Sunday, May 31, 2015

Scratches, Rainrot and Other Equine Skin Conditions

Here's how to recognize and treat some common equine winter skin conditions.

Winter can be rough on your horse's skin. Moisture from rain and snow encourages bacteria and other pathogens to grow. And thick winter coats---plus layers of blankets---can allow conditions to go unnoticed for days or even weeks as they worsen. Treating established skin problems can be difficult when bathing isn't an option. Your best bet for keeping your horse's skin in good shape this winter is watching out for the conditions most likely to develop so you can begin treatment as early as possible.

Scratches. One of the easiest skin problems to identify and treat, scratches is a bacterial infection affecting the skin at a horse's pastern. The bacteria take hold when repeated exposure to wet conditions strips away the skin's protective oils, causing chapping and cracking. The earliest sign of scratches is formation of a crust on the back of the pastern, so do an inspection daily as you pick out your horse's hooves. If you see signs of scratches, wash the affected area with an anti-bacterial shampoo, then rinse and dry it completely. Drying the area is extremely important and will probably require a hair dryer in winter months. Finally, trim the longer pastern hairs and slather the area with an antibiotic ointment followed by a layer of Desitin or ich-tham-mol to provide a barrier to further moisture. (If it's too cold to wash the leg, skip directly to the trimming and ointment steps.) Avoid picking off tightly attached scabs because that can be painful to the horse. Instead, use a clean cloth to wipe the ointment from the leg every other day. The softened crusts will slide off easily. Then reapply the ointment.

Rainrot. The bacterium that causes rainrot, Dermatophilus congolensis, normally lives on the skin with no adverse effects. However, a rain followed by humid conditions can allow the bacteria to multiply and irritate hair follicles, leading to painful crusting and hair loss on the top of the rump and along "runoff" lines of the flanks. Older horses and those with compromised immune systems are most likely to develop rainrot. The earliest signs are ruffled-looking patches of coat---caused by hair follicles standing on end slightly---combined with warm and possibly sensitive skin.

A daily grooming session or at least a peek under the blankets is necessary to notice these changes. A course of anti-biotics at the earliest stages can head off rainrot, so consider calling your veterinarian if you see signs of the condition.

If scabs have already developed and bathing isn't possible, slather the spots with mineral oil to loosen the crusts and allow them to slide off easily. With the scabs gone, you can treat the bacteria beneath them with an antiseptic wash. When the weather warms up, a full bath with a medicated, antidandruff shampoo followed by a long spell in the warm sun will help clear up rain rot.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Uncommon Companions: Eventers and Their Unusual Pets

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

Event riders tend to be passionate, intense people who love their horses. They also often have other animals, especially dogs – dogs and horses go together, after all. In the Aiken area, however, there are a number of professional eventers who have taken their love for animals a step farther, sharing their lives with some uncommon companions. Who are these riders and what is it like to live with an unusual menagerie? We decided to find out.

Avalo Farm: The Call of the Wild

When you drive into the average horse farm, you often find your car surrounded by dogs. When you drive into Avalo Farm in Wagener, cats come out to greet you instead. This is because, in addition to being the place where Michelle Donlick teaches and trains a combination of natural horsemanship and eventing, Avalo is also a certified nonprofit cat sanctuary.

There are cats everywhere at Avalo. At first glance, you might spot one or two sitting in the sunshine. If you look more closely, you start to realize just how many cats there are: they seem to materialize from the shadows, revealing themselves part by part, like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. The yard, the barn and the front porch of the house are home to some 50 cats. There are about 20 more that live in the house or in the working students’ apartments. They are friendly, curious and well-cared for, rubbing against your legs and offering themselves up for petting. A few of them follow Michelle around the farm to see what she is doing. They get along remarkably well.

“If you take lessons here, you must love cats, it’s a requirement,” says Michelle. “This is cat heaven.”

Cat heaven is an apt description. There are cats of all kinds: black cats and orange cats, calicos, tabbies, longhaired cats and shorthaired cats, Maine coon cats, tail-less cats, highland curls and most especially spotted cats. These are Bengals, descended from a cross of a small spotted wildcat called an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat. Although there are many regular domestic cats at Avalo, the sanctuary was specifically created for Bengals and other hybrids.

“I take mostly hybrids,” says Michelle. “I had to stop taking in regular house cats because then I would be like a regular shelter, overwhelmed with cats. Really, I would like to help all the cats. But I focus on the hybrids.”

Hybrid cats are classified by how many generations they are removed from the first crossing of a domestic cat and wild cat. The offspring of an Asian leopard cat and a domestic cat is an f1 Bengal (the “f ” stands for “filial.”) These cats retain a distinctly wild look, with spotted coats and large eyes. They act like wild cats, too, tending to be shy and exhibiting behaviors that are not what you would expect from a domestic cat – loving water for instance – and relieving themselves in it! This is a trait of the leopard cat, which does this in order to wash his scent downstream and away. F2 Bengals are a cross between an f1 and a domestic cat; f3 Bengals between an f2 and a domestic cat and so on. By the time you get to f4, the cat is considered to be a domestic cat. F4 Bengals are still distinctive, looking like especially beautiful tabby cats with spots instead of stripes. They have unique personalities as well: They are personable, active and talkative. Many people describe them as dog-like, enjoying games of fetch and tending to have an affinity for water.

The Bengals that roam free at Avalo Cat Sanctuary are at least f4; cats from earlier generations are mostly housed in special wood and woven wire enclosures that include shelters for sleeping, logs for climbing and ample water. There are about 30 cats that live in these enclosures, including some that live alone and some that share space with other cats of similar characteristics. Michelle, who keeps her own personal f1 Bengal in the house, spends several hours each day interacting with these cats, providing them with attention and enrichment.

“The f1s, 2s and 3s are definitely exotic,” says Michelle. “They can be very aloof and skittish, so they can’t be kept loose.” There is another reason. “Some of the bigger hybrids might see the domestic cats as prey.”

