We’ve gotten two horses in here in a row suffering from a very basic failure in equine maintenance: They are full of sand. As a result, they had/have diarrhea and are skinny and look hideous, and it’s kind of a miracle they haven’t colicked and died yet.
If you’re in a climate with sandy soil, there are two ways it will go:
1) You will treat for sand, or
2) Your horses will have a gut full of sand that causes a variety of health problems, and can cause death.
Part of the reason we see so many problems with polo ponies is that there’s this tendency to just put them “out to pasture” for months at a time. Out to pasture usually means out to pasture in Indio, a.k.a. the desert. It’s called the desert for a reason – it’s full of sand. Yes, underneath those lovely irrigated grass pastures, is a whole lot of sand and if you throw a herd of horses out on a field there for 3 or 4 months and the field gets grazed down, they will start desperately trying to eat every bit of vegetation left. Since horses are not the pickiest eaters, this means they will ingest plenty of dirt and sand along with the grass. That sand won’t just come out the other end. It has a tendency to settle in their intestines and clog up the works. Imagine dumping a scoop of sand down your sink’s drain.
There’s also a tendency to house horses in pipe corrals that do not have any bedding or mats in them. They may have feeders, but we have all seen horses pull the hay out of the feeders and throw it on the ground to eat. This is because horses prefer to eat off the ground, so that they can naturally shake the dust and dirt off the hay as they eat it instead of getting all of that up their noses. Despite all the various feeders and nets devised to keep hay off the ground, most horses are experts at putting it there and then eating from that location.
The end result is that many horses collect incredible amounts of sand in their intestines and colic, and this is a common cause of death.
Losing a horse to sand colic is the financial equivalent of blowing the engine on your luxury car because you never got the oil changed. It is dumb. It is avoidable. There is a cheap, easy, reliable way to clear out sand called psyllium. You don’t need a prescription for it. You can even get it at Costco if your horses don’t mind orange flavor.
One week out of the month, you feed your horses a half cup of psyllium once a day. You mix it with something tasty like senior feed and soak it and mix it together. This solves the problem 99% of the time.
If you are going to participate in a sport that involves live animals, it is your responsibility to understand and provide appropriate care to keep them healthy. Do not assume your pro knows best and will tell you what your horses need. Some people with high polo ratings would be a -1 if rated on horse care, whereas some -1’s are absolutely knowledgeable and meticulous. Talk to the vet yourself. Learn what good health looks like – what a wormy horse looks like, what a horse full of sand looks and acts like. Don’t blow the transmission because you never check your fluids — you’re smarter than that with your car, so be just as smart with your horses!
Sometimes we hear the opinion that rescues should just DIY everything to save money – and believe me, we do. Everyone on our board of directors mucks stalls, feeds and water. But when it comes to training – a.k.a. the #1 most important factor in ensuring a horse can find and keep a great home – we happily write a check.
And how Gypsy rides now:
Gypsy is a 15 year old 16.1 hand Thoroughbred mare, ex race horse but not ex polo, and she is available now. Thank you to Danica Reslock of Brass Ring Sun Farms for her hard work fixing our giraffe horse! (And to Jodi Heaston for massage and Dr. Jeff Chavis for chiro – those definitely helped, too!) Adoption fee $800. Click on “forms and policies” to your left for more information!
Some things I want you to know about us (and any other reputable rescue organization):
We totally understand that the client adopting instead of buying sucks for your bottom line.
It’s absolutely a fact, and unfortunately not one that we can do anything about. If your client buys from Trainer X, Y, or Z, you are going to get a cut, and that money is very helpful. I was a trainer myself in my younger years, and understand that being a horse professional is sort of a nightmare wherein you attempt to do what you love but are constantly battered by vet bills, farrier bills, hay bills, non-paying clients, horses that don’t stay sound no matter what you do, blown truck transmissions and clients who float off like butterflies with ADHD to follow different trainers despite the fact that they never expressed any dissatisfaction with the job you were doing. I get it, truly I do. I get that commission is one of the ways you bring in enough money to stay afloat and that if your client adopts my $1000 rescue horse, you won’t make a dime on that transaction, and since my contract forbids resale, you won’t make a dime when the horse goes out the door, either.
However, a nice horse is a nice horse. A nice horse will lead to the client enjoying riding, wanting to show, and wanting to take more lessons. Bottom line is that if your client adopts my $1000 rescue horse, they will be left with far more disposable income to spend on lessons and competition. Especially with clients who are not multi-millionaires, this is a win-win for both of us.
