Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Feeding For Weight Gain

Feeding for Weight Gain


When your horse is too thin, whether it’s a short-term aberration or a chronic struggle, careful feeding can help to keep his weight up.


EQUUS
NOV 7, 2014


Overlooking subtle change is easier than it should be. When you care for your horse every day, you may not notice slight variations in his body condition. Then one morning it strikes you: Watching him turn toward you in the paddock, you can see a faint outline of every rib along his sides, and his haunches are looking a little less rounded, too. Clearly, your horse is losing weight. And suddenly the questions are flying through your mind: What’s wrong? Is he sick? Am I not feeding him right?

Take heart. Many thin horses are suffering from nothing more than “agroceroisis---a lack of groceries!” says equine nutritionist Sarah Ralston, VMD, PhD, DACVN, of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In other words, a horse loses weight simply because his caloric needs are not being met. Either he’s burning more energy than he’s consuming, or somehow he is not utilizing the feed that he does eat efficiently enough.

The next question, then, is Why? A number of underlying issues can cause weight loss in a horse, and to help him regain some pounds, you first need to understand and address what’s going wrong. Only then can you develop a plan to restore him to his proper weight.



Why horses lose weight


A number of factors, mental and physical, can cause a horse to lose weight, and in fact, his difficulties may stem from multiple problems. Of course, some horses seem naturally more prone to weight loss; a “hard keeper” may have a metabolism that requires more than the usual amount of calories for maintenance, or he may readily lose his appetite---and drop pounds---in response to even slight variations in management routine, weather or other factors. Likewise, a horse who is stressed by travel, intense training, herd squabbles or other disruptions may eat less and/or burn more energy and end up losing weight. But if your otherwise robust horse suddenly loses weight without apparent reason, ask your veterinarian to help you investigate the causes. Here are some of the possibilities:

• Illness. A number of diseases can lead to weight loss. Most will be accompanied by other obvious signs, such as diarrhea, colic, fever or lethargy---but in some cases signs of illness might be extremely subtle or nonexistent. “If your horse starts losing weight and his diet has not changed, get the veterinarian out ASAP,” says Ralston. “Check his liver and kidney function and screen for chronic infections.”

During the examination, your vet-erinarian may also suggest a fecal egg count and discuss your deworming schedule. A heavy parasite load can not only rob your horse of calories but also over time it may damage his intestinal tract to the point that it inhibits his ability to extract nutrients from his food.

Your veterinarian will also investigate possible sources of chronic pain, which can put a horse off of his feed. In fact, weight loss is one of the major signs of gastric ulcers, along with tooth grinding, a grumpy attitude and poor performance. Treating any underlying illnesses or injuries will likely be enough to get him gaining weight again.

In addition, the pain of arthritis can interfere with a horse’s feed intake by preventing him from walking to hay feeders or covering enough ground to graze sufficiently. Adding feed stations in strategic spots in larger pastures may make them easier to reach, and horses with pain in the neck or withers will graze more comfortably from a net or rack at shoulder height.

• Dental issues. Problems with a horse’s teeth can affect his ability to eat: Uneven wear can cause hooks, waves and other malformations that inhibit chewing, and cracked, broken or infected teeth can be painful enough to prevent a horse from chewing his food properly. In addition to weight loss, signs that a horse is experiencing dental problems might include dropping partially chewed feeds from the mouth, bad breath, fussiness with the bit and unchewed grains and bits of hay in the manure.

Routine dental exams---annually for most adult horses, or every six months for seniors or those who have had problems in the past---can catch and address any developing problems early, before they affect a horse’s over- all health and body weight. By the time he reaches his late 20s or 30s, a horse’s teeth may wear down completely so that he cannot properly chew coarse feeds or hay. At this point, he’ll need softer foods, such as soaked hay pellets, beet pulp or senior feed, to maintain his weight.

• Social problems. Horses who live in stable herds develop distinct social hierarchies, and those at the bottom of the pecking order---often the very young, the aging or the submissive---may be chased away from the hay feeder and other sources of food. One solution is to bring the low-ranking horse in to a small paddock or stall where he can eat undisturbed. Another option for horses in turnout is to distribute hay around to multiple feeders, or to use one that the horses can access from all sides without getting trapped against a fence, so that everyone gets access to a share.

Don’t forget that a horse’s social status can change over time, and the addition or subtraction of other members can rewrite the whole equation. Keep tabs on conditions in the field to make sure none of the horses are being bullied away from the food or water.

• Personality. We all know them---those busybodies who spend their time running back and forth between window and door, nickering to other horses and soliciting attention from every person. These social butterflies may have a hard time focusing on their meals. It might be best to move them to a quieter location, or offer them their larger meals at night when the barn is more peaceful, so that they can settle down and give their full attention to eating.

Then there’s the picky eater, who pushes his pellets around or picks out the choicest bits of hay and poops on the rest. If this is your horse, you may have to get creative, experimenting with different types of forage or changing its form. Some horses who pick through hay will readily eat pellets or cubes. And sometimes the horse who walks away from an overflowing manger will eat the same quantity if it’s divided up into six smaller meals per day. Slow feeders---hay nets or other devices with small openings that allow a horse to draw out only small amounts of hay at a time---can keep a horse interested in “grazing” longer, with less waste.

• Environmental conditions. Horses burn more calories to stay warm in cold weather, but extreme heat can also cause them to lose interest in food.

In the winter, steps to help a horse who is having trouble keeping on weight include adding blankets and bringing him into the barn when temperatures dip. Make sure pastured horses have access to shelter that will shield them from prevailing winds. Free-choice access to hay will also help a horse to generate internal heat around the clock. Slow feeders can keep the hay clean while helping the ration last longer.

On the hottest summer days, bringing horses into a cool, well-ventilated barn with fans can help them cope with the heat, and deep, shady shelters are essential in turnouts---to provide protection from the sun as well as from biting flies. Horses can expend huge amounts of energy stomping, shaking and running away from pests like horseflies. If biting flies are a problem in your area, protecting your horse with fly sheets, sprays, traps and other measures can help him to focus more on grazing.

Ample fresh water, of course, is essential year-round---loss of appetite is one of the effects of dehydration. Installing heaters or taking other steps to prevent water buckets from freezing in winter is crucial, and in the summer moving some of the outside sources into the shade can help to keep it more palatable. Soaking a horse’s feed can sometimes encourage him to eat more, but never provide more in one meal than he can eat before it either freezes in winter or goes rancid in the summer heat.