In addition to early generation Bengals, the cat enclosures house jungle cat hybrids, savannah cats (a hybrid of the wild African serval cat), a chausie cat (a cross between a jungle cat and an Abyssinian) and a safari cat (a cross between a wild South American cat called a Geoffreys cat and a domestic cat.) There is a pair of large enclosures in the back that provide homes for two genuine wild cats. One of these, Maija, is a serval cat. The other, Aki, is a very rare caraval cat, which is a cross between a serval and a caracal cat. The caracal is a wild native of Africa and Southeast Asia that looks like a small cougar with distinctive, tufted ears. Aki, who is about 50 pounds, is tawny and long legged. “He can jump about 16 feet straight up,” says Michelle. These cats are considered lesser cats: although they are larger than domestic cats, they are not as large as greater cats (lions and tigers.) The main difference between the greater and the lesser cats is that the greater cats roar, while the lesser cats do not.

Aki and Maija came to Avalo a few years ago from the same owners in Florida, a couple who could not keep them any longer because of illness. The cats’ enclosures include a small pen with doors on each side, one leading to the outside and one leading into the cat habitat. This is a lockout, a safety feature that can be found in most zoos.

“When I feed them at night, I go in through the outside door, and put raw chicken down, go out and close the door. Then I open the door to the cats from the outside, because they can get very aggressive at feeding time.”

Although both these cats are genetically wild, they were bottle fed and hand-raised by their first owners, so they are accepting of people. Maija, the serval cat, is shy with anyone she doesn’t know, but friendly to Michelle. “I can go in and play with her and pet her,” says Michelle. “When she sees me coming she chirps to me and purrs. She loves water and she loves to play. Like any cat, she loves boxes. About a week ago I got a new shop vac and I gave her the box, and she loved playing in it, just like a house cat.”

Aki, the caraval cat, on the other hand, has not yet adjusted to Michelle. He is aloof and watchful, although he condescends to come out of his hiding place to play with a rope. “Basically all I can do is a finger sniff through the bars right now,” she says. “He was really bonded to his owners. When I was in Florida and I met him with the owners, he was rubbing all over me.”

Michelle’s horse business is doing well. As one of a small minority of trainers who combines eventing and natural horsemanship, she gives clinics and lessons all over the country. Last year she even gave a clinic in Austria. But she is finding that cat business is occupying more of her time these days, and she is considering downsizing the horse operation to spend more time with the cats. Her husband, Steve, shares in the cat care and builds the enclosures. He also grows salt water coral, and recently opened a specialty store for coral in Columbia. Both Donlicks are devoted to conservation and belong to the Feline Conservation Federation, an organization “dedicated to responsible captive management of wild feline genetics.” The sanctuary relies on donations to feed and care for the cats, as well as to build and maintain their shelters and enclosures.

Michelle, who was formerly a vet tech, explains that the name “Avalo” is derived from “Avalokitesvara” which is the manifestation of infinite compassion in Buddhist tradition. Michelle has always been a cat person, although she says she did not always have lots of cats. When she worked in veterinary offices, she gained a reputation as someone who could handle even difficult cats. The sanctuary grew out of her realization that there were many cats that needed her compassion and her help.

“I realized that these hybrid cats were all over the place, just as much as domestic house cats,” Michelle says. “And they also need a place to go.”

The residents of Avalo might come from owners who can’t keep them any longer because of lifestyle changes or other issues. Some come from shelters. They may end up in the sanctuary because they don’t fit into their owner’s lifestyle: inappropriate urination is a big problem, especially for early generation hybrids that might be better off living in an outdoor enclosure rather than a house. Some of them come because the family member who cared for them died and no one else in the family could handle them. The hybrids are often cats that need a caretaker with the specialized knowledge, expertise and facilities to house them safely and comfortably.

Michelle gives the cats a home, medical care, food, shelter and many hours of her time. They give her something valuable in return.

“I love all cats, but I especially love the early generation cats because they are so exotic and aloof,” she says. “I love their wildness. They’re gorgeous to look at; so powerful and so stoic. I love to watch them, and I love the fact that they are particular. If a cat likes you, it’s a special thing, with the hybrids especially. They don’t bond to you right away. When they finally come around to you, it’s a feeling of connection that goes very deep. It’s special.”

Mollie Zobel Eventing: There Are Deer Here

Mollie Zobel is a familiar presence at eventing competitions around Aiken; a young professional who teaches trains and competes. On her website, directions to her farm in Springfield include a caution to drive slowly and carefully as you enter the property. Not only do Mollie and her family have small dogs and a pygmy goat: “Our deer often graze in the yard and paddock by the driveway and we do not want them unnecessarily spooked.”

Mollie and her husband David Moss live in a home at the back of an almost 400-acre property that Mollie’s parents bought a dozen years ago. Her parents’ house is in the front. There are paddocks and pastures with well maintained black board fencing, a barn, and a special pen the Zobels built for their deer, Rocky. The pen is tidy and secure, and the Zobels say that Rocky sleeps there at night. But during the day, he prefers to bed down in the house. According to Mollie’s father, Randy Zobel, he usually lies in the middle of the hallway.

“We put a blanket down and we just have to walk around him.”

In addition to Rocky, the Zobels also feed a semi wild doe named Vi and her son Maverick, who was born this year. Unlike Rocky, Vi and her son don’t come into the house. They roam the woods and fields on the farm and in the surrounding neighborhood, showing up at dusk when Ruby, Mollie’s mother, puts out food for them. Then all three deer graze and interact on the lawn.

In South Carolina, as in most states, it is illegal for private citizens to keep a captive deer. The Zobels can have Rocky because they are licensed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as white-tailed deer rehabilitators. As such, they are allowed to keep and care for deer, and they are often called upon for help in the late spring, when deer begin to have their fawns.

