Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Walking the Walk


It was still north of 100 degrees in Phoenix on September 14th when we loaded up the animals and headed for Montana. I was to teach an intensive college course in Dillon and Diana was looking forward to a month of focusing on her own studies without the usual distractions.

With Angus the cat, we set up housekeeping in our Featherlite a block from the university. The horses had even better accommodations: fifteen acres of natural terrain just outside town, all the grass hay they wanted (a local blend with just a hint of alfalfa) and a herd of horses and mules to share it with.

Two weeks later the mercury plummeted to single digits and snow covered everything, including our horses. It was decision time. Should I try to protect my horses from the elements or just leave them alone?

Let me back up for a moment and explain something. I have taught – okay, preached – the evils of micromanaging horses for many years. I’ve advocated setting them up in as natural a setting as possible, giving them the right kind of high-forage feed, letting them find their place in a larger herd, and then getting out of the way. As a theory, it’s hard to beat. But when you are standing in the snow and can no longer feel your own toes or fingers, it’s hard to believe your horses don’t share your discomfort. That was my moment of truth.

Our Icelandic mare, Fidla, was not the problem. She thought she’d died and gone to horsey Heaven. But my Quarter Horse mare, Candy, was thin-coated from years in the desert, and although she didn’t seem the least bit distressed, I could see her shiver now and then. What should I do?

I knew what I would tell others: provide free choice grass hay to warm the horses from the inside, give them full contact with the rest of the herd, and make sure they had a windbreak available to them. Check, check, check. It was too cold for rain, which was actually a good thing. Candy’s coat needed to fluff up and trap air to insulate her from the cold. Rain would impede that.

The local vet, Lane Carlson, concurred. So, with expert advice and my own observations to bolster my confidence, I decided to do what I always told other horse owners to do: get out of the way. I had talked the talk for long enough. It was time to walk the walk.

Know what happened? Nothing. We kept a close watch on the horses, made sure they were eating and drinking plenty, and just let the storm pass. Within a few days, temperatures had shot back up, most of the snow had melted, and our horses were none the worse for wear.

What I learned from this is that there are times to think with my brain and times to listen to my heart. It probably would not have hurt my horses to move them to a barn somewhere or blanket them – the horse is one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet – but it really wasn’t necessary. Horses adapt to the natural world and the challenges in it just fine without us running interference for them. In fact, they become stronger and more able to cope when we let them face such challenges.

I’m reminded of a slide in one of my PowerPoint lectures: often the kindest thing you can do for a horse is to simply leave him alone.

By the way, special thanks to Lanie and Cecil Jones for their hospitality and friendship during our Montana venture. They have created the most perfect horsekeeping setup I’ve seen.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Do we still need to call it "natural" horsemanship?

Reporting from lovely (and now snowy) Dillon, Montana where I'm halfway through teaching my first college course on natural horsemanship. This is UM Western's final course in a four-year degree program on NH so my class is very savvy. They think we should drop the “natural” and just call it horsemanship. What do you think? Do we still need to make the distinction?
Professor Lamb aka Rick