Sunday, 3 March 2013

Games to keep your human happy

Henk writes; 
Those of us who live in northern climates know all too well how hard it can be to keep our humans happy and sane through the long winter months. While we horses just accept each day for what it is, the poor humans fuss and worry, grumble about having to shovel the driveway and defrost the ice from our water buckets, twist their delicate knees and ankles hauling hay bales through the snow, and worst of all, grow bored and sour riding us around in circles in the arena.

Every horse has a repertoire of activities to keep her human on her toes, but let me remind you that winter is the most important time to practice these. Don’t let your human slip into hibernation and weight-gain; you know it will just be that much more work to get her back into mental and physical shape in the spring.

Of course there are the old tried-and-true ways to liven up an arena ride: spooking at snow sliding off the roof, cats climbing in the rafters, and funny shadows cast by the lights. But, amusing as they are, these require a fair amount of physical exertion on the horse’s part, and the more clever humans eventually catch on to them, so they may lose their effectiveness over time.

Horsenally, I prefer groundwork, especially in the winter. My very favourite is the big exercise ball. I find that showing even the tiniest amount of interest in the ball can convince Lil that I want to play soccer with her, and can lead to lots of good fun that hardly calls for any effort from me. She’ll kick that ball at me and away from me, and follow it around the arena gently dribbling it with her toe while I just tag along behind her, looking mildly interested and occasionally taking a quick turn bopping the ball with my nose or foreleg. The look of delight this brings to Lil’s face is worth the effort, and of course it’s excellent exercise to help keep her fit.

Mila practices the ball game with Muriel

Another game to increase your human’s exercise level during those dull winter months can be played in the paddock. Simply forget your name, while standing far from the gate in the deepest snow you can find, then watch her high-step through the drifts, arms flailing, boots full of snow, holding out a carrot and trying to hide the lead shank (as if that’s fooling anybody!).  Of course it’s critical to make the human complete the exercise in order to gain the most benefit from it, so you must resist the temptation to meet her half-way just to get to that carrot sooner. Remember, patience is key when working with your human.

Once your human’s winter-soft condition improves sufficiently, you can increase the intensity and duration of the workout by having one of your friends remove your halter and hide it in the snow. Just make sure it’s not in a place she’ll think to look too quickly. This game can provide excellent amusement for you and your paddock buddies as well as exercise for your human.

Finally, don’t forget to take advantage of weather and snow conditions when planning your human’s activities. The more you can ball up the snow in your feet, grow icicles in your mane and feathers (if you have them), the more energy your human will have to expend in grooming you before riding. This can help build muscle-tone, improve circulation, and calm an unsettled mind (hers, not yours). If you do a particularly good job, the grooming may provide sufficient exercise and she may forgo riding you altogether, which is a perhaps the most favourable outcome of all.

I urge you try these games yourself. You may even feel inspired to invent some of your own. 
Happy winter!

Friday, 1 February 2013


Henk writes:

I’ve been meaning to write about Barney for months, and now he’s dead. He sang for his breakfast as usual this morning, walked over to the big round hay bale, lay down and died. 

Lil went into the paddock just after that to fill the water trough and saw several horses standing around Barney, pawing his body and nuzzling his face. That’s how she knew he was dead.

Barney was a donkey. Our farriers saved him from an old cow-barn where he stood knee-deep in manure and hardly ever moved. He didn't like living with cows. They talked Barney’s old (and it turns out dying) owner into letting them take Barney to our farm, where he spent what was left of his long life in a big pasture with horses who soon became his friends (after they got over their fear of his long ears and strange voice!).

His new humans spent hours brushing the horrible mattes out of Barney’s long grey-and-white coat, and re-built his diseased hooves so he could walk more comfortably. When someone who knew about such things told them a donkey’s coat could not repel water the way a horse’s coat could (they’re desert animals, after all), they bought him two spiffy blankets to wear.

Barney and friends

Of course those blankets caused some excitement in the herd. You know how some horses are – change ANYTHING in their world and it’s cause for panic! Harley, Targui, and a couple of the other horses felt the need to go chase Barney around because he looked so different in his new coat. He seemed quite worried for a minute (the horses were of course much bigger, and he could no longer run), but then Moose and Ronan took charge of the situation. They literally surrounded Barney, one on each side, and put the boots to any horse that tried to come near him. Clearly, Barney had been smart enough to figure out which horses to make friends with: Moose is a 17-hand Belgian-cross, and Ronan is part Clydesdale. They’re normally the mellowest of beasties, but not when the bullies tried to pick on their donkey!