We totally understand that many of you have had bad experiences with shady rescues.
We have heard it all. Rescues that said horses were sound when really they had a racing injury that meant they should never jump, rescues that lied about the vet care the horse had already received, rescues that lied about the horse’s age, rescues that lied about the horse’s behavior. We know, and we are sorry you had a bad experience, but don’t tar all of us with the same brush. You don’t want to be compared to the shady trainers either, do you? We’ll let you vet check (with YOUR vet, not ours), x-ray, drug test and whatever else you need to feel secure that you know what your client is getting into, and that they are adopting a horse who is physically capable of their competition goals.
And we understand there is still a prejudice against Thoroughbreds in the show ring.
However, there has been a resurgence of interest in Thoroughbreds. I mean, Denny Emerson (a.k.a. the god of jumping/proper equitation, as far as I’m concerned and many of you agree) loves OTTB’s. And now there are Thoroughbred shows, which means yet another show circuit to go kick butt at. This is a new, hot kind of show and a place you can make a name for yourself. And they are all Thoroughbreds there, so you don’t have to worry about any anti-Thoroughbred sentiment. Opportunity is knocking!
And we understand your fear that “no resale” means your client will be stuck with an unsuitable horse or a lame one, and won’t be able to show or take lessons, and won’t be able to buy another horse because they can only afford board on one.
This is why we take returns – no questions asked, for the lifetime of the horse. I mean, we’d like to know if the horse developed a bucking issue, of course, but we will never give you attitude or bad mouth you or bash you about a return. We care about making sure the horse stays safe for life. I know some rescues have the dream of a “forever home” firmly in place and get very upset whenever a home turns out not to be a “forever home.” A “forever home” is a lot like a forever marriage – sure, we’d all like to have that work out but the reality is that many do not. That’s just life. We would rather a horse have a great home for a couple of years than sit here on our payroll waiting for Prince Charming, aka the Perfect Adopter who will keep it forever no matter what. We just had a horse returned – she came back jumping courses, something she did not know when she left. How is that a bad deal for us? It isn’t. Now, if you return it having lost 200 lbs. with rain rot and feet that weren’t done since April, yeah, we are going to have some drama. We’re very reasonable but it’s a contract, not a suggestion, and it will be enforced.
Really, couldn’t you use a little good karma?
Adopting and showing a rescue horse is a win for all involved. You look good when your client is kicking $25k horse butt on a rescue – after all, how hard is it to kick butt on a big money horse that (I hate this expression, it’s like saying “I have no intention of making my crappy rider improve, I just want them to keep writing checks) “can take a big joke.” Believe me, my happiest moment ever at a show was watching a lesson student win the short stirrup hunters on a $700 OTTB rescue, over a $35k welsh pony! You’re helping to educate the world that truly amazing horses wind up in rescue through no fault of their own. The horse is living a great life. You have an awesome story to tell, particularly if the horse goes a lot further up the levels than you first anticipated. And if the horse kicks butt, it shows that you had an eye for talent and didn’t just gleefully spend the client’s money on the horse with the highest price tag. That’s the kind of skill and discernment everybody wants in a trainer. Oh, and when they were starving or abused and end up living the life with chiro and massages and a better wardrobe than I have – that’s good karma all over the place that will help you with everything else in your life. Try it!
Edited to add our thoughts in BOLD as of 8/7/14.
Every rescuer has a ton of stories of horses that were completely unintentionally neglected or abused. By that, I mean that the owner simply didn’t have the foggiest clue that what they were doing was wrong, that their horse needed vet care, or that what Uncle Jim said to do was a bad idea. So here’s a little quiz you can pass around to test if you are truly ready to own a horse of your own.
How many of these questions do you know the answer to?
1. You come home and your horse is lying down in the sun. His breathing looks normal. He might even be snoring a little. Is he sick? Most likely he is just sunbathing and is just fine.
2. You come home and your horse is rolling. He gets up but doesn’t shake himself off. He turns around and looks at his rib cage. Is your horse sick? Early signs of colic. Call the vet – 100% of the time. The faster you catch it, the more likely it will be a $300 and not a $10,000 bill.
3. You throw dinner and your horse doesn’t go immediately to eat. Is your horse sick? High likelihood that your horse either is starting to colic or is getting sick (like a respiratory infection). Take the temp, observe, call the vet for his/her input. Healthy horses dive into their food. If a horse shows poor appetite long-term, look at the possibility of ulcers.
