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Oh The Weather Outside Is Frightful

By John Strassburger, November 19, 2014

November in Northern California--green fields, fog and rain.November in Northern California--green fields, fog and rain.


Yes, this is one more blog about the dread of winter and taking care of horses in it. (You can insert the

Game of Thrones

meme about “Winter Is Coming” here.) I can already hear you saying, while you’re dealing with the arctic cold and blizzard conditions gripping much of the country right now, “But you live in California. How can you complain about winter? You don’t even have winter.”

Well, you’re half-right. I’m a New Jersey native, and then I lived for almost 30 years in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia. So I’m intimately familiar with the joys of trying to ride on frozen ground, chipping the ice out of water buckets, shoveling a path to get to the barn, getting stuck in snow or ice on the way to or from work, being snowed in for days by blizzards, having no electricity because an ice storm has torn down the power lines.

My wife, Heather, is a native Californian, and when we met on the East Coast, I confess I found her extreme reaction to winter a bit out of proportion. And she tells me that I met her after the worst of it was over—she’d already gone through her first winter, where she’d had to learn from scratch how to dress and how to function in a winter wonderland.

She never really adapted to what I thought of as just the way the seasons worked. And when we discussed moving back to her homeland, her hatred of winter weather was a primary reason for wanting to return.

 I was a bit more ambivalent. I mean, seasons are seasons—how do you move through the year without them?

As it turns out, I’ve done just fine without seasons as I knew them. I don’t miss the ice and snow at all, and when I see footage of my old stomping grounds covered in the white stuff, I remember how much I don’t mind not living in fear of frozen pipes, chipping ice out of tanks and waterers, or schlepping hay through deep snow.

But contrary to popular belief, we do have seasons here in Northern California, even if they are very different than what I grew up with. Our winter is usually mid-November to mid-March, and it usually consists of 45-degree temps and rain, interspersed with spikes of 25- or 30-degree nights with 65- or 70-degree days.

(In December and January our pipes can freeze at night, but by 9:00 a.m. the morning sun has almost always melted the ice in them. And in the winter we can see snow on the mountain tops about 25 miles to the east—the best way to experience snow!)

Once it stops raining in March or April, we don’t see the rain again until October or November. Spring strikes with a blast of warmth and green.  Some years it’s a lovely slow climb of progressively warmer days, and some years it goes straight to the 80s, but either way spring is generally short, because pretty much from May to October, we have summer.

Our fall is usually just a short prelude to the rain of winter, and while we don’t have a lot trees that change color, we do live in wine country, so we do get to watch all the grape leaves turn in the wineries across the county.

Horses, being creatures of habit and nature, tend to all behave as though the seasons are occurring, even when they aren’t. So we often have to clip their coats as early as early October, as many of them grow coat for Maine or Wisconsin, and we often experience 80-plus-degree days. The change from seasons can be a bit abrupt also, so we often talk about “colic weather” and “abscess weather,” so we keep a close watch when the temperature and moisture levels start yo-yoing in the spring and fall.

 The final, and biggest difference, is hay season—when I lived in the East, we fed lots of hay in the winter but usually drastically reduced hay feeding in the spring and summer, as thunderstorms made the grass long and lush.

But it’s the opposite in California. As I’m sitting here in Mid-November, and I’ve just seeded my pastures, and I’m watching green grass fight its way to the surface after our first strong rain. If this is a good rain year (which we haven’t had since the winter of 2011-2012) we’ll nearly stop feeding hay in another few weeks, as our grass grows lush though the winter and in to spring. Then, in late April or May, hay consumption will increase again, as the grass dries out and becomes dormant.

While we do avoid the snow of winter, we do spend several months fighting mud—scraping it off the horses, ourselves and everything else. We do get tired of the mud, and it sometimes feels like your horses will never be properly clean again.

But spring will come, and the mud will dry, the horses will get a bath, and we’ll remember why we live here. And even before that, as we scrape the mud from their coats, we’ll think to ourselves, “At least it isn’t snowing.”




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The Elusive Mind of a Horse

By John Strassburger, November 08, 2014

We bred Amani, so I'm very glad that, so far, she's shown a great love of solving the puzzles of cross-country jumps.
When you're trying to pick a horse for a particular sport, it's easy to select for particular physical characteristics—the quickness to cut cows, the scope for 1.60-meter fences, the speed of racehorse, the gaits for international dressage, and the gaits, bravery, and jump for top-level eventing. But selecting the right mind to go along with all those physical gifts can be quite a bit more challenging.