It was Moose, Ronan, and our Canadian horse Louis who were with Barney when he died. Louis tried the hardest to get him to stand up, pawing him over and over again. Moose pushed his big muzzle into Barney’s face. Ronan stayed with him after the others had wandered off, standing watch the way one horse sometimes stands over a herd-mate who is sleeping. Just like before, he chased off any horse except Moose and Louis who tried to come near. Even in death, Barney was his special donkey.

No one is quite sure how old Barney was, but the best guess seems to be somewhere between 40 and 50. It seems old age just caught up. Not a bad way to go when you think about it – with a full stomach and surrounded by your friends.

We’ll miss you, Barney. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Food for Thought

Henk writes:

There are those who’d say that we Friesians have won the genetic lottery of the horse world, and I’m not one to argue. I’m sorry about the lack of humility, but it’s not hard to see that we’re like an extended family consisting entirely of George Clooneys and Denzel Washingtons and Angelina Jolies, and Scarlett Johanssons. Ridiculously gorgeous. Talented, too. Oh, and did I mention charming?

But there is one very important aspect of horse life where we’ve decidedly drawn the short straw. Food. We’re what’s euphemistically referred to as “easy keepers.” Another way of putting it is that we just need to look at food to put on weight. Your average Friesian can maintain his 1200 pounds of gorgeousness on a diet that would starve a goat. That just isn’t fair.

I live across the aisle from our Thoroughbred rescue, Beau. This little nipper is nine months old, nothing but legs and attitude, and a massively overactive metabolism. You should see the buckets of food that go into that stall twice a day! Beet pulp, half a bale of second-cut hay full of alfalfa, specially-formulated grain for babies, vitamins, carrots, apples….

And what do I get? One skinny flake of grassy hay, a little beet pulp, and a handful of “grain.” Lil thinks she’s fooling me with the grain, but I know it’s nothing but a forage pellet. Mostly hay. But it does taste good, and gives me something different to chew on. For the minute or two it takes to eat it!

OK, I can hear you thinking, Beau’s only nine months old and growing like a weed, so he needs the extra nutrition. Ha! Not so fast! Mila’s nine months old too, but she’s a Friesian. You think she gets to load up on buckets-full of feed? No chance! It’s hay and vitamins for her, thank you very much. And besides, Beau’s not the only skinny-legged critter in the barn. The others are all grown-ups, and still they get volumes of food the mere thought of which makes me dizzy.

So I tell myself, as I listen to these wretched bone-racks chewing away until all hours of the night, long after my starvation ration is both eaten and digested, that I’d outlast them all in a famine. A day or two without food and you’d be able to play their ribs like a xylophone, while I’d still be as sleek as a seal. Besides, I’m saving Lil all kinds of money on the food she doesn’t have to feed me. One more reason (as if she needs one!) for her to like me best. Take THAT you skeletal eating machines!

Oh, who am I kidding? I’d learn to do Piaffe for an extra scoop of grain every night!

Saturday, 19 January 2013


Henk writes:

Lil's decided it's never too early to start teaching our babies some manners. Some pictures from the first kindergarten session.

Our friend Muriel, introducing Mila to the big ball and a barrel.

Rita and Cisco the Canadian-cross. He can be a little pushy!

Beau the Thoroughbred. NOTHING scares this boy.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A Psychology Experiment

Henk writes:

One of Lil’s favourite commercials advertises an SUV that was “raised by a family of sports cars,” which is, I guess, a mechanical version of the “nature versus nurture” argument: Which is more influential? Genetics or environment? Did its upbringing make the SUV more fun to drive? Don’t know. Lil didn’t love the commercial THAT much. She didn’t buy the car.

But she’s decided to run her own version of the experiment by giving us Friesians a baby Thoroughbred to raise. No kidding. Charlee, Wilby, Mila and I now have our very own skinny-legged weanling to take care of. Mila hates him at the moment. His “cute factor,” and the fact he was headed to a bad place after losing his future job when our government gutted the racing industry, has deflected some of the attention that’s rightfully hers. She’ll get over it. Being the only kids here is bound to make them friends eventually. She’ll succumb to his charms.

For my part, I’m pretty excited. Of course I got to meet him first. Being the good-will ambassador for the rest of the equines on the place, I get to meet everybody first. Because I never try to kill or maim them. The same can’t be said for everybody else here. Some of my fellow equines seem to think it’s important to terrorize every newcomer and put him in his place. Personally, I’m over that whole hierarchy and class thing. Accept that I am the best looking, most talented creature in the barn, and I don’t care where I fit in the pecking-order. I’ll share my space and my hay with anyone. After I approve the newbie, the rest of the gang generally accepts him, too.

