Monday, October 28, 2013

How Old is Old Enough?

It's interesting to me that now that horses are used primarily for pleasure or entertainment instead of as a means of survival or transportation that we are less patient with putting them to work.  Perhaps that is a reflection of our throw-a-way society.  Or maybe it is the fault of the the veterinary community that has perfected the band-aids necessary to keep a horse working when it maybe shouldn't be. Or maybe it's the fault of the high end competitive venues that have turned towards making money off of equine children rather than equine adults and the rest of us just follow suit.

I'm talking about the incredibly controversial issue of skeletal maturation and optimum age of starting a young horse.  There are many misconceptions and widely spread misunderstandings in this area of the horse world. The modern horse world seems to be more and more impressed with the advanced abilities of a young horse as showcased in a futurity.   We prize that young horse who achieves enormous amounts of money earnings early in his career and then retires to the breeding shed as a 3 or 4 year old.

You can see this change in almost every aspect of the horse industry, but maybe nowhere so dramatically as in the American Racing industry.  Where race horses used to have to be at least 4 before they began competing in long heats of 4 mile feats of endurance, the concept of the quick sprint futurities was introduced to allow betters a "glimpse" of the talent coming up.  Racing of 2 and 3 year olds in shorter more "humane" races became the norm and were immensely popular for the ability to stage a shorter race in a track that could seat more people, allow for more prospective betters and overall increase the excitement of the race.  Soon the only horses racing at maturity were cheap claimers or geldings that didn't have a career in the breeding shed to look forward to.  What has occurred in the racing industry is a significant drop in the number of starts a horse will have in his life paired with an increase in the number of breakdowns.

The same has occurred in the western reined cowhorse industry. What used to be a competition for a mature bridle horse (generally 6 or older) was then turned into a futurity for hackamore horses.  As the snaffle bit increased in popularity for it's ability to accomplish more advanced training more quickly the snaffle bit futurity was born.  This is a high dollar competition for young Quarter horses that are 3 years of age.  In order to compete in this highly demanding and physical sport those horses are often started under saddle at 18 months.One of the sad parts about this is that right there on the first page of the NRCHA rule book is the purpose of the association:  "The purpose of the NRCHA is to improve the quality of the western reined stock horse: to perpetuate the early Spanish traditions of highly trained and well reined working cow horses;"  It has traveled quite a way from the goals at it's inception.

Sadly the tradition of the early Spanish horseman were to not put any metal in their horse's mouth until age 5 or 6 and to bring them along slowly to protect not only their physical well-being, but mental well being. Spanish tradition would start a horse at 3 or 4 with very light riding with a hackamore until he was ready to move into the two-rein at 5 or 6 and only after he was carefully prepared would be be straight up in the bridle and riding one handed.  For many horses this wasn't until they were 7 or older.  Today, a 7 year old reined cow horse is likely ready to retire from the show ring.  Not always, but often.  It's like seeing Billy Etbauer still riding in the NFR.  Not impossible at his age, but very rare.

But it's not just high dollar performance horses that are being started as 2 year olds.  Conventional wisdom seems to push folks to start their backyard pleasure horses sometime during their 2 year old year.  The conscientious owner knows to wait until "the knees are closed".  This piece of equine wisdom is referring to the growth plates at the distal radius.  While you can't actually tell by palpating the horse if that growth plate has fused or not, many folks feel that you can and use this colloquial rule of thumb for starting youngsters under saddle.

What we know about rate of skeletal maturity is that the growth plates in the equine body slowly fuse between 1.5 years and 5.5 years.  Across the board.  There is no truth to the myth that some breeds of horse mature faster than others.  All horses reach skeletal maturity at about 5 1/2 to 6 years of age.  This really shouldn't surprise us as we know that the horse continues to erupt molars until they are 6.  Why shouldn't the timing for completion of growth be at about the same time.

What may not be common knowledge is that it's not the legs that are the slowest maturing part of the body.  The growth plates of the knees mature ( or close) at about 2 years for the small bones and 3 years for the distal radius and ulna.  The very last growth plates to fuse are in the equine vertebrae.  All 32 of them.  The last of those are the ones in the base of the neck.

The reason this is relevant to our young horses that we plan to ride well into their advanced years is that the process of riding our young horses can contribute to not only excessive wear and tear on their young joints (the hocks also don't fuse until 3.5 years) but strain to their backs and necks as well.

The process of teaching a horse to be ridden at a very young age teaches the horse to protect itself from back pain.  To do this the horse  braces his back and drops his shoulders and hollows out so that he can help take the weight of his vertebral column.  It's a minor thing at first and one that every young horse being started under saddle goes through to a certain degree until their back muscles get better at carrying that weight.  But if you persist in riding a young horse who's vertebral column is not able to bear that weight even with muscular conditioning, you create a habit caused by pain that becomes deeply ingrained and prevents the horse from properly learning to round up and use his body.

