Thin Horses, Body Scoring, and Inconvenience.

gray-butt-2

Start here: There is no rule that says when a horse’s age goes up, his weight needs to come down. Age is no excuse for thin horses.

It’s my Grandfather Horse on the right in the photo. You can tell he’s three-times the age of the other horse because he’s sway-backed. He was thirty when he passed, with a list of maladies a mile long: nearly toothless, blown tendons, arthritis, heart murmur, cancer, and near the end, some sort of stroke… but his weight was just dandy. #ageisnoexcuse.

I have a filthy habit. I attend horse abuse cases in court. On sunny days, when I could be giving lessons or working with my horses, I sit in rooms with no windows to listen to lies. This week, two of us from Colorado Horse Rescue Network drove to the next county to sit in court. If I was guaranteed convictions with real penalties, I’d call it a guilty pleasure

The hard part of this dark hobby is listening to the evidence. Testimony on behalf of the horses includes the state of the facility; the quantity of manure, along with usual empty water tanks, and lack of feed. There are usually statements about the condition of the horse’s feet and their teeth, but their weight is the most visible symptom. We use a BCS (body condition score) rating system to describe the physical state of the horse on a scale from one to nine.

The most common excuse that lousy horse owners use to justify neglecting their horses is claiming that older horses are just naturally skinny. And yes, there are a million other flimsy excuses for how horses get to this sad state, but it’s ridiculous how often you hear the “old horse” excuse. Ridiculous how many elders that end up at auctions look like the walking dead. Ridiculous how little it takes for these same elders (without health issues) to regain a healthy weight.

Disclaimer: Sometimes good horse-people get into trouble. There could be a death in the family or a job loss. Law enforcement doesn’t want to seize horses; it’s actually a complicated process. They would rather help the owner find a solution. By the time charges get filed, it generally means that the owner has refused a few ideas.

How to tell the difference between an owner who’s trying and actual neglect? My personal rule is that if the water tanks are empty, it’s a bad sign. Water is free, after all. Even if it is inconvenient to walk out to the pen.

Horses who lose weight with feed available probably have a dental problem. Equine teeth “erupt” through horse’s lives; they continue to grow. Daily grazing wears the teeth down but as time passes, sometimes the teeth don’t wear evenly, leaving sharp hooks and edges that result in painful ulcers inside the mouth and less effective mastication (chewing) means less of the nutrition in the hay is available to the horse and he loses weight… not because of his age.

Good horse-people get dental care for their horses; “floating” is the process of filing the teeth level to improve the tooth surface for effective chewing.

Confession: Growing up, I don’t remember seeing floats done. We were poor farmers and my father dispatched “useless” animals that were thin or old. Times change and when we know better, we can do better. Ignorance is no excuse. Checking teeth is part of a routine vet check. Unless, of course, a horse doesn’t get consistent veterinary care, either.

Sometimes in a pen of horses, a few will be an okay weight but others will be too thin. They are being under-fed. The more assertive horses are eating the hay while the more submissive ones are starving. It’s still neglect; don’t wait until they are all emaciated.

So, there you are in court, listening to a cloud of evidence: some combination of no hay, or no vet care, or just lies and excuses. The defendant always has friends in the court, ready to testify on behalf of the abuser. I always wonder if they are such good friends, why didn’t they step in and offer help before things got so bad?

Last year in court, at the end of a full week of expert testimony about the horrific neglect that had resulted in the death of over half of her herd, I listened to a life-long horse-owner explain to the jury, in a perfectly reasonable way, that her horses weren’t show horses and they just didn’t need that level of care. I looked to the jury and no one’s chin was on their chest. It sounded almost rational. Almost believable.

Don’t be fooled. Neglect is failing to provide adequate care to any animal you possess and it’s against the law.

Now for the rant: I know caring for animals is inconvenient. It’s just true–endless time and endless money. And as time passes, you might have to soak mush or buy bags of senior feed. But still, the crime isn’t getting old– it’s lacking the compassion to inconvenience yourself.

I want to ask a favor. Remembering every chubby old sway-backed horse you’ve known, please consider posting a photo of them on your Facebook page and copy/paste the hashtag #AgeIsNoExcuse to the Colorado Horse Rescue Network page. Then “like” the other photos there. Help us debunk the “skinny old horse” myth.

If you feel you owe a debt to horses in your life, please participate in our legal system. Bear witness in court; let them know the community cares about animal welfare. Too many times people put their personal convenience above the needs of others, when it’s our character at stake.