“On May 15 every year, we start getting the calls,” says Mollie. “Most people know now that when you find a fawn bedded down by himself you should leave it alone,” she continues, explaining that it is normal for a doe to hide her fawn during the day. People sometimes come upon these fawns and think that they are abandoned when they are not, which leads to many people accidentally kidnapping baby deer. But there are times when there is a problem, and the fawn does need some kind of help.

“They call us, and usually they just need our advice. If there is no other solution, we will take the fawn,” says Mollie.

The Zobels became deer rehabilitators by accident in 2011, after their neighbors came upon a 2-day-old fawn sprawled out on one of the dirt roads nearby. The fawn, now Rocky, showed signs of having been in an accident.

“Our best guess is that the mom crossed the road, and maybe a car bumped him. He had a scrape on his nose and he was dazed. The neighbors knew we were animal freaks and so they brought him to us,” says Mollie.

The Zobels began nursing the fawn, feeding him goat’s milk every two hours around the clock. They realized two things very quickly: one was that Rocky was going to stay with them; the other was that this needed to be a legal arrangement. Randy entered into discussions with the state’s DNR and soon obtained the necessary license to keep and rehabilitate deer. It was a good thing too, because Rocky didn’t have many options.

“We raised him so domesticated, there really wasn’t a way to put him back out to fend for himself,” says Mollie. “He slept in the bedroom for months and he likes to be in the house. He doesn’t like the bugs in the summer, and he hates to get wet when it rains. But we also knew that he was a buck, and that you cannot have a buck. When the testosterone kicks in, they get very dangerous, even if they were hand raised. We were lucky enough to find Dr. Harvey Atherton, who is one of the few vets around who has experience with deer. When he turned 6 months old we gelded him.” In 2013, the Zobels ended up with two more fawns: Belle, a tiny fawn whom they found on a trail screaming for her mother, and Vi, who came to them very sick and dehydrated as a DNR referral. The does grew up on the farm, but did not spend much time in the house the way Rocky did. Sadly, Belle died over the summer of a common deer disease that is spread by gnats. Vi, on the other hand, jumped out of the yard last February and went missing for four days.

“Then she jumped back in and was waiting for her dinner as though nothing had happened,” says Randy. But something had happened: in July she surprised everyone by presenting the family with a fawn, Maverick who was born on the property.

Today, Rocky wears a blaze orange collar to let hunters know that he is a tame deer. He also has a radio tracking collar, like those worn by hunting dogs so that if he does get out, the Zobels can find him. Usually he stays in the yard, but occasionally he might jump the fence and go exploring. Once, he got quite far away, too far for the radio collar to work. Randy and Ruby went looking for him in their pickup truck and finally found his tracker collar signal in some woods near a dirt road. “We stopped the truck just as he was coming out of the woods. At the same time, a guy in a pickup truck made the turn to come down that road,” says Randy.

“We could see that Rocky was lost and he had a panicky look about him. So Ruby hollered at him, and he came running out of the woods and jumped into the back seat of the truck. Then we closed the door and took off. I can just imagine what the guy in the truck was thinking and what story he told around the camp fire.”

“Yes,” says Ruby with a laugh. “This is how we hunt deer around here: we just call them and they come running!”

Living with a deer has been an enlightening experience for the Zobels. Rocky is affectionate, friendly and doglike in the way he has adapted to the family. He has adjusted his schedule to sleep during the night, unlike a wild deer that is mostly nocturnal. He is polite in the house, and even housebroken, although he does have an affinity for paper and will chew up any papers or magazines he can find. He is especially affectionate with Ruby, who is sometimes the only one who is able to catch him if he doesn’t want to be caught – “Ruby is our ace in the hole,” says Randy. “When Mollie or I try to get him, he knows we mean business.”

Mollie sees Rocky as just another member of the happy menagerie at the farm. “He’s pretty much taken my place as the first child,” she says, smiling. “But having him isn’t that big of a jump for me. It’s really neat for me to be able to watch his behavior and learn about him. I like to see how all the animals interact. I’m not advocating keeping deer as pets, because they are wild, but it is interesting to see how well they all get along and how happy they are together. They all play together –dogs, deer, goats. We have a very diverse family.”

As far as integrating him with the horses goes, they don’t see much of one another. “But my students know that if they come here, and there is a problem with the deer – if Rocky gets out and is lost – there might be a delay in their lesson, and they might have to go out on foot and help us find him.”

The Zobels are also keenly aware of how dangerous it is to be a deer in the wild, especially in an area where there are so many hunters. Vi, like Rocky, wears a blaze orange collar so that hunters know she is tame. The Zobels are trying to think how they will mark Maverick during deer season so that he won’t be a target either—he is too wild to get a collar 82 The Aiken Horse February-March 2015 on, plus he is still growing. Perhaps surprisingly, all the Zobels neighbors know about their deer, and are quite solicitous of them, even though most are avid hunters.

“I was a deer hunter myself for a number of years,” says Randy. “I did it very primitively – I made my own bows, and I wasn’t much of a threat to the deer. But I was always out there. When Rocky came into our lives, it was a whole new world for us. Before, it was like you would go seek the outdoors, and now, all of a sudden, you have the outdoors in with you. Watching him, understanding his behavior and seeing what an unbelievably gentle soul he is has been amazing to me. I never knew deer could be this way. I wouldn’t have believed how affectionate they are and how smart they are. As a hunter, you see them from 50 yards away – you get a glimpse of them, and you just don’t know. Anyone who has had a pet deer could never ever hunt them again—it would be like hunting one of your dogs. Now we’ve turned the whole farm into a preserve and there is no hunting here.”

Paradise Farm: Lellie Has a Little Lamb

It is not especially unusual for horse people to have sheep. After all, sheep are common farm animals, and they often go well with horses. What is unusual, however, is to have sheep that come into your house and are your personal pets. It may be unusual, but, if you ask Lellie Ward, owner of Paradise Farm and an event rider who has competed at the Olympic level, she will tell you that it is very gratifying. Lellie, who has an active schedule of teaching, training and competing, not to mention running horse trials, shows and events, has become almost as well known lately for her pet sheep Cloudy as she is for her other accomplishments and activities. When you consider the length, depth and breadth of her resumé, that is certainly saying a lot.

