Sunday, March 6, 2011


Davia Palmeri and 14 Karats riding in a clinic with Britta Johnston in February 2011 at Stanhope Stables. 14 Karats barn name if "Karrie," but our grooms call her "Catorce."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Buck" Wins Audience Award at Sundance

A documentary about legendary horseman Buck Brannaman won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. According to Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog, the film has been picked up for distribution in North America. I plan on being the first person I know to see this film.

I am dead serious when I say that Buck Brannaman changed and probably saved my life. In the very least, he saved my relationship with Jazz, my 11 -year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. When people ask which "natural horsemen" I study, I reply that I learn something from watching everybody, even the BS'ers, but whenever Buck Brannaman opens his mouth, I stop and listen.

In my view, Brannaman's approach demonstrates that most of the "natural horseman" stuff is a marketing phenomenon. The best trainers, such as Brannaman, simply practice "horsemanship." I wouldn't even call him a "horse whisperer" — he transcends the cowboy/horse trainer paradigm, by being an effective translator, a voice, for the horse.

There's a poignant moment in the trailer where he tells a the owner of an aggressive palomino, "This horse tells me quite a bit about you." Brannaman's observation is backed up in another scene where the same horse is driving his owner off by charging the edge of a round pen. [Translation: "I'm done putting up with you and your emotional baggage. Come back when you are ready to get your own sh*t together."] The good news is that horses always forgive us, even when we fail miserably, and that much of Brannaman's life work has been more about rehabilitating humans than training horses.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Jazz is one of those horses that truly believes in the possibility that everyone walking past his paddock has a treat with his name on it. Perhaps I should change his show name to "Optimistic."

Photo, Ivana Ostroluchanin.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Drawing by Asa Bergem.

Today someone posted this question and comment on one of my favorite message boards:

I wonder if horses can be like other animals that react negatively when we go away, but in [my horse's] case, it would more likely be that I had those other people ride her AND I went away for a couple days.

Yes, horses can act out and hold a grudge. I don't see it often, but I do know a few how consistently give their owners the "cold shoulder" or act out when they feel that their owners are absent from the usual routine. From a human perspective, it's nice to be needed, but it's not practical that a horse gets pissed when they aren't tucked in every night.

Like the horse owner above, I would be more inclined to consider in whose care I left my horse.

My husband and I used to have three cats. We always imposed upon friends to handle the cat duties when we went on trips. You could tell when the cat sitter spent a little time with them, because we'd come through the door and they be in their comfy perches or nooks and look up to acknowledge our return, the cat equivalent of a casual, "Yo, whassup." After one trip, when I left my best friend in charge (he's not an animal person), the oldest cat charged to the door as we came in, as if to say, "Where the heck have you guys been... you don't know what's it's been like... etc." That night, he peed on me in bed, right on the spot he usually sleeps. That is very un-cat-like behavior, so we got the message.

The point of the cat story is that animals have better rapports with some people than the others. When I ride other people's horses, I really try to take the time to make sure they are relaxed and happy. That's not always possible with a nervous horse that I seldom ride, but, in that case, I will do simple ground work, even something as basic as backing them in hand, to get it in their heads that I can put pressure on them, they can respond, and there's a release at the end of a proper response — in other words, I demonstrate that I will try to communicate with them in a way in which they can understand. If I still have a guarded horse on my hands, I can also reach into my equine massage toolkit to soften them a little physically and mentally. My goal, by the end, is to give the horse exercise and to have them licking and chewing and interacting with me. I'll never be a fabulous rider — I started much too late in life — but I can gain their respect and make them comfortable when they're around me.

It took me a long time to find someone who has a similar approach so that I could leave my EPM OTTB, Jazz, for several days. Many of the pros at my barn that are effective riders are either unforgiving and inflexible or are past middle-age and can't afford to ride predictably unpredictable horses. Jazz has improved somewhat in the past couple of years, so, in the near future, I plan on trying other riders on him, but in a controlled environment, not when I'm out of town.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Joint Health

There are measures a horse owner can take to manage joint inflammation in their horse — injections, bodywork therapy, or oral supplements — but there's one preventative step that is often overlooked, which can directly affect your horse's joint health, and that's "fatty acids." Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are getting a lot of press thee days because, though the body cannot produce either on its own and therefore must get them through diet. But what is the difference? explains it simply:
In general, hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions.