4. You notice that every time you tighten the girth, your horse pins his ears and snaps at you. Is he being a butthead or does something hurt? Something hurts or something used to hurt. He is not just being a butthead. Look at a combination of chiropractic, massage and investigating whether your saddle(s) fit properly to identify any possible source of pain. Horses with ulcers will often be girthy (is horse also cranky about brushing?) The problem can be totally resolved and the crabbiness just a learned behavior, but definitely check it.
5. When you try to catch your horse in the field, he spins and kicks at you. Is he being a butthead or does something hurt? Aggressive/spoiled. If you’re not very experienced, you’ll need the help of a professional trainer to resolve this. Your horse is showing lack of respect and treating you like the “pasture wimp” who can be easily scared away. (Yes, ulcers can be a factor, pain can be a factor – but bottom line is that every horse who shows aggression to a human being needs firm, consistent training or he’ll wind up hurting someone).
6. You have three horses in a field. They are all friends. Can you throw their hay in one pile or should you distribute it into more than three piles spaced pretty far apart in the field? DISTRIBUTE! I don’t care how friendly they are, adding many options for a “feeding place” will vastly reduce the odds of bites, kicks and other drama.
7. Horses don’t care if their water is clean, true or false? FALSE. Many horses won’t drink water that smells. Dump, scrub and refill frequently.
8. Horses can get water by eating snow in the winter. True or false? FALSE. This has killed more horses! Melt down a pail of snow and you will see what a tiny amount of water it provides. Horses need a clean, fresh, UNFROZEN source of water 24/7 in all weather.
9. Horses who have trees in their field don’t need a barn or run in shelter. True or false? This one depends somewhat on your climate. If you live in a dry, hot climate and the trees provide solid shade at all times of the day, you’re set. If you live where it rains and snows – nope, you’ll want some kind of solid shelter (and it may be required by law!)
10. Your horse’s feed falls out of his mouth when he eats. What does he probably need? Most likely needs his teeth floated.
11. Old horses tend to be skinny because they are old, and there isn’t much you can do about it. True or false? This is absolutely, completely and totally false. The usual reason is improper/inadequate feeding and/or inability to chew – easily resolved with soaked feed. 1% of the time there is a health problem which can usually be treated by a vet (like a thyroid issue).
12. It’s a good idea to buy a foal that your kids can grow up with. True or false? FALSE unless you enjoy visiting the emergency room. Foals need the sort of consistent, firm handling that a child is unlikely to be able to provide. Foals ARE children. It would be like leaving your 5 year old home alone in charge of your 2 year old. How would that end? Foals have sharp little feet and can do a lot of damage to someone when they kick or strike. They are not a plush toy.
13. It doesn’t matter how tall a horse is in terms of being a safe kid’s horse. True or false? TRUE. Look for behavior, not a particular size. Safe for kids = slow and lazy! You want a horse who thinks galloping off would be torture. A horse who responds to loud noises and scary things by saying “so what?” These qualities will usually, but not always, be found in an older horse with a lot of experience – shows, parades, gymkhanas. Ponies tend to be pretty difficult! There are exceptions, but don’t think small = safe.
14. Horses have to get fit just like people if they’re going to do more than very easy walk-trot rides. They have to be ridden 5 or more days a week consistently if you’re going to expect them to do things like jump, trail ride in the hills, or barrel race and stay sound. True or false? TRUE. If you don’t abide by this, you absolutely will end up with a lame horse, sooner or later. Muscles work the same in humans and horses. Unfit muscles are prone to injury.
15. If a horse is limping because he’s foot sore, it’s okay to keep riding him like that as he will toughen up eventually. True or false? FALSE. If you’re trying to transition to barefoot, you need to invest in a pair of quality trail riding boots for him so he doesn’t suffer in the meantime, like Cavallo’s. Making a horse gimp around and suffer is cruel.
16. What are some ways to tell if your saddle fits your horse correctly?
When mounted, put your hand between the pommel and the horse’s withers. You should have no problem putting multiple fingers in the space. If you can’t, the saddle doesn’t fit. You can also look at the sweat patterns on the horse’s back after he is ridden. If you see dry spots, instead of a consistent sweaty area, it’s probably a sign that the saddle doesn’t fit. Does your western saddle stick up at the back and flop up and down when you longe instead of sitting solidly on the horse? It doesn’t fit. For best results, consult a professional saddle fitter.