“He’s had interviews and pictures in about five national publications,” says Lellie. “He has his own Facebook page with hundreds of fans and his own personal veterinarian, Dr. Harvey Atherton.”

Cloudy is a Dorset sheep, who is just a year old now and probably weighs over 200 pounds. When Lellie got him in early 2014, he was a fluffy three week old lamb. He had been an orphan, and the farm where he was bred and born had too many bottle babies, and were planning to put him down. Lellie met him at a horse expo in Columbia. He was sweet and affectionate, and you could hold him in your arms like a baby. Lellie fell in love immediately, presented her credit card to the owner, and bought him for $100.

Back at Paradise Farm, Cloudy took to following Lellie around like a dog. He came when she called him, slept in a dog bed, and enjoyed being held on her lap. As he grew bigger, he eventually outgrew living in the house, and now is relegated to Lellie’s back porch. There, he has ample straw and a wooden shelter.

“It’s actually my grandmother’s day bed,” says Lellie. “It’s a great antique. We were going to build him something, but I had this day bed, and we decided to turn it over, and it works perfectly.”

Although it is probably better for Cloudy to live outside, he does seem nostalgic for how things were in the past. When Lellie is in the house, he spends much of his time looking at her through the window.

This winter, Lellie went back to the same farm that bred Cloudy and picked up Stormy, another lamb, this one a ewe. Little Stormy is now the “house sheep.” She gets to sleep on Lellie’s bed, sometimes even in her arms.

“The plan is for me to get two more,” Lellie says. “I’m going to train them to drive and go in the carriage parade at the steeplechase with a four-in-hand. I’m totally serious.” Cloudy has already started his driving training: he long lines and pulls around noise- makers, such as empty soda cans to get him ready for a cart.

At the moment, however, the sheep are still maturing. Cloudy will be shorn for the first time in March, and Stormy has a lot of growing to do before she can be part of a hitch. Their main job now is to play with the dogs, run about the farm, and spread joy.

“Having these sheep is a totally unique thing for me in that it has no restrictions,” says Lellie. “It’s a total stress reliever. It’s just love, happiness and nothing else. I have always been very regimented in my horse thing, so this is very different, and there is no explaining it. They put their breath on you, and you love them, and that is all that matters.

“The sheep are just a different animal, and so affectionate,” she continues. “I love to be with them. They are peaceful, happy and friendly. I love to watch them buck and play. They just take the stress away. I don’t know how to explain it other than to say that they bring me pure joy.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Secret Lives of Horses: Tennessee

By Mary Jane Howell

He could have been a model, this big toffee-colored horse. He has all the patience in the world for being groomed, clipped, braided, bathed, and when he sees a camera he poses. Tennessee’s real passion, however, is the world of the hunt, and his partner for two decades has been Betty Alexander.

“I got Tennessee when he was 2 and he was very difficult to break,” explained Betty. “I’m not sure what had happened before I got him, but he was frightened of having anyone on his back… of people with ball caps, and of spurs and whips. I just rode him very carefully, and eventually he learned to trust me and have fun.”

It is hard to imagine that this 17 hand gentle giant was ever anything but brave and willing and it is a testament to Betty’s skill as a horsewoman that he became the horse he is today.

“I always had Thoroughbreds, so the idea of owning a draft cross was quite foreign to me,” she said. “When my trainer showed him to me I wasn’t sure, but I had a friend who was 6’ 5” and 260 pounds and he never had a horse to ride, and I thought that perhaps Tennessee would fit the bill.”

There don’t seem to be too many stories of the friend riding Tennessee because it wasn’t long before the gelding had captured Betty’s heart.

Before she bought her farm in Aiken 10 years ago, Betty lived in Frederick, Maryland, and fox hunted regularly in her home state as well as in New Jersey and Virginia. She also was passionate about preserving the tradition of riding aside, so Tennessee learned all about side saddles as well.

Betty has had plenty of adventures with Tennessee over the years, but one of the highlights has to be their participation in George W. Bush’s 2001 Inaugural Parade.

“I rode in the parade as a member of ISSO – the International Side Saddle Organization – and there were 40 of us. We were wedged between the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Iditarod sled dogs. It was freezing and raining but Tennessee never flinched at a thing.”

Although perhaps nothing has come close to the memory of riding down Pennsylvania Avenue on her beloved horse, Betty has endless stories of Tennessee’s prowess in the hunt field and in the show ring.

“In Virginia he jumped all the big coops without hesitation and I always felt so secure on him,” recalled Betty. “Even though he is such a large horse, he kept up with all the Thoroughbreds when there was a run.”

As comfortable as he was in the hunt field, Tennessee had some quirky moves in the show ring. Early in his life he had been taught voice commands and at one big show there were three rings going at the same time. Betty was in a hack class, trying hard to listen to the announcer’s commands. Tennessee was listening as well – but to the announcer in a different ring: “Suddenly we started trotting when everyone else was cantering,” laughed Betty. “Then he would walk when the other riders were asked to trot!” It took me some time to realize what was going on.” Betty has boxes of ribbons that Tennessee has won, and she is proud of his local recognitions, including the 2014 Aiken Hounds Master’s Trophy and 2011 Why Worry Hounds Field Hunter of the Year award.

Although his resumé of hunt participation is excellent, perhaps Tennessee’s greatest legacy is his popularity with riders across the country.

“I have no doubt that well over 100 people have ridden him over the years, either because they were learning side saddle or they wanted to hunt on a safe horse,” Betty said.

Even though Tennessee is nearly 22 years old, he still hunts twice a week, going second field and sometimes hilltoppers. These days he is often hunted by Dr. Douglass Berry who calls the gelding his “cruising machine.”