Getting started


Once you’ve identified and addressed the most probable reasons for your horse’s weight loss, it’s time to develop a strategy to put the pounds back on. If you’re faced with an extremely thin horse---one whose vertebrae, ribs, and other bones are prominent---call in veterinary help right away. Introducing starving horses to too much food too quickly can cause serious digestive consequences that may be fatal. However, if your horse is only moderately thin, you can probably handle managing his weight gain yourself---just be prepared to call your veterinarian if have any questions or run into difficulties.

First, it’s a good idea to establish a system for measuring your horse’s weight as accurately and objectively as you can. You have several options (see “Two Ways to ‘Weigh’ a Horse,” page 32). Whichever method you choose, record your measurements in a journal, starting with a baseline, to keep track of subtle changes over time. Photographs, taken in good light while your horse is standing on level ground, can be a good supplement to your records. Just don’t rely entirely on your eyes and memory---you may have difficulty recalling details if you need to explain anything to your veterinarian later.

Also establish a good baseline measurement, in pounds, of what your horse currently eats. If you don’t have one already, buy a food scale and weigh out your horse’s normal ration. Even flakes of hay can vary in weight, and if you’re measuring out feed by volume---in a coffee can, for instance---you may discover that you’re feeding substantially less than a manufacturer’s recommended portion, which is usually given by weight. But it’s important to know how much your horse eats up front so that you can begin increasing his feed in an orderly fashion.


If your horse has been inactive, consider implementing a moderate exercise program. It may seem counterintuitive to make a thin horse burn calories to gain weight, but the work will help him to build muscles, and exercise will increase his appetite.

As you develop your plan, keep one rule in mind: Go slowly. All changes to a horse’s diet need to be made gradually. Your horse didn’t become skinny overnight, and he can’t safely gain weight in a hurry, either. Abrupt changes in a horse’s diet can lead to colic, laminitis and other ills.



First, the forage


Before you go shopping for new products, the first step is to gradually increase a horse’s current feed, and of course, the cornerstone of the healthy equine diet is forage. In fact, the average pleasure horse in light to moderate work can maintain a healthy weight on forage alone.

To sustain a healthy weight, a horse needs to consume a daily ration of 2 to 3 percent of his body weight each day; of that, at least 1.5 to 2 percent needs to be some form of forage. That means two pounds of total feed for every 100 pounds that he weighs, or 20 pounds for a 1,000-pound horse just for maintenance---more will be needed for weight gain.

To help your horse gain weight, assuming he was getting restricted amounts of good-quality hay, Ralston suggests increasing his current forage ration until his total feed reaches at least 2.5 percent of his desired body weight. In other words, if your horse currently weighs 1,000 pounds, and you’d like him to be 1,100, then your target would be 2.5 percent of 1,100, or 27.5 pounds of hay.

The quality of the forage matters, too. If your hay and pasture are poor, then your horse is filling his gut with fiber but not getting adequate calories or nutrients. An extension agent can help you assess the nutritional value of your pasture and hay. Since few areas of the country allow for high-quality grazing year-round, most of us must supplement our horses’ diets at least part of the time with hay.

You want to choose the highest quality hay you can find for your thin horse. That means leafy, green hay with a minimum of brown stalks and mature seed heads. One quick test of the quality of hay is to squeeze a handful. Stiff stalks that hurt your palm are not a good choice when you need a higher calorie feed. If you want a more scientific analysis of your hay, you can send a sample off to a laboratory to have the nutritional value assessed.

Blending a flake or two of good-quality alfalfa in with a ration of grass hay is another way to add nutritional value to your forage. Alfalfa is higher in calories and protein than grass hays, which makes it an excellent choice to help to add weight to a thin horse. If your horse tends to be wasteful with his hay, he may eat more when offered alfalfa hay cubes or pellets.

Another fiber supplement is beet pulp, which contains about the same digestible energy as good quality hay. Most horses seem to like beet pulp, and it’s a good matrix for blending in supplements or other feed additives such as oils or rice bran. Introduce it slowly, one pound (dry weight) per feeding, up to 0.5 percent of your horse’s body weight. Although beet pulp is a good source of calories, it is not a complete protein source, and it’s relatively low in vitamins and most minerals, so it works best as an addition to, not a substitute for, your horse’s regular rations.



Fats, for calories


Forage may be the cornerstone of equine nutrition, but it’s not a calorie-dense food, and there’s a limit to how much a horse will eat in a day. If your horse has been consuming all of the forage he wants, and he still is not gaining weight after several weeks, it’s time to add some more calories to the ration.

The safest way to increase the energy in your horse’s ration is to bolster the fat content. While carbohydrates and proteins offer around four calories per gram, fats offer a whopping nine calories per gram. If introduced slowly, horses can adapt to higher fat intakes, and you can reduce the concerns associated with really high starch intakes such as wide fluctuation in blood glucose and insulin levels seen with high-grain concentrates.

You’ll find a number of supplements and feeds on the market formulated to help horses gain weight safely. Most contain high amounts of fat as well as amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help a horse build and maintain muscle. Some of these products can be pricey, however, especially if your hard-working hard-keeper needs to stay on them long-term to keep his weight up.

One of the simplest and cheapest ways to add fat to your horse’s diet is vegetable oil from the grocery store, which can be poured over his regular concentrate ration. Corn oil is palatable to most horses, but you can also use canola, peanut or any other vegetable oil your horse likes. Although you’ll hear debate about the ideal ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in all of these products, when you’re trying to put weight on a horse, all fats are good fats. Like with other dietary changes, oil needs to be introduced slowly, starting with a quarter cup per day, and adding another quarter cup every few days, up to a maximum of two cups for an average size horse---less for small horses and ponies. Too much too fast, and your horse will develop diarrhea and steatorrhea (fatty stools)---his manure will have an oily sheen from undigested oils passing through his system. Another problem with oils is they can go rancid, so be sure to store the bottle in a cool place and give it a sniff before feeding.

Rice bran is another source of fat that most horses love, and it’s also rich in vitamin E as well as fiber. The biggest concern with rice bran is that it is also high in phosphorus, which can inhibit the amount of calcium available in the horse’s body. If you’re feeding a natural rice bran, you might want to add a calcium supplement or another calcium-rich food, such as alfalfa. To be safe, consider purchasing a rice bran product formulated for horses that contains added calcium to balance the ratio of the two minerals.

As with oil, rice bran needs to be added to the diet slowly, starting with about a cup at a time, working up to one or two pounds daily. Follow feeding instructions on the label for serving sizes for any commercial products.