17. How many pounds of quality hay does a 1,000 lb. horse need every day to maintain his condition? Typically 10-12 pounds. If you don’t have a hay scale, just step onto a regular scale with or without the hay in your arms. You will start to be able to “feel” what that much hay feels like. This is assuming your horse does not have access to pasture.
18. You’ve just mowed the lawn and have a bag full of grass clippings. Safe or not to feed to your horse? The safe answer is NO. Clippings ferment quickly. If you want your horse to mow the lawn, fence the lawn.
19. Is barbed wire fence okay for horses? You will always find horse owners who say it is. These people see nothing unusual about their horses having gaping wounds requiring stitches or having one baby out of the foal crop get crippled or killed every year. You know horses run into things, right? Why would you put a horse out on something with sharp little prongs on it? Don’t do it – it’s not worth it.
20. Would you still be okay with paying all of the costs of maintaining your horse if he got injured and the vet said he needed 6 months off? You’d better know the answer before you have to know the answer. If the answer is “no,” I recommend renting a horse when you want to ride, rather than owning.
I’ll do a follow up blog with some answers but if you want to post your comments or some other good questions that need to be asked of every prospective horse owner, feel free to add on!
I just saw a comment online complaining about “four or five page” rescue contracts and how that was just too much to expect anyone to agree to. So I’ve decided I’m going to write a brief series on Mondays about why certain provisions are in those contracts. I suspect if anyone reads through the series, they’ll understand why all of this language is actually pretty reasonable and sensible!
What the contract says
“Except as otherwise provided in Paragraph I.C. above, the Horse should be fed 3-4 flakes of high quality, mold and weed free alfalfa, timothy or orchard grass hay daily, unless sufficient pasture is provided instead. “Sufficient pasture” is defined as pasture lush enough that a horse will ignore hay when offered and, on which, no horse present is at less than a body condition score of 4.
Grain is not generally required and is at the discretion of Adopter and Adopter’s veterinarian. ADOPTER AGREES TO INTRODUCE ANY GRAIN GRADUALLY, NO MORE THAN A HALF POUND DAILY TO START. __________________ (initial here)”
Why that needs to be in there
1. It’s often unclear to owners how much hay a horse actually needs. And while it’s more precise to say a horse needs X pounds of hay per day, I can’t think of a single barn I’ve ever boarded at that had a scale. So just saying 3-4 flakes will generally assure that the horse will not be starving. I might edit this, for example, if we adopt out the Galootasaurus, as he requires 5 flakes a day to stay round and happy, but for most of our normal-sized polo ponies, 3-4 works.
2. Types of hay are specified because you will not keep a Thoroughbred looking good on any kind of local grass hay, or bermuda. Again, I might edit this portion if we adopt out Coda, as he’s an Arabian and they generally do well on bermuda. When you just say “hay,” someone who isn’t super experienced might think local grass hay for $5 a bale will do the same job as alfalfa for $18 a bale. It won’t.
3. Sufficient pasture! How many times have you been to someone’s pasture and seen that some horses are fat, some horses are just right and some horses are thin? Or seen a horse who is thin because “he just came back from pasture.” It’s not okay for horses to become thin at pasture; it means there isn’t enough pasture and supplemental hay should have been provided. Or that particular horse needed more than just hay (or needed his teeth done, deworming, etc.). So, I put in a definition of sufficient pasture that should not confuse anyone. Throw out hay – if they sniff it and walk away, congratulations, you have enough grass for them to live on. If they attack it like they haven’t seen food in a week, your pasture is probably getting eaten down and they are hungry, even if they haven’t obviously lost weight yet.
4. Introducing grain too fast can, of course, lead to both founder and colic.
And crazy teleporting horses.
Much like sugar when you have toddlers – proceed slowly, in minimal amounts and with caution.
We read a lot of discussion on Facebook and message boards about what people feel a horse rescue should or shouldn’t do. Frequently this is accompanied by accusations that horse rescuers are mean, unhelpful, and have no people skills. Today, I’d like to write a little bit on this topic that might help you understand why horse rescuers say things that you think might be mean, unsympathetic, unhelpful or rude.
