April 2, 2017
I could fill a pretty good-sized horse-lover's encyclopedia annex with the things I had to leave out of the book, and the things I learned after it was done. Some of them are new scientific discoveries, and some are old-timey things I hadn't yet run across by my deadline.
Today's discovery is an oldterm--cited on the Internet in a book from 1911, for example--called 'chinning' a horse. It's a quick and dirty way to estimate a horse's height. You first need to measure how tall you are at the chin when standing upright, and then you go stand upright next to the horse's whithers and see where your chin hits.
I first got on the track of this in a Draft Horse Journal article. The author, a draft horse judge, was asked, "Why do you smell every horse in the ring?' In fact he was chinning them. I would imagine it's an easy way to fool yourself, if you don't stand exactly the same way measuring to your own chin as you do measuring a horse, or if you shrink with age. But it was useful in the past, and probably you get better at it with practice.
Now I need to go measure my chin height, and go up and see the horses. I believe Robin is around 14.2, Martha is around 15.00, and Zeke--who knows? Maybe I will soon.
March 28, 2017
The pastures are still mostly white and any bare ground is brown, so file this under wishful thinking--but what's the best way to avoid foundering a horse in spring?
I have been doing a bit of research on that, and find that I was laboring under a couple of misconceptions.
One is the assumptionthat by not fertilizing my pasture I was keeping it 'leaner' and safer for the horses. Not so. The sugar is concentrated near the ground in over-grazed pasture, which is why they keep gnawing it down, and how they manage to fatten so handily in the autumn, when it looks like there's no grass left. If I fertilized, the grass would use that sugar for growth, which would also create more fiber. Less of the bad stuff, more of the good.
I don't want to use chemical fertilizer, as it kills soil bacteria which build tilth and carbon in the soil. So I'll be looking into alternatives.
Good things I've been doing forever? Carefully controlling spring grazing, starting with an hour at a time in the morning, and slowly increasing the amount of hours they get to graze. I knew that was important, but did not understand that it was mostly about the bacteria in the hindgut. The ones that digest fructans apparently die out during a winter of eating hay, and need time to repopulate. Gradual adjustment is important. One year I had a brain-fart and let the horses out for four hours their first time out. We all got lucky and there were no bad consequences, but that was not the way to do it.
Grazing in the morning is helpful in spring and fall, when the nights are cold. Sugar production in the grasses peaks in the afternoon and evening during that time. Luckily it's much easier to bring horses in and out during daylight hours. Later in the year, the bugs help me manage grazing time. Horses go out early, and come back to the barn when the flies start to bother them.
Spring grass is low in magnesium. I've been supplementing with magnesium in the spring for a couple of years and will keep that up. But it's time to step up my game on pasture management. I thought the lazy way was the right way, but apparently not. Now to investigate the best organic way to improve pasture.
March 21, 2017
In revising The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia, (and earlier, writing Horse Crazy!), one of my goals was to expand awareness of the draft horse scene. How do I know it's a scene? Largely due to my mother's subscription to The Draft Horse Journal.
Founded in 1964 by Maury and Jeannine Telleen, DHJ is published quarterly. A subscription is $35, and it's a bargain. Articles are both in-depth and wide-ranging, covering both the North American draft horse and draft horses around the globe. There are regular columns by a veterinarian and a lawyer, and jokes scattered around on the bottoms of the pages for extra smiles.
The Winter 2017 issue features articles on leading Clydesdale sires, a working field-day for Brabant horses, the equine artist Shannon Lawlor, horse-powered haying and Christmas tree operations, and "Testosterone and the Breeding Stallion." Production values are high and the photography is often beautiful. If you had the impression that draft horses were a thing of the past, DHJ will change your mind. Horse prices are high at the many annual sales, horse pulling and big hitches are going strong, and many people enthusiastically use horses on the farm. DHJ sponsors and reports on Horse Progress Days, an annual field day at which innovative horse-drawn farm equipment makes its debut. Yes, innovation is still happening in the field of horse-drawn farm equipment!
I particularly love the way DHJ articles take me beyond what I already know. In a recent article about logging in the Ardennes forest, I was startled, even concerned, to see a single horse being driven up onto a pile of logs. Turns out these large horses (the Ardennes breed looks similar to the Brabant) are taught to step onto the logs to help settle and organize them into a compact pile. I wouldn't have thought a horse could be taught to do that, calmly and matter-of-factly, as part of the normal course of work.
