What do you do with a general

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When he stops being a General… I love that song. White Christmas is my favorite “old school” Christmas movie, the singing and dancing, it’s perfect! I was inspired today, not by a “Christmas in July” concept, but by the retirement of a co-worker, which got me thinking about when we retire our trusted steeds and partners, and the similarities between the two.

I’d read a post on a magazine website, where the person was concerned about the plausibility of retiring their 14 year old show horse. The horse had enjoyed a ten year long showing career, despite being a challenge to ride, and the owner was experiencing some changes in their personal life, that would make showing more challenging as well, so the timing seemed to be a good fit, but they weren’t really sure how to go about it, in a way that best suited the horse’s needs, as well as their own. A problem, I suspect, we’ve all experienced, or will at some point, and a valid one at that.

Retirement doesn’t happen based on a calendar anymore. Long gone are the days of 60 and see ya! Or, in a horse’s case, once their “career” winds down. Looking at the horse racing industry, where a stallion can win a prestigious race at the tender age of three, and be retired to green pastures and the horsey dating scene the following week. In the jumping and dressage world, retirement almost seems to work in reverse, where the horses aren’t really considered “peak” performers, until later in their lives. Compare that to us humans, many of whom knowing, we can look forward to retirement, when the coroner comes to remove us from our cubicles! (hopefully not, but you never really know!)

In my Buddy’s case, retirement came knocking, in the form of arthritis in his hocks. It wasn’t terribly severe, “keep him moving” I was told by the vet, so that’s what I did. We’d already wound down our showing career, he’d served me well for many years, and had more than earned his time in greener pastures. With this diagnosis, we turned our focus to more turn out time with quiet friends, and easy trail rides. Our routine didn’t change much, I still went through the whole process, doing pleasure and hunter under saddle work in the arena, only lighter, depending on how comfortable he was on any given day. He was still kept trimmed and groomed like the show pony he was. Buddy was a handsome guy, he wouldn’t have been one to let his appearance go, just because he wasn’t “going to work” every day.

In his retirement phase, a regular day at turn-out, ended in what I suspected to be a spine injury, that vets weren’t able to accurately diagnose, and it wasn’t safe to transport him for further investigation. I did the best I could, and he seemed to be kept comfortable for a few years after. I say that with confidence, knowing that my darling boy was a bit of a sissy. If he had been in pain or discomfort, it would have been obvious. Eventually though, the injury took it’s toll, and my baby. Even on that fateful day, he went on his journey groomed, tail picked and poofed, with a halter bearing his name, a show cooler and ribbons we’d won, and gummy bears (a snack for the road), just like the Prince among horses that he was. I wanted him to go into the afterlife, recognizable for who he was, and all his accomplishments in his physical life.

It’s my personal belief, whether horse or human, that even if you end one chapter, you need to carry on in the next. It might not be exactly the same, but as long as you don’t come to a grinding halt, you should expect to keep living a full life. For our horses, maybe they leave the race track behind, and find a new career helping war veterans face the challenges of PTSD, like at the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation in Saratoga Springs, NY. Maybe you discover that you discover your former show pony, might not be ridable again, but excels as a cart pony in parades. The day may come when you decide your office days are over, and your photography days are just beginning. Ultimately though, as long as you keep moving, physically and figuratively, you’ll be okay.

Our horses, and all pets really, like to feel like they have a job to do, even if the job is simply to keep you company. While the specifics of each job differ from human to human, and animal to animal, the general idea remains. I watched my grandmother go from busy and vibrant, to sullen and barely mobile, as the friends and family she used to do things with passed away. My boyfriend’s grandfather is over 90, and only started slowing down, from working up to three jobs a day when he finally retired in his 70’s. His body isn’t as cooperative, but his mind is still sharp as a tack. We, and they, all need to feel useful, and know that we have our own purpose in this world. Irving Berlin summed it up in the lyrics to “What do you do with a General,” but I find a particular paragraph in “The Horse’s Prayer,” author unknown, to be most poignant…

Feed me, water and care for me, and when the days work is done, provide me with shelter, a clean dry bed and a stall wide enough for me to lie down in comfort.