And if you see a thin horse, kindly ask the owner about floating. Make it easy; say that you didn’t always know about it, either. Give them the chance to do the right thing.

lilith-arthur-2

Here’s our foster, Lilith. She arrived in May, extremely elderly, rail thin, and with, in the equine dentist’s words, “expired teeth.” This fall, I cut back on her feed, worried that too much weight would make her move a little stiffer than she does already…

#AgeIsNoExcuse

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Email Subject Line: “Do I Want a Horse?”

wm-winter-night-feed

February 2nd, 10 pm, 12 degrees. There was dense fog all day. We didn’t see the sun and the temperature stayed in the teens. My barn is full now, with three fosters visiting, on top of the usual herd of boarded horses and my family horses.

It’s time for the night feeding; double socks in my muck boots, sweats over my pajama bottoms, coat zipped to the very top, and two layers of hats and gloves. The dogs come with me as I carry two buckets of warm mush. One is for the elderly toothless donkey who can’t stay warm by chewing hay all night like the others. There’s some of her supper frozen in her feed-pan; she’s a slow eater. The other bucket is for two of the fosters who could use just a bit extra on such a bitter night. Everyone else gets extra hay, a flake of alfalfa, and a visual once-over.

I’ve fallen hard enough on icy ground that I’ve had to catch my breath and then crawl to a safe place to stand again; I swear, icy nights are more dangerous than horses. So, it’s small steps, testing my boot cleats as I go around the barn to throw hay in the back pen. I want to put eyes on everyone, but now my headlamp is flickering. A bit of whacking and head-shaking works and when I’m finally satisfied everyone is okay, I head back to the house and un-peel. My boots and coat are off when I remember the water. There’s one tank that I should have topped off. The layers come back on and I waddle out the back door again, with fewer dogs this time.

My barn hydrant has been frozen all week, so I’ve rolled out hose from the far side of the house. I can’t stand the thought of hose-wrangling on this night, when the frost is as thick as snow, so I walk a pair of five-gallon buckets instead.

Here’s why you should particularly not feel sorry for me. Right about now, I set the buckets down, pull my phone out, and take my gloves off. It’s so beautiful that, even in the dark, I take a few shots. It all looks night-vision green in my view finder and my eyes are too cold to focus. Then as I deliver the water, Edgar Rice Burro exhales a staccato series of heavy breaths, his precursor to braying, and I give him an extra scratch before going in for the night.

Thursday is blog night, these last seven years, so the dogs and I go to my studio to start writing. If there’s anything less romantic than below-freezing trips to the barn, it’s pounding out a blog past bed-time. Feel no sympathy for me; I’m hooked.

I’ve been thinking about an email I received from a stranger. The subject line asked, “Do I Want a Horse?” What a silly question, of course, you do.

The email was from a woman of a certain age, who has taken riding lessons every week for a couple of years but dreams of having horses at her home. Her husband and family think she shouldn’t; she thinks I might be impartial since I don’t know her. Really? I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. Even now, I’m haunted every day by the desire to have a horse.

It was a serious question and I gave her a serious answer. Keeping a horse at home is ugly work, not just for the weather. It’s constant fence repair and mucking and less time to ride than you imagine. I reeled off the numbers; cost of care, feed, vets, farriers, and all the rest. But the money is the easiest part.

Horses are somehow both accident prone and dangerous. They get hurt or sick and it isn’t always obvious until it’s bad. It takes years to gain the required knowledge and methods to keep them well. Then, she’ll need two; it’s cruel to own one horse. And she’ll need a truck and trailer and a safe place to ride. Or if she hauls to ride or have lessons, the horse left home might have anxiety, so maybe three horses are a better number. It gets complicated fast.

The heartfelt wish to have a horse is the selfish and easy part. I tell her it isn’t so simple to just get rid of them if it doesn’t work out. I give her the commitment talk. And of course, she must include them in her will to avoid them landing in rescue or on a truck to Mexico, if they outlive her. Then I urge her to make a list of what she’d be willing to give up if push comes to shove.

Sometimes parents ask me about a horse for their kid (and none of us are much more mature than that) and I always say no, don’t do it. Instead, lease a horse at a barn. When we get it wrong, it’s the horse that suffers.

But if the kid (you) can’t eat, or sleep, and begs relentlessly for at least a year, then consider getting a horse. But only do this thing if you think you’ll die without one. Know that you will see ugly things that will haunt you forever and you’ll be terrified a good part of the time. It’s a lot to go through for the view of a horse outside your window. Then, take the leap, if you must.