Call from the public: I have a 27 year old warmblood who used to be my show jumper. He is the best horse ever but now he is blind in an eye and has ringbone so he can only be a pet. I LOVE HIM SO MUCH and I want him to have a great retirement home but I got a new 5 year old horse from Holland and I need something I can show.
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Wow, he sounds great! When can I pick him up?
Actual rescuer’s response: I can give you some suggestions for good retirement boarding farms. If that’s not an option, I suggest putting him to sleep.
Translation: Clearly you do have the money for retirement board (typically $300 month or even less) if you are buying warmbloods from Europe. Also, if you are showing, you are an able bodied person who could acquire a second job, if needed, to afford a few years of retirement care for your old partner. If you truly love your horse, pay for retirement board. If you don’t, at least euthanize him so that nothing bad will happen to him. You may think there are a lot of great homes for pet horses out there, but they are, in fact, almost as rare as unicorns. If you don’t love him enough to provide for him after he won you a room full of ribbons, why do you think a stranger will? We have all dragged someone’s high level show horse out of a kill pen, a livestock auction, a barbed wire pen behind someone’s mobile home in the high desert, or the county shelter. We fatten them up and get them sound and hop on them and are stunned at the level of training they possess. It happens all the time. We know that you don’t want your horse to suffer like this. That’s why we gave you the options that we did.
Call from the public: I am looking for a horse to adopt. It needs to be no older then 7, safe for beginner riders, and jump a 3′ course. Can’t be a mare and has to vet check.
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Sure, no problem, I have three here to choose from and the adoption fee on each is $500.
Actual rescuer’s response: If you’re looking for a horse safe for beginner riders, I have a selection of great horses in their twenties that you will be able to trust. Since they’re beginners, they won’t be jumping 3′ for a long time, so why not adopt an appropriate horse now and save up for that future show hunter when they are ready for him, years from now? Sure, you may have to do some maintenance to keep them sound, but they are great teachers!
Translation: There are few, if any, beginner safe horses under 7 years old. There are even fewer that can jump a 3′ course. The ones that do exist can be found at your local hunter-jumper barn with a price tag of $10,000 or more attached. What you are trying to do, and it is not very subtle, is get something for nothing. Young, sound show horses are not a demographic that end up in rescue often, if at all. Rescue is a great place to find a hunter-jumper prospect IF you are an advanced rider who can train one from the ground up or IF you are willing to spend thousands having the horse professionally trained. If you are, by all means, come on out and we’ll hook you up!
Call from the public: I’m from out of town and going to be in your area in 15 minutes and my kids want to stop by to pet the horses.
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Sure, come on out! We’re here all the time!
Actual rescuer’s response: Sorry, that won’t work out. We can schedule another time for a visit, if you’d like.
Translation: We might be at work (yes, most of us have outside jobs). We might be at our child’s school. We might be at the doctor’s. We might be on a date. We might be grocery shopping. We might be at the feed store. We might be nose deep in a grant application that has to go out in today’s mail. Whatever the reason, none of us are available 24/7 to supervise visitors. That’s why the gate is locked. Please don’t climb the fence (true story, heard it from another rescuer). That’s called trespassing and yes, we really will call the police if you do it. None of this means that we don’t appreciate and like our supporters – it just means that we all have lives, too, and stuff to do, and can’t hang out at our rescue 24/7.
Call from the public: My neighbor’s horses are starving. Please do something. I can’t do anything because he’s in a gang and I’m scared of him. I’m in Dirtbag City, I think we’re about 560 miles from you.
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: No problem, I’ll be right over with a SWAT team to arrest your neighbor.
Actual rescuer’s response: You will need to take photographs and document the neglect, then go to your local animal control or police station and file a report. We cannot do anything since we aren’t a witness to the neglect – you are.
Translation: The law is the law. We really can’t do anything. We don’t have the time or money to travel around documenting abuse, and that isn’t our job as rescuers. You are going to need to cowboy/girl up and report the abuse yourself – file an actual police report. If the police blow you off, go to the media – news reports tend to light a fire under slow-moving law enforcement entities. If the horses are seized, we’ll be happy to help at that time, resources permitting.
Call from the public: My neighbor has to get rid of his 29 horses. He’s willing to give them up. Otherwise he’s taking them to auction! I don’t know what they are. I think some are stallions. Can you come get them?
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Give me the address and I’ll send our air ride semi over right away!
Actual rescuer’s response: Can you get details such as age, sex, height, papers if any, training if any and good photographs? I’ll network them around.
