Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Secret Lives of Horses | 9/26/2012

The Odd Couple

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

Upon hearing the names “Sunshine Bob” and “Wentworth” you might think of characters in an old Western movie or perhaps a 1930s vaudeville act. In reality, the owners of those names are an odd couple living at Equine Rescue of Aiken. Sunshine Bob is a one-eyed Thoroughbred who, before coming to Aiken, was literally wasting away while running in cheap claiming races. Wentworth is a Belgian draft horse who spent most of his life toiling in the fields of an Amish farm.
The fact that the two horses are now best buddies and will live out their days as companions in Aiken is a testament to the perseverance of Jim Rhodes, the manager of Equine Rescue of Aiken, and to its benefactor Isabel Furland.
Jim spotted Sunshine Bob while making a visit to the racetrack in Charles Town, West Virginia, in October 2009. Jim runs a few of his own horses at that track, but he also brings some Thoroughbreds back to Aiken for adoption on a regular basis.
“The first time I saw Bob he was in a stall in a concrete barn across the street from the main stable area at Charles Town,” recalls Jim. “It was so dark and dreary that I couldn’t imagine keeping any animal there, and yet there was Bob. He was the sweetest horse, curious about everything and not the least bit skittish, even though he had lost his right eye. He was severely underweight and I couldn’t believe that he was being run a couple of times a month.”
Jim fell in love with Bob and promptly called Isabel Furland about the gelding’s plight. She gave him the go-ahead to try and get the horse for Equine Rescue of Aiken, but Bob’s owner didn’t want to give him up. Jim left Charles Town without Bob, but with the hope that the owner would consider selling him in the near future. A month later, Isabel’s husband Richard called Jim, relaying the message that his wife wanted Sunshine Bob as her Christmas present that year.
Jim called Bob’s trainer with an offer, but was told that the gelding’s owner planned to keep running Bob with the hope of earning checks on the racetrack. To that end Bob had been moved to Ohio to run at Thistledown and Beulah Park. Sunshine Bob was a winner once in his career – he won a maiden claiming race at Charles Town back in March of 2009. That was the only time he would get his photo taken in the winner’s circle.
Nearly ten months passed before Jim heard from Bob’s connections. During the ensuing months – from November of 2009 until August of 2010 – Bob ran 13 times, with his best finish a third place. After that last race, Bob’s trainer called Jim, saying that for $800 the gelding could be his. Jim wired the money and arrangements were made to ship the horse to Charles Town, where a stall was waiting in the barn of Kenny Huffman, Jim’s trainer.
“I was so excited when Kenny called and said, ‘Your one-eyed horse just arrived,’” says Jim. “I was putting together a load of horses from Charles Town, so Bob had to wait a few weeks to get to Aiken, but Kenny made sure he was taken care of in the meantime.”

Jim returned to Charles Town and was in the process of loading his trailer for the trip back to Aiken, when he received a call from Isabel Furland. She asked if he minded driving to New Jersey because she had just purchased a Belgian draft horse from the weekly Camelot Auction there, through a website that finds homes for those animals not sold each week.
“I knew Miss Isabel had a passion for draft horses and it’s a sad fact that adoptions for those breeds are very difficult, so I was not completely taken by surprise with her call,” laughs Jim. “So the Charles Town horses and I headed to New Jersey and nine hours later we met Wentworth.”

Wentworth was 17 at the time – a broken down, skinny (but still huge!) toffee-colored teddy bear.
“You could tell he had done a ton of work in his day, and he still had collar sores to prove it,” Jim says. “It was as if they had taken him from the field right to the auction yard, after all those years of work.”

For the trip to Aiken, Jim put Bob and Wentworth side by side, with a large hay net between them. By the time the journey south was complete, the two horses were the best of friends.

Today, Bob and Wentworth share a pasture at the rescue with a few other horses, but the two only have time for each other. Both horses are now in good condition – Wentworth, no longer skinny, weighs in at a hefty 1400 pounds. Their coats are shiny and both exude contentment and good health.

“Bob and Wentworth are permanent residents,” says Jim. “I wouldn’t let one be adopted without the other and we certainly don’t have a waiting list for draft horses.”

Bob’s racing career spanned three years, during which he ran 30 times, with a win, a pair of seconds and three third place finishes. From all that work, running in cheap claiming races, he earned a mere $22,273. The fact that he had only one eye and he was distanced in the majority of his races could have turned him sour, and who could blame him. But somehow, Sunshine Bob lived up to his name. Perhaps the saying “blood will tell” holds true: his paternal grandsire was the gutsy Unbridled, winner of the 1990 Kentucky Derby, while his maternal grandsire was the spectacular sprinter Meadowlake. Sunshine Bob obviously did not inherit the raw talent of his grandparents, but he did retain their class, and that is what Jim saw on that day he first encountered the horse at Charles Town.