Always be kind to me. Talk to me. Your voice often means as much to me as the reins. Pet me sometimes, that I may serve you the more gladly and learn to love you. Do not jerk the reins, and do not whip me when going uphill. Never strike, beat or kick me when I do not understand what you want, but give me a chance to understand you.

Watch me; and if I fail to do your bidding, see if something is wrong with my harness or feet. I cannot tell you when I am thirsty so give me clean, cool water often. I cannot tell you in words when I am sick, so watch me, that by signs you may know my condition.

Give me all possible shelter from the hot sun, and put a blanket on me, not when I am working, but when standing in the cold. Never put a frosty bit in my mouth; first warm it by holding it a moment in your hands. I try to carry you and your burdens without a murmur, and wait patiently for you long hours of the day or night.

Without the power to choose my shoes or path, I sometimes fall on the hard pavements which I have often prayed might be of such a nature as to give me a safe and sure footing. Remember that I must be ready at any moment to lose my life in your service.

And finally, O Master, when my useful strength is gone, do not turn me out to starve or freeze, or sell me to some cruel owner to be slowly tortured or starved to death; but do thou, my Master, take my life in the kindest way. And your God will reward you here and hereafter. You will not consider me irreverent if I ask this in the name of HIM, who was born in a stable.

Amen

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showdown between the two ladies men

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Twice a year, in two six-week sessions, two men, both handsome, both charming, both favorites among women, met in the arenas of the LC Equestrian Center. One, was my Buddy. The other, a young man by the name of Corey.

We actually boarded at this barn two different times, once in high school, and again in the last years of Buddy’s life on earth. The owners had teamed with Goodwill Industries, in a project known as, “Pony Express.” The program paired local children with special needs, and gentle giants in our barn, for weekly rides and activities.

I’m not going to lie to you. The program was obviously for the benefit of the kids, but in reality, it was the highlight of my week, and Buddy seemed to genuinely believe they all came to see him. No matter how crummy my day at the office was, as soon as the kids piled out of their parents’ cars, and ran, smiling to the arena where their trusted steeds waited patiently, whatever had me down, vanished into the dust. Buddy was always a bit of a ham, so dozens of little people fawning over him, made his day too. He was their King.

When we first started working with the program, they were hesitant. Buddy was a pretty big boy, one of the largest they’d used, but once they took a spin on him, or got a friendly nudge of his nose, they were fast friends. He quickly rose to the top of the request list at the mounting blocks.

During the riding time, the volunteers staged several activity stations, others acted as spotters, walking on either side of the riding child, while they were lead from one station to the next. Depending on how many kids and horses were present at any given session, sometimes the lines would bog down a little, giving us an opportunity to spend more one on one time with the kids to get to know them. During those down times, I’d try to chat the kids up, play games with them, get them to sing and be silly, YMCA never failed. Their favorite though, was when we’d play “follow the leader.” Buddy, would follow me to the ends of the earth, even if it were on fire. I’d turn to the kids and challenge them to try to get Buddy to follow me around the arena. I’d give them a quick tutorial with the reins, teach them how to steer, then toss the lead rope over Buddy’s neck, and announce, “okay, now YOU’re driving!” The new levels of confidence they reached, by feeling in control of a thousand pound animal was palpable. They would wave to their parents, pose for pictures (that I would step just out of the frame of, so they would appear to be riding alone), and sit just a bit taller in the saddle. The lines would finally move again, and we’d go back to work, placing puzzle pieces, connecting dots, and tossing beanbags.

In addition to Corey, with his sweet, childish flirting and hand kissing, there were a few others who stood out. One girl, I quickly named “Jumpin Jordan,” after seeing a demonstration of how she would try to bail off her horse, the moment she thought you weren’t paying attention (THAT was exciting!). Jordan loved to joke and laugh, she was the first kiddo I got to sing YMCA with me, and loved to parade wave to all the parents as I lead her past them. Another young man was Jamie. I believe, though I don’t know that I was ever told, he had a form of Autism. Jamie was the oldest of all the kids, and always seemed to be wrapped up in his own conversation, prior to his arrival every week. I would still talk to him, ask questions, and try to get him to interact with me. His favorite activity was fixing all the activity stations, when the riders ahead of him hadn’t completed them to his liking. Once in a great while, I’d get through, and he’d answer a question, or give me a smile. That was amazing. I don’t know if he’ll ever remember those little
connections, but I won’t forget them.