Translation: Almost none of us have the resources to take in 29 horses at once. If you don’t know why, ask yourself how much you have personally donated to a rescue in the last year. We are under the same constraints as private individuals with regard to stall/pasture space, stallion appropriate housing, money for hay, money for vet, money for farrier, etc. Sure, sometimes we can get a grant to help with a large seizure, but if the horses don’t adopt quickly once rehabbed, no more money will be forthcoming and now we have 29 more mouths to feed. We are not being mean or unhelpful by requesting details – we are trying to figure out if these are horses we can place if we rehab them, and/or identify breeds to contact breed specific rescues that might help us shoulder this burden. If you are as upset as you sound about the neighbor’s horses, you should want to help us out by going over there and getting details and pictures.
Call from the public: I rescued this horse from the Fallon feedlot, but he’s not what they said he was. He’s 15 years older, not very sound and he bucks when we try to ride him. I can’t afford a vet or a trainer. Can you take him?
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Of course! Wow, you are such a wonderful person for rescuing him!
Actual rescuer’s response: Have you considered putting him to sleep?
Translation: First of all, you had no business “rescuing” anything you couldn’t afford vet or training for. If you get read the riot act – you deserve it. Secondly, you know how you don’t want a lame 25 year old that bucks? Guess what, neither do our adopters. If we take in that horse, we may be able to make him sounder and we may be able to fix the bucking, but he is unlikely to ever find a home. Quite frankly, we cannot remain in operation unless the vast majority of the horses we help are horses that are likely to find new homes. The amount of permanent retiree space any of us have is limited, if it is there at all. Euthanasia is not cruel. You may feel sad about it but the horse doesn’t. He gets a shot and goes to la-la land very quickly. If you choose this option, you have done the right thing – the horse did not go to kill, and did not suffer, and probably enjoyed his time in your care. Now, please consider waiting to acquire another equine until you can afford veterinarians and trainers.
Call from the public: I want to adopt a horse, I’m a really great home. I used to have a horse but my husband took it to the auction when he was drunk and mad at me. I would never have done that! I love horses and I’m totally anti-slaughter!
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Oh, you poor thing. Come on over and we’ll set you up with a new horse.
Actual rescuer’s response: There are many horses available on Craigslist and you can also check your county shelters. Good luck in your search.
Translation: You might be the best home ever, but your taste in men has disqualified you from adoption. We go through a lot of effort to rehab our horses and place them in the safest home possible. If we find out something about what happened to your previous animals that leads us to believe a horse won’t be safe with you – even if you’re not the family member who was the problem – we’re not going to give you a horse. Fortunately for you, horses are easy to come by and we’ve provided you with other options.
Call from the public: I have to get rid of my horse because I’m pregnant/going to college/getting a divorce/losing my farm.
Response caller anticipates from rescuer: Oh, you poor thing. I know how hard those things are! We’ll be happy to pick up your horse.
Actual rescuer’s response: I can recommend a great place to pasture board your horse affordably until you’re ready to ride again. I can hook you up with a barn near your college, and an affordable hauler. I can refer you to a terrific divorce attorney. I can find you a great boarding barn near your job and new apartment so you don’t have to give up your horse. I might even send you a month’s worth of hay while you start your new job, if you’re been unemployed and you can document that.
Translation: I will help you any way I can but please don’t dump your horse into the rescue system or worse because of temporary life complications…the rescue system is filled to the brim and we just can’t help them all. Please help your horse yourself by taking the actions YOU can take to keep him safe and in a good home. Believe me, MANY of us have been in the boat you’re in…we made it work and kept our horses safe and fed. You can do it too!
As another rescuer once said, and I wish I could remember who, horse rescues exist to help horses. Horses in true need – those at auctions, in kill pens, and in animal shelters. Not personal horses that have become lame or developed a behavioral issue. (Bear in mind that many of us do welcome the legitimate situation where an owner donates a horse with a substantial donation for care so that an experienced rescue can find it a good home, without the rescue being financially burdened by the process.) When you have truly put forth a good faith effort to help an animal and solve the problem yourself, you will find that rescuers become a lot nicer. The person who provides us with pictures and details on the 29 homeless horses next door gets a lot better response than the person who calls us and rages that we ought to do something, while being unwilling to do anything themselves. Remember that your local horse rescuer is most likely working a schedule that would kill an ox and in a constant state of frustration over the seemingly endless amount of human irresponsibility when it comes to animals. Donate or lend a hand, be courteous about visits and phone calls (if it’s 5 AM, send an email – come on, folks, common sense!), describe what you have tried to do to solve the problem, listen to and actually take our advice, and you’ll find the horses win every time!