Animal-rights types often like to decry horse sports as cruel endeavors, in which horses are forced in to activities by aggressive and uncaring riders. But anyone who knows much about actual riding and training horses knows that their attitude is a pile of horse manure, to put it in a politically correct way.

Last week, at the Galway Downs International Three-Day Event, international eventer Boyd Martin was faced by such a conundrum with his horse Trading Aces. This handsome bay gelding has been a part of Martin’s program for several years, and he was purchased because of his copious physical gifts—the horse is a great mover, scopey jumper, and a ground-covering gallop.

But his first time around a CCI4*, the horse tired and stopped out a few fences from home. Martin chalked it up to some physical issues and the need for increased fitness. He worked very hard on both things, and it appeared to be working. This spring, Martin was seriously injured on a different horse, and his friend and mentor Phillip Dutton took over the reins and had a top-10 finish at the Rolex Kentucky CCI4*. Dutton was then selected for the World Equestrian Games team on the horse, but about two-thirds of the way around the course, the horse simply stopped.

Martin took the ride back, and brought him to the Galway Downs CCI3*, hoping a less-testing course and terrain might get Trading Ace’s career back on track. But yet again, at around the seven-minute mark, the horse just stopped.

Martin’s frustration and heartbreak have been apparent in his statements since this happened, and what’s been clear through his statements is his belief that at this point the issue is more mental than physical. He's seeing that, while the horse is an incredibly gifted athlete, he simply can’t put the mental pieces together to perform at the highest level.

During my years in the horse world, I’ve seen this phenomenon before. I remember a dressage horse who was unbeatable in the small tour, but whose brain short-circuited when it came time to learn to one-tempi changes required for Grand Prix. Many times, I've seen winning CCI2* and CCI3* horses who couldn’t, or wouldn't, step up to the next level, the show jumper who was great over big outdoor courses but who panicked during indoor season.

And the hardest thing, of course, is that the mind is the hardest thing to assess. Conformation, movement, scope—identifying these things can be learned with a small amount of effort. However, watching 3- or 4-year-olds go and trying to decide how mentally tough they are is a far, far trickier thing.

Jack Le Goff, the legendary coach of the U.S. three-day team from 1970 to 1984, used to talk about not judging a horse’s greatness until he’d “looked in to his heart,” which usually meant that he'd fought his way to the end of a tough course.

When I’m looking at youngsters for my sport of eventing, I try to observe how the horse thinks and how they react to a bit of pressure. I give them a puzzle, and see if they can figure it out. But there is no perfect formula, and every trainer ends up with a few horses that simply reach an unexpected ceiling in their progress, one you can’t move past.

The hard part is that usually by the time you hit that ceiling, there’s been many years, and many dollars, invested in that horse, (especially in the case of international competitors, who are often owned by syndicates), so you don't want to just give up and sell or give away the horse. You try different veterinary options, you change up your program—and sometimes it works, and, sometimes, the horse simply doesn’t want the job you’re offering.

This is the crossroads where Martin finds himself at right now, and I certainly don’t envy him. His affection for the horse is obvious, but he’s enough a realist to know that Trading Aces' career as a team candidate horse is over (he said at Galway Downs, even before he stopped on course), and his future career as an event horse is certainly up in the air. Perhaps the horse will happily step down to be a young rider horse—or perhaps he’s just done with the whole thing. Time will tell.

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Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match

By John Strassburger, October 29, 2014

Of all the skills a horse trainer must possess, the ability to play matchmaker between horse and rider is one of the most important, most challenging, and most rewarding. Part magic, part science, part luck, the perfect match is an elusive thing.


When horse shopping, you always start with the big basics: price range, type and experience of horse, style match with rider (quiet ones for the timid, forward ones for the quiet, etc.). But that’s just the starting point. From there it becomes an almost forensic psychology experiment, as you try to read the souls of man and beast and predict all the places they might intersect.


Let’s be clear about one thing: There is no such thing as the perfect horse. Every person who has ever bought a horse has given up on some aspect that their “perfect” horse possesses—size, color, age, soundness, training, something. But a deficit can be overcome if the rest of the puzzle fits together.


The first question is: “What does the rider really need?” Not what they want, not what would be ideal, but what is it that they absolutely have to have? (Similarly, what can they absolutely not have?) For some, it’s a level of talent that matches their ambitions; for some it’s a horse that will behave exactly the same in all circumstances; and for others, it’s a horse that can teach them a given discipline. 


When you have the basic ingredients—that short list of musts—then you can start evaluating prospects. We like to get on the horse first, not just to make sure it’s safe, but also so we can evaluate the horse’s personality and behavior. We know our riders well enough that we can usually figure out if we have a candidate pretty quickly, but sometimes we do get surprised.


