Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ride fast. Take chances.

This week’s TV show is a bit different. For one thing, you’ll see extreme sculptor, Ben Risney, carve a horse’s head out of a pine stump with nothing but chain saws. I was there and I still can’t believe what he did! You’ll also meet Tommie Turvey, Jr. and his sister, Karen, two consummate horsemen who routinely do things with horses I also find difficult to fathom.

The Turveys are two of the hardest working people I know. They live show business every moment of every day. Not the popular image of showbiz, with the glamour and parties. They live the real showbiz with its long hours, hard work, countless details, dirt, sweat, and sore muscles. It’s a family tradition started a generation earlier with mom, Corky, and dad, Tommie, Sr.

Tommie and Karen have caused me to see things a bit differently. The popular wisdom in natural horsemanship is that you get a horse because of his mind and his temperament. “A good horse is a good color” is the catch phrase often used. Tommie does just the opposite. “I choose a horse for how he looks,” Tommie explains. “That’s the only thing I can’t change with training.”

Tommie and Karen have also adopted the motto: Ride Fast. Take Chances. Again, not what I would advise my audience, but I sure understand why they say that. Their stock-in-trade is thrilling an audience and they are masters of it. Watch this week’s show – just click on the gold arrow and give the file a couple minutes to load – and you’ll see snippets of some of their performances, as well as Tommie teaching me to drive a chariot.

I suppose the take-away message here is simply to keep your mind open to new points of view. Try to learn from every person and every horse you run into. And if you ever feel like you have it all figured out, ask the next person you see to give you a swift kick in the pants. Ride fast and take chances … or have fun and ride safely. This week, you take your pick.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lameness Locator

Two decades ago, Dr. Kevin Keegan at the University of Missouri wondered how good subjective lameness detection was. He gathered together a group of experienced equine veterinarians and had them evaluate the same group of horses for lameness. He discovered that they disagreed a lot. A whole lot - 75% of the time.

The vets all knew what to look for. With a sound horse performing a trot, the movement of the left half of the body mirrors exactly that of the right. If it doesn’t, something is amiss. But when lameness is mild, the human eye isn’t fast enough to register the subtle asymmetry, much less pinpoint the limb involved or the internal structures of the limb that are responsible for the pain.

Determined to find a way around the limitations of the human eye and brain, Dr. Keegan began experimenting with treadmills, markers, and high-speed cameras, collecting any and all data he could with no clear idea of how he might use it. Eventually, with the assistance of top-flight electronics engineers at Mizzou and in Japan, he arrived at the system he now calls the Lameness Locator.

It is a far cry from those early treadmills and cameras. For one thing, you can fit the entire system in a briefcase and take it directly to the horse. Physical components include matchbox-sized sensors mounted on the horse (two accelerometers and one gyroscope) and a tablet PC receiving wireless transmissions from the sensors and doing the motion analysis. Sophisticated custom software ties it all together and produces graphic reports. Watch the show here and you can see it at work.

I’m a bit of a technology geek but I still find that many new gadgets are solutions in search of problems. This is one case where the cart did not get in front of the horse. A real problem was solved with really cool technology. Now in its final stage of testing, the Lameness Locator should be in widespread use in the years to come.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Horseman’s Strength

Working on this week’s TV show about the Budweiser Clydesdales got me to thinking about why big horses allow us puny humans to control them. I’ve heard it speculated that they simply don’t know how strong they are. That may be true. There are many things horses don’t “know” the way we humans know them.

What horses do know – and we conclude this by observing them – is that it’s very important to be able to move one’s feet freely. In fact, in the horse’s world free movement is more than important; it’s an obsession. It is the key to living another day.

Accepting this fact about the horse’s nature is where every horseman’s journey must start. It’s why so much emphasis is placed these days on groundwork, for it is through groundwork that the horseman proves he can control the horse’s movement. Riding then becomes much simpler.

Note that control comes not from the horseman’s weight, muscular strength, or athletic prowess. It comes from understanding, respecting, and expertly using the horse’s nature as a unique animal species. We cannot force a horse to do anything but we can manipulate conditions to where it becomes easiest for him to do our bidding. Our idea becomes his idea. Outthinking the horse, rather than overpowering him, is the horseman’s stock-in-trade.

Horses do not think the way we do, but they do understand this basic truth: a creature that can control the movement of my feet is worthy of my respect. A creature that can do it without making me fear for my safety is worthy of my trust. Someone I respect and trust is someone I will follow, no matter how big he or she may be.