Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Best Horseman of his Age

In honor of Independence Day, this week's TV show is from Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, first president of the United States. Thomas Jefferson called Washington "the best horseman of his age" and history credits him with introducing the mule to America.

At 6’2” and 200 pounds, Washington towered over most of his contemporaries. Like most Virginia farmers, Washington first raised tobacco, but in the mid 1760s, he was one of the first to switch to growing wheat with the vision that America could someday be a source of grain to the entire world.

Wheat farming back then was very labor-intensive. One back-breaking part of it was thrashing, or whipping the cut wheat about to separate grain from straw. This was where Washington got really creative. In 1792, he built a two-story, sixteen-sided treading barn. On the second floor, horses trotted around, trampling on the wheat and knocking the grain loose. The grain fell through cracks in the floorboards to the first floor where it would be collected. You can see a working replica in the TV show.

Washington engaged in other progressive farming practices such as composting manure for fertilizer, rotating his crops on a seven-year plan, and plowing his fields in such a way as to prevent soil erosion.

Washington raised sheep, hogs, turkeys, chickens and cows. He liked all animals, but he loved horses. He loved to buy them and sell them. He loved to race them, train them, hunt on them, drive them, and work the fields with them. Washington owned all kinds of horses, from Arabians, Andalusians, and Narragansetts, to Chincoteague ponies.

During the Revolution War, General Washington took two of his favorite horses to the front with him. One was a hunting horse called Blueskin, a spirited blue-gray horse with a lot of stamina. This is the light-colored horse you see in many paintings of Washington. But during most battles, Washington actually rode a horse named Nelson, a chestnut gelding that could handle cannon fire better.

Back on the farm, Washington's favorite horse was an Arabian stallion named Magnolia, one of the most beautiful horses in the colonies. Magnolia stood 16 hands high, was chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, and was a direct descendant of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the foundation sires of the Thoroughbred breed.

You mule lovers will appreciate this: the father of his country was also the "Father of the American Mule." Washington believed that the mule was the key to more profitable farming. They're stronger than horses, they eat less, they're more sure-footed, and they have greater endurance than horses. So after the war, Washington began to concentrate on breeding mules.

Washington's mule breeding program started with three stud donkeys, two of which were gifts from foreign leaders. Washington bred these jacks to his very best mares. He also sent his studs on a tour of the South to start a selective breeding program. Soon mules were in use across the country, working the land and serving the military.

George Washington died on December 14, 1799 at the age of 67. Ironically, the great warrior, farmer, and statesman died of complications from a cold. This threw the country into despair as Washington was universally loved and respected. His friend, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, captured popular sentiment in his eulogy for Washington, calling him, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Almost immediately after his death, writers began romanticizing Washington's life. Today it's sometimes hard to separate fact from fable. For instance, the famous story of young George fessing up about chopping on a cherry tree? Pure fiction.

Interesting fact: The great turning point in Washington’s life may have been the death of his father, Augustine. Although born in Virginia, George was to be educated in England and dreamed of going to sea with the British navy. All that changed when he became the man of the house at the tender age of 11.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thirty is the New Twenty

"Sixty is the new forty!" It's the battle cry of us baby boomers who just can't believe we're getting old. I suggest we cut that in half and make it a battle cry for our horses: "Thirty is the new twenty!" More horses can be comfortable and serviceable into their thirties. Alexander the Great’s war horse, Bucephalus, did it twenty three centuries ago, ranch horses do it today, and you’ve probably heard of other examples.

So why do some horses break down so much earlier? I think you know what I’m going to say. There are no simple answers. With that in mind, let’s consider some factors.
1. Too little exercise. You know you feel better when you are active. Your body is stronger and healthier. The same is true of horses. Horses that are worked every day as a rule have fewer health problems and a better shot at living into their thirties.
2. Too much exercise. Performance horses that are pushed too hard too young break down too soon. Enough said.
3. Wrong kind of feed. Grass hay should be the backbone of every horse’s diet. Minimize the alfalfa, the grain, and the sweet feed. Supplement the grass with an all-in-one packaged feed designed to go with grass.
4. Lack of socialization. The emotional strain on a herd animal that is not allowed to be with others of his kind has a cumulative effect. When horses are isolated and overprotected, it wears on their bodies much the way a high-stress job wears on yours.
5. Fate. Things happen. Healthy, well-managed horses get hurt or contract disease in spite of our best efforts. But why tempt fate?

If you’ve read my books and blogs, you know where I stand on the training and care of horses: make it as natural for the horse as possible. We cannot make life perfect for our horses any more than we can make it perfect for ourselves. But it’s important that we try.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Just a Trail Horse

How many times have you heard the words, "just a trail horse?" Fortunately, that low-horse-on-the-totem-pole image of the trail horse is on its way out and emerging in its place is that of a skilled and dependable partner, which, for most riders, is an ideal worth pursuing. Organizations such as the American Competitive Trail Horse Association have created ways to measure and document the development of trail horses. This gives structure to what in the past has been a largely unstructured leisure sport for horse owners. The unorganized, haphazard approach to trail riding is still perfectly legitimate and will appeal to some riders, but for those who want a bit more challenge, a bit more socializing with like-minded people, and a plan for adding tangible value to their horses, groups such as ACTHA may be the answer.

I rode in an ACTHA-sanctioned “Competitive Trail Challenge” recently with my mare, Candy. You can see the result on this week’s TV show. With virtually no preparation we aced two of the six trail obstacles on the six-mile course. I was stunned at how much better some of the other horse and rider teams were with these obstacles. Far from discouraging me, it gave me some new things to work on with my “trail horse.” Yes, ACTHA is a sponsor of my TV and radio shows but that only buys them commercials, not the personal opinion I express in my blogs. Bottom line, give it a try. See you on the trail!


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Balancing Gentleness and Firmness

It feels good to be gentle with a horse but sometimes he needs something else. Just as with a child, a horse sometimes needs to be reminded of who’s in charge and where the boundaries of space and behavior lie. When this is done without anger, without impatience, without emotion of any kind, the horse readily accepts the reminder and becomes more relaxed and willing, not because he’s afraid but because he recognizes that he is in the presence of a competent leader. This makes sense to him because it’s the way things are in a herd.
This is a very difficult message to get across to the riding public. Some clinicians tackle the issue of firmness head-on and refuse to mince words about it. Others dance around the issue to be sure they don’t lose anyone, hoping that the real message laid between the lines comes through. Clinton Anderson walks this fine line about as well as anyone I know. I’ve dug into the archives for a radio interview I did with him several years back on balancing firmness and gentleness. Enjoy.