I never candy-coat horse ownership, but what I don’t say (and what I really believe) is that there’s too much cheap talk about loving horses. I never think it’s about owning one. I think we need to own all of them–each one of us literally owning each one of them.

I wish it was all more absolute. Not just the conditional love of a personal horse, or loving a breed of horses, but accepting the old crippled ones, the babies that need care and training, and the ones destroyed by abuse and neglect. It’s about track horses and plow horses and horses past any kind of work. It’s volunteering at a local rescue or therapeutic program when you’re done at home. It’s taking in an elder in the name of a heart-horse you’ve lost. And when your barn is full, then get out the checkbook and spend whatever’s left there to support local riding programs and rescues. Show up and witness abuse cases in court; call your elected officials on horses’ behalf. Then hope to encourage others by your example.

Do I think you should you get a horse? No. You should get all of them.

20170202_210549-2

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Thankful for You.

thanks-2

 

I’m doing something different today, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. When I started my blog, almost eight years ago now, I had a nebulous thought. It was inane, and simplistic, and lacked any kind of forward-thinking plan. And it was personal.

I wanted to help horses, simply because they have helped me.

You have to love a plan so huge and formless that there seems no way to start it, but that one-step-at-a-time method works, if pursued with a mule-like tenacity. At the same time, it occurred to me that I was a forced reader (a trainer’s responsibility to stay informed) of horse articles and books. They were textbook-dry sometimes. To get my word out meant that my writing had to improve, in order for readers to want to read. So that just made my nebulous plan larger and more complicated, and of course, those two condiments–time rich and income poor. Can I just affirm that even now I have no idea what I’m doing?

Then this started to happen:

I wanted to reach out to you and thank you profoundly for your insight. I just finished reading your book, “Relaxed and Forward” and it has transformed my ride. Like most of us DQs I was bitten by ambition and desire to get the perfect dressage horse, push through the levels, impress the judges and my dressagy friends with the beauty of our team work. Well that didn’t work. I internalized the persistent cry from trainers and friends for “more, more, more” as push, push, push, kick, kick, kick, pull, pull, pull, grunt, grunt, grunt. I manhandled and worked way too hard. I knew I was the one who needed to change but I didn’t know how. Now with a fresh perspective I have decided to get over myself and listen to my horse, to reward the smallest try with lavish praise and avoid the resistence by refusing to pull or manhandle. After 3 rides with this intention my horse has relaxed, opened up with forward flowing energy and his eye is happy and sweet at the end of the ride. Instead of pulling I have re-trained myself to release unabashedly no matter what my brain tells me and he is thoroughly appreciative of this new woman on his back! I have bookmarked many pages and will refer to them often for fortitude and inspiration to continue this path. I believe Winter, my lovely horse would like to say thanks to you as well. I think we can go as far as we want if we continue on this path. Like most of us I’ve read a jillion equestrian books, magazine articles, and watched countless videos. The only one to transform my ride was your work. So thank you from the bottom of my heart and from the lovely, strong amazing horse I am privileged to love and ride.

PS Just had to share one more thing! A barn mate gave me a totally unsolicited comment on my ride today and said, “wow, your horse looked really relaxed and forward today!” Omg! Have not had any conversation with her about reading your book or making changes in my ride. Pure joy!

This note came from a reader recently; to say it sent me sailing would be an understatement. I end up writing thank-you notes for thank-you notes.

It’s the thing I never expected, that overwhelms me on my tiny farm, and I’m dwarfed by your hearts. I struggle with how to say this… it isn’t about me at all. It’s all about you and your horses. I get more messages like this than I deserve, and each time, they lift me up.

Reading the blog comments every week has kept me writing. I don’t struggle with writer’s block because of your encouragement. So yes, it’s really you, Reader, who is responsible for my writing. And it’s me who is grateful for this extended barn family we’ve created here. It’s been a rough year for a lot of us, but coming together here with horse friends has been a sweet balm. At times like this, words do fail me.

Thank you kindly.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

Defending Horses with Words and Money

WM BrisaEyeFair warning: I’m going to ask you to do a favor for horses. It will involve some of your time and the money that you spend anyway.

I try to avoid any photos of abuse. I don’t share them because they titillate perpetrators. Besides, I’ve seen enough cruelty for a thousand lifetimes. Continue reading “Defending Horses with Words and Money”