Finally, concentrates


Grains, sweet feeds and other starch- and sugar-based concentrates had long been the high-calorie foods of choice for thin horses, especially those in hard work. They are convenient to use, but the benefits come with a price: Feeds that are high in starch and sugar can pose some health risks if fed in large amounts. When a horse eats more starch in one meal than he can break down in his stomach and small intestine, the undigested molecules ferment in the hindgut, which increases the acidity and throws the microbial population out of balance---not only may the horse’s gut become less efficient at digesting fiber, the resulting changes can lead to colic and crippling acute laminitis. Although some horses seem to be more sensitive to starches than others, says Ralston, “You can induce laminitis in any horse with a sudden grain/starch overload.”

Commercial concentrates, which are formulated for complete, balanced nutrition, can be a valuable source of calories for a thin horse, but they must be used wisely. First, select a product that is formulated for your horse’s stage of life and activity level. Then, follow the instructions on the label to introduce the feed slowly and carefully to his diet.

Never feed more than 0.5 percent of a horse’s body weight of concentrates in a single meal, says Ralston. That’s five pounds for a 1,000-pound horse. If your hard-keeper or athlete needs more than that to gain weight, break his portion up into as many small meals as you can manage, spread throughout the day.

No matter what type of concentrates and added fats you incorporate into your horse’s diet, remember to make sure he always gets at least 1.5, preferably 2, percent of his body weight in forage each day. He needs it to keep his gut functioning at its best.

The basic concept behind fattening up a thin horse is fairly simple: Feed him more calories. But the devil is in the details. It may take some trial and error to find the right combination of forages, fats and concentrates to keep your horse healthy and strong. If you have trouble bringing your horse back to his ideal weight, don’t hesitate to consult with an equine nutritionist. Keeping weight on a perpetually thin horse can be tricky, but the effort will be worth it when you see him moving out across the pasture looking fit, strong and healthy.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, November 2014.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Confident Cross-Country Water Jumps


Part 1: Make your horse’s initial education fun and positive to create a solid foundation for life.


MIKE HUBER
MAY 2, 2016

Jumping cross-country water elements is an essential skill for all event horses, but many people don’t realize just how much homework it takes to build a horse’s confidence over this challenging feature and to sustain that confidence throughout his career. | Amy K. Dragoo

One of the most important aspects in an event horse’s training is exposure to cross-country water jumps. With a positive, well-planned introduction, you can avoid the all-too-frequent heartaches that many riders experience when their horses refuse or are eliminated at this inherently challenging element. In this two-part series, I will walk you through the training plan that I follow with both green and experienced horses. This month, I will help you see water jumps through your horse’s eyes and will explain how to overcome his initial fear and hesitation in your first training sessions. Next month, I’ll show you how to teach him to jump fences in combination with water.

Let’s begin by recognizing exactly how difficult this task is. Horses don’t magically go into water without being trained to do so. Most have a natural wariness of it because they cannot easily judge its depth or the quality of the footing underneath it. Even the bravest horses need to be reassured that they will only be asked to tackle safe, doable water jumps.

Building your horse’s trust in you, however, is more than just a matter of getting his feet wet once or twice; it requires multiple, enjoyable, logically progressive schooling sessions. In addition to building his confidence, these sessions must teach him how to approach, enter and exit the water in a steady, balanced, relaxed manner, maintaining the same speed and stride length from beginning to end. These are fundamental skills necessary for safely and cleanly negotiating obstacles into, out of and in the middle of water jumps—challenges he will face as he moves up through the levels.

When you see a horse make a spectacular leap into water, however impressively brave it may seem, he’s actually revealing a lack of education. A well-schooled horse should pop into the water and over each obstacle with minimal fanfare, making it look almost boring.


No Bad Memories


Select a schooling water jump with good footing, shallow water and inviting entrances and exits. A variety of small "in" and "out" jumps will also be helpful later as your horse progresses through his education. | Amy K. Dragoo

Achieving this level of comfort requires a step-by-step, multiday—even multiweek—plan involving a carefully selected venue, uniquely qualified helpers and a patient yet determined attitude. In each schooling session, you must be prepared to spend as much time as necessary to reach a happy conclusion without ever getting mad or frustrated. The goal is to make water fun and easy so your horse never dreads going in. A single bad experience can leave an indelible mark on his memory. If you allow a session to escalate into a battle of wills with excessive whipping, spurring and hollering, every time your horse faces a water jump after that, he’ll have flashbacks to that experience and will think, “Oh no, here’s where I get beaten.”

Even if your horse’s first water school goes well, you must reinforce that success with additional positive memories. Just like a fisherman whose great catch gets bigger every time he retells the story, your horse may mentally exaggerate his first water venture over time. Weeks after coming home to tell his barn-mates, “It wasn’t so bad,” he may begin to remember the water as having been 10 feet deep and terrifying.

That’s why it’s so important to follow the first school with many additional sessions, both in the short term and periodically throughout his career. Even four-star horses with excellent foundations need occasional water schools in between competitions. In fact, the water questions they encounter on course are so challenging that they often need to practice simpler exercises at home to bring their confidence meters up. As is true in so many other areas of horsemanship with horses of all levels, the best rule of thumb is to school water “little and often.”

For many eventers in the U.S. who have limited access to suitable schooling facilities, this may sound like a near impossible task, especially for those based in the West, where even natural water resources are scarce. This is a disadvantage, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Think about how much money you invest in a single competition. Then imagine throwing all that money away by getting eliminated at the water jump. You’ll be much better off spending the same amount of money trailering to a good schooling facility—even if it’s hours away—and hiring a professional to guide you through the process. Making your horse’s water education a top priority will be well worth the investment in the long run.