It wasn’t easy, dividing my attention among all the young bachelors during those sessions. Both men in this entry didn’t like to share the spotlight, once they had the attention of a lady. I miss them both, and all the experiences we shared. My hope for the future, is to find another program to become involved with, as well as another horse like Buddy. There will never be another Buddy, but if I’m lucky, one with a heart like his, will find me soon.

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the right fit

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In my years spent working in the tack store, one of the common questions was, how can I make sure the saddle fits my horse, if I can’t bring him in the store to try it on? It’s a very valid issue, we’re not dealing with J. Crew and khakis here! It’s easy enough for you to sit in a saddle, and be able to gauge, with a fair amount of accuracy, whether it fits you and your needs properly, but fitting what goes under the saddle, can be a challenge. More and more brands are offering flexible trees, which is the skeleton of your saddle, and that does assist in proper fitting to a degree, but ultimately, you need to have a good understanding of the mechanics, so when you do get the saddle home, you know what to do and what to look for.

I can’t speak for every tack store, but the one I worked in, did allow for a saddle to be taken home, and carefully tried, to ensure a good fit. That’s your ideal situation. Some may even allow multiple saddles to be taken, for a deposit, to save you trips back and forth. Here’s what I’ve shared with my customers, to help them in their decision…

We aren’t all models. Some of us are slim fits, others are husky, horses are no different. If you know your horse might not fall into the “average” fit category, think about your available resources. Do you know others who have saddles, similar to what you’re looking for, that you can borrow to try out? The withers seem to be the biggest source of trouble for tough customers, if you’re wondering about whether their high/low/narrow/broad withers and a good fit, there are specific fitting tools you can buy, or, you can take soft wire (like the cheap dry cleaners hangers) and mold it across the highest/widest point. Use that molded wire, and trace it on a piece of sturdy cardboard, then cut out the shape of your horse’s withers, and take that to the store with you. It’s not exactly the same as asking them to try it on, but it helps, and you don’t have to clean up after cardboard! Anyone familiar with the saddles they sell, should be able to at least help you narrow the field of selection, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Once you’ve made a selection and saddled your horse, give them a walk around, up close, and again at a few paces off. Does everything appear to be “correct” just by looking at it? Is the saddle sitting up on top of your horse, is it smothering them, do they appear obviously uncomfortable? You know your horse best, so even if they can’t say “ouch,” or “that feels funny,” you should be able to tell if there’s an immediate issue. Chances are, you’ve already seen what a properly-fitted saddle looks like on your horse, so you should have that image in mind, for comparisons sake.

Next, even if you don’t normally lunge your horse, give them a few minutes on a long line, or in a round pen, and let them work on their own. Watch for any signs of discomfort, working in both directions. If everything seems fine, then mount up, and try it all together. As long as your horse will stand quietly, do some reaching and turning, move around a bit, thinking about anything you plan on doing in the saddle and mimic those motions. Is your horse still peaceful under you, or are they turning to inspect, maybe even nipping? Sure, they don’t speak English, but they still have opinions and ways to share them with us. Listen closely.

After you’ve established things all seem to be okay, up to this point, you’re ready to go to work. If you’ve taken the saddle on a trial basis, remember whatever rules you’ve been given about keeping it clean and free of marks, but still try to have your usual ride. If all goes well, when you’re done, take another walk-around for a second visual inspection. So far so good? Perfect, now see what your horse has to say. Once you’ve removed the saddle, still watching for any unusual behavior from your horse, examine the sweat and hair pattern under the pad. Sweat and wear should appear evenly distributed. Any unusual dry patches, or hair obviously mashed in another direction, are good indicators that you have a fit problem. The dry patch usually says “too tight,” while mis-laid hair can tell you if something isn’t lined up properly. Finally, let your horse loose, or back on a long line again for a few minutes in each direction, and make sure they aren’t showing any signs of discomfort. Some issues don’t really present themselves until the horse is free of restriction.