We can only imagine what the wise old Wentworth has seen in his nearly two decades of life. For sure he had never come across a one-eyed Thoroughbred during his days as an Amish farm horse!

Fate brought the unlikely pair together and thanks to the haven that is Equine Rescue of Aiken, Sunshine Bob and Wentworth will have peace and friendship there for all their remaining years.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Demystifying the Lead Change | 9/19/2012

Patience and Practice Make Perfect

by John Abbott

Horses that compete in the hunter or the equitation ring often need to demonstrate correct flying lead changes on course. The whole picture of a hunter is one of smoothness, rhythm and balance, so it is important that the change, if one is necessary, does not disrupt that picture. A good lead change is one that comes through in one stride, typically from back to front. This means that the horse changes with his hind legs first, and by the time his front legs land, they, too, are on the new lead. The rider should be sitting still and looking as if nothing has happened.
If you miss a lead change, or do one badly, it could ruin your chances in the class. One example of an incorrect lead change would be if the horse only changes in front or behind and canters disunited for one or more strides. Other typical problems include speeding up or slowing down, wringing the tail, bucking or crow-hopping. The flying change is important, and if you want to succeed, it makes sense to spend time schooling it.

Because there seems to be a mystery to teaching lead changes to horses, I would like to offer an explanation that I hope will be simple and easy to follow.

Let’s start with talking about the canter. To me, riding the canter is like riding an ocean wave. There is a rise and fall to it. Some horses give more lift or bounce than others. These horses are more likely to do lead changes easily, but not always. Horses with a flat slow, unengaged canter are tougher to teach. It can be done, but it will just take more time.

For example, I had a horse in training that was an American Warmblood cross. He was big and on the drafty side and did not have a great back end, but he had a motor. It took him about four months of consistent work before he got it, but once he got it, lead changes were easy for him. He had to build the right muscle to be able to overcome his conformation. Lots of counter canter work helped. He went on to become a show horse and did quite well in the hunter and equitation ring.

The most important advice I can give is to take it slow. Work on simple changes - dropping to a trot and then striking off on the other lead - on a diagonal line across the ring until you can perform these changes fluidly with only one trot step in the change. This may take time, but it is worth the wait to get good, smooth, relaxed flying changes. You want your horse to strike off calmly on the new lead as you step into your outside stirrup and bend in the new direction. It is important that the horse stay on a straight line as he performs the change, even though he is bending in the new direction.

When you ask for the change, your timing is important. As I said earlier, the canter is like a wave. You need to start asking for the lead change when the wave is low, which means that three of the horse’s hooves are on the ground. You will still be asking as the wave comes back up, when your horse’s hooves are in the air.

Once you have your horse doing a quiet, smooth simple change with one trot step between the new lead and the old one, it is time to start asking for the flying change. If your horse has more natural forward impulsion, then the changes will probably start to happen on their own. However, if your horse starts to rush across the diagonal, then you must work on being slow first – for instance you might need to trot more until he gets the idea that changing leads is not a race. On the other hand, if your horse is lazy you want to make sure you have relaxed, simple changes first. Then work on impulsion through the simple change until your horse offers the flying change.

There are a few common rider mistakes that make it hard for the horse to perform a change properly. The most common mistake is that the rider leans forward and in the direction of the new lead. If you lean into the inside shoulder, this throws the horse onto his forehand and makes him less likely to do a flying change. Instead, you should sit up and step into the outside stirrup. This will help your horse stay balanced and lift his inside shoulder during the transition from one lead to the other.

The other bit of advice here is make sure that your horse is wearing front and especially rear boots of some sort. While he is learning he might kick himself or interfere behind and if he starts to knock his ankles he will not want to do his changes because they hurt him. Also, if your horse is older he might need to have a veterinarian examine and possibly treat his hocks, especially if he used to do his changes and now does not.

In review:
1. Do simple changes through the trot until they are slow and relaxed with one step at the trot - take your time here, because this is an important step.
2. Work on impulsion with the quiet, lazy horse through the simple changes; let the horse with the motor offer the changes. With both types of horse, work on counter canter to build the muscles needed for flying changes.
3. Be patient. It is worth the wait to have a quiet, relaxed lead change. If you rush this process you will get fast and hurried changes which will not be appreciated in the show ring. It might take months, but eventually you will be rewarded with fluent, effortless changes, the kind that help make a horse a winner.

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