“When Betty rides her other horse, Wyatt, I love taking Tennessee,” said Dr. Berry. “He is the best teacher and I am fairly new at hunting, so we are a good pair. His ability to calm other horses in the hunt field is amazing – it’s like he’s big brother to everyone. Because of his age it’s important for him to get a steady dose of aerobic exercise and hunting takes care of that. In the summer he is a schoolmaster for Aiken Ladies Aside. He just has to keep moving, and Betty makes sure he does.”

As with any older horse, diet is a big factor in his overall health. Tennessee gets fed orchard grass, Triple Crown Senior and alfalfa cubes. He also gets a glucosamine shot twice a month.

“I’ve thought of getting a younger horse, but I just can’t do that to Tennessee,” said Betty. “He would hate to be left behind – if that ever happened it would be the end. He is still an amazing horse. A few weeks ago we were hunting and he got stuck in a bog and was literally on his side. We got him out, continued hunting and the following day we won a hunter pace.”

Although she has a successful career in real estate and a happy marriage to Bob Alexander, she doesn’t hesitate to say that owning Tennessee is the best thing that ever happened to her.

“I would clone him if I could!”

Betty says that Tennessee’s prime years started when he was 5 and ended when he was 15, but the big horse doesn’t realize that he’s slowing down.

“I stopped jumping him three years ago but he seems content going second field,” Betty said. “He can still gallop fast and hear the hounds and that’s all that really matters to him.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, May 15, 2015

10 Time-Tested Rider Position Fixes

Our top-to-bottom guide helps you rein in your most persistent rider position issues.

We've heard and seen your pleas for help on our online forums, in letters and e-mails, on our Facebook page and in your Jumping Clinic photo submissions. You want to know to fix those annoying position problems that you just can't seem to shake, no matter how hard you've tried.

To help, Practical Horseman editors dug through 15 years of back issues and thousands of photos ("Can you believe someone wore THAT?") to find our favorite solutions to your most relentless position challenges. Enjoy reading advice from top experts that is as valuable today as it was back when it first graced the pages of our magazine. As you read through them, you'll notice that most of the problems are interconnected. It's no surprise, then, that "work without stirrups" was suggested in every article, in addition to the exercises offered here. (Note: Remember some of these, ahem, "classic" photos were taken years before our current approved headgear rules. As always, we strongly urge you to wear approved headgear whenever you ride.)

1. I look down

Why it's a problem: When your head is out of alignment, you may collapse forward, tip sideways, bob or wag your head, and impair your vision and ability to turn your horse.

Fix: Your head's very heavy so when you hold it up and aligned with your spine (think of keeping your chin about parallel to the ground), you help align the rest of your upper body, too like a stack of building blocks, every part balanced on the others with a minimum of strain. This alignment helps you ride with relaxed shoulders, arms and back.

Begin a posting trot around the ring and take both reins in your outside hand with a light contact. Raise your inside hand straight out in front of you at shoulder height and keep your eyes on it; extend it to the side, then rotate your extended arm and hand from your shoulder, reaching as far behind you as you comfortably can. As you continue watching your inside hand through these motions, maintain a steady posting trot. Reverse direction and repeat. It sounds simple, and it is but if you do it for a few minutes each time you ride, it will help you develop balance, feel and the independent use of your eyes and head. - Missy Clark, April 2000

2. I hunch my shoulders and collapse my chest

Why it's a problem: You round your shoulders forward, collapse your chest and send your center of gravity ahead of your horse's. Your tension wires itself to your arms, and your forearm muscles visibly tighten. As it spreads like a virus through your body, your knees clutch which turns them into pivots, sending your heels up and your lower legs back. With your hunched body and dropped chin, breathing becomes a chore; so does zeroing in on your distance to the next fence.

Fix: At the walk, shake out each arm (as you'd do to dislodge a pesky insect) to literally shake away tension. Then take a deep breath (which will relax, lift and open your chest) at the same time that you roll your shoulders up toward your ears, then push them back and down. Repeat this exercise whenever you feel your shoulder muscles tense as if pulling your shoulders up. - Kathy Fletcher, January 2001

3. I lean at fences with my upper body

Why it's a problem: You're heading toward a fence when your upper body drops forward, your knee pinches, your lower leg slides back and you start balancing off your hand. You climb so far up your horse's neck that he's on his nose and can't push from his hind end. Instead of letting him come up and close your angle as he jumps, you close it yourself and "leave the ground before he does." His only option (if he's a good guy) is an awkward, weak, you're-not-sure-if-or-how-it's-gonna-happen jump or a flat-out chip. If he's less than honest, he may step aside and go around or slam on the brakes and dump you.

Fix: Shorten your stirrups two or three holes and stretch up, which brings the inside of your leg flat against your horse with your toe higher than your heel. This strong base automatically puts your upper body over your center of gravity leaning is virtually impossible if your base is centered and forces you to ride the correct motion from the back of your seat to your crotch, rather than riding up and down. And it puts your arms and hands out in front of you. (Too-long stirrups make you use either the back of your leg or your knee as your base of support and neither works. - Tony Workman, November 1998

4. I get ahead of my horse's motion

Why it's a problem: When you're ahead of the motion, you're in front of your horse's center of gravity. Like leaning with your upper body, this unbalances him and makes pushing off and leaving the ground difficult, especially if you get to a deep distance very close to the fence. Jumping ahead also weakens your security and control and makes you take longer to reorganize after the fence. If your horse stumbles or makes a mistake, he's less able to recover, and you're more likely to tumble over his head. Consistently jumping ahead can make your horse quick, unsettled and nervous.