First Schooling Session: Get His Feet Wet


1. Every water session should begin with a confident, yet relaxed, attitude, as Elizabeth Bohling’s 4-year-old Shannondale Suvio is demonstrating. Before approaching, Elizabeth has established a forward walk and a deep, secure position with her upper body centered, her lower legs closed and her heels down. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. At the water’s edge, Elizabeth gives Suvio time to sniff and paw the water. She sits quietly in the saddle and follows his mouth with her hands but also keeps both legs closed on his sides to make it clear that turning or backing away from the water is not an option. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. When Suvio refuses to go farther into the water, I ride alongside him on a more experienced horse and attach a longe line to his bit. With a good role model and a gentle tug on the rope, he bravely walks in. | Amy K. Dragoo

4. In the middle of the water, I unclip the rope and Elizabeth walks him quietly out the exit ramp. | Amy K. Dragoo

5. In their next approach, I ride alongside again but this time without the rope. Suvio hesitates but then … | Amy K. Dragoo

6. … follows my horse into the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

7. Finally, Elizabeth approaches the water alone again. This time, Suvio walks in confidently. She walks him in a circle, allowing him to continue sniffing the water and familiarizing himself with the new sensation of moving through it. | Amy K. Dragoo


Make a Plan


A young and/or green event horse can be introduced to water as soon as he’s trotting and cantering on the flat and over fences in the ring, hacking outside the ring and going up and down hills under control. Give him this invaluable education before his first competition or clinic to avoid the potentially crippling fear created by a negative experience. Incorporate the following factors into your introductory schooling plan:

1. A suitable schooling facility. Legendary U.S. Eventing Team Coach Jack Le Goff used to say, “It’s possible to teach a horse to jump into a swimming pool—once!” In other words, you will lose your horse’s hard-earned trust if you ask him to do something unreasonable. Be sure that every body of water you ride him into has the following qualities: footing that is firm and level, not muddy or boggy; water no deeper than 24 inches; and overall dimensions of at least 24 feet wide and 24 feet across. Anything narrower than that might invite your horse to jump the entire thing. Finally, your chosen water jump’s introductory-level entrances and exits should be invitingly gradual—no steep Man From Snowy River banks!

Our farm’s water complex has an added benefit of banks on either side of the lower-level entrance, which serve as wings. They help to channel the horse into the water both physically and mentally. We keep the complex filled all the time so it is available for daily schooling year-round.

For riders who don’t have easy access to a water jump specifically built for eventing, think twice before practicing in a nearby creek, stream, pond or lake. Such natural features can actually add to a horse’s fear and distrust if they contain steep, rocky banks; boggy, sticky footing; deep water; strong currents or any other potentially disconcerting characteristics.

2. A good support team. All amateur eventers should introduce their horses to water with the assistance of a knowledgeable, qualified trainer, ideally mounted on a quiet, experienced horse. As I’ll explain later, having a “Steady Eddy” equine companion who can tell your horse, “Hey Dude, it’s no big deal,” while accompanying him into the water is the best way to instill confidence. It’s important that this companion be extremely calm and unflappable, as he may have to tolerate some dramatic behavior on your young horse’s part, such as big “leaps of faith” into the water.

You may also find it helpful to have a ground person with a longe whip willing to stand at a safe distance behind your horse as he approaches the water. This person’s role will merely reinforce your “go forward” message in an encouraging—never abusive—way.

3. Proper equipment. One of the pieces of tack I never go without on cross country is a breastplate with a strap across the withers. This provides you with something to hold on to so you don’t risk pulling on the reins and punishing your horse in the mouth accidentally if he suddenly launches into the water and throws you off balance.

4. Plenty of time. As I mentioned previously, to guarantee your horse a positive experience in the water, you must give him the feeling that there’s no rush. When time is tight, tempers flare and horses quickly pick up on your negative emotions. This is why a clinic is not the best scenario for introducing a horse to water. Clinicians are obligated to spend time on other horses and riders and other cross-country elements. Instead, for your horse’s early water lessons, plan to focus entirely on him and the water jump. Even if you travel a long way to a schooling facility, if you arrive late in the day, don’t try to squeeze in a practice session that evening and risk running out of daylight.



Getting Started


In the beginning of each schooling session, warm up over a few easy, straightforward cross-country fences—logs, coops, etc. The goal is to get your horse feeling confident and in front of your leg (forward and responsive to your leg aids). Be careful not to overdo it, though. Especially when you’ve gone to great logistical and financial lengths to set up a cross-country school, it may be tempting to get your money’s worth by jumping every obstacle on the course. This increases the risk of you and/or your horse arriving at the water jump mentally and physically fatigued, which can drastically reduce your chances of success.

When you feel adequately warmed up, approach the water jump in an active, purposeful walk. Sit squarely and securely in the center of the saddle with your legs wrapped around your horse’s sides, holding the breastplate strap with one hand. In your initial approach, have your lead horse follow several feet behind you so you can see how your horse reacts to the water on his own. This will give you a good reading of his aptitude for the sport. If he walks into the water with little hesitation, that’s a good sign. However, if he hesitates or stops, that’s not necessarily a bad sign. Many top-level horses are cautious about water in the beginning of their careers.

Your reaction to hesitation is critical. Think offense, not defense. Immediately encourage him with a cluck, a nudge of your legs and perhaps a tap with the stick on his shoulder. Be firm and positive but committed to preventing the situation from escalating into a fight. Give him a chance to test the water. Allow him to sniff and paw at it if he wants to. Then gently ask him to step in. Whatever you do, don’t turn him away from the water’s edge. Trying to re-approach from a longer distance or at a faster speed will only get you stuck farther away from the water. Instead, hold your ground and make it clear that his only option is to go forward.

If after a few minutes he is still unwilling to step into the water, ask your companion on the lead horse to walk alongside him and clip a lead rope to his bit. Then ask her to walk her horse calmly forward into the water, simultaneously giving a gentle tug on the lead rope. Nine times out of 10, the green horse will follow the experienced horse into the water. Again, be prepared for a dramatic leap—and ready to praise your horse the moment he takes it.

If he still isn’t willing to enter the water at this point, it may help to have a ground person stand behind him—far enough back to be safe from a kick—slowly waving a longe whip to reinforce your forward aids. She can even lightly tap him on the haunches with the whip. Again, be very careful to keep the mood encouraging, not punishing.

In extremely rare cases, it may be necessary for you to dismount and remove all of your horse’s tack. Your expert on the lead horse can then work directly with your horse to persuade him to enter the water. This can be especially beneficial if you are inexperienced and/or anxious about the situation. With time and patience, even the most stubborn horses can be convinced in this way to overcome their fears.

Once your horse is in the water, he may still want to sniff and paw at it, familiarizing himself with these new sensations. Give him time to do this. Then quietly exit the water and re-approach it in the same positive, forward way you did before. Do this several times until he’s walking into and out of the water confidently.

Throughout this first session and the next several ones, do everything at the walk, asking your horse to maintain the same speed and stride length as he crosses the water. Save trotting—which creates more of a splash and requires more effort to move through the water—for the fourth or fifth schooling session.

If your horse is entering and exiting the water fairly confidently after 10 or 20 minutes, leave the water to do something else briefly—for example, jump a few other types of fences. Then, if he still feels fresh and positive, come back to the water at the end of your ride for one more mini-session. This way, you get two schools in one.

