Friday, May 22, 2015

Sergeant Reckless, The Most Decorated Horse in History

Happy Memorial Weekend!



Here's another reason to love mares, Sergeant Reckless, the most decorated War Horse in history.  She braved live combat to rescue troops and deliver ammunition during the Korean War and continued to do her job even after being wounded.  For that, she won the Purple Heart.  It should be noted, many of her missions were conducted alone, with no handler, she braved open-fire combat to seek, find, and deliver stranded troops.

Not surprisingly, the soldiers loved and respected her:

"She quickly became part of the unit and was allowed to roam freely through camp, entering the marines' tents, where she would sleep on cold nights, and was known for her willingness to eat nearly anything, including scrambled eggs, beer, coca-cola and, once, about $30 worth of poker chips."

It's an amazing story for Memorial Day.  Heroes come in all different types, don't they?  

Here's to Reckless, and other heroes like her.
















Wouldn't you love to have a baby from Reckless?



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Riding Through the Scary Tunnels with Buddies

Sometimes, everything in you says "DANGER"!  That's instinct, and it's a good thing to heed.  Like this tunnel, for example: graffiti, the smell of urine, the tincture of heated rail from the train that passes every hour or so above, the sometimes present noise of arrows at the archery range it feeds into....and the darkness.  Scary Danger!


Last year, the only way I could get Cowboy through this tunnel was to back him up until he was partially in, then turn him around and ride the rest of the way through.  Tricky!  We all had a good laugh about that one.  But you do what you have to do, and then reward them on the other side.


As we've all been talking about lately on this blog, fear is a good thing.  It shows a smart horse.  But elevated anxiety in our horses can also be dangerous for us as riders. That said, we decided to spend some time going back and forth through the scary tunnel in various ways.  We let the ones who were nervous (which were all but one) follow, and then, as they became more comfortable, take the lead, as we passed through back and forth as many times as it took to get them all to OK.



That's what you want in trail buddies, because it's what makes the adventure enjoyable for horses and riders and keeps everyone in the group safe.



Many years ago now, I made a bunch of horse friends online and we all met up and became flesh and blood friends.  Our friendship revolves around our shared love of horses. We have the same philosophy, even if we get to it different ways.  Mostly, we have support for each other as horsewomen.


I wouldn't go through the scary tunnels without this group, so I'm not much different than Cowboy. Call me "Smart", because "graffiti, the smell of urine...and darkness" really do point to danger when riding alone.  


We're buddies and our horses are buddies, and we all rely on each other to get through the scary places.


Who are your riding buddies?  What scary tunnels have they helped you pass through?


Friday, May 8, 2015

Princesses and Horses, From Diana to Queen Elizabeth



Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, the new royal princess born to Prince William and Kate. Princess Diana.  Brings back memories, doesn't it?

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting with my horse crazy grand-daughter, Sophie, and my other horse-crazy-in-training grand-daughter, Catherine, talking about the royal birth.  (My "in-training" GD shares the same name as Kate aka Catherine, which made her very happy).

As I explained the three portions of the new baby's name, it occurred to me they had no idea whom Diana was.  None.  So, I started to explain to them about the wonderful Princess Diana that I remember from childhood--she helped the sick, she was a good mom, she was shy, she was beautiful, she was unloved by her husband, and we were all heartbroken when she died at age 36.  I told them about how I woke up early in the morning as a teenager (I was living Maine) to watch her royal marriage to Prince Charles.

My "in-training" GD, Catherine, would like to be a princess and, recently, also a horsewoman, so she asked, "Did she ride horses?"

I told her that I thought she did.  In the back of my mind I could remember seeing a picture of her on a horse.


But I wasn't sure.  When I got home, I looked it up and found the relationship she had with horses was actually complicated.  She had grown up on a country estate with animals and horses, and had a deep love for animals, but in her teens, she experienced a traumatic fall from a horse that left her fearful of riding.



However, she had married into a royal family who were passionate about horses: Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne, and her boys loved riding, as well.  From what I read, Diana decided to take lessons alongside her boys so that she could get over her fear.  In fact, her riding instructor was James Hewitt with whom, and who could blame her, she fell in love.

"He had initially been summoned to instruct William and Harry, but as the relationship ensued, Diana herself gathered the courage to overcome her childhood fear of riding.  The affair started in 1987 and lasted 5 years."  BritishRoyals.info

While Diana never looked totally comfortable riding, it was brave of her to start the journey of overcoming her fear.










Speaking of fear, I found a great article about her ex-husband, Prince Charles, and his own original fear of riding.  He credited his sister, Princess Anne, with helping him overcome it.



As for Princess Anne, now there's a horsewoman.  I believe she competed in the 1976 Olympics, as did her daughter, Zara Phillips, later.  Apparently, they inherited Queen Elizabeth II's love of horses.  (Photo below Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne.)



(Princess Anne)


(Queen Elizabeth II, then Princess Elizabeth, with her sister, Princess Margaret.)