Fix: Set a small crossrail or low vertical about halfway up the long side of your arena with ground poles on both sides so you can jump it in both directions. Pick up a nice working canter tracking right, get in two-point and come through the corner. Pick a focal point at the end of the arena, especially important if you tend to duck and look down. Focus on staying in two-point on the approach and as you jump the fence, make sure your hip angle is at about 25 degrees and stays there with no excessive firing your body forward, standing up, throwing an exaggerated release or ducking. Just canter up in two-point and jump the jump. Once you feel confident doing this with stirrups, try it without, which will automatically keep you from perching and standing way up off your horse. - Jeff Cook, November 2006

5. I duck over fences

Why it's a problem: Ducking is a last-second mistake; you do it just about when your horse's front legs leave the ground. You don't duck on the approach but most riders who sit behind the motion on the approach end up ducking even more (trying to catch up with their horses) than those who approach in a half-seat. Ducking causes your seat to become very high and forward, making your knee angle almost straight. When your hip has this much closure over the top of the jump, you usually end up too closed when your horse's feet touch the ground. That throws off your balance, making you pivot on your knee so your lower leg comes back and your heel comes up. All this is happening just when you need your leg securely under you, your heel down and your hip angle open so you can come back to a more upright position and you need a straight line from your elbow to your horse's mouth to accommodate that position.

Fix: Start with a simple line of two low fences: a pair of two-foot crossrails or verticals set about 60 feet apart. A horse with an average stride can normally trot the first fence and canter down to the second in five strides; if your horse is short- or long-strided, adjust the distance so that the five is comfortable for him. (The purpose of this exercise is to give you the feel of what it's like to keep your body absolutely still as your horse jumps, not to lengthen or shorten between fences.)

Pick up a trot and head to the first fence. As soon as you have the two fences lined up, and while you're still several strides from the first, get into your two-point position. Shift your reins into one hand, and position that hand in a short crest release. With the other, grasp the mane about halfway up the neck (approximately where you'd put your hand in a long crest release), so there's still a slight bend in your elbow. Holding mane this way will isolate your upper body and prevent you from ducking.

Pick out a focal point at the end of the line say, a tree or a fence post, or a beam if you're indoors and look up and ahead all the way through. If you look down, you'll tend to duck down. Focus on keeping your upper body motionless as your horse jumps the first fence, canters down the five strides and jumps the second fence. Keep your weight in your heels, and don't let your hip angle change. - Missy Clark, June 1998

6. I use too much hand on course

Why it's a problem: It causes you to have trouble seeing distances out of the turns or add strides in lines in an effort to do the exact distance.

Fix: Set a pole on the ground, a crossrail or a low vertical where you'll have room to make a figure eight of two biggish circles by jumping the fence and tracking to the right, then jumping it again and tracking to the left. The greener your horse is, the bigger your circles will need to be to start. As he becomes more confident and you get the feel of guiding him, you can make the circles smaller and tighter.

Jump the fence straight, then circle to the right, looking where you want your horse to go. If he starts to cut in from your circular track, open your outside rein to invite him back (and to keep his shoulder from bulging), your inside leg pushing him into that outside rein and your inside rein just lying against his neck. If he's hanging on the outside rein, open your inside rein and rest the outside one on his neck. You're leading him around with a separated opening rein, not jerking him around.

When you reach the halfway point of that circle, 180 degrees away from the fence, start consciously softening your arms shoulders, elbows, all the way down to relax them as you look for and begin allowing yourself to see the distance. - Chris Kappler, April 1999

7. I bounce while trying to sit the trot

Why it's a problem: You are out of phase with the up-and-down motion of your horse's back. You may go up with him fine, but you don't come down as fast as he does. That means you're still descending as he's coming up again. The saddle collides with your bottom, the impact bounces you higher and you're even later starting down again.

Fix: Keep the trot fairly slow and quiet. Your "up-down" at a working posting trot happens at a rate of about 75 beats per minute, but the up-down of a working sitting trot happens at about 150 bpm, or twice the rate of the posting trot. And in general, the faster a motion, the more coordination you need to do it. So while you're practicing, trying to get in sync and keep track of everything else you're thinking about, slowing things down will just make sitting easier and more doable.

Trot for a few strides; then come back to walk before you start to fall apart. If, as you increase your number of sitting strides, you find you're losing your position, getting tired or starting to get out of phase, immediately walk and reorganize. The only way you learn to do a movement well is by doing it well. If you press on after your position begins to degrade or you start bouncing, you won't learn to sit well. You'll learn to sit badly. Also, think of pushing your saddle down. Any time you're being bounced, you feel as if you're out of control. But pushing the saddle down is another way to get yourself to flex or close your hip and almost automatically quicken your descent. And, believe it or not, this empowers you to believe you have control in a situation where your gut is telling you that you don't. - Sandy Howard, October 2006

8. My lower legs are loose

Why it's a problem: You constantly lose your stirrup iron, you have trouble keeping weight in your heels, your leg slips behind the girth and your upper body tips forward over a jump no matter how hard you work to stay steady. A correct lower leg is extremely important because it gives your whole position a foundation.

Fix: Shorten your stirrups so that the angle behind your knee is approximately 90-105 degrees. Your stirrup leather should be perpendicular to the ground, and you could draw an imaginary straight line connecting the back of your heels to your hips to your shoulders. Drop your weight into your heels and turn your toes out anywhere from 35-45 degrees to put the strongest part of your calf the lower inside back on your horse's barrel. If your toe isn't angled out enough, you'll have a hard time keeping your calf on; if it's out too much, your knee will come off the saddle, you'll have the back of your calf on your horse and your leg won't be as strong.

To get used to your correct stirrup length and to concentrate on holding your lower leg in the correct position and strengthen it, practice this simple posting-trot exercise: With your leg in the correct position and your body about 25 degrees in front of the vertical, pick up the posting trot. Let your horse's movement push you up out of the saddle. As you do, feel about 20 percent of your leg pressure shift up from your calf into your knee and thigh but remember to keep your lower leg at the girth. To reinforce your lower-leg position, as you reach the highest point of your post, make a concentrated effort to push weight into your heels. Descending, use your thigh muscles to ease not thud the front quarter of your bottom into the saddle. Post until you feel yourself tiring and your leg slipping out of position. Then take a break for a few minutes at the walk before you pick up the posting trot again. - Frank Madden, November 1995

9. I pinch with my thighs and knees

Why it's a problem: Pinching tends to turn your heel out and to take your lower leg off, allow it to float back and when you trot make it constantly go kablam, kablam, kablam against your horse's side. If a buck or a bolt or something else happens to break your knees' grip on the saddle, you're done for because what keeps you on a horse is getting your center of gravity as low as you can: down into your heels. If your center of gravity stops at your knees, off you go!