Introduce the Trot

1. When Suvio is really comfortable walking through the water, Elizabeth picks up a balanced, steady trot. | Amy K. Dragoo

2. As they reach the water, she keeps her legs closed on his sides and her shoulders back to encourage him to continue moving forward. At the same time, though, she softens her fingers on the reins so he can stretch his nose down toward the water. | Amy K. Dragoo

3. You can tell by Suvio’s expression that the bigger splashes from his trot are a little disconcerting at first. With repetition, though … | Amy K. Dragoo

4. … he gets used to the splash and trots through the water in a nice rhythm and pace, staying straight and relaxed. | Amy K. Dragoo


Trotting Through Water


Once you’ve gotten your horse’s feet wet for the first time, your job is far from done. Even if he seemed confident, it’s important to follow up with another session to reinforce the lesson and quell any initial worries he had. If you’ve traveled a long distance to a schooling facility, plan to stay there for a number of days to fit in these invaluable follow-up sessions. Otherwise, find a way to get to a water jump again soon—ideally within a few days.

After the first two or three schooling sessions, you should have a good idea of your horse’s comfort level. If he is on the braver end of the spectrum, he may need only occasional refreshers every few weeks or so. If he’s on the more cautious end, he may need to revisit the water daily or near daily for several weeks. When we have green horses sent to us for intensive training periods, we take them down to the water jump almost every day, even in their dressage saddles after a flat school.

As your horse’s confidence grows, follow a logical, step-by-step training process, building on his skills gradually and giving each new challenge time to sink in. After several successful sessions at the walk, try trotting into and through the water. Be prepared for his reaction to the new sensation of water splashing in his face. Also continue to encourage him to regulate his speed and stride length throughout the exercise, just as you did at the walk.

Depending on how much access you have to a good water complex, it may take your horse weeks or even months to graduate from this phase of his training. Give him plenty of time to solidify this foundation. The more confidently he is walking and trotting through a simple water question, the easier it will be to introduce him to the next step: jumping obstacles in combination with water. I’ll explain how to do that next month.

Originally posted on practicalhorsemanmag.com.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When is a stumble something serious?

A misstep every now and again isn't much to worry about, but some types of stumbles warrant immediate attention.

CHRISTINE BARAKAT WITH MELINDA FRECKLETON, DVMJUN 17, 2016


A misstep every now and again isn’t much to worry about. Active horses, particularly those who work over varied terrain, are bound to stumble from time to time. Sometimes, however, stumbling needs to be investigated.
jog outs
Call your veterinarian if any of the following apply to your horse:

• He stumbles more often than he used to.
• He stumbles so badly that he feels as though he may fall or unseat you.
• He stumbles so frequently that you’ve come to expect it.
• He shows signs of incoordination or neurological weakness, having trouble turning in a small circle, for example.
Stumbling can have a variety of causes, from too-long toes to failing vision. A full physical examination may reveal the most likely cause. In some cases, hind-end “stumbles” are actually sticking patellas. The treatment in these cases is more exercise to strengthen the area. In addition, your veterinarian can also work with your farrier if a different trimming schedule or technique is part of the solution
You may hear that a stumbling horse is “not paying attention” or “lazy,” but the reality is most horses don’t want to stumble. A single stumble may indeed be inattention, but repeated stumbles most likely aren’t a behavior or training problem.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bernie Traurig: Keep At It Until You're An Artist


The need to “practice, practice, practice” the American forward riding system is the message from Bernie Traurig’s recent workshop.


 SEP 7, 2016


Bernie Traurig taught a three-day workshop with the focus on the American forward riding system at Coker Farm in Bedford, New York. In the background are (from left) Tiffany Avon with Forever Z, Jennifer Wright with Logan and Phillip Williamson with Edingburgh. | Amy K. Dragoo


Most riders want to improve their riding. Whether the goal is to complete their first 2-foot-6 hunter course or win at the grand prix level, the desire to create a better partnership with the horse is pretty universal. And for legendary rider and clinician Bernie Traurig the recipe for that success is simple: adopt the right system of riding and then practice it relentlessly.
“A famous pianist once said that the amateur practices a melody until he gets it right. The artist practices until he never gets it wrong,” Bernie explained to a group of riders and auditors who attended his recent workshop in Bedford, New York. “And the only way you get good at this, is to practice it.”
Bernie is a highly regarded rider, teacher and horseman. As a junior, he won both the AHSA National Hunter Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1961. He represented the U.S. Equestrian Team at home and abroad (including the 1982 World Championships in Ireland) and has won more than 60 show jumping grands prix. He was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2010 he founded the video learning website EquestrianCoach.com.
Throughout the three days of lessons and lectures during his workshop at historic Coker Farm in Bedford, New York, Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American hunter/jumper forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” he said. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.

Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” Bernie said to the riders including Jennifer Staniloff riding Princess. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.” | Amy K. Dragoo

“Yet everything we do here is the basis for show jumping. Horses have to instantly go forward and come back and respond to the lateral aids in both directions. You have to be in charge of the track. You practice everything you will need for the show ring.”
The forward riding system was developed by Federico Caprilli in the early 1900s. It was further refined by Brig. Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, Capt. Vladimir S. Littauer and Gordon Wright, among other horsemen. Today, the system is endorsed and taught by George Morris and is advocated by the U.S Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification Program. Bernie, who trained as a junior rider under Capt. Littauer, said the system is “the basis of everything I do.
“The system we teach is based on three parts: the position of the rider, the way we use our aids and a schooling system,” he explained. “Those three parts, when they come together, make a great product.”