 (Queen Elizabeth II)


 (Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan, another of my favorite horsemen.)


(Queen Elizabeth II riding with Princess Anne.)


(Horsewoman, Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne)


(Zara at the 2012 Olympics)




Maybe Elizabeth, Anne, and Zara inherited the horse gene from this famous namesake, Queen Elizabeth I of England.


"Elizabeth loved to horse ride. She would spend many an hour riding fast through the Palace grounds. Her love for the sport terrified her Councilors, who feared that she would seriously injure, or even kill herself, from a fall. But Elizabeth was undaunted, and continued to ride long distances and at great speed until the end of her life. Even in her sixties she could ride a distance of ten miles, which she once proved to a courtier who advised the aging Queen to take the carriage. Elizabeth would tire out her ladies by riding hard, and early in her reign, Robert Dudley, her Master of Horse, had to bring over some new horses from Ireland, as the Queen's own horses were not fast or strong enough for her. Elizabeth and Dudley would ride together often. He was probably the most accomplished horse-man in England, and could match the Queen's speed and vigor. In the summer of 1560, Elizabeth and Dudley rode together almost everyday, while some of her ministers bewailed that the Queen was neglecting matters of state."  (www.elizabethi.org)

Do you know of any other famous princesses who loved horses?  I'm making a list for my princess loving, recent horse convert, Catherine, and I could use some help.  Of course, we all feel like princesses when we're in the saddle, don't we?


Monday, May 4, 2015

A Sensitive, Neurotic Horse May Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

Humans need to avoid stereotyping equine personalities into “good” or “bad.”  “It's important to realize that, just like in people, there is no perfect personality type," she said. "For example, a neurotic horse will be more prone to stress and will be more likely to spook, which may be difficult to work with. On the other hand, their sensitivity means that they are incredibly responsive and can thus appear 'in tune' with their handler. If you're a good, calm handler, you can get amazing results by putting this to good use.   "Researchers Develop Subjective Equine Personality Test", Christa Lese'-Lasserre,MA, June 13, 2013   

What an inspiring quote to start the day out with, at least for all of us with super-sensitive-borderline-neurotic horses that we LOVE.  And, thanks for all your stories and wisdom last week regarding the post, "Equine Anxieties, From a Psychiatric Perspective."   All were GREAT food for thought.

The things I took from that human/horse panic attack connection were:

1. Control some physiological parameter.
2. Use a top down approach and get them thinking.
3. Do not pressure them forward, but get them to relax and not run away.
4. Help them experience the feared situation as a pleasant situation.

I'm not going to put this on the list, but I do think it's great insight.  My husband said that a panic attack feels truly horrible, and people who have them feel like they're going to die.  Eventually, their anxiety comes from the fear of the panic attack itself.  I imagine it's similar for horses.  Horses have phenomenal fear memory and can remember a scary place for a long time (maybe years later) even if there was nothing there to fear.  What is that except fear of fear?

Kerry Thomas, the "Horse Detective" in the last post, wrote a paper on Equine PTSD.  In it, he said:
(Concerning an Arabian Show) From a psychological standpoint, I saw these otherwise beautiful horses being brought into the arena much like a pin-ball being sprung forth, injected if you will into a game of psychological chaos.
(Concerning training mind and then body)  Physical change is necessitated by environmental conditions and stimuli.  Mental interpretations of these happen prior to the physical response.  This is why in training the horse; we must train the mind ahead of the body, if we wish to have the most efficiency from that body. 

On the trail, you're usually riding with a group, and have pressure to keep going--get across the water, get past the ravens in the trees, get past (insert anything here that scares your horse), that's why it's so important to have trail partners who think like you do and are able to adapt the ride to help the horses. It might take extra time to let them think about things and develop curiosity and courage, but it has to be done if you have an eye for the long term.  I so regret the times I didn't do that--didn't have enough confidence in my own instincts and didn't have enough courage to listen to my horse.  It's not about the ride, getting from point A to point Z, it's about the partnership along the way as you encounter A, B, C, D.....Z.

I'm very picky about my riding partners.   How about you? 


Friday, May 1, 2015

The Kentucky Derby's Horse Detective: Predicting Winners

I thought you all might enjoy this little piece from the Wall Street Journal ahead of tomorrow's Kentucky Derby.