The horse is driven using a jerk-line. Two reins made of rope combine into a single line that comes back to the driver's hand. Gentle tugs and voice commands allow for sophisticated communication. The command "un pas" (one step) is especially important.
To see a horse who looks like an intelligent boulder, thoughtfully trampling a pile of logs, expands my mind to the possibilities between human and horse. It's reason enough to subscribe to this great magazine--or in my case, freeload off my mom! Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Draft Horse Journal.
March 20, 2017
You live and learn. Sometimes you don't learn soon enough to put it in your big new encyclopedia. That's why you won't find tombstone hay feeders in The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia. The phrase was new to me when I spotted it in an equipment ad. Sounded grim and dramatic.
So I looked it up. Turns out "tombstone" refers to the shape of the metal gizmos that form the slots. They look like a circle of old-time tombstones. Tombstone feeders with their rounded shoulders are better for horses because the smooth shape doesn't catch and pull out mane hair. Horses slip their heads through and eat--though I would worry that my dominant mare would come around and chase the other two, and they could get hurt if they were caught with their heads through the slot.
My guess is that they would worry too, and would adopt a snatch, pull out, and munch outside the feeder style of eating. That's why a basket-style feeder would be better for a herd with bossy horses in it. Horses don't put their head into the basket at all. They pull hay through, as they do from a manger or hay net.
Right now though, my horses are eating hay from piles on the snow, and getting lots of exercise walking (or being chased) from pile to pile. It's the most natural way, and they sure look pretty out there.
March 13, 2017
THANK YOU FOR BEING LATE, the new book by Thom Friedman, has me thinking about the pace of change in modern life. Shocking to think that the i-phone came out in 2007! Facebook, Twitter, just getting off the ground. They feel like they've been around forever--but forever is briefer these days, apparently.
One seismic changein the horse world since 2000, when The Horse-Lover's Encyclopedia edition 1 came out is the rise of Natural Horsemanship (NH). Back then it wasn't even an entry, and 'round pen' wasn't a verb. Today NH is huge, with popular clinicians like Pat Parelli having enormous followings, and almost everybody has some idea of how to do 'round penning.'
NH has its critics, too, many of them among what may be the next tidal wave poised to sweep the horse community. It's difficult to put a name to this group. In fact, many of those I conceptually place in a single bucket would resist being included with some of the others, possibly with good reason. I'm open to hearing arguments about that, but here's how I see it at the moment.
There's a movement toward softer forms of training, and in some cases, keeping riding completely voluntary on the horse's part. Clicker training; groups like Empowered Equestrians, who use and understand terms like +R, and aspire to train horses using only +R methods. People who will not ride a horse unless he clearly signals his desire to be ridden.
There are research groups like ISES (International Society for Equitation Science) and universities studying equine cognition and behavior, and who have brought us fascinating new info like the blanket study, and new insight into how horses see us. (Hint: wipe that frown off your face before you walk into the barn!).
There are people who love horses, but have no interest in riding, who are coming out of the shadows and claiming their right to be horse-owners on their own terms. Some of them 'just' feed and love on their horses. Others play with them (careful!) and some take part in sports like Equine Agility. This dovetails with another group who would like to compete in a mild sort of way, but don't want to truck horses anywhere. Some of them participate in contests where you set up and video, or score, a test, then email it in. (Agility, Mounted Archery.)
Then there are the myriad of sports that expand our idea of what a good horse can do. Far beyond the categories of my youth--English, Western, trail, racing--these extend into Iberian riding traditions with doma vaquera and Working Equitation, expand ranch horse concepts with Extreme Cowboy competitions, and move way past the old trail classes.
It all feels like its moving a lot faster than it used to. It's much easier to start a new sport, spread the word about it, get in touch with like minded folks, and even compete remotely. Our idea of horsemanship is getting gentler, more nuanced, more scientifically informed, and more multi-cultural.
I tried to touch on as many elements of this as I could in the new HORSE-LOVER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA. But we had to be brief, for reasons of space, and we still ended up with a three-pound book! Still, it makes a good jumping-off point. Mounted archery? Who even knew that was a thing? Except the Mongols, the Scythians, and our remote Indo-European-speaking horse-riding ancestors--and now, the practitioners of this multi-cultural new sport. Korean, Hungarian, and other forms exist, there's a serious degree of costume involved, and the process of teaching horses to tolerate having arrows fired from their backs leads to calm and a high degree of control. It's all really exciting. Can't wait to see where horsemanship goes in the next fifteen years.