If you spend any time on horse message boards or social media, you’ve read stories about horses that were sold to someone as “beginner safe” and then, within a few months, started offloading their riders regularly, became hard to handle, stopped doing things they used to do peacefully, etc. Frequently the new owner posts to complain that the previous owner must have drugged the horse, because they don’t understand any other way that the calm, mellow “packer” they tried out has now turned into a nightmare.
I’m not going to say that the drugging of sale horses doesn’t go on, but it is more rare than all the stories would have you believe. (Here’s a link about how to tell if a horse is drugged). But, generally, this is what happens when a very mellow calm polo pony (or any other kind of horse!) is sold to a beginner home and things don’t go well — and the only drugs involved are the painkillers the New Owner ends up needing to take!
1. New Owner changes the horse’s entire lifestyle. He was living in a pasture in Wyoming, and now he’s living in a box stall in Los Angeles. He goes from eating unlimited quantities of grass and plentiful hay to the typical boarding barn’s 2 or 3 flakes a day. Then, when he starts to lose weight, New Owner compensates for the lack of hay by adding more and more grain. Doesn’t really matter what kind – oats, corn, sweet feed, even senior feed can and will crank up a horse’s energy level. Also, lots of grain and not enough quality forage combined with stall life can cause ulcers to flare up.
2. Old Owner had horse on a serious exercise regimen. The horse got ridden most days, hard enough to work up a sweat. As a result, anyone could hop on him with a lead rope and pony four more without issue. New Owner doesn’t really want to pay for a groom or exercise rider and thinks he can just ride the horse himself, but he misses Wednesday because of Lisa’s birthday party and Thursday because he has to work late, and Sunday because his buddy comes to town unexpectedly. And so on… Because the horse is boarded, the horse stands in a 12 x 12 box getting progressively more irritated.
3. New Owner comes out to ride. The horse doesn’t want to pick up his foot, so after a struggle, New Owner decides that hoof does not really need to be picked. The horse starts to get pushy to lead, because he’s been in the stall for 2 days and he’s eager to move. New Owner permits the pushiness; the horse stops leading nicely and starts circling around New Owner or dragging him around like a kite. New Owner goes to tack up the horse and cranks up the girth tight all at once, something Old Owner, who was more experienced, knew better than to do. Horse flies backwards and breaks the cross ties. Now New Owner starts to become fearful of the horse. New Owner goes to get him out of the stall and the horse swings his butt to New Owner and threatens him. New Owner gives up and leaves and the horse sits in the stall yet another day.
4. When New Owner finally does manage to get the horse out for a ride, New Owner doesn’t understand why the horse has become pushy and resistant. New Owner doesn’t start by turning the horse out or longeing; he just hops right on. Maybe he pokes the horse in the side good and hard with his toe as he mounts, or kicks him in the butt accidentally with his right leg, either of which can lead to a wreck before the ride has even begun. If he gets on successfully, the horse is a whooooole lot more horse under saddle than he was when he tried him out, due to the confinement and diet changes. New Owner doesn’t call Old Owner yet. Nor does New Owner consult with a competent trainer in his discipline. New Owner allows himself to get advice from everyone he doesn’t have to pay, including the boarding barn’s official busybody who likes to give everybody unsolicited training advice, a couple of Natural Horsemanship followers who think all of these issues can be solved by playing games and, of course, everybody on his Facebook. The end result is that New Owner buys a $150 bit and $300 worth of training videos.
5. But none of that helps. In fact, the $150 bit leads to a new behavior – rearing! Now New Owner is good and scared but not willing to quit just yet. He is going to ride that horse. The horse, on his part, can sense New Owner’s fear which of course scares him (Horses are not capable of perceiving that they are what’s scaring you. Horses feel your fear and perceive that perhaps there is a mountain lion nearby which you have seen and they have not – so it might be a good idea to freak out and/or run like hell to get away from it). The behavior gets worse and worse until New Owner, quite predictably, gets dumped and gets injured – possibly seriously.
