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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Plight of the Horse

"Big Lick" TWH
   I've been watching what's going on in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, with horror, for almost as long as I've been alive. I've always liked the horses (TWH's are some of the kindest, sweetest horses around), but couldn't imagine what on Earth their 'trainers' were thinking.

   When I was a kid I rode saddleseat, the discipline of the 'park horse' (and the Tennessee Walker, but they have their own spin on it).  I had a Morgan who was shod naturally, didn't have his tail set, moved naturally and I couldn't have been happier. Even so, my discipline required a double bridle with a thin bradoon and a long-shanked (about 8") curb. For folks who aren't familiar with horses, it's a pretty darned severe combination of bits. Even as a kid I realized this and opted to use a very mild snaffle bridle about 90% of the time. I saved my double bridle for the occasional show or clinic that I would attend, and was very light-handed on those occasions. It wasn't warnings from instructors that helped me decide to ride in a snaffle, it was common sense. It was observing my horse, and it was a decision informed by empathy for an animal that I loved. I refused to engage in some of the scarier 'training' practices that were embraced by so many in the saddleseat discipline; things like weighted shoes, chains on the pasterns or scaring the horse around the arena with a milk jug full of rocks to give him more 'fire'. And Morgans have it easy compared to Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses. My horse was a seasoned competitor. While I have no doubt that some of these unsavory things were visited on him at some point in his career, I preferred to keep him enthusiastic by getting him out of the ring and trail riding. Bareback. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn't but my priorities were in the right place and I felt good about what I was doing: The welfare of the horse came first.

So if kindness is common sense to a relatively uneducated kid, what's the deal with all the folks who should know better? There are SO many things in the horse industry that drive me bananas (breeding crappy grade horses, breeding horses for color at the expense of health and conformation, breeding HYPP Y/Y and Y/N quarter horses, people having more horses than they can feed or train properly, curb bits used with tie-downs, rollkur, etc) but there are few things that get to me quite like the treatment of Tennessee Walking horses. These horses not only have weighted shoes, but padded as well. Imagine weighing 1100 pounds and having to wear high heels all day, every day, that you cant take off. In addition to these pads, caustic chemicals are used on the pasterns (just above the hoof) to cause pain and then heavy chains are placed on the pasterns to add weight and create further irritation. This is done to enhance the TWH's natural lateral gait, the running walk, and ultimately create a false gait called a 'big lick'. In addition to the shoes, outrageous bits are often used on these horses. To give you some perspective, a common shank length for a curb-type bit is about 5". Anything above that is considered fairly severe by many. The longer the shank, the greater the leverage on the horse's lower jaw and the more severe it is. It is common for TWH bits to be as long as 12", and often have a thin, twisted wire or a chain for a mouth-piece. When I was little I read about these 'little' tortures and had nightmares. I had hoped as we evolved, these abuses would come under fire and positive change would occur. Instead, now there are new chemical irritants to use and bits have become even more severe. To add insult to injury, bad riding is rampant in the TWH performance ring. Maybe that sounds minor, but having somebody sitting on your kidneys and using long spurs on your flanks while jerking on the reins can't be any kind of picnic.

I read a blog entry yesterday on Fugly Horse of the Day, and I can't believe, in this day in age, that we are STILL dealing with this type of willful and accepted abuse. I shouldn't be surprised, really. I've been in and around the horse industry long enough to know that money and ego are the ruling forces so much of the time. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel be regurgitating everything that Fugly wrote, but I DO encourage you to read the entry and pass it around, even if you are not a horse person. A word of warning, there is a pretty graphic video posted within the blog. Even after everything I've seen, it still made me sick.

After I read the article, I poked around on the internet to see for myself the reaction of folks to this blatant abuse, and was rather horrified by what I found. I watched videos of the "Celebration"; there are lots of them if you look, unfortunately. Here is one that briefly shows the 2009 Champion: 2009 Walking Horse Celebration. (I think it's interesting that the rider is the brother of the guy arrested for abuse mentioned in the "Fugly" blog, and the rider in the photo above IS the abuser). To me, the "big lick" is unattractive. Maybe it's because I know that it's produced by pain. I'm much more impressed by the TWH's smooth and rhythmic (and natural) running walk. One of the videos I watched really got to me. It was so horrifying it was actually macabre: The crowd waited while the horses filed in. One by one, the wild-eyed, sweating horses broke into the 'big lick', and the crowd went wild. I tried to imagine it from the horses' point of view: You move the best you can with your feet hurting and your very bodily structures compromised, every joint aching from being forced into unnatural angles. A predatory gargoyle sits on your kidneys and hunches over your shoulders, simultaneously spurring you in the flanks and hanging on the reins, creating more pain. Your aching body is urged forward faster, the pain in your feet causing you to hold them higher and for just a bit longer. The crowd cheers the spectacle that your pain has created...