March 6, 2017
My newest passion is soil carbon. Soil is where much of the atmospheric carbon that is causing so many headaches came from in the first place, and the good news is that we can put it back, quickly, using a very old technology called plants.
Plants build humus in soil through a process of feeding the bacteria and fungi that support plant growth, in a mutually beneficial cycle. Grazing can help or hurt that cycle. The good news is that permanent pasture accomplishes one main goal of soil-builders--not plowing. Opening the soil up to wind, rain, and sun leaches carbon out rapidly. So our hay fields and horse pasture are doing that much right.
And I feel pretty good about the hay fields with regard to carbon. Half of the field gets only manure, no chemical fertilizer. Fertilizer damages the carbon cycle--basically, the plants stop feeding their micro-organism buddies because they are getting fuel elsewhere, but as fertilizer is applied as a top-dressing, it encourages shallow roots.
The hay fields get lightly grazed in the spring. Pulses of grazing stress the plants in a good way, allowing even more carbon to build in the soils.
My concern is with my pasture, and whether I can afford to do what I would like to do--build carbon--and still keep my horses in good health. The problem with Morgans and Belgians is that they can't stand too much prosperity. Both breeds are prone to laminitis on rich pasture. Ideally I would be dividing my pasture into paddock and rotationally grazing them. But I don't have quite enough pasture during midsummer for that to work. If I bring up the fertility so the grass grows better, will I create a health problem?
This is something I'm committed to studying. The horses' health must come first, but I'd love a way that the soil could also be improved. The good news, for the horses and the soil, may be the weeds. With their deeper taproots, they access more minerals. If I clip them before they seed, they open up the soil as the roots die, reducing compaction. And horses do graze a number of these weeds, sometimes seasonally, which I believe is beneficial to their health. I just read an account from an English breeder of successful race horses, who never fertilized pasture, and believed that a healthy pasture for horses should support 50 weed species. I'll be out there counting this summer, and meanwhile, I'll go on researching. If you have experience in this area, I'd love to hear about it.
February 28, 2017
It's muddy, icy, snowy, wet, and miserable out on the woodland trails right now, here in Vermont. But in a few months it will be trail riding weather.
In the meantime, we can dream and get prepared. One of the nicest ways is to pick up a copy of Naturally Curious, Day By Day, by Mary Holland. This gorgeous book takes you on a day by day tour of the Northeastern woods, fields, and marshes. Holland is a gifted photographer, and lucky. This book is like having your most fortunate day ever out in nature, and then having 351 more of them all in a row. From snow fleas so bobcats, ferns to foxes, Holland reveals the life going on all around us, and the tiny signs of events that are so easy to overlook. I found the book completely absorbing. I have given two copies away to elderly people who can't get out in the woods anymore, and they, too, found it fascinating.
So if that's you, if trail riding is just not happening for you anymore, Naturally Curious makes a very pleasurable substitute. And if you have lived in the woods for 35 years, as I have, I guarantee you'll be saying, about every other page, "I didn't know that."
I understand that was the reaction of the launch committee down at Storey Publishing, when they saw the first copy of The Horse Lover's Encyclopedia. I hope so. I would love to think that my book could also bring readers as much pleasure and education as Naturally Curious, Day By Day, has brought me.
February 25, 2017
A 700,000 year old horse fossil discovered in the Yukon Territory has yielded the oldest DNA ever decoded, according to Western Dig, a website devoted to the Ancient West. (Who knew there was such a site? I'm almost as excited about that as I am about the horse bones!)
The findings allowed scientists to date the shared ancestor or all equines (horses, donkeys and zebras) back 4 million years. Previously this ancestor had thought to date to 2 million years ago. Comparison between modern horse DNA, the Przewalski Horse, and a previous fossil, allowed them to establish a "molecular clock"--no, I don't understand this, but I appreciate it.
The article contains a link to another, which finds that humans in Oregon lived in the at the same time as a "stocky-legged" horse. Remains of both were found in caves. The paleontologist who examined the bones, Brianna McHorse (really!) believes that further analysis may help us understand if there were many types of horse in North America fourteen thousand years ago, or just a couple.
I'm curious about that, but also about the cave itself, and the Paleo-Indians who may have lived in it. I have always wondered about the meaning of the legend, which I think is widespread among American Indians, that their ancestors came out of a hole in the ground. Is this an ancestral memory of cave-dwelling? Or did the so-called "ice-free corridor" feel like living in a hole? Or what?