Fix: At the walk, trot and eventually the canter, remove or cross your stirrups and practice these exercises:

Let your legs hang down; then alternately straighten and bend your knees so they swing independent of your horse's sides. As your left leg straightens, your right leg bends and vice versa in the next stride.

Lift your knee straight up not out to the side holding it just long enough to break your grip then let it drop down again. - Lendon Gray, March 1999

10. My heels won't stay down

Why it's a problem: Raised heels allow your upper body to topple forward or fall back, especially over fences.

Fix: Start by getting your horse in front of your leg: Step down into your heel and stretch your leg to ask him to go forward. If he doesn't respond with a more energetic thrust, give him a tap with your stick behind your leg or a touch of the spur.

Now, in the walk, get up in a good old-fashioned two-point. To be sure you don't just perch on your knee, do this in stages: First, put your hands forward and hold mane so you don't pull on his mouth. Then, with the ball of your foot on your stirrup iron and your little toe lightly touching the outer branch, step into your heel and start to lift upward. Next, open your knee; and, finally, close your hip. Relax your weight downward. Feel your inner thigh, inner knee and upper inner calf resting near your horse's side not because you're gripping, but because you're stretching. Drop your heel as much as possible by relaxing your ankle side-to-side (not up and down ankles don't work that way).

Ride in this balanced two-point position at all three gaits until it feels absolutely automatic. - Pam Baker, March 2001

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in 2010 article of  Practical Horseman. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Manage spring grazing to reduce laminitis risk

By the Editors of EQUUS magazine

New pasture growth poses risks for horses prone to laminitis. Here are some precautions to take as fields go from winter brown to spring green.

Most horses are eager to chow down on the first green shoots of spring grass. But new pasture growth poses some risks, particularly for laminitis-prone horses, who may develop the devastating inflammation of the hoof's soft tissues after ingesting too much sugar-rich early growth grass.

Here are some precautions you can take as your pastures are transformed from winter brown to spring green.

  • Restrict grazing time if necessary. When introducing your horse to a lush pasture in the spring, turn him out on it for only 10 to 15 minutes on the first day, then increase the time by five or 10 minutes per day, to give his intestinal flora time to adjust to the new, richer food source.

  • Feed hay prior to turnout. Offer your horse his normal hay ration before turning him out. If he's already eaten his fill, he'll be less?likely to overindulge on grass.

  • Use a grazing muzzle. These devices, which fit over the muzzle and restrict the amount of grass a horse can bite off at once, can reduce the amount he can graze during his turnout time. Grazing muzzles are especially useful for controlling the calorie intake of obese horses as well as protecting the health of those prone to laminitis. If your horse is at risk for laminitis, ask your veterinarian how much grazing and turnout might be acceptable, given your local conditions. For some, especially those adept at getting their muzzles off, year-round turnout in a dry lot might be the only option.

Even after you've started turning them out on pasture for longer stretches, horses may still need supplemental hay to get all the nutrients they need. Many toxic weeds grow quickly in the early season, before the grass is well established. If your horse is getting all the nutrition he needs from grass and hay, he'll be less likely to sample different types of plants.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

How to Talk, Listen to Your Horse

FEI dressage trainer Betsy Steiner tells you how to get a meaningful conversation going with your horse by learning to listen as well as talk. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.

Betsy Steiner
One of the biggest mistakes riders make warming up is asking without taking time to listen to the horse for the answer--so the horse ends up getting mixed signals.

Believe me, I know how easy this is to do. I wrote a letter on my computer, but the printer didn't start right up when I hit "print." So I hit "print" again. And again and again and again. Eventually I called the "help" phone number and asked, "WHY WON'T THIS THING PRINT?" The expert talked me through the process, I hit the buttons he told me to hit--and when I hit "print," he said, "Now wait." After a moment the printer came on and printed the letter. It hadn't printed those first 54 times because I'd been too impatient to wait for a response!

When you keep kicking time after time, you're doing the same thing: not giving your horse time to respond. Squeeze, then wait; give him a chance to go forward. If he doesn't go forward, give him a little kick. When he does go forward, you won't have confused, irritated, or deadened him by repeatedly hitting his "forward" button. You've waited, he's responded, so now tell him, "Good! that was what I wanted," by relaxing and softening your rein or patting him on the neck. That's a conversation, and that's good training.

Through your body language, you can go on to ask, "How are you feeling today?" He may answer with his body language, "A little tight on the left." Now your thought process and body language can work together, saying, for example, "OK, let's make you a little looser there with some circles. How are you on the right?" You feel, "On the right, I'm fine." You ask, "How's your motor?" You feel, "ehhhh--I'm a bit sluggish." You say, "Let's energize things." He says (by going more forward), "OK, I can do that."

This process is educational, inspiring, and fun for you both. You're creating input, processing the feedback, and reacting accordingly, not carrying on an endless, one-sided pushing (and getting a one-sided, ears-pinned, resisting response).

Betsy Steiner, who represented the U.S. in dressage at the 1990 World Equestrian Games (WEG), qualified for the 2002 WEG selection trials riding Jane Clark's Rainier. She describes the highs and lows of getting to know Rainier (who competed in the 2000 Olympics with Robert Dover) in the August 2002 issue of Practical Horseman. Betsy operates her New Jersey-based business, Betsy Steiner Dressage, in partnership with her daughter, Jessie.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Practical Horseman in December 1995. It is reprinted here by permission.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ride with the Wind: Mikki Fincher on Thoroughbreds

By Mary Jane Howell, photography by Gary Knoll

Mikki Fincher was 7 years old when she got her first pony and she immediately shortened her stirrups and pretended to be a jockey. That passion and focus has been the mainstay of her life, whether she was galloping a Kentucky Derby contender at Churchill Downs or jogging a 2-year-old in Aiken.

The lure of the racetrack was like a siren song to Mikki. When she was 17, she left her hometown of Bean Blossom, Indiana, to attend Hawkeye Hill Riding School in Commiskey, Indiana. The school was the brainchild of Lisa Thompson, a licensed trainer and jockey, who saw the need for a horse-savvy workforce for both the racetrack and the farm. Students learned riding, stable management and grooming. There was even a blacksmith course.

“It was really an expensive farm job!” said Mikki with a laugh. She graduated from the school with her trainer’s license. Hawkeye Hill was located about 50 miles north of Louisville, Ky. Students didn’t necessarily get jobs at Churchill Downs, that city’s signature track, but the school did provide lists of employment opportunities nationwide.

“My dream was to be a jockey, so I dutifully set about writing to the 150 trainers on my list,” Mikki recalled.

The second trainer to answer was Cary Frommer, whose operation was based in Aiken in the winter and Delaware Park in the summer. That sounded pretty good to Mikki and so at 18 she packed her car and headed south. It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted on and off for 26 years.

“I galloped for Cary and her husband Tim for about a year, and when the stable moved to Delaware Park I went along,” she said. “I was deadset on riding races and did, starting when I was 19. Looking back, I really rushed into it and didn’t really do it the right way.”

While she was at Delaware Park that first year – 1989 – she met another Aiken-based trainer, Dolly Bostwick, who offered her several opportunities to ride races. She rode like crazy for the next couple of years, but decided to call it quits at the end of 1991.

Although she doesn’t go into details about why she walked away from race riding, the life of a jockey is tough – making the weight on race day (and Mikki readily admits that she is not the world’s tiniest person!), starting over again at each new track and facing stiff competition from more experienced riders.

What she didn’t walk away from was the racetrack. She still loved Thoroughbreds and the racing game so she figured out a way to make it her life.

“I was a good exercise rider and I was fortunate to work for some fabulous trainers,” she said.

“I worked for Todd Pletcher when he was just starting out and had eight horses. Many years later I was lucky enough to gallop English Channel for him.” English Channel won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2007 along with many of the top grass races in this country. He retired with over $5 million in earnings.

Mikki also worked for Al Stall, Jr.. Stall became known to the general public as the trainer of Blame, the horse that handed the great Zenyatta her only defeat in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Five years before that race, Mikki was working at Churchill as Stall’s assistant and head exercise rider. A week or so before the 2005 Kentucky Derby, a California horse took one stall in their barn. The colt’s name was Greeley’s Galaxy. Trained by Warren Stute, Greeley’s Galaxy had earned his place in the Derby starting gate by winning the Illinois Derby. Stute had not brought an exercise rider with him, so Mikki got the assignment.

“To be galloping a Derby contender under the Twin Spires was a dream come true,” she said. Although Greeley’s Galaxy finished 11th in the Derby it was an experience that Mikki will never forget.

By this time Mikki had married a fellow horseman named Rhett Fincher. The couple would work at Churchill Downs in the spring, at the Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans in the winter, and during the gap months they travelled the country in their RV.

“We were true nomads. One summer we worked at Lone Star Park in Texas, then we would move on to Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. Our goal was to reach Del Mar in Southern California – which we did. What a wonderful track!”

For 10 years Mikki and her husband galloped horses around the country. Somewhere along the line Rhett discovered a calling for natural horsemanship and left the track to become an instructor within the Parelli organization. Mikki felt the pull to return to Aiken, and did so in 2010.

“I for one am glad she came back,” said Cary Frommer. “Mikki is the most honest person I’ve ever known and that carries through with the work she does with the horses. It’s never just been a job for her, she truly loves the horses and is a terrific rider. I think she can out-breeze anyone in Aiken.”

For her part, Mikki is glad to be part of Cary’s stable.

“We have 20 horses in training this year and I probably ride (on average) seven a day. I love that we don’t rush the horses – we take our time walking back to the barn from the track and one day a week we have what we call a ‘Happy Day.’ On that day we may just hack along the dirt roads, or take some of the horses to the sand ring. Nothing is done in a hurry. We are a great team, a family really, and we all call Cary mom!”

One of the things that sets Mikki apart from some of the other riders at the track is the time she will spend speaking with people who congregate by the clocker’s stand in the mornings. Some are knowledgeable about what they are seeing, others not so much. If she is on a fairly calm horse, she will often walk over to the rail and answer their questions or let them pet the horse.

“I want people to really get into racing. If I can help them understand it a bit more and at the same time share my enthusiasm then it’s a winwin,” Mikki explained.

“I am all for her interaction with people – she’s the track’s ambassador,” said Cary. “It’s good for the horses as well.”

Although Mikki’s professional race riding was over years ago, she still gets to experience the thrill of victory at the Aiken Trials. Last year she won the City of Aiken Trophy aboard Dunbarton Stable’s Ascauga by nearly six lengths.

“To win the race for Bill Simpson, who loves the sport so much and has put so much into it, meant everything to me and the whole barn,” said Mikki. “We were all in floods of tears, but they were happy tears. That’s what this game does to you – there are highs and lows – but I don’t think I could do anything else.”

As she approaches 45, Mikki is honest with herself about how long she will continue riding: “I’ve had some bad spills lately and I’ve started to think about my future a bit more. For the past 27 years I’ve been galloping racehorses, but I have a lot left to offer. There are so many jobs in this sport, but it’s not a decision I need to make right now.”

Even when she’s out of the saddle, Mikki finds a way to surround herself with animals. The home she shares in Aiken with her mother, Agnes Unger, is also the residence of several dogs and cats, as well as a pair of black pot-bellied pigs who love Cheerios.

“I think I am so lucky to have lived my dream,” she said.

Ride with the Wind: Mikki Fincher on Thoroughbreds - Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.