The next step in training a young horse after getting on their back (especially in many of today's "natural horsemanship" methods) is the one rein stop.  This is accomplished by repetitively pulling the horse's head over to your foot and limbering up the neck until it is quite soft and "rubbery".  Isn't this putting added stresses on the last vertebrae to fuse in the horse's entire body?  Pain here causes stiffness in the bridle that causes the horse to flex by turning his head at the atlas rather than flexing his entire vertebral column.   With vertical flexion he then learns to brace his withers and instead of flexing along his entire column will flex at the third vertebra to protect the rest of the cervical vertebrae.  All of this might look like a broke young horse to the uninitiated, but in truth it is a horse with reflexes built on pain.  Those horses can never move in a true collected frame.

So while the now common and widespread practice of putting a 2 year old to work in a rigorous training program undoubtedly leads to increased incidences of breakdowns in race horses and the widespread practice of injecting young horse's joints to try to stave off juvenile osteoarthritis, the other long lasting effects of braces and pain through their back and neck are less often addressed.

Does this mean that we shouldn't start our horses until they are fully skeletally mature?  That, for me, is a harder question to answer.

Paired with the data of skeletal maturity is the data that exists on mental maturity.  Horses can and do learn to learn.  One of the great things that have been bred into the Quarter Horse performance horses is their ability to calmly and easily learn what is expected of them.  They are almost "born broke".  This is because they have been selected for train-ability which is really the capacity to learn.  (Whether that makes them the smartest breed of horse or just the most trainable is a discussion for another time!)  For most folks that work with young horses and start colts the ones that have had an introduction to good handling and training as yearlings are much easier to start as 2 or 3 year olds.  That ability to retain a lesson and understand what is being taught is a learned behavior.  The younger they learn that, the easier they seem to be to train and quicker to trust.

Therefore, I believe the answer lies in moderation, as with most things.  I think you have to take into consideration your youngster and your training program.  I am 100% not in favor of futurities that demand a horse be put into rigorous training as a 2 year old.  I am also not in favor of any practice that deems it common and prudent to inject a young horse's joints in order to maintain joint health or cover-up a lameness and keep them working.  But, that's just me.  I have many colleagues happily preforming these procedures and building their retirement accounts much faster than I am.

I don't think you necessarily need to completely stay off your horse until they are 4.  I think you can teach a horse some valuable lessons, expose them to important stimuli and situations and in general build their confidence and ability to learn as a young horse.  I personally put 10 short (all but one of them were under 20 minutes) rides on my 2 year old this summer.  He had already had about a month of various groundwork exercises to establish some basic commands and improve his comfort with me and the tack.  Riding sessions would generally consist of going both directions at a walk and a trot with some simple directing with the hackamore.  We established whoa and the beginnings of a back.  I pushed him into a lope just to get him to feel it and then allowed him to trot again. That was it.  I did take him on one short trail ride just to expose him to an area other than our arena and home trail.  In my mind, that was about all he could handle.

This year as a 3 year old I will put some more rides on him throughout the summer.  He will be lightly ridden and exposed to basic commands and stimuli in a rotation with the other horses.  He'll probably be ridden about twice a month lightly through his 3 year old year. He certainly won't be loping circle after circle, going on 4 hour trail rides or schooling on spins and sliding stops.   He's almost 15 hands and probably 900#.  Had he been smaller (or I bigger) I would have waited until he was 4 to start the process.    

I don't feel that lack of skeletal maturity means no work or riding at all, but I think it means conscientious riding and training to preserve not only your horse's mind but his physical ability to be a good sound partner throughout his entire life.  I want to be riding my horses well into their third decade and possibly longer.  There is nothing sadder to me than a 6 year old that is too lame to be ridden in the show pen anymore because it was ridden too hard as a youngster.  That's like seeing a teenage girl that trained too hard as a gymnast and now has collapsed bones in her wrists and deformed radius.  Too much work too soon.  We need to be smarter than this for our horses.  Increasing the usable upper age limits of our horses through smart training will go miles to decreasing the numbers of unwanted or crippled  horses out there.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cowgirl Crazy

Phew, it's been crazy busy lately!  Work has been incredibly busy and we're trying to fit more work into less daylight hours.  This is also the time of year that we finally do all the chores that we need to get done before the snow flies that we have been putting off in favor of riding our horses all summer!  Normally it's not a problem and we get it knocked out without trouble in the month of October but this year the weather and the heavy work load have conspired against us so that we are struggling to find the free time needed to haul hay, cut firewood and do the various stashing of summer stuff in order to prepare for the winter.  Consequently our riding time has taken a back seat for the first time all year.  I will admit that I've ridden only twice this month and both times very briefly.  Yes, it's painful.  Yes, I'm having withdrawals.  Yes, I would suggest we not belabor the point!