Somebody, build a time machine. Please!
February 21, 2017
Looking at my two classically bred Morgan mares out eating their hay this morning, I admired for the umpteenth time Robin's beautiful long legs. She is a fourteen-two hand mare with a round barrel--I won't reveal what the weight tape said about her poundage. Let's just say she has well-sprung ribs!
Her elbow isabout level with my waist. The elbow of her companion, the fifteen-hand Woodgate Martha V, comes only up to my hip.
This evening I got out the weight tape to confirm this measurement. Indeed, there is a four inch difference. Robin is 36 inches at the elbow. Martha is 32 inches. Martha declared that in her former life she was only measured with an oak measuring stick with brass ferrule, the hundred-dollar or so kind, not a free grain store weight tape. So I was unable to compare their weights, and we have a little training project for tomorrow.
Both these mares have a lot of Flyhawk and old Government breeding. Martha V is by the tall, athletic stallion, UVM Springfield. Robin is by the small, athletic stallion River Echo Hamilton. At pasture running together, they often look startlingly alike, making the same head motions and flagging their tails in a similar way. Yet standing still, they are very different in type and conformation. It would take a wiser person than me to run through their bloodlines and see just where Martha gets her extreme depth of body, and the characteristic of being rather heavy on the forehand, and where Robin gets her race-horse balance.
Robin bears a startling resemblance to a classic trotting horse broodmare of the 19th century, Green Mountain Maid. She doesn't descend from the Maid, but shares crosses to Henry Clay and Iron's Cadmus, horses in the classic mare's pedigree. Green Mountain Maid has a statue in her honor out in California, and $10,000 was offered for her when she was 20 years old. The offer was turned down. (Thanks to the excellent research of Brenda Tippin for this info, and the photo of Green Mountain Maid which you can see by following the link. Same lovely long legs, same butt, same belly, same white hind feet, and very similar head. They could easily be mistaken for the same horse. I wouldn't take $10,000 for Robin, either.
February 19, 2017
In Vermont in winter, my horse activities boil down to careful feeding, watering and shoveling, greetings and once-overs, and a lot of reading by the wood stove. I hope some of this reading will stay with me into spring and summer, when it's possible to work horses again.
A book I'm reading this winter is Lead With Your Heart; Lessons From A Life With Horses, by Allan J. Hamilton.
This beautiful small book is not a training manual, not a book of theory, not a story. Instead, 112 short meditations, each titled with a short aphorism, consider categories like Teaching and Learning, Energy and Emotion, and Breaking Through. Hamilton believes in good observation, in becoming still within, in taking the time it takes but not drilling the horse into a state of boredom. But my summaries don't give you the poetry of his writing; this is one to look at for yourself, to enjoy for the design as well as the words, to savor slowly, put down periodically while reading to think about your own horse, and situations you've been in with him.
We aren't all lucky enough to have a wise mentor in our lives, especially atthose crucial training moments. But if you read Lead With Your Heart slowly and thoughtfully, it may be that one of these aphorisms will come to mind at one of those moments. Like, "A windy day can make a horse stupid." Or, "More than four is a bore." (In other words, don't drill a new behavior to death. Three or four repeats, then do something else.) "Find the curve of compromise." That is, approach a horse's shoulder, on a curving line, greet, then turn away.
This paragraph stood out for me. "When the problem starts to seem too complex or stubborn, we need to stop. It means we are close to a new revelation. That is where the turmoil is coming from. There must be a moment of torque before there is traction . . . "
The book is illustrated with beautiful photo-collages by Robert Farkas, and is handsomely designed. Published by Storey in 2016.
February 16, 2017
The fire department rescues Gale from a snowy ditch. Her legs weren't even touching bottom.
This is a cow story, but it applies to horse lovers and horse owners as well. Sometime in the wee hours, my parents wee cows, very short-legged, barrel-shaped Irish Dexters, went walkabout. They explored the hay barn and the shed where the grain is stored--safely in an old chest freezer. They ate all the bird seed out of the feeder.
Then they trudged a quarter of a mile up the road to the neighbors' house to check on their bird feeder. When my husband and I arrived to help, one cow was being escorted back down the road, one was waiting at home and mooing very loudly, and one was still at the neighbors, thinking about taking a shortcut through my horse fence.
I lured her away from that and we got her headed down the road, but when she came to our parked car she veered off into the ditch, which is especially deep in that spot and full of fresh snow. She floundered, sank, and gave up, apparently ready to wait there till spring. Clearly my husband and I and my 87-year-old dad were not going to shift her.