6. New Owner, from his hospital bed, writes vitriolic posts all over Facebook about the sleazy folks who sold him a horse that was not beginner safe and lied about it and probably drugged it. Old Owner fights back, pointing out that his 6 year old kid showed the horse and was fine. Everybody else makes popcorn and watches the drama unfold. Bonus points if everybody lawyers up. Meanwhile, the poor horse gets sent to slaughter by New Owner’s angry spouse.
I’m not even making any of that up, although I did combine elements of different situations to protect the guilty. It’s a scenario that gets played out time and time again. So now, let’s look at a constructive direction to go with this:
How do I keep my beginner safe horse beginner safe?
Here’s your answer:
1. The vast majority of calories should come from forage (grass, hay or hay pellets)
2. Never ever let him sit in a stall for 24 hours. Think about it – would you like to be locked in your bathroom for 24 hours? It’s just not fair. If you can’t get the barn you’re at to turn your horse out, you need to make arrangements to have him ridden or ponied daily. Yes, you may have to pay for that. The ideal is pasture life but I know it’s just not an option everywhere. Just do the best you can and be fair to the horse.
3. Beginner horses should be “tuned up” by a competent, experienced rider at least twice a month, if not more often. Lesson barns know that they have to have their advanced students, or the trainer, ride the school horses periodically in order to fix beginner-created habits like stopping at the gate, refusing to take a canter lead, and cutting the corners of the arenas. Learn from this.
4. A bigger bit in beginner hands solves nothing and creates a variety of dangerous behaviors. Avoid any solution that involves a thinner bit, a bit with a twisted mouth, or one with longer shanks/more leverage.
5. Learn the difference between abuse and discipline. None of us wants to be the idiot beating his horse – but that doesn’t mean discipline is always wrong. If your horse’s ground manners are melting down and he does not do things he used to do (like picking up feet, getting into the horse trailer, bridling) or has started doing things he didn’t used to do (like kicking at you, biting, trying to smush you against the wall in the stall), please get help from a competent trainer. It may be that your body language is all wrong, but it also may be that you’ve established yourself as, well, a doormat and need to learn when it is appropriate to re-establish yourself as the boss. This involves a lot of timing, correct body language and feel – none of which you can learn from your friends on Facebook or a training video. You need an actual trainer or other very experienced horseperson to work with you, hands-on and in-person.
6. TAKE LESSONS.
The better you ride, the better horses will behave for you.
7. Call the vet and make sure the horse is not simply trying to tell you he has a pain issue. Horses can’t exactly text you and say “hey, dude, my back hurts.” They will simply resort to things like biting you when you tighten the girth or bucking when asked to canter in a desperate attempt to convey the message.
8. If you’ve changed a lot about the horse’s lifestyle, try to change it back and see if that fixes the problem. Find a barn where the horse can be pasture boarded, for example, instead of stall kept. If you started feeding a lot of grain, replace it with hay pellets.
9. Don’t keep a horse you are terrified of. If the behaviors are truly scary or you’re hitting the dirt regularly – the horse is just not for you. You’re not in the running for the PRCA bronc riding and no one cares if you look cool or not. It’s probably more important to remain uninjured and able to, like, work and pay your mortgage, right? Turn the horse that is way too much for you over to a competent trainer to sell. Yes, this may cost you some money up front but it’s the right thing to do and once he’s sold, you are free to buy a more appropriate horse.
10. Increase your odds of not having these problems in the first place by (a) buying a horse who is regularly ridden by beginners, like a lesson horse; and (b) buying a horse that is a lot older than the one you think you need (we play polo on plenty of horses in their early 20’s, so don’t think a horse of that age can’t possibly hold up for your easy trail rides and beginner lessons), and bear in mind that appearance should be your LAST concern when shopping for a beginner horse.
Keep in mind that a lot of sellers don’t know how a horse will behave with a beginner because they simply have not ever had a beginner ride the horse long-term. So they weren’t maliciously trying to mislead you – they didn’t know. The world is absolutely packed full of horses that ride beautifully for experienced riders and turn into utter broncs within 2 weeks of being ridden by beginners who bounce on their backs or have inconsistent hands. Some horses are not very tolerant! Call the seller! Have them come out and ride the horse to see if they can figure out what’s going on. Many sellers will take a horse back or help you sell it – give them a chance, don’t assume every seller is a sleazy used-horse salesman who has taken your cash and run with it and couldn’t care less what happens to the horse. (Yes, some are – but like I say, give them a chance).
And remember, if you want to buy a horse that will act the same every single ride and never act up with anybody, you can buy them on E-bay!