I always used a shoe shopping analogy when explaining how to find a good fit. If you buy shoes that aren’t appropriate for your needs, like heels for running a 5K, it doesn’t matter how nice they look, you’re going to be miserable. If you buy shoes that are too big, they’ll give you blisters from rubbing. If you buy shoes that are too small, adding another pair of socks isn’t going to make them less uncomfortable, in the same way that adding a second saddle pad, won’t make a tight saddle less uncomfortable for your horse. There are a number of gel pads on the market now too, which are great for small fit and comfort issues, but please don’t think that the pad is going to solve all your problems, it’s simply a band aid. The other piece to remember, is you get what you pay for. Sure, there’s always a good deal to be found, but don’t buy something from the clearance rack, just because it’s on sale, make sure you’re getting exactly what you need, and it’s worth every penny.

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pro’s perspective: fire prevention

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As the friend of a man who lost his entire barn, and all souls contained within, seven adult horses and one baby (http://www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com/article/20110426/NEWS01/104260303/8-horses-killed-McConnelsville-barn-fire), in an unforgivable act of hate and ignorance, I feel talking about fire prevention is a relevant topic for all horse and barn owners. It’s a frightening reality that the one place we gather in, and often treat with a religious respect, is made of, and contains, nearly all highly-flammable materials. While my friend’s story is sadder still, due to it’s circumstances, and most-likely not an unhappy ending that could have been prevented, there is still plenty you can do to protect your property and loved ones. Education and prevention is key. I turned to another friend, Rob Kovacs, a horse owner, Gahanna Fire Fighter and Paramedic for his experience and guidance…

One of the first points he addressed, was the National Fire Prevention Association’s standard 150, which is a great resource for fire prevention in your livestock barns. http://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/document-information-pages?mode=code&code=150. He also mentioned, that because no codes are adhered to, or even exist, not many folks seem to consider the expense of a sprinkler type suppression system. If your barn already has a watering system, most of the components are already in place. Dry hydrants (pvc piping, ran from above ground level to below grade level and out to farm ponds) are an excellent resource, and often yields a discount on property owners insurance rates.

Rob discussed a handful of common problems that seem innocent enough, until you’re making a 911 call in the middle of the night. Storing wet hay. Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh bales in the summer? It’s lovely, until it isn’t. Wet hay gets hot, and since we commonly store our hay in lofts at the top of our barns, where heat is already lurking, it can be a deadly combination. That hot, wet hay can combust, and fire can spread quickly. Add to that, if the burning hay is all above you, you then add the risk of the barn collapsing before you have the chance to get every soul out.

Another common foul, the use of household extension cords, where commercial should be. Pair that with sub-par, or unprotected electrical wiring, and lack of some form of a conduit, and you have a fire waiting to happen. Do a walk-around of your barn, and consider access/egress concerns. In the event of an emergency, could help make it in?

Take a look inside your stalls. Is the lighting inside a protective cage, and all cobwebs swept away? Not only is an open light fixture a fire hazard, but it’s a physical danger to your horse if they rear or pop their heads up, unexpectedly. Picking chards of broken light bulb out of your horse’s head isn’t fun for either of you!

Finally, consider your barn from the fire and rescue team’s perspective. Do you have water access, and any other firefighting resources on hand and easily accessible? Think about how far your barn may be from those resources, some of us live in pretty rural areas, or far back off the road. All of those elements provide additional challenges, and could rob you of precious minutes of time.

All of this probably seems fairly common-sense… right now… when your barn ISN’T on fire, but have you given it much thought before now? Why not schedule regular safety reviews, make it a habit. The more you do now, when you’re thinking clearly and calm, will be less you have to do later, in a panic (ideally). The sad truth is, sometimes no matter how well you prepare, it’s still not enough, but isn’t it worth doing anyway, on the outside chance, that that one hour you spent prepping your barn for emergencies, was the hour that saved your barn, and horses inside?

I don’t know if it’s something they promote, but I would suspect, if you asked any fire official or similar professional for help, they probably wouldn’t turn you down. Their time spent helping you with prevention, could end up helping them later on too.