Being a Thoroughbred, Beau is bound to be a little twitchy. Like a Ferrari. All about speed and excitement, but a little scary when pushed to the edge of the envelope. We Friesians, on the other hand, are more like Bentleys. Too classy to scare the wits out of our humans, even at speed (which, admittedly, isn’t much).

So far, Beau has proved to be surprisingly brave, but I guess you have to be if you're expected to go flat out on a track with 10 others trying to bump you out of the way and beat you to the finish line. He’s two days younger than Mila (not quite 7 months), and his first night in a strange barn full of horses he’s never met before he was relaxed and calm, and hardly called for the friends he’d left behind at all.

When he and I were introduced in the arena the next day, he walked right over, and when I gave him a once-over with my nose, the cheeky little devil threatened to kick me! Three hundred and fifty pounds to thirteen hundred – wonder who’d win that one? But he wasn’t going to let me push him around, and I have to respect that. Wilby was far less understanding when Beau tried the same thing with him, and chased him around a bit with his ears pinned, but only to let the kid know who’s in charge. They’re good now, and the girls have accepted him, too. So now we’re all one strange little herd – 4 Friesians and a Thoroughbred. I hear Thoroughbreds are pretty smart, so I’ll try to teach Beau what I can.  Who knows? Maybe Lil will end up with a skinny-legged who thinks like one of us?

Tres Beau

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

In my next life, please don't let me come back as...

… a Tennessee Walking Horse.
Don’t get me wrong – they’re very nice horses. Or at least the one that Lil brought home a few weeks ago is very nice. I’ve never met any others. Neither had Lil. They’re not exactly common around here, and if people do have them it’s for trail riding, which isn’t really what Lil is into. So when Memphis was offered to her for the therapeutic riding program, she was hesitant. Until she met him. Not only is he black – the requisite colour for all the very BEST horses – but he’s relatively short (about 15’1 hh), built like a tank (ideal for therapeutic, since shorter horses are easier for volunteers to work with but a solid frame makes the horse able to carry larger riders), and a truly sweet-natured soul. He’s kind, well-mannered, and nothing upsets him. He’s now in training for therapeutic work, and hasn’t put a hoof wrong yet. Decidedly a keeper.
Here’s a picture of Memphis with three of our volunteers. Note his relaxed posture and kind eye.

Now look at this Google picture of a wild-eyed Walker doing something that – trust me – is NOT natural. No horse picks up his feet that high or steps that far under himself (look at the left hind) and crouches his butt down like that of his own accord. The best trained dressage horses that flex their hocks and lift their forehands don’t begin to approach this kind of angle. And the caption says this horse is two. Can you say “ruined by the age of 8?” Note the lovely bracelet and manicure on that foreleg. These are your clues to how he got this way.

Because Lil is a curious sort, she decided to find out more about Walkers once Memphis came to live at our farm. That’s how she found the picture of the fire-breathing dragon here. So how does a mellow dude like Memphis go from doing the super-comfy running walk (a very fast and ultra-smooth version of a normal walk) he was bred for to the painful-looking strut in the picture? Well, fashion has a lot to do with it. In the ‘sixties it became cool for show Walkers to go around with this exaggerated action in the front, which came to be known as “the big lick.” Training had something to do with it, too. But so did pain. ‘Cause the big lick not only looks painful for the horse to do (guaranteed no Walker could sustain it all day while carrying his owner around his big Tennessee plantation which is what the breed was developed for), but pain often has a lot to do with the way it’s accomplished, too.
If you want your horse to snatch his feet up off the ground high and fast, you simply make it painful for him to keep them on the ground. This can be done by having your farrier trim him extra-short, until the soles of his feet bleed and develop bruises. If that’s not enough, you can add tacks between the stacked pads, shoes and hoof, that dig into the white line. And if that still doesn’t give you enough flashy action, you can put a caustic chemical like mustard oil, diesel fuel or kerosene on his pasterns to blister his skin. Then you hang chains around those sore pasterns and watch him dance. Of course your horse may shut down after all this, lie down and refuse to put any weight on those sore feet at all. Then you’ll just need a cattle prod to get him up. If you think I’m making this stuff up, watch the Humane Society video or read the EQUUS Magazine article I’ve linked to below. Just don’t watch the video if you have a twitchy stomach.
As with all abuse, it’s a small percentage of trainers who subject their horses to this kind of torture, but your chances of having a human cause you unspeakable pain – on purpose, repeatedly, and for no justifiable reason – are far better if you’re a Tennessee Walking Horse than most other breeds. Memphis was lucky, his humans weren't into competition. Humans who belong to The National Walking Horse Association or Friends of Sound Horses have committed to zero tolerance for soring. But not everyone else has. Competitions where federal inspectors show up to check for soring often see an exodus as trainers pack up their horses and go home rather than take the chance of being caught.
Sometimes, people just make me sick.
Aren’t we horses lovely enough to look at without trying to make us into something we’re not?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Of Horses and Trailers