Because I’m a trainer, my ride is often more demanding than what the horse is used to. So we’ve had the experience of horses that didn’t go particularly well for me, but responded positively to a less experienced riders giving them less demanding ride. Some horses are natural-born teachers, happy to show an inexperienced rider the ropes, but they get irritated by someone trying to tell them how to do their job. We usually love these types, because if the horse is good to its rider, his opinion is of us doesn’t really mater.


But one trick here is that you have to figure out if the horse really is a teacher or is he’s just a lazy sod who doesn’t want to work at all. We’ve tried this kind too—many times.


For new or timid riders, it’s often useful to buy as much experience as you can afford. But a true amateur temperament is born and not made, and for some riders a good-natured, willing young horse can be as good or better a match than a more experienced horse, provided the new owner can afford to give the horse the training that he’ll need.


The truth is that, a lot of times, it’s nothing so logical as a list you check off. I’ve always thought that that to properly evaluate a horse you’re thinking of buying, you have to go and see him, you have to interact with him and ride him. (That’s why I see ads and videos as just a starting point, an introduction.)


And I’m usually most persuaded by the feeling I get in the first few minutes: Do I feel athleticism? Do I feel comfortable and in balance with him? Do I feel him trying to understand and work with me? Do I feel magic?


Sometimes you have to just go with a gut feeling that Horse A will fit with Rider B, even though on paper they shouldn’t be a match. Hopefully, the rider feels the connection that you see right away too. Usually, they do, but sometimes you have to go on faith that the match is right and convince the rider to give the horse a chance. This is especially true of riders who have an image of a certain type in their head, and your selection doesn’t fit their image.


Just being able to figure out a horse is only one half of the equation. You must also be able to delve in to the psyche of the rider. Someone who loves to groom and snuggle their horse is gong to be disappointed by a thin-skinned individual who hates being brushed or a stand-offish sort who’d like who’d really to be left alone unless you’re riding him, thank you very much. A timid person on the ground will not fit with a pushy pony type, no matter how well the riding portion fits. And a rider who loves a horse with a bit of spice and some quirks will be terminally bored with a solid citizen, no matter how “perfect” the horse is under saddle.


Playing matchmaker is a tricky business; one that Heather is a genius at doing. (Maybe that’s why she picked me?) But when you get it right, it’s a great feeling, for all.



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Really, You Should Take Lessons

By John Strassburger, October 22, 2014

Credit: Thinkstock

 As Mike Rowe likes to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”


Here’s a warning: Given that my wife and I make our living as horse trainers, the following blog may seem self-serving, but I want to discuss a phenomenon that we find perplexing.


In all the years I’ve been involved in horses, one of the things that has consistently confused me is that a rather small percentage of people who ride seem to think they need any sort of training assistance to learn how to ride and care for horses. Horses are large, reactive, prey animals, and they’re capable (usually unintentionally) of doing great harm to a puny human. And yet Americans, in particular, seem to feel that they’re capable of managing this animal with minimal instruction or experience.



I often think of it this way: What if, instead of drivers’ training classes, when kids turned 16 we just handed them the keys to a car and let them figure out on their own how to make turns and navigate highways. And let’s say some of them got weakling 1980s-era Ford Escorts, some got tank-sized Suburbans, and some got super-fast and powerful Ferraris. Oh, and let’s also say that they’ve rarely ridden in a car, so they have only the vaguest concepts of gas and brake pedals, turn signals, steering wheels and the rules of the road.


As Mike Rowe likes to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”


But I’ve often encountered people who don’t take any lesson at all, let alone work regularly with a trainer of any kind, and they’re fiercely proud of that fact. I’m not saying everyone who rides needs to be in a serious training program or should be striving for some high competitive goal, but the idea that a total novice needs no assistance is, frankly, crazy. Downhill skiing, surfing, baseball—is there another sport where someone would expect to just walk in and do it with no instruction? And yet it happens with horses all the time.


That’s why people regularly get scared of their horses, and they often get seriously hurt.


The problem usually starts with horse selection—without a depth of understanding about horses and how to assess their individual personalities, strengths and issues, people often rely on anecdotes and emotions: “I’ve always wanted a Friesian; they’re so beautiful.” “I’ve heard Quarter Horses are easy.” “My cousin has Arabians.”


While some breeds are certainly generally user-friendlier than others, every horse is an individual and the product of their personality and training (or lack there of). There are hot Quarter Horses, dead quiet Arabians, packer Thoroughbreds—and people with a lifetime spent observing and working with horses have a much better shot at assessing that than someone with minimal experience.