Enter the Westminster Fire Department. About twelve guys arrived with a Rescue truck and a winch, the sheriff parked at the top of the hill, my large animal vet and next door neighbor appeared on the scene, and after a lot of digging and thinking, they put soft shackles on her hind legs and dragged her out backward. Once they had her on the road they let her lie up on her breast for a few minutes while they spread kitty litter all around her. Then Stephen (the vet) bumped her in the shoulder with his knees while somebody else tailed her up. She got to her feet and headed for home, none the worse for her ordeal.
My takeaway--the volunteer fire department is the best, when you need a lot of muscle in a hurry. I appreciated how thoughtful and quiet they were, and knew they had the cow's health and safety in mind. If you own large animals in a rural area, get to know those guys. Donate, bake for them when they're on a rough call, or volunteer yourself if you are that kind of person. Sometimes large animal veterinarians give classes on rescuing animals. Maybe you could underwrite one for the education of your fire department.
Also, keep kitty litter on hand. I would not have thought of it, but I think a bucket rides around in every fire truck in Vermont, and that's as it should be. Thank you, guys!
February 15, 2017
My beautiful barefoot boy. Still miss him!
I've kept my horses bare foot for most of my life. Not that I'm against shoes. I know they can be essential in certain situations, and they were invented for a reason, to solve the problems of a horseback, horse-drawn society. We are not that society anymore, and my horses are lightly ridden, mostly on grass. Atherton went 18 years never wearing shoes. Robin has never worn them. I've never bought boots for them, either.
I save a lot of money that way, and all other things being equal, I do believe it's best for horses to live as naturally as possible.
That said, it's interesting to see that Houston switched all its police horses over to bare foot several years ago, and has found that the horses' health has greatly improved. They have even seen a reduction in colic cases. It looks to me like there are other variables, like a new facility with turnout continuously available--probably the most important thing you can offer a horse. The switch was done thoughtfully, on an individual basis, and lo and behold, the hoof that evolved for plains and tundra is pretty decent on pavement too. Good to know!
February 14, 2017
Horses are not human.
Obvious, right? I don't mean they aren't persons, or individuals, or that they don't have feelings, or that I don't love them. I mean that they do not have human bodies, or human needs. They have horse needs, for horse bodies and minds that evolved in different circumstances than ours did.
I keep my horses beside a well-traveled road. That means the general public can see how they live and form opinions, and I'm sure many people would feel much happier to see my three wrapped up in cozy blankets.
But here's the deal. That's not what they evolved for. It's not what they need.
In a fascinating article on the Soul of a Horse blog, Natalja Aleksandrova discusses how horses' winter coats, and the fat they accumulate in the autumn, insulate them from cold. The ability of the hair to fluff up and stand out from the body, and the oil that prevents water from penetrating from the skin, can all be compromised by the tender loving care we give them. Blankets can flatten the coat. Grooming can remove the oils. A cozy winter stable can raise levels of ammonia (from urine, manure, and bedding) and cause lung problems.
So my horses stay unblanketed, with access to turnout 24/7. They generally go ungroomed from November until the hair starts to fly. I'll admit that I didn't know why these were good practices until today. They worked well for my horses for some 50 years, though, and now I know more about why.
February 13, 2017
Coming in March
Another change in name for this far-too-occasional blog. But only yesterday did I realize what it should be called, and what it should focus on. (What can I say? Sometimes I'm a slow learner!)
My new book, coming in March, is the revised and updated Horse Lover's Encyclopedia, published by Storey. I spent months thinking about horses every single day. It was my job. Recently I wrote an article for Muse, the children's science magazine, about the horse blanket study--more on that later. In both cases I had a ball.
And yesterday I was thinking about difficult-to-trailer-alone horses, and found a study showing that horses with a mirror in the trailer travel much more calmly. I love that stuff! And that's what I'm going to do on this blog from now on.
Think of it as an extension to the encyclopedia, because we couldn't make that a bazillion pages long, and because new scitorence and new training methods are popping up every day. I'll try to keep up with it, and I'll try to help you do the same. Let me know if you like it.
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Hoofprints; Horse Poems; the jacket art is by Alison D. Rieder.
Keeping Barney, my first novel
Woodgate Martha V.
At the Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque
Saige and I presenting at the Mater Christi School
Saige and Picasso, the Spanish Barb horse, beautifully created by Sarah Davis.
Atherton and Zeke