Henk writes:

Being the most magnificent horses on the farm, we Friesians of course get the best paddock - the one with the nicest grass and a commanding view of the barn, the house, the driveway - all the areas that matter. So we were the first to spot the horse trailer arriving the other day. Now, a horse trailer can mean several things: 1) someone's leaving, 2) someone new is arriving, 3) someone's going on a road-trip to a show, the vet, a trail ride.... You get the idea. My favourite is someone new arriving. I'm a very social horse, and new company is always fun. Thinking this might be the case, my paddock buddies and I started doing our "look at me, I am magnificent" trot up and down the fence-line. In case you're not familiar with this move, it goes like this:
- hold your head really, really high, with your ears pricked sharp forward and your nostrils distended
- breathe fire through said distended nostrils; the more noise you can make when you exhale, the better
- lift your tail slightly if you're a Friesian (we're not allowed to stick our tails up in the air like Arabs, and besides our massive tails are too heavy for such nonsense) or WAY up if you're not
- do the kind of extended trot your owner would give her right arm to experience when she has you under saddle
- repeat up and down the fence-line until you get tired or no one is watching any longer
Wilby, Charlee and I do this really, really well. Even baby Mila (almost six months old now) is getting the hang of it, although it must be said her fire-breathing needs some work.

Then the truck and trailer stopped, Lil hopped out, opened the gate to our paddock, and Robert drove the truck and trailer inside. OK, we realized, there was no one new inside. We dropped our "magnificent" act and gathered in the centre of the paddock to snort warnings at the intruder. When Lil opened up the back of the trailer, threw in a pile of hay and left, I jogged over, hopped inside, and started filling my face. I knew this routine. It was time to teach Charlee and Mila about trailers. That they're good and safe and a great source of food. You see Charlee had only been on a trailer once - when she came to live at our farm - and apparently it was a horrible experience. Mila, of course, didn't even know that trailers existed until this very day. Clearly Wilby and I were to teach the girls that trailers were ok. As long as there was hay involved, I was cool with it.

Over the next few days, the truck and trailer shared our paddock and became a great source of food and entertainment. Wilby and I got LOTS of extra munchies, and all we had to do was go inside the trailer to get them. Eventually this convinced the girls that the trailer was not a horse-eating monster, and that it was in fact possible to go inside and then come out again, no worse for wear. Lil actually got Charlee to walk into the trailer. Once. But even that was a big step, as the poor mare had clearly been terrified before. Mila hopped in and out a few times, and began to relax around the rig. But if the aim had been to get Charlee and Mila onto the trailer TOGETHER, then that failed. I gather the plan had been to take the girls to the Keuring (inspection), but Lil decided that a mare that's scared to death of trailering and an unweaned baby would be a bad combination in a trailer going more than 3 hours away from home, and decided to wait until Mila is a year old and trailer-trained. And since Charlee isn't pregnant this year, she can have some serious training put into her as well. She needs it. Her behaviour is so rude and pushy sometimes that it's downright un-Friesian. So I expect we'll be seeing that trailer in our paddock again soon, for some more de-sensitizing as the humans like to call. I just call it a moveable feast!

Of course I've never been afraid of trailers myself. The only time I refused to get on one was after a trail ride at the local public forest, and that had less to do with the trailer than with the very rude mare I had to share it with. She lived at our farm, but we were never turned out together, so I had no idea how unpleasant this horse could be. I walked onto the trailer unsuspecting, only to be snarled and snapped at the entire way to our destination. And when we got there, the beige-coloured beast insisted on speed-walking like there was a prize for finishing in the shortest possible time, while I of course prefer graceful sauntering over speed, and I like to enjoy the scenery. So it really ticked me off when I had to keep jogging to catch up, her tail swishing impertinently as if she were trying to hurry me along. By the time we were finished I'd developed a strong dislike for that mare, and had no intention of getting back on the trailer with her. I tried to make this very obvious to Lil and her fellow human, but they thought I was just being stubborn for no reason. Only after they took the mare off the trailer an hour or so into the exercise and tied her to a tree did I walk back onto the rig. Because of course the trailer was never the thing I had a objected to, and now that they were prepared to leave the darned mare tied to that tree where she belonged and take me home, I was quite happy to co-operate. But can you believe it? Once I was trapped inside that trailer they went and got that mare and put her right back on the trailer beside me again. Lil's lucky I don't hold a grudge, or she'd never get me on another trailer again!