Before the Kentucky Derby, a Horse ‘Detective’ Rates Herd Mentality

Equine athletes need stable state of mind, researcher says; ‘emotional conformation’

Before placing their Kentucky Derby bets, handicappers will consult any and all data: the horse’s pedigree and past performances, as well as wind and even soil conditions at Churchill Downs.
Some bettors just wait for Kerry Thomas, who has positioned himself as a researcher in equine athletic psychology.
Four years ago, Mr. Thomas began posting data-driven assessments of Derby horses’ psychological states. His accuracy has earned him believers: The last four Derby winners were among the horses he rated highest for their sensory abilities.
Pure numbers-based horse players largely ignore Mr. Thomas. “People try to use it to handicap, which is a bunch of hooey,” said Jerry Brown, whose company Thoro-Graph rates horses according to race data such as time, wind speed and position on the track at key points.
But even he was impressed with Mr. Thomas’s horse sense when they met. “The guy is not a crackpot,” Mr. Brown said.
Kerry Thomas
Kerry Thomas 
Mr. Thomas’s adherents include hobby handicappers, as well as millionaires and royalty, who have sought his advice when buying race horses, calming show ponies or returning a stallion to “his happy place,” Mr. Thomas’s euphemism for a stud’s libido.
Jordan’s Princess Alia Al Hussein flew him to Amman to profile her Arabian show horses, one of which seemed to have decided that he was done with the whole pony show.
“He just hated showing, and we didn’t know why,” said Princess Alia. She said Mr. Thomas determined that the horse was fine, but eccentric, and suggested new handling approaches that contributed to an attitude adjustment.
Jolly in demeanor and physique, Mr. Thomas, 46 years old, is an independent researcher who regularly wears an Akubra, the Australian hat worn by Paul Hogan in “Crocodile Dundee.” When he talks about horses, he tosses around phrases like “mental efficiency zone” or “emotional conformation,” occasionally prompting his business partner, Pete Denk, a former racing journalist, to decipher his comments in layman’s terms.
One term Mr. Thomas doesn’t care for: “horse whisperer.”
“It conjures thoughts of an old cowboy or a hippie who talks to the horse. That’s not what I do,” he said. “I feel like a doctor. Or a detective.”
The Thomas Herding Technique, as he calls it, is his method of evaluating equine athletes, to find those that are the most efficient in interpreting external stimuli—anything from loud noises to other horses.
He takes note of herd dynamics and “jostling of hierarchy” when horses are near each other, behavior he learned to pay attention to over hours observing wild horses in Wyoming and Montana. It isn’t unlike the way basketball teams size each other up when players shoot rounds before a game, he said.
“You’re looking at who is taking shots and who looks more athletic. There is a communication going on,” he said. “You get this vibe: ‘I got you. Maybe I’m a little afraid of you.’”
Calm horses rank high on his rating system. “Just like any athlete, the ones who can handle stress and perform under pressure excel on a consistent basis,” Mr. Thomas said.
To create a horse’s emotional profile, he enters their personal space, or “egg,” as he calls the area around a horse that it can easily see. He kneels a few feet away so the animal can see he isn’t a threat.
As he approaches the horse, he looks for the sequencing of ear twitches and eye flickers, as well as tics that he says might signal a mental weakness. Before the Derby, he can’t meet every horse, though he happened to profile some when they were for sale at auctions over the last few years.
For his Derby analysis, he replays videos of the season’s prep races, to see how horses move within the herd.
“He has a very very high herd dynamic in that he is always in self-control,” Mr. Thomas wrote in 2011 of Animal Kingdom, who went on to win that year’s Derby.
He doesn’t always get it right. That year, he was equally high on Dialed In, writing that he “has the emotional command over space to win the Triple Crown.”
Dialed In finished eighth in the Derby, then fourth in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.
“Kerry is not going to be right 100% of the time, and he doesn’t say that he will be,” said Kylie Bax, an actress and model who now breeds and races horses in New Zealand.
Those who use his report, which costs $20, understand he isn’t pointing to the fastest of the field. He’s trying to find the boldest of the newbies.
That is important in the Kentucky Derby because it is such an unusual race, exposing three-year-old horses—the gawky teenagers of the equine world—to more distraction than they have ever encountered.
Most haven’t heard anything as loud as the roar of 150,000 cheering fans. And after a season of races against roughly six to 10 other horses, they are about to learn to run against 19 others.
The chaos can overwhelm a horse in the mile-and-a-quarter, $2 million race at Churchill Downs.
“He’s not a horse that wastes any emotional energy,” Mr. Thomas wrote about one contender. “This horse doesn’t panic.”
That was his pre-race assessment of I’ll Have Another, who won both the 2012 Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Some longtime observers aren’t buying it. “I’m old school,” said Churchill Downs’s oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. “It’s not for me, but it may work for other people.”
Mr. Thomas himself doesn’t bet and he’s not a regular around racetracks.
Based in Cochranville, Pa., about an hour from Philadelphia, he is more likely to be found advising buyers at auctions or in their far-flung barns.
In New Zealand, he profiled broodmares and racehorses for Ms. Bax. She uses Mr. Thomas’s advice, along with that of a bloodstock agent, who examines pedigrees, and a veterinarian.
“I want to take advantage of every approach I can,” she said.
If others doubt Mr. Thomas’s approach, that is fine with her, just as it is with Texas-based oil-and-gas magnate Art Preston, another client.
“We measure everything we can measure on a horse,” he said. “We need to go to a new dimension.”
For Mr. Thomas, that dimension is individuality.
“If they were all the same,” he said, “it would be like Nascar.”
Write to Pia Catton at pia.catton@wsj.com