And then, once the horse is acquired, no matter how amazing its temperament and training, if none of that is consistently reinforced, it won’t last forever. Just like a kid who’s never asked to do math after first grade, they’ll lose the skills and the motivation to use them. Again, that doesn’t mean the horse has to be ridden by the trainer all the time. But it does mean a pair of experienced eyes, and perhaps the occasional tune-up, can make sure everybody stays on the straight and narrow.


This attitude of “I’ll do it myself with my horse” is a particularly American phenomenon. Most European countries have very regimented structures to teach people to ride—even recreational riders—and it is assumed that you will learn to ride in this manner, not just set off for the hills on your own. Even in places like Ireland, with its deep horse culture and foxhunting, kids learn to ride in Pony Club before being set loose in the wilds on their ponies.


I believe this is why natural horsemanship-type systems are so popular. People would, apparently, rather shell out money for magic halters and sticks, and books and DVDs, to feel like they’re embodying the independent spirit of self-training, rather than paying a local, qualified professional for a lesson once or twice a month, or more. Perhaps it’s because a DVD will never tell you that you’ve selected the wrong horse for your needs, that you may be in over your head, or that you need to learn to ride better.


While there are elite trainers often aren’t interested in working with a non-discipline-specific riders who lack strict goals, there are plenty of trainers happy to help a variety of recreational riders. Shop around, watch people teach, look at horse-and-rider partnerships created by those trainers, and pick one most in line with what you would like to accomplish with your horse.


You and your horse will be happier for it.



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What Is The Future of Boarding?

By John Strassburger, October 13, 2014


Better days: When good winter rains turned our fields green and lush.


Everyone who works in the horse business is always trying to predict the future. Breeders try to predict buyer demand. Barn owners try to predict boarding demand. Trainers try to predict the kind of help and programs clients will be looking for.

We’re all also trying to predict costs of those products and services, so that we and our clients can budget affordably.

In the last two years, the price of hay and grain has skyrocketed. There are myriad reasons for this—increased fuel costs for harvest and delivery; less land on which to grow hay, either because of development or because the land is being used to grow more lucrative crops, such as corn for ethanol; and out here in the West we are even finding ourselves in competition for hay from the Chinese. (Here in Northern California, there is an outfit whose entire business is gathering enormous quantities of hay for shipment to China. It’s the largest hay distributor in the area, and none of the hay is available to us in California.)

Plus, we’re in a drought, the worst here in 20 years. So we can’t even rely on the grass in our fields to cut our hay costs. Our fields are almost bare, and I’m desperately waiting for the rains, which barely came last winter, to come this winter and induce our grass to grow again.

Our Phoenix Farm is sort of medium sized—larger than a private farm, but not a massive 60-horse boarding operation. We can keep 20-ish horses here, but at least in California, that’s becoming an unsustainable number from a commercial aspect.

We don’t have the space or equipment to buy our hay in bulk—we don’t have a massive hay barn to store hundreds of bales, and we don’t have a hay squeeze to move those bales. So we’re relegated to buying hay at retail prices, which averages $5 to $8 per bale more than if we could bring it in on a tractor-trailer in a bulk shipment. (Our East-Of-The-Rockies readers will not doubt be thinking, “Just move the bales by hand, you wimps,” but our Western bales are a very different animal than East Coast bales—ours weigh 100 to 125 pounds [sometimes more], not 40 to 50 pounds. You need hay hooks to lift them, and I can only carry them 20 or 25 feet at a time and stack them two bales high.)

With some of the horses we board, we break even on what we charge for board. On others, we lose money, because they eat so much.  We don’t make really make a profit on the boarding part of our operation, because the market won’t bear what it we have to pay to get hay, grain and bedding delivered.

For this, and other reasons, we decided two months ago to move most of our business to a larger boarding facility just down the road. Because they do have the capacity to buy in bulk, they can actually charge less for board and still make a profit. We are then able to make money on our training, and our clients get some amenities we can’t offer (like a lighted covered arena) for less money.

Although we’re very happy at our new facility, I can’t help but worry about the big-picture implications. Most people start their horse career at small or medium-sized barns, and I fear that model isn’t sustainable. An ancient, unreliable hay squeeze can run high four to low five figures, and the construction of a structure to keep your hay protected is certainly a five-figure proposition.

So it looks to me like the future may be at large boarding facilities. They have their wonderful points, but I fear they can be a bit intimidating to newbies.

There’s no easy solution here, and boarding has always been a razor’s-edge proposition. I’m grateful there are places that can do it well and are available for owners and trainers. But the change I see ahead is going to be a difficult one to navigate, and we must all learn to be flexible in finding the best ways to keep and care for our horses.

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