How is this still legal?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Product Review: Bold Lead Designs Pt. 2

Murphy sports his new harness
   First, let me apologize for the length of time between parts 1&2. My poor daughter has mono, and has been sick for a couple of weeks already. Perhaps that shouldn't distract me quite as much as it has considering she is almost 20, but there's something a little 'overly' about the single parent/only child relationship that I can't quite explain. Anyhoo, now that we know what's wrong I can get on with it:-)

   As much as I believe in words and the power of hyperbole, I can't say enough good about this harness. My first impression when I opened the box was "WOW!". As many of you know, I was a horse person long before I was a dog person. I was a dressage enthusiast (with an eventer daughter) so I have seen and handled my share of high-end horse equipment. When I lifted my new harness from the box I was transported back to a time when I had just received a new piece of expensive tack. The smell of leather was delicious and the quality of the harness was evident from the first glance.

  The leather is smooth and soft with all of the edges beautifully finished. The stitching is tight, neat and even. All of the hardware is shiny and strong and clearly of good quality. It is lined with real sheepskin in all of the appropriate places. There is so much to it, it looks like it should have some weight to it, but it's really quite light-weight. If all I was going to do was look at this harness, it is a thing of beauty. But of course that's not it's purpose, is it?

   As beautiful as it looks, the real beauty is in it's use. Everything is well thought out, the handles are in exactly the right places and it fits my dog perfectly. I have one of those opinionated dogs who is quite particular about his equipment. If something doesn't feel right, he just stands in the center of the room staring at the floor, or running around trying to dislodge whatever it is that irritates him. I have always welcomed his opinion even when it was inconvenient because it is his body, after all. When Murphy first saw the harness, he gave it a tentative sniff and then looked at me like "that's for me, isn't it?". I gave him a treat, put the new harness on and adjusted it, and he was cool with it right away. It was one of those really rare times when there was no adjustment period needed, so clearly the harness is comfortable. Murphy sits, lays down, moves freely, etc. as well as he does when he's naked.

  This harness is exceptionally well-designed. Murphy's initial reaction clearly speaks to it's comfort. There are quick-release buckles (on the correct side of the dog if you work your dog on the traditional left side...awesome!) which makes on/off super easy and quick. The chest piece is high enough not to interfere with the dogs forelegs, and the whole thing is very stable. I have found that just grabbing the sturdy handle in those moments of need kind of short-circuits the vertigo. The pull handle has already gotten me out of a jam or 2, too. I have not fallen at all since receiving the harness, and only had one close call that was staved off by my bracing dog and the sturdy leather handle. Yes, this harness is 'all that', and more:-)

   In addition to the harness I also bought a working dog leash, a harness pack and a couple of patches. Of course all were of impressive quality as well. The leash is beautifully made of leather that matches my harness nicely, it's a perfect weight and has rings in exactly the right places. The patches are two-sided and Velcro back-to-back and fit quite nicely on the harness straps. the graphics are vivid, neat and detailed. The harness pouch is a Sherpani 'Zoe' wallet modified slightly to attach to the harness. It's the perfect size and exactly what I hoped it would be. Katrina suggested I get the pouch in red to match the red accents on the patches and it was a good call:-) The combo looks quite striking on my black dog.

   In my box of goodies there was also a key ring, and clip-on service dog button and most importantly, an envelope with an owner's manual outlining correct adjustment and fit, cleaning how-to's, and helpful tips about introducing the dog to the harness and harness use. Once again, I am as impressed by the support as I am by the beautiful harness. I have no trouble at all recommending Katrina and her company Bold Lead Designs. If you want great service, high-quality equipment that does exactly what it's supposed to and ongoing and friendly support, there's nobody better:-)