So, this morning while we are waiting for the fog to clear so we can cut more firewood I'd like to share with you the amazing cowgirl experience I was fortunate enough to be a part of at the end of September.  Every year a group of local cowgirls embark on a horseback adventure at the end of September.  It's a tight knit group of girls with varying horsey and personal backgrounds with one thing in common.  They all want to not only enjoy the camaraderie of other horsey girls but further their own personal horsemanship journey.  There have been different focuses of past retreats, but in general we put together a series of clinics with one or more clinicians paired with a good trail ride.

This year was a great year with the exception of the lousy weather.  I'll just get that out of the way and say the weather sucked almost the entire time.  Cold, windy, snowy, rainy.  We got a few breaks but other than that it was an opportunity for us to "cowgirl up".  But for all the years this retreat has been happening, this was the first year the weather didn't cooperate!

We had three great clinicians that taught us in three small groups of six.  We were instructed in working a mechanical flag and both live cattle and buffalo, basic reining and trail obstacles/horsemanship.  The clinics were very instructive providing great opportunities to hone our skills on live animals with the cutting practice.  Reining was a great opportunity for many of the girls to try out the gas pedal on their horses and there was a lot of whooping in encouragement coming from the reining pen.  The trail obstacle/horsemanship session was fabulous.  My favorite was the teeter totter bridge.  For those of you that haven't seen one, it's a bridge that rocks when you walk over it just like a teeter totter.  I assumed my horse would be troubled with it a bit, but he handled it very well.  As a matter of fact, while he was standing in line with the other horses while I was off helping prepare another obstacle he decided to take his turn without me and went right over the bridge by himself!

Our location for the clinic just happened to be within easy driving distance of a couple of different hot springs and so our evenings after dinner were spent soaking in the hot mineral pools of the hot springs.  Incredibly welcome after the frigid day in the saddle.

We had the added luxury this year of professional camp cooks who provided amazing food at a bargain price so that the rest of us could concentrate on just riding and trying to stay warm.  I don't know how these woman provided such amazing food three times a day with no electricity or running water but they did.  I'm sure they won't volunteer to do it next year, but so glad they were here this year!

Our final day was the epic trail ride to the ghost town of Bannock.  We rode the old stage road 10 miles to the abandoned and well preserved ghost town.  Part of us splintered off for a more exhilarating cross country romp through the sagebrush hills and gullies.  Flying over that sagebrush at a gallop with a pack of cowgirls leaping sagebrush and gullies and flying up hills made me feel like I was part of an old time posse.  Definitely one of the highlights of the weekend.  Then topping the hill and looking down into the picturesque town of Bannock was like stepping back in time.

It sounds like this would be an extravagant and prohibitively expensive endeavor but it is not.  The girls that work hard each and every year to put this event together do a great job of making it affordable.  This annual trip has spawned several other smaller ones that focus on different aspects per the group's preference.  Maybe you want something less structured, maybe you want something that's just trail riding, maybe you want to just see some amazing new country.

The point is that you should just do it.  Being together with a group of like minded horsemen to share not only laughs and triumphs but encourage past snags and fears is so incredibly valuable.  Learning from your fellow horseman is a wonderful way to learn.  Sometimes you learn what you can do to further your learning with your horse and sometimes you learn what not to do, but both lessons are equally valuable.  So, I encourage any of you horsey women out there (and men too!) to explore putting together a retreat like this.  The opportunity to spend a weekend of concentrated time with your horse and some of your closest friends is a wonderful way to improve your horsemanship.

Here are some pictures of our retreat this year.
Me and Moonshine on the left and Trish and Harley on the right working a buffalo heifer.  (This was that break in the nasty weather I was talking about!)

A few of the girls at the Meade Hotel in Bannock.

The entire gang about to over take the town of Bannock, Mt.

If you are interested in putting together a retreat for your group of friends, I encourage you to contact Lori Fisher at Fisher Equine  She can help design the experience that you and your friends are after.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Bosal

I get lots of questions about why I'm riding my horse in a bosal.  Many assume that I am interested in going "bitless" and confuse the bosal with other more modern styles of bitless bridles including the mechanical hackamore and the side pull.  This could not be farther from the truth.  When I tell people that I am attempting to prepare my horse to one day be a bridle horse that carries a spade bit they look at me like I am woefully confused.

So, I thought I should maybe go into a little more detail about the purpose and use of the traditional bosal as there is much misunderstanding regarding what is a very simple and traditional piece of equipment.