Dressage: Just a French Word for Training

Bernie is one of the few professionals to reach the top of the sport in all three international equestrian Olympic disciplines: show jumping, dressage and eventing. Throughout the three days, he emphasized the critical difference between the fundamentals of classic dressage and the “non-clashing aids” of the forward riding system.
“People have confused these two systems for decades, but they are different,” he explained. “Dressage is based on the combination of coordinated driving and restraining aids. This is necessary for the sport they do, but these are highly sophisticated aids.
“It takes a long time to develop understanding in the horse and a long time for the rider to be able to delicately coordinate these aids,” he added. “Without a lengthy step-by-step process of training, coordination of aids can easily become clashing aids that confuse the horse. Or as Littauer once said, ‘a razor in the hands of a child.’”
 Bernie explained that dressage is based on collection and central balance with the rider balanced on the seat. A dressage rider in a downward transition engages the hind legs by riding the horse forward with her seat and legs, riding the energy up to a gathering hand. By contrast, the forward riding system is based on forward balance and nonclashing aids with the rider primarily balanced in the stirrups.
 “Our rideability comes from repetition of smooth, prompt upward and downward transitions. We ask a horse for a downward transition by closing our fingers, increasing the contact with a direct rein. If our downward transitions are practiced in a prompt way, we encourage natural engagement. The promptness of the transition rebalances the horse automatically, engaging the hind leg automatically, developing agility and strength,” he explained.
“The leg still supports the downward transition but without a forward-driving effect,” he elaborated. “Therefore, it’s a non-clashing aid. In its simplest form: legs to drive forward, hands to come back.” 
 Tiffany Avon was struggling with downward transitions with her 12-year-old gelding Forever Z. It gave Bernie an opportunity to demonstrate how her clashing aids confused her horse. “In the canter downward transition, you sink, don’t sit and you open your upper-body angle a little bit. You are always in balance with the horse, but don’t sit too early as he begins the transition or the seat will act as a driving aid,” he explained. “Just sink and be light—you could put a piece of paper between your butt and the saddle.” She lightened up in the saddle and Forever Z gave her crisper transitions.

Make Your Warm-Up Productive
Bernie asked Phillip to demonstrate a suppling exercise for the horse’s neck: Phillip put his bay gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widened his inside hand and applied pressure directly back outside his left hip until the horse gave in his mouth. | Amy K. Dragoo

Each of the riders was challenged to warm up their horses thoughtfully, using basic but specific exercises to make their mounts attentive and reactive to the aids. “Every moment in the tack you are either training or untraining your horse,” Bernie declared.
He encouraged the riders to start their sessions with a forward walk with impulsion and rhythm, adding that “there are only two ways to walk: a relaxed walk with a long and loose rein or with contact, marching forward and following the neck movement. And NOT on the cell phone,” he added emphatically. “Think of discipline, think of making every minute productive.”
After asking riders to create an elastic contact with their horses at the walk, Bernie moved into a series of exercises, including upward and downward transitions, lengthening and shortening, circles and half circles, serpentines and halts. He challenged the riders to be specific in their warm-up choices.
“So am I going forward because he is behind my leg? Am I using an open rein to turn him sharply? Am I going deeper in the corner because he’s avoiding the corner? Am I doing walk–canter transitions because he’s fresh? What’s your plan?” 
Phillip Williamson, one of two former USHJA Emerging Athlete Program riders who received grants from Bernie and the USHJA Foundation to attend the clinic, demonstrated a suppling exercise for the neck. “Horses are stiff and usually have a stiff side on the left,” Bernie explained. “This is a great way to loosen the neck up.” He had Phillip put his gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widen his inside hand and apply pressure directly back outside his left hip. “It is a bit awkward. You tactfully overbend the neck, wide left hand, hold until something gives. As soon as he softens up, go back to the normal bend. The timing has to be good. If you hold the bend and let go before he gives, it is meaningless. Hang in there until something melts.”
As the riders loosened up their horses, Bernie encouraged them to work toward being prompt in their transitions. “When you turn your horse out in the field and he is fresh, he may passage or piaffe. Then he is running to the gate and you think he is going to jump it. But he stops in three strides. And he can stop because he is using his hind end. That is natural engagement,” Bernie explained. It is the promptness demanded in upward and especially downward transitions that encourages a horse being ridden to engage the hind end naturally and improve his balance without the rider’s driving leg, Bernie said. “Littauer taught this. Our system won’t work unless you practice promptness. You do thousands of these transitions to make your horse rideable. It doesn’t happen in a day.”
He used the canter depart as an example of where riders needed to perfect their transitions. “If you put your leg back and the horse doesn’t pop into the canter, you get haunches-in. The horse has to react to your leg instantly,” Bernie said. In a canter depart to the right, “left leg back, lighten your hands and ask for the canter. That’s simple sign language for canter at a basic level.”

Mobilize Your Leg
To help Nancy Buzzetta avoid giving her horse, Shimmer, two different aids while halting, Bernie had her practice an exaggerated braced leg to help stabilize her in the tack. | Amy K. Dragoo

Creating a deep heel and the ability to change the position of the leg are critical to being effective, especially during downward transitions, Bernie emphasized. He described three potential options for the leg: the normal position with the stirrup leather straight up and down; a displacing leg, set farther back to affect the haunches, used for canter departure and haunches-in/out, counter-canter, etc; and a braced leg, where the heel is driven down and the leg moved slightly forward of the vertical.
“You know, you are taught to sit and don’t move,” Bernie explained. “Nonsense. You need mobility and range of motion. It’s called mobilizing your lower leg.”
He worked closely with Nancy Buzzetta, who was struggling to achieve a crisp halt with her horse, Shimmer. During downward transitions, her leg was slipping back and her heel was sliding up. “You are giving him two different aids accidentally by losing your position,” Bernie explained to her as he grasped her lower leg. “He can feel a fly on his skin. Your leg goes back, and you are squeezing and brushing him with your heel. See that tickle spot there? He can feel it, and this is sending your horse forward.
“Not to withstand that if that horse stumbles or stops, you are a missile over your knee,” he added. “You need a deep heel, a stable leg in the halt. If necessary, a bit of a braced leg. This stabilizes you in the tack.”
Bernie explained the benefit of exaggeration in training. He stood in front of Nancy’s horse and told her to “waterski” her legs. “Show me the soles of your feet,” he demanded. “Just shove that foot right to his elbow.” He then had her trot around with her leg in and out of a braced position.
“It is a half-inch difference between toppling over your knee and stability. We can’t change it if we don’t exaggerate it. I want you to think ‘soles of my feet’ before you increase contact in a downward transition. If you do that exercise, if you are disciplined, you will fix it in a month.”