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then you found me

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How have you come about having the horses, or even pets that you have now? Were they the result of a military-level-serious search and find mission, was it random happenstance? Did you start with good intentions, and find yourself with something else entirely? My horses, and my Beagle, all found me. Maybe they had a little help from the universe, but the ends more than justified the means, so I’m happy regardless…

In a clinic given by a well-known trainer once, he explained that all choices we make, are based on one of four elements. Education, experience, emotion, or exhaustion. He gave truck shopping as an example. You can do your research, you can talk to dealers, owners, repairmen, and buy the best truck on paper. You can buy a Ford, because you’ve always had Fords, and you’ve never had a reason to change. You can drive past a dealership and see it, it draws you in, you have to have it. Or, after shopping and mulling, you can finally buy the next truck you lay eyes on, simply because you’re sick of looking.

It sounds good in theory, but I have to wonder, do these rules apply to me? I guess ultimately, I made my choices-in the horses and dog, based on emotion, though I think the other elements played their part as well.

In my last entry, you learned about Reya, my raffle score and first horse. When I left the house that morning, I certainly had no idea I’d come home a horse-owner. I’m reasonably sure it didn’t cross my parents minds! Yet fate stepped in, I think, and helped Reya find me. She provided the blueprint for my equine education, by not being exactly what I would have chosen, given the choice. Had I been “in the market,” and found a show-ready horse, I can’t imagine I’d have learned half of what she taught me.

Buddy came to me after our initial search for a new horse had gone dormant for the winter. We’d searched for months, traveling all over the state looking for the next one. Nothing seemed like a good fit, so as fall slowly turned to winter, we decided to wait it out, and try again in the spring. Not long after, I got a phone call. I was greeted by the voice of my blacksmith’s daughter, a woman dad worked with, and told of a tricky situation she’d found herself in. She found “the perfect horse,” around the same time she and her husband had found “the perfect house.” Guess who won? Turns out it was me, but it took time to realize. She was kind enough to offer a trial period, and we arranged to drive to their home and pick him up. The Buddy I met in the field was filthy, and hairy, clearly enjoying his “outdoor lifestyle.” We took him home to the barn where we boarded, and our relationship slowly developed. After the trial ended, we made arrangements to make Buddy a permanent family member, and eventually sold Reya to a younger girl who was just making her start, in the hopes that Reya would give her the good foundation she’d given me. Buddy and I eventually became familiar faces in all levels of show circuits, and the crush developed into full on love.

That was 1994, and by the time I said goodbye to him in the fall of 2009, I was certain that I’d never in my life, find another soul who loved me the way he did. I’d given up, my heart was broken. When we laid him to rest, on top of the hill behind the barn, in the company of other friends who’d gone before, I sent my heart down with the ship. Friends all shared in my grief, some offered their own horses to fill the gap, others offered to give me a new one, but the idea felt completely wrong. It was time to walk away for a while.

By December, the gaping hole in my heart was no closer to healing, and I knew I needed SOMETHING, but had no idea what. I knew it couldn’t be another horse, but beyond that, I was still lost. Sami found me through what else, social media. Her photo popped up on Facebook, in a post by a friend, looking to help a family member place the puppy that it turned out they couldn’t keep. Sami originally was meant to belong to two girls, who turned out to have dog allergies, then caught the H1N1 flu that went around, which only aggravated their allergies more, and eventually their parents decided that maybe a puppy wasn’t in the plans for them. They wanted to place her carefully, and enlisted the help of family and friends to draft potential candidates. Luckily, I made the short list.

I contacted the friend, told her I could probably help her family out with the puppy problem, and made arrangements to meet them. Conveniently, I didn’t mention this to my folks, where I was staying at the time… We met, I fell in love, collected Sami and all her things, and headed for home in early January of 2010. I met mom and dad in the entry way with her, promising it was only a trial (famous last words!) and all they had to do was say no, I’d turn around and take her back. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a Beagle and been able to say no? My plan worked! I like to think of Sami as a rescue, as in, she rescued me, from myself. Having a warm, furry soul in my life again, helped me heal, and remember how to love again.

I still miss Buddy every day, it’s an ache that will never completely disappear. Since then, I’ve begun to heal more, and find myself feeling “ready” for the next chapter in my horse career. Evidently it isn’t exactly the right time, at least, according to my bank balance, but soon…