Since Omega-6 fatty acids have been suspected to contribute to joint inflammation and scientists are finding that Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation in humans, researchers at Michigan State University theorized that they might find a difference between horses supplemented with both, and scientists at Texas A&M studied the possibility that, like in humans, Omega-3 fatty acids would reduce inflammation. Both group of researchers conducted controlled studies that made the case that, for joint health, horses should be supplemented with oils rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, not Omega-6.

From an article published by Kentucky Equine Research (KER):
Researchers at Michigan State University theorized that, if the same effect was found in supplemented horses, minimized discomfort might manifest as increased stride length among horses suffering from joint stiffness. To test this theory, they measured stride length at the walk and trot for 18 Arabian horses (12 mature animals and 6 two-year-olds). Horses were paired and all horses were fed sweet feed and Timothy hay. One horse in each group was supplemented with fish oil for 75 days while the other was given corn oil to supply an equal number of calories. The horses were exercised five days a week under saddle, on a longe line, or on a free-flow exerciser. At the conclusion of the trial, plasma levels of omega-3 fatty acids were higher in the fish-oil-supplemented horses than in the corn-oil-supplemented horses. There was no change in stride length at the walk, but horses supple- mented with fish oil tended to have an increased length of stride at the trot.
The beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for horses with arthritis was confirmed by a study performed at Texas A&M University. The experiment measured the effect of feeding supplemental omega-3 fatty acids on indicators of joint inflammation in plasma and synovial fluid in horses that had been previously diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Sixteen mature horses with arthritic knee, fetlock, hock, or stifle joints were divided into two groups, one of which was a control. In the other group, horses were supplemented with two pelleted omega-3 sources for 90 days. Samples of blood and synovial fluid were collected periodically during the trial period. Supplemented horses showed lower levels of joint inflam- mation indicators (white blood cells in synovial fluid and fibrinogen and prostaglandin E2 in plasma) than the control group. The researchers said, “The inclusion of omega-3s has the potential to benefit geriatric horses with osteoarthritis, as well as performance horses subjected to high-impact and high- stress training, thus potentially improving quality of life and athletic performance."

In 2009, I switched my off-the-track Thoroughbred, Jazz, from corn oil to black oil sunflower seeds. Corn oil is commonly used in my barn for weight gain and to improve the appearance of the horses' coat, but the negative news about joint inflammation prompted me to make the switch. At the time, I knew that flax seed oil or flax seeds, which are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, would be better, though I wasn't aware of mounting evidence showing that Omega-3 fatty acids could reduce inflammation. However, I was under the impression that the flax seeds needed to be grounded and that, once ground, would be unstable and quickly spoil. I should have dug a little deeper at the time, because since then I found that the seeds can be fed whole and that any whole seeds that pass through in the horses' manure are mostly just the hulls. Just last week, I ordered a 50-lb bag of whole organic flax seeds.

For a simple synopsis on Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 fatty acids and what to feed or avoid, check out this table originally published on SmartPak's blog in a post titled, "The Truth about Feeding Horses Corn Oil". Disclaimer: the article doesn't link or give the sources for the numbers in this table.
FeedOmega 6:Omega 3
Pasture 1:5, good
Commercial, fortified grain8:1
Whole grains: oats, corn, barley, wheat, rice24:1
Vegetable oils: corn, sunflower87:1, 199:1!*
Vegetable oils: canola, soybean3:1, 7:1
Flax seed1:4, good
Fish oil (includes the specific Omega 3s EPA & DHA)Virtually all Omega3!

* The ratio for sunflower is for the pressed oil, not seeds, as I have been using.

So the take-home message is that cheap and accessible corn oil will probably make your horse shinny and he'll gain weight, but will also contribute to joint inflammation, while oils and feed rich in Omega-3 fatty acids will actually do the opposite.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snowed In: Oliver Townsend Clinic, from HorseSmart, via YouTube

Since I'm snowed in and can't get to the barn, I spent the morning doing "continuing education" on YouTube. I was looking for videos with top trainers working with green or inexperienced horses, so that I might re├źnforce my thoughts about the work I'm doing with Jazz, glean a few tips, learn a few new exercises and see what it all looks like when a "work in progress" is being done well. Trying to sort past the skads of videos of amateur riders riding amateur horses, I found a few videos with Conrad Schumacher from HorsesmartVideos , but I couldn't sort out his accent with the poor audio quality.