The ‘Epidemic’ of Inside Leg to Outside Rein
To encourage riders, including Shaina Humphrey riding Blink, to go deep into a corner and jump an oxer on an angle to a vertical, Bernie placed an orange cone in front of the oxer that riders had to canter around. | Amy K. Dragoo
The group addressed a popular concept that Bernie emphasized was misunderstood, overused and overtaught.
“It started because many people would go through a turn abusing the inside rein diagonally across the wither, overbending the horse. Many trainers started to preach inside leg to outside rein to help people keep their horses straighter,” Bernie explained. “What has happened is an epidemic, a virus, of inside leg and outside rein.” 
He said that inside leg to outside rein is useful in many situations for more sophisticated horses and riders. “Shoulder-in, shoulder-in on a circle, engagement of the hind leg, straightening effect—all great examples of use of the inside leg to outside rein. But your inside hand and outside leg still play a part in the orchestra.” 
Bernie doesn’t stress the technique for intermediate riders, however, especially on hunters and jumpers. “We have two hands and two legs. I would like both the rider and horse to understand and obey all rein and leg effects, coordinating them properly where they apply, before they focus on inside leg to outside rein.”
He suggested that intermediate riders adopt a simpler technique. If their horses were simply cutting a corner or popping a shoulder inward, they should move both hands, separated “as if they had a steel bar between them,” together toward the outside. On the left lead going around a corner, for example, this would mean using a right opening rein and a slight indirect rein in front of the wither toward the outside, adding a little inside leg for support.
“If I want to ride a turn or change my track, this is where you use your hands together,” Bernie explained. “The indirect inside rein affects the shoulder toward the outside and it gives us a little shape of the neck; it flexes the horse. The right opening rein slightly holds the horse out in the turn and the inside leg is applied.”
Bernie had the riders practice the technique by trotting straight toward him then moving the front end of the horse toward the arena wall. “Keep our hands separated— two hands steady, connected by that steel bar. Move both hands toward the wall,” he coached the riders. “You are affecting the shoulders of the horse. The hindquarters will follow. Once you practice this, it becomes invisible. You barely move your hands toward the outside and he moves over. Bending lines, controlling shoulders on short turns, it is so useful.
“All those horses I rode, all those hunters, you would see nothing—invisible aids— and they moved laterally like cutting butter. It’s a beautiful thing,” Bernie added.

Shape Your Track to Nail Your Distance

Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. Here Jennifer Wright jumps Logan over an oxer as part of a course. | Amy K. Dragoo

The ability to control the horse’s shoulders and move them laterally (to “shape out” in a turn) became critical as the riders advanced to exercises over fences. Bernie set a challenging bending line that started with a tight right turn out of the corner to an oxer then six or seven strides to a vertical. He wanted the riders to go deep into the first corner and jump the fence on an angle toward the direct line to the vertical for six or jump the oxer straighter and ride a bending line to the vertical for seven. Most of the riders struggled to get it right. 
“This is very difficult, to shape this tight turn. Most people can’t do this because they don’t have control over the shoulders,” he said, eventually placing an orange cone in front of the oxer to force the riders to ride farther out to angle the fence. “Use your hands together to shape out and set up that angle. Or get that first early distance and then a quiet seven in the bend.”
Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. “Manage the track according to what you see. Don’t commit to the track until you see your distance.
“Where do you think this might come in handy?” he asked. “In a bending line, if I want to use the wide track I use my hands, shift them out and the horse would move right out. Beautiful! Or in a tight rollback. Maybe when I face the jump, I don’t like the distance. I’m going to shape it out and now there is a nice distance because I have changed the track.
“Shape it out until you see it or until you like it,” he concluded.
As the riders practiced controlling the track over higher fences and with tighter turns, Bernie warned them not to create a track that left less than three strides to the fence. “Three strides out is very fast on a jumper. Watch the videos of the best in the world. They are rarely less than three strides out to the big oxers. It gives you time to work a situation out,” he counseled.

Be Purposeful in Your Practice
At the end of three very intensive days of training, Bernie reminded each rider of specific techniques that he or she could take home and practice. He recommended using poles on the ground or low cavalletti to reduce the wear and tear on the horses.
“What is the most important part of your body in riding?” he asked. “Your brain. This is a thinking sport, right? Don’t get in a hurry and do it again, do it again,” he said. “No. You stop and think about what went wrong and make a plan to correct it. 
“The only way you get good is to practice. How do you practice? Daily poles on the ground. You see these cavalletti? If your stable permits, you do hundreds of them. Keep at it until you’re an artist at it.”

Bernie's Basics On Bits
Bernie checks the bit of a horse. At the clinic, he switched out more aggressive bits for a rubber dee-ring snaffle. | Amy K. Dragoo

Bernie Traurig shared his belief in using the mildest bit possible for a horse, taking into consideration the rider’s ability as well. On several horses in the clinic he switched out more aggressive bits for what he called “the basement bit”—a rubber dee-ring snaffle. “This gives us a baseline for the mildest bit, and we can work up from there,” he said.
“Don’t put anything sharp in his mouth because he has to submit to pressure. If the bit is too strong, he can’t take the pressure. I want him to obey my rein aids nicely without pain. A strong bit might work for you in the ring, but not for training.”
A good example of this philosophy was Caroline DeVincenzo’s horse, Keaton, who showed up in a twisted full-cheek bit. On the second day, Bernie switched the horse into a rubber dee-ring snaffle.
“We saw some impressive results with this horse,” Bernie said after the horse worked in the milder bit. “On the first day he was angry, kicking at her. He wouldn’t stand still and he wouldn’t go forward. He was unhappy in his mouth, he had pain. He was sticking off the ground yesterday, afraid of the bit.
“We put him in a rubber dee, she had plenty of forward. I am loving this: by downsizing the bit, he is accepting the pressure and you are now able to school the horse. He is accepting the milder bit and even giving you flexion. Little by little, it will come. He is a trainable horse in a rubber snaffle.”
Bernie advised the group that most horses could be ridden without the gimmick bits that “deviated from the classical. You’ve got to experiment with horses. Just put a normal bit in his mouth and see if he likes it better.”
Go to www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com for more from Bernie Traurig about the American forward riding system and clashing aids. For more information on Bernie Traurig’s clinics and workshops, go toEquestrianCoach.com and click on clinics/workshops.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hitchcock Woods Restoration 

The Return of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers 

by Pam Gleason 


If you ride in the Hitchcock Woods this spring, you might hear a sound that hasn’t been heard there for about half a century. This would be the call of red-cockaded woodpeckers chirping out warnings, announcing the fact that they have returned to their roosting sites, or communicating with companions while foraging for food. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes these three different calls as a “raspy ‘skilt’” (when they are disturbed), a “chut” (when they are returning to the roosting area,) and a “soft melodious chortling” when they are foraging close to one another. Although red-cockaded woodpeckers once inhabited the Woods, they disappeared in the 1960s and had not been seen there for decades. They are back now. 

“They are very vocal and social birds,” says Randy Wolcott, a member of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation board of trustees. Randy, who had heard about red-cockaded woodpeckers about 20 years ago, was the driving force behind re-introducing them to the Woods. “You will probably hear them easier than you will see them.”



