbed into her side to ask for a lead change, the gray mare pinned her ears and swished her tail. Junior jabbed harder, at Mommy Dearest's instructions, and jerked on one side of her mouth. The gray gave another swish and a head toss as a warning, but the mother-daughter duo saw none of it. Again Junior jabbed, and yanked, but this time the gray gave no warning. She planted her feet and stopped, abruptly, in a way that would make most reiners proud. Junior was thoroughly unseated, but she settled herself back in the saddle, and began to saw and spur away, not even needing an order from her mom. The gray arched her back, a sure sign of what was to come, and in turn received a few jabs in her side with the spurs.

The gray, I now knew, was not going to give any more warnings. With the next spur jab, she leaped forward, unseating Junior once again, who spurred her in the flank with her left foot, which had fallen out of the stirrup. In turn, the gray mare began to buck--hard. After one and a half bucks, Junior sailed out of the saddle and did a plus-ten face plant, skidding in the dirt on her brand new Hobby Horse show shirt. Mommy Dearest shrieked, and ran forward to see if her daughter was alright, startling the mare who trotted off a ways. Not wanting her to run off, I quickly walked up and grabbed her reins, giving her sweat-drenched neck a well-deserved pat.

I was just in ear shot when I heard Junior spit, "She threw me! We need to sell her!"

Apparently Mommy Dearest agreed, for when she ripped the gray's reins out of my hands to stalk back to the trailer, she asked me if I wanted to buy "the nag." Before I could answer, Mommy Dearest and the horse were gone.

I never saw the gray again. My trainer told me that she had gone to a sweet, spur-less, soft-handed little girl who was racking up ribbons and trophies on the 4-H circuit just north of us. I had smiled at that point, simply because the mare was one of my heroes and still is to this day.

My question is, when has a horse had ENOUGH? When do they draw the line? Junior's riding was extreme, even in the western pleasure world, and I'm sure that her other horses also got fed up and threw her. I never saw them for more than a season, and after every show they were growing more and more upset; more frequent ear pinning, tail swishing when they were spurred, and pinched nostrils signaled their irritation. At what point did the light bulbs turn on in Junior and Mommy Dearest's heads, so they would realize, "Maybe these horses are bucking her off because she deserves it?"

I think the light bulb finally did go off with that beautiful gray, because I did not see Junior or Mommy Dearest ever again, just like that mare.

Friday, March 27, 2009

really, they aren't!

In the horse world, opinions about training are as varied as the horses and disciplines involved. However, a few things are mostly universal: the spurring, the behind the vertical/way way below the vertical, the heavy hands, and the general lack of understanding how a horse moves.

The spurring is my biggest pet peeve. English and western riders both wear spurs, and they have become the answer to everything. Western riders are much more at fault for this, admittedly (and I have ridden western almost my entire "riding life"). Horse won't go? Spur. Horse moves too slow? Spur. Horse moves too fast? Spur. Horse isn't responding to the aids? Spur harder.

I'll admit right here, I use spurs. I use them correctly. I use them as an aid, and a last resort. Really, spurs have become synonymous with legs. There is no distinction between what is a spur aid or reminder and what is a leg aid or reminder. They're one in the same, and I would really like that to change.

The spurring is a vicious cycle, and it drives me crazy. I'm going to dedicate this blog to the training faux pas of mainly the western world, and the fixes. I'm going to try and stress exactly how a horse moves, and why spur, spur, spur is not the answer to collection, the ultimate goal of a whole lot of riders.


I'm going to start with "the jabbing." This drives me beyond crazy. This faux pas is especially prominent in western pleasure, though pleasure is not the only discipline guilty of this. All leg aids become a jab with the spur. There is no gradual increase of pressure; nope, just a rib crunching jab at the horse's sides.

My little sister is eight and just beginning to learn about horses. While riding, he is learning to squeeze first, then if the horse doesn't listen to make tiny bumps with her heels. I recently took her to watch a local schooling show, and the open western pleasure class was up. She turned to me in the middle and asked, "Why are the riders bumping the horses so hard? Is that why the horses all look so cranky?" Honestly, if an eight-year-old novice can recognize that the jab is just making your horses look cranky, it ain't working.

Take, for example, the picture above. Even though it's a still, you can tell this horse is being jabbed. Look at the horse's expression, and tell me if that isn't one pissed off horse. Her heels are turned toward her mount's side, which could just mean that she's getting ready to cue. However, her feet are swung forward in the stirrups, the motion of a continuous jab. She is braced in the saddle, as if she's sitting down hard on the horses back and going to town with swinging her legs. To top it all off, her horse's head is forward and raised in protest, which is very uncharacteristic for a western pleasure horse. Now tell me, is this a pleasant image? No, it is not, all thanks to "the jab."

Take a gander at the picture above, as well. That is another pissed off horse. Not only does he have the jab going, evident by the turned-out-toes and "sucked up" appearance of the stomach (a common reaction to hardcore spurring, comparable to ducking a punch), but he's got the face grab to contend with as well. This mount also looks entirely pissed off, but I don't blame him one bit.

The picture above is my good example. Not only is the horse's head above not only tripping level but the withers as well (yay!), his ears are up and alert. His expression is content, and he's concentrating on his job at hand, not the constant spurring in his gut. His rider's legs are close on his sides, and his heels are turned in, yet there is no jab of any kind. The lack of jabbing may be because the rider's legs are too long to successfully spur without reaching his heels up, but I'm going to give this pair the benefit of the doubt due to the horse's very happy and relaxed expression.

The differences between that last picture and the other two are monumental, in my opinion. Obviously a happier horse performs better, so why on earth are the spurring, yanking, and jabbing such popular training techniques? All those things do is piss a horse off, and that is where you get the "cranky" expressions. Jabbing and spurring to me in general is the same as a snappy person. When you're at work, doing your job, you want the environment to be pleasant, right? Jabbing is the same thing to a horse as a snappy boss is to you. A snappy boss immediately barks at you to do some task, and I'll bet it not only startles you but makes you uneasy. An ideal boss asks nicely yet authoritatively for a task to be done, and I can bet that you're more willing to complete his request than Snappy's.

I'll get off my soap box now. Stay tuned for more of my faux pas and fixes of the western world! :-)