Finally, I stumbled on a video, also from Horsesmart, with 2009 Badminton and Burghley champ Oliver Townsend and ended up spending a couple of hours in the "related videos" wormhole, viewing the entire the series:

How to Do Dressage
Love the title! What event rider wouldn't love to learn "How to do dressage"? Let's face it, eventers don't catch the bug because they excel at dressage.

If your dressage score is on par with Anky's (that is, after converting to penalty points), you might not have a handle on the basics. Oliver Townsend divulges some of his weaknesses, early mistakes and how he overcame them. The sitting-trot-to-posting-trot exercise is enough to get you started. Makes me wish I was at the barn right now (sigh).

How to train a horse to Jump

Townsend's take-away: "You don't have to try and see that stride. You just got to try and find that right pace and stay in it."

How to see a horse's Stride

Same take-away as above: "When it goes wrong, is that you come around the corner and you grapple with the head looking for that perfect stride and you kill the canter... Put the power in the canter here, get the engine running, ride a good turn, sit up, 'Level, level, level, level. Good boy!'"

How to train a horse jump a very narrow fence

Townsend demonstrates how he gets a horse confident over a narrow fence, like a barrel. He then dials it back to show how he would start a Novice horse on a lower fence and explains how the same theory applies to ditches.

How to bring on a young Eventer

Townsend candidly describes how he spent big bucks on a talented horse from France with eventing show mileage all the way up to NOVICE level.

How to teach a young horse flying changes

Townsend doesn't use ground poles to teach the flying change, so you have to be very clear with your aids if you're going to try this at home.

How to Canter on a horse
I know it's a cultural thing, but I did a double-take when I saw the title of this clip and wondered, "What else would you try to 'canter on'?"

Townsend answers his own question, "How do you teach the horses to be adjustable in the canter?"

How to make your horse jump a clear round

There isn't much instruction or advice in this clip, but you get a good look at how Townsend puts it all together.

Oli Townend (sic) picking up a beer over a jump!
This isn't from the Horsesmart series, though it demonstrates the payoff of sharpening up your jumping skills.

You can see why Townsend is a popular guy to have at your party. If only he were just as nimble with a snow plow.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The No-Handsy Challenge

The one aspect of Jazz's jumping style that has been bugging me is that he's rather flat, no sexy bascule (that's French for "I look great over jumps"). Video review implicates the usual culprit... me and my lame attempt at a short release.

Today, after a few warm-up fences, I decided to challenge myself to ride Jazz more like a hunter by not "touching" his mouth at least three strides out. To be clear, I'm not talking about dropping my horse three strides out, but lightly releasing the contact.

The immediate payoff was that I didn't invert my poor horse before every fence and he could begin to feel the sensation of not having to brace against the bit over every jump.

The bonus prize was that so many other skills that have been struggling with were automatically there:

  • DISTANCE — I know, I know... you're supposed to judge the distance and stick to it. By taking away my hands, I had to stick to my guns, which made me realize that I never really knew what it feels like to NOT second guess my eye at the last second, scaring the hell out of my horse for the long spot, or choking him into a pathetic chip. Somehow our horses always forgive us, but that doesn't make it right.

  • PACE — Don't even try to shrink a stride without your hands if you don't establish a pace — the laws of physics don't allow it. And forget seeing a stride without an even pace, your brain needs at least two even strides to start doing the advanced calculus required to determine your takeoff spot.

  • BALANCE — The stop-ripping-on-your-horse's-mouth challenge forced me to longitudinally balance Jazz on approach to the jumps with my back muscles, seat and legs, not arms and hands. In short, if you use your seat, your horse can use you to maintain his balance, if you use your hands, you're using the horse to keep your balance. Guess which one your horse prefers.

  • STRAIGHTNESS — Purposely giving up lateral controls at least three strides out requires the rider to get the horse straight through every corner using outside aids. Once the lightbulb went on, I realized that, on a good day, I occasionally use the corner before the fence to get my horse straight, but I ALWAYS give up the corner AFTER a fence. If you are coming off a diagonal fence, then you usually have at least two corners to the next fence. If you get the horse straight on the first corner, your work is practically done for the next corner — who knew?!

I realize that most teenaged riders figure this out of in one afternoon without ever having think it through. However, I'm a middle-aged novice who requires creative methods to convince my body parts that everything that the Old Masters preached is true, at least since Caprilli.