I've already spoken a little about the difference between signal and cue and how it is important in preparing a bridle horse. The bosal allows us to train  a horse that responds to signal instead of cue.  Before the snaffle was introduced to the traditional vaqueros the horses were all started in a rawhide braided bosal.  There were many thickness and stiffness available and selection of what type of bosal you placed your horse in was often a matter of personal preference for the rider, sensitivity of the horse, and where the horse was in his stage of training.  To generalize, a young horse is usually started in a thicker and stiffer bosal that measures 3/4 or 5/8" in thickness.  It may have as it's core either rawhide, latigo or in extreme cases wrapped wire, though that is much more rare.  The reason for starting a young horse in a fairly stiff and thick bosal is that it provides a very clear  definition between signal and cue.

One of the things that I love about the theory of starting a young horse in a bosal and "saving" the sensitivity in his mouth for the spade bit is that young horses have A LOT of stuff going on in their mouth.  Young adult teeth are very sharp when they are first in wear.  Caps are often retained and difficult to shed.  It's not hard to imagine that asking a young horse who's mouth is busy going through a lot of sometimes very uncomfortable changes to accept a hunk of cold steel as well can be a difficult thing to do.  Of course in this day and age we routinely float a young horse's teeth to help remedy that problem, but still, it's nice to think that you can leave their poor mouth alone completely until they are done going through all those changes.

There are many misunderstandings in the use of the bosal, but the probably the most common is the fit.  You can't just take a bosal off the shelf (even a very expensive well made one) and just put in on your horse.  A new bosal is shaped roughly like an inverted dew drop.  It's braided in a straight line then bent around and joined in a heel knot.  If you've ever looked closely at a horse's nose that's not at all what they are shaped like.  In order for a bosal to provide a clear and concise signal to your horse it needs to fit all the way around your horse's nose, like a hat fits around your head.

These are new unshaped bosals.

Here is a great shot of a bosal fitting like a glove         

A poorly fitted bosal.Here is what your bosal should NOT fit like

Notice in the poorly fit bosal there is only one point of contact at the bridge of the nose.  This horse will become very sore and have rub spots on the top of his nose which is a very common complaint for the uninitiated that give the bosal a try.  When your bosal fits your horse properly, there is very little to no abrading of the skin.
 This is a bosal shaping block. In general the bosal needs to be narrowed at the nose and widened at the cheek pieces.

When the bosal is properly fitted it rides about two fingers width down from the facial crest.  The bones of the horse's nose are easily felt and you can feel when that junctions to cartilage in the horse's nose.  You want your bosal on the bones, not the cartilage as that is soft and fragile and you can damage a horse by improperly placing the bosal.

Another thing that can take some practice when you first begin to learn to ride in a bosal is that it works much differently than a snaffle bit.  Because it is a signal device rather than a cue device, pulling doesn't work, especially if you are pulling with both hands at the same time. You can't hang on a bosal, and if your hands are constantly bumping and balancing on your horse, he will soon learn to ignore any pressure on the bosal.  So, developing a sense of feel and timing when riding in a bosal is very important.

A good example of this difference is in teaching lateral flexion.  Many who teach lateral flexion in a snaffle bit recommend that you pick up tension on the bit and hold it in a fixed position until the horse gives to that pressure.  The release of the pressure is the reward for the give and you build on that concept.  In a bosal you teach lateral flexion by gentle bumping on the bosal off to the side until the horse give just a little bit and that is his reward.  You can use the same techniques in a snaffle and honestly I think learning how to signal a horse in a bosal improves your feel and timing in a snaffle as well.

If you have an older horse that you would like to attempt to ride in the bosal I highly recommend that you get excellent lightness and response in your halter work first.  A halter can loosely work like a bosal in that the horse gives to both direct and indirect pressure.  If your horse tends to lean on his halter and not respond to the lightest touch, he will do the same thing in a bosal.

I need to mention that I am by no means an expert on the use of the bosal.  I am learning as I go and have much yet to learn.  This journey has been an experiment that I undertook as part of the challenge of learning the tradition of training used by the old vaqueros for building a bridle horse.  I have used the bosal to advance my green horse that was started in a snaffle, retrain my older gelding that has been ridden in all types of bits including correction bits and start my young two year old.  There is a very steep learning curve involved but it is incredibly rewarding to build lightness in your horse in the bosal.  All of my horses have responded very well and my 2 year old will be the first horse that never feels the iron of the bit until he is ready for the two rein.

I challenge anyone interested in improving their feel and timing to experiment with riding in a bosal.  I believe that the horse enjoys the break from a bit and it allows you to work on different aspects of your training as well as improve your feel and timing.  It is a valuable tool for any stage of your horse's training and there is nothing better for a leisurely trail ride.  If your horse isn't soft in a bosal, how soft are they really?