What is so special about red-cockaded woodpeckers? Once common in the Southeast, they were declared an endangered species back in the 1970s, and it is only because of the dedication of many different groups of environmentalists and bird lovers that they have survived into this century. In November 2017, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation joined the preservation effort when ten birds (often called RCWs) were brought to the Woods and released in five separate recruitment clusters, which are areas with suitable habitat for nesting and foraging. 

If you do happen to hear RCWs calling to one another while you are in the Woods, look for a black and white bird about the size of a cardinal. Despite their name, the birds have very little red on them: their most obvious feature is a bold patch of white on their cheeks and a distinctive black cap. Males have a very small, ribbon-like streak of red that runs along the bottom of this cap. Without a pair of binoculars, you probably won’t see it. Binoculars might also help you distinguish the endangered RCW from the other, more common species of woodpecker that inhabit the woods, including the red bellied woodpecker, the downy woodpecker, the red-headed woodpecker and the much larger pileated woodpecker. 

RCWs are specifically adapted to the longleaf pine ecosystem. They live in small groups, usually a breeding pair with one to four “helpers,” typically young male offspring from previous years. Highly territorial and non-migratory, they are known as cooperative breeders: all of the birds in a group work together to care for the breeding pair’s brood and to maintain cavity trees where they make their nests. Each group actively patrols its home range, an area of approximately 125 acres of forest. They must vigilantly defend their nests from “floaters” (individuals RCWs out searching for vacant nests), and other cavity nesters such as blue birds, flying squirrels, and other woodpeckers. 

A main factor in saving the RCW has been the restoration of longleaf pine forests, which once covered some 90 million acres from Virginia to Florida. These are woods characterized by tall pines that shade a carpet of wiregrass with very little underbrush. It is an ecosystem that is shaped by fire: for hundreds of years, longleaf forests experienced frequent fires ignited by lightning. Longleaf pines themselves adapted to this, gaining fire resistant trunks and even relying on high temperatures to help their seeds germinate. 

The Hitchcock Woods was originally a traditional longleaf forest, but by the 1970s and 1980s, its character had changed: without much in the way of fire, there was too much undergrowth and there were many other species of trees that competed with the pines. This was why the RCWs disappeared: the habitat was no longer suitable for them. 

The Hitchcock Woods Foundation started a program of controlled burns in the early 1990s, mostly to clear out years of pine straw and reduce the chances of a catastrophic forest fire that might endanger surrounding neighborhoods. In the mid-1990s, these controlled burns became more scientific after the foundation enlisted the help of biologists from North Carolina to come up with an ecological plan and a prescription to turn the woods back into a traditional longleaf forest. Today, after about 20 years of scientific burning, thinning and other management practices, much of the longleaf ecosystem has been restored. 

Once the habitat was again appropriate for red-cockaded woodpeckers, Randy Wolcott wondered if they might return on their own. He was told probably not: although there are RCW populations in several South Carolina forests, the birds do not tend to travel very far from where they are born, and there is so much development around the Woods that there is no convenient, natural corridor to lead them there. 

However, a few years ago he learned that it might be possible to have some relocated to the Woods. It was very complicated: RCWs are a federally protected species, so you can’t just net them and bring them in. There needed to be a red-cockaded woodpecker management plan created by an RCW biologist. Suitable trees needed to be found for nesting, surrounded by areas that would provide adequate foraging. Then the Hitchcock Woods Foundation needed permission from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and it needed to jump though several regulatory hoops in order to avoid the potential negative consequences of the “incidental take” (any activity that may cause harm to the RCW, cavity trees, and foraging habitat) of a federally endangered species. 

Finally, the birds needed somewhere to live. Most woodpeckers make their homes in dead trees, but RCWs excavate nesting cavities in the heartwood of large living pines. A tree needs to be about 80 years old to be a suitable size, and it can take the birds from one to six years to create a cavity. Each breeding pair and their helpers work together to maintain several cavity trees so every individual has somewhere to sleep at night. In natural circumstances, it obviously takes a pretty long time for a breeding pair to become established as a new group and start laying eggs. 

Fortunately, it turns out that RCWs are very happy with artificial cavity boxes. These are hollowed out blocks of cedar with a reinforced, restricted opening just large enough for a red-cockaded woodpecker. The boxes are installed high up in the hearts of large trees and disguised to look like the real thing. When RCWs come across them, they move in quite readily. And so, with the help of a grant from the Longleaf Alliance, a nonprofit based in Alabama, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation obtained 36 of these nesting boxes, which they had installed in nine designated areas. Then they were ready for some birds. 

“It took a long time to get everything in place, but then all the stars aligned and it happened very quickly,” says Randy. In October of 2016, the foundation was offered 10 birds from the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston through a cooperative agreement between state and federal agencies along with various wildlife consultants. Not only would they get 10 birds in 2016, they were promised as many as 10 birds a year for the next four years. They accepted the offer, and in November, a group joined a team of RCW biologists at Francis Marion, netted five pairs of year-old woodpeckers, and brought them back to the Woods. That evening, they took each bird up a tree and shut it in a cavity for the night. In the morning, when the birds were awake, they opened the doors to the cavities and the birds emerged and flew out. 

“And then they were here,” says Randy. Four months later, Mark Pavlosky Jr., a RCW biologist with MPJ Wildlife Consulting, LLC based in Aiken, who has been working with the foundation since 2014 to create the Hitchcock Woods red-cockaded woodpecker plan, had some good news. He did a survey that found that at least seven of the 10 birds are still in the Woods. If all goes well, they will start breeding and the first RCW eggs will hatch in mid-May. 

“It’s very exciting,” says Randy. “It is the capstone on our forest management practices. If the woodpeckers come back, it proves that what we have been doing to manage the forest has been the right thing. Our work is allowing us to bring in this endangered species and give it back the home that it always had here. It’s a fabulous thing that it has all come together.” 

What does all this mean for people who enjoy riding and walking in the woods? Are there any new restrictions, or any plans to feature the birds on nature walks or things of that type? For the moment, no. The RCW nesting boxes were placed in trees that are off the trails, and the HWF has always asked that riders and walkers stay on the trails, so they are unlikely to disturb the birds if they follow the rules. While the RCW population is getting established, the foundation is not publicizing the whereabouts of the nesting trees in order to give the birds some privacy, though it is possible that small groups might be invited to come observe them later on. 

If the RCW population re-establishes itself in the Woods, this will mean that the Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s efforts Woods have returned the forest to a natural, healthy state. Preserving and protecting the Woods has been a fantastic thing for Aiken and for the people who enjoy its trails and tranquility. It has also been a boon for the environment and a blessing for a sociable black and white bird on